Choosing the Right PAM Solution

Written by Molly Murphy on July 29, 2022

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What do your IT department, your accounting department, and your c-suite execs have in common? They all have a special type of account, known as a “privileged” account.

A privileged account is any business identity that has more access to sensