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Identity and Access Management 101: What is IAM? 

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What is Identity and Access Management

On-premises infrastructure, cloud, mobile or any other technology that stores confidential data that can be accessed by your employees are a lucrative target for cyber criminals. While those resources might be intended to only be accessed by trusted employees and users on your network, you can never be sure who is behind an identity. Therefore, knowing what Identity and Access Management is and its benefits and challenges can mean the difference between a secure and unsecured environment.

Challenges of securing identities in a modern IT infrastructure 

Attackers are continuously crafting new ways to get access to those resources and stealing trusted identities is one of the fastest and easiest ways to infiltrate a network and ultimately get their hands on sensitive data.

This puts managing and ensuring safe access to users on your network one of the most crucial security, and business decisions. But, how come many organizations are still struggling? 

Verizon’s DBIR 2021 report shows that 61% of all data breaches involved credentials, with use of stolen credentials accounting for more than 20% of all data breaches. Those numbers are often attributed to increased adoption of cloud technology, and more recently, a surge in remote workers set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But remote workforce and users accessing an organization’s digital premises from a diverse set of devices such as laptops, tablets or smartphones, isn’t too big of an issue. Digital transformation has enabled organizations to have a modern digital workspace, flexible and easily accessible. However, what has created an issue is the complex environment, challenging for IT teams to manage who is accessing what data and from where. 

Identity and access management (IAM) allows organizations to control user access to critical information within their network, ensure they are who they say they are and have permission to use the resources they are accessing. 

What is IAM?

Identity and access management (IAM) is a practice of processes, policies and technologies that are used to manage digital identities and regulate their access within an organization. Considered a foundational security component in today’s IT environment, IAM is designed to provide a way to administer user access, protect against unauthorized access and ensure regulatory compliance. In the most basic sense, IAM works to identify, authenticate and authorize users, and regulate what users are permitted to access which resources. IAM is not just for employees anymore. Organizations must be able to provide secure access for contractors and business partners, remote and mobile users, and customers. 

Some of the main abilities of IAM are: 

  • Identification of individual users in a system
  • Assigning and identifying roles of users 
  • Assigning levels of access to users
  • Provisioning, deprovisioning and managing users’ lifecycles
  • Assigning proper levels of protection to sensitive resources

IAM Technologies

In order to perform all of these functions, IAM leverages different technologies, most notably: 

  • Single Sign-On: SSO is an authentication technology that allows users to log in with a single ID to different, independent systems or applications. Basically, it combines several different application login screens into one. A user would only need to enter one pair of login credentials once, and on a single login page, in order to access their applications.
  • Multi-factor authentication: MFA is an authentication method in which user is granted access to a resource only after presenting two or more authentication factors: knowledge (something only the user knows, such as a password), possession (something only the user has, usually a token or a one-time-password), inherence (something only the user is, such as biometrics), and location.
  • Directory services: A directory service is a technology used to store information about users within an organization, such as usernames, passwords, contact information, and more. Besides storing this user information, it also maps out the relationship users have with the different resources on their network.
  • Mobile device management: MDM is the process of monitoring, managing and securing mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets within an organization. MDM solutions allow IT managers to distribute security policies to the mobile devices accessing sensitive resources and data, ensuring network security.

Types of Identity and Access Management Solutions

While the way technology works and their goal remain the same for any IAM solutions, there are three main ways in which organizations can deploy them, depending on the needs of their IT environment, their size, compliance requirements, available resources and IT expertise. These are on-prem, cloud and hybrid solutions.

  • On premises: For organizations that have their entire environment on their premises, a solution that is deployed in that physical environment is the best way to provide the organization with full control over who is accessing their resources. These types of solutions are one of the more financially and resource-intensive options out there; they require organizations to maintain it themselves fully.
  • Cloud directory: Cloud IAM is beginning to be the preferred option for many modern organizations as it is made for the scalable environment that the cloud is, allowing access to resources from any location, and any device. It’s a simple model for organizations as there is no installing and hosting software on premises and they are usually paid on a monthly basis.
  • Hybrid: Vendors are starting to adopt the hybrid model for an IAM service as it offers greatest flexibility for a diverse infrastructure that has a need for both a cloud solution for their applications and an on-prem solution for their data.  

Benefits of Identity and Access Management

Technologies and functionality that IAM offers to organizations can deliver many benefits, but the main benefits of identity and access management are: 

Ensures adherence to regulatory compliance

A proper IAM solution keeps all user information centralized and available, making it easy to implement IT governance within an organization. This in turn allows organizations to more efficiently meet regulatory compliance requirements and reduce possibility of violations. For many industry regulations, such as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), IAM is one of the key factors in order to meet the requirements. 

Improves data security

Potentially the most important benefit for organizations that adopt IAM is the increase in security of their data. A robust IAM solution is a crucial part of any security program. With the full control of user access that IAM offers, organizations will be able to prevent unauthorized access to their network, protect against credential compromise, and minimize the risk of a data breach or any illegal access to sensitive data.

Streamlines IT workloads

How many tickets does your IT team need to resolve simple password resets due to employees forgetting their passwords? IAM and all of the technologies it employs will help reduce these tickets. Additionally, when a security policy changes, access privileges will be done much more efficiently than without using an IAM. 

Decreases internal risk

With an identity and access management tool in place, companies can eliminate manual account and permission errors because the IT department no longer has to manually manage access rights to data. In addition, IT no longer has to deal with careless employees who may make mistakes that can result in costly fines.

Enhances user experience

SSO, one of the main features IAM solutions offer, allows users to not fear the start of their workday by logging into dozens of different systems and applications, but to be able to access them all by inputting a single pair of credentials. Additionally, other authentication technologies that are part of IAM, such as MFA via biometrics, will lead to users no longer needing even that one pair of credentials. All in all, IAM is designed to be part of the modern organization and workforce, and as such works to make the user experience fast, flexible and secure. 

Conclusion

IAM and its capabilities are now a fundamental expectation for all modern organizations. In addition to protecting users and organizations from various cybersecurity threats such as identity theft, IAM solutions also improve user experience, ability to comply with regulations. If you are still unsure if IAM is the right process for your organizations, or need help finding the right solution for your infrastructure, we’re here to help! ElephantHop can help you evaluate, implement and even fully manage identity and access management solutions. Book a free consultation with our IAM experts.

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