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What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Identity and access management (IAM) helps businesses to maintain optimal data security by ensuring the appropriate users get access to only the information essential to their role. As computing becomes more sophisticated, there is an increasing number of threats to traditional IAM systems. To ensure that your IAM solution is effective and secure, businesses large and small need to understand the limits of their existing IAM solution, and how to adapt access credentials to meet today’s challenges. 

With the right IAM solution and processes, businesses can establish secure authentication and authorization methods, as well as encryption for in-transit and at-rest data. Let’s take a look at how a complete IAM system works.


What is Identity and Access Management
The Importance of IAM 
The Benefits of IAM 
The Components of Access and Identity Management 
Automation in Identity and Access Management 
Implementing Identity and Access Governance for the Enterprise

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What is Identity and Access Management 

Before we get into the specifics of IAM and how to implement the right IAM solution, it’s important to clarify some key concepts. In the field of IT security, there are two main approaches to credentials management — authentication and authorization.

Authentication refers to the process of assessing the identity of a subject so that an IAM system can ensure the right person is accessing secure information. Authorization refers to the levels of permission allowed for authorized users. So, some authenticated users might not be authorized to access certain data. 

For comprehensive access and identity management, businesses need a secure approach to both authentication and authorization. With every action a user takes, an IAM system needs to be able to identify whether the right user is accessing the right level of information. A range of IAM systems are popular in today’s IT marketplace, and this includes sub-categories like multi-factor authentication and privileged access management (PAM), the latter of which is intended for managing superuser, administrator, and power user level access. 

It’s a common misconception that only large businesses need IAM infrastructure. While it’s true that major enterprises certainly have large amounts of information to protect against cyberattackers, small businesses are just as susceptible to cyber threats. Regardless of the scale of an organization, a data breach has the power to become a major financial setback. 

To make sense of the many variations of IAM systems, it’s important to understand the key components of every identity and access management protocol. A comprehensive IAM system is able to authenticate the right users, as well as authorize the right access credentials to users based on permissions. IAM systems also include services that allow management to monitor and modify permissions, assign access capabilities, and change access credentials. 

IAM also deals with data encryption outside the realm of user credentials. Any effective approach to identity and access governance will deploy authentication/authorization technology, combined with data encryption, to protect against unauthorized access to data — whether it’s in transit or at rest.

The Importance of IAM

The goal of any IAM solution is to ensure an organization’s data is secure. Finding the right solution to IAM is crucial to saving time and money for any organization in the internet age. Once IT admins establish an IAM framework, managing the IAM system offers a bird’s-eye view of an IT system’s access credentials. 

Access and identity management are a constant in our lives, whether we know it or not. Whether you’re using two-factor authentication to access your bank account or smartphone, or using a single sign-on for a work desktop, secure networks are constantly requiring authentication. Once a user has accessed these systems, IAM technology is working in the background to ensure data is transmitted securely and stored using effective encryption. 

The main objective of IAM is to prevent access to sensitive data by unwanted third parties. Whether the nefarious user is a cyberattacker or an unauthorized employee, the wrong person can do a lot of damage with sensitive information. No matter the size of a business, every business has information that needs to be transmitted and stored securely.

The Benefits of IAM

There are plenty of obvious advantages of IAM, and some benefits that may be less evident. Preventing a data breach is perhaps the central reason why IAM is so important — a data breach can lead to massive loss in profits and productivity, not to mention a loss in customer confidence. Other advantages include increased operational efficiency, fewer computing errors, and successful security audits. 

Another major advantage of IAM is its ability to adapt to new threats. Traditional access control, like passwords and manual credentials allocation, can only go so far in securing your IT systems against innovative threats. IAM providers offer a range of security services to keep up with an evolving IT security landscape, with threats ranging from dynamic access control to quantum computing threats.

With the right IAM systems, businesses are able to expand the scope of their operations, without compromising data security. As a business expands, an effective IAM system will be able to provide secure access to customers and business partners alike, on widely-distributed devices. With a scalable network of devices with secure access credentials, businesses can use IAM to grow quickly and get ahead of the competition.

The Components of Access and Identity Management

IAM systems make sense of who is accessing your IT infrastructure. Although different IAM systems include different types of access control, there are certain features that are essential for every IAM system. When it comes to regulating access permissions, there are three main components to consider: 

  • Collecting login data. A wide variety of strategies are used to collect login information, and to determine the accessibility of a device for the attempted user. Multi-factor authentication is a common IAM approach that uses two or more identifiers to confirm the identity of a user. Biometric data is also used, which can include facial recognition, fingerprint scanning, iris recognition, and sometimes even DNA recognition. 
  • Managing user credentials. IAM systems aren’t just complex ways to authenticate users — they also store and manage credentials of authorized users. Managing credentials allows organizations to control their protected information, and to understand who has access to data. User credentials determine who is allowed to view and edit information, and which users have lost access to data. 
  • Assigning access permissions. In any organization, there are levels of permissions required to access certain information. Assigning access permissions helps to ensure that the most sensitive company data is available only to the most authorized users. IAM systems can automatically determine which permissions are available to lower-privileged users, and which ones require a higher level of authorization. 

An IAM system can be on-premises, in the cloud, or a hybrid model. When implementing an IAM solution, large and small organizations often turn to a third-party IAM provider with a trustworthy reputation for data protection. Third-party providers can provide authentication and identity as a service, with added security and reliability.

Automation in Identity and Access Management

Automating IAM has benefits that reach far beyond just the convenience of a hands-off credentials management system. In today’s IT landscape, automation is practically a necessity for secure and efficient credentials management. Third-party IAM services provide key benefits that aren’t readily available with manual IAM. Automation allows users to save time and money, with benefits that include: 

  • Operational efficiency. Automated IAM systems allow organizations to provision and deprovision users in real time, which helps to streamline operations. As soon as a change in authority is detected, automated IAM can change credentials instantly. For large organizations, this can make a huge difference in operational speed. 
  • Data security. Security and automation are deeply connected in the world of identity and access governance. Automation allows IAM to operate with more precision than manual provisioning, which allows automated systems to reduce human error. With an automated IAM system, organizations can manage large amounts of sensitive information, and immediately deprovision a user who has lost access privileges. 
  • Financial savings. Automation in identity and access management offers major financial savings. By improving operational efficiency, companies can avoid paying for the extensive labor involved in manual IAM — not to mention the very real cost of human error. Better security and faster results can lead to a significant return on investment.

Implementing Identity and Access Governance for the Enterprise

Innovative IAM systems aren’t just for major companies with thousands of credentials — the financial and security benefits of automation are just as readily available for smaller businesses, too. Before investing in IAM automation, it is always wise to implement new IAM processes in phases. By deploying an IAM system in tiers, with the least sensitive information first, enterprises can avoid overwhelming users with new technology. Plus, tiered deployment allows IT admins to ensure the new IAM system actually works before applying it to their entire IT infrastructure. 

As IAM technology continues to evolve, administrators are able to increase both the accuracy and efficiency of access provisioning for even the largest user networks. The right IAM system should offer a maximum degree of security, while still offering IT admins the ability to view and modify credentials manually, if necessary. Access to IAM systems should also involve multiple levels of review, to ensure security in managing high-level data. 

Privileged access management (PAM) is an effective component of any IAM solution, allowing admins to rotate and store passwords, and manage passwords with a centralized vault. Key encryption is another effective way to ensure secure access to IT systems. Some more advanced PAM solutions allow organizations to rid themselves of managing, vaulting and rotating passwords and keys entirely. With a wide range of options available for automated IAM, businesses can decide which approach is best for their security needs. 

There’s also an argument to be made for implementing a robust PAM system before implementing IAM. After all, it’s the admins, power users, and superusers who set up your IAM system, and their access is managed by PAMs.

The SSH Zero Trust Access Management Suite

SSH is bringing an innovative approach to IAM/PAM with the Zero Trust Access Management suite of solutions, which includes our Universal Key Manager (UKM) Zero Trust and PrivX PAM solutions. It combines PAM and enterprise key management into a powerful and centralized solution.

With both UKM Zero Trust and PrivX Zero Trust, you can secure your existing privileged passwords and SSH encryption keys while migrating to a passwordless and keyless environment at your own pace. This means you can radically reduce the number of keys and credentials you need to rotate, delete, vault, upgrade, and manage. 

UKM Zero Trust and PrivX Zero Trust offer zero touch and immutable SSH access governance, so you can ensure your users only get the least privilege and just enough access (JEA) to get the job done — this is achieved without making changes to the SSH configuration files. You are able to onboard machine connections to Zero Trust access models without touching the application code, enabling you to make your infrastructure immutable.

By combining secure PAM password management with enterprise key management, you can manage both passwords and encrypt privileged access keys. To start implementing your new IAM solution, read our white paper on the topic or request a demo and take control of your IT security just in time.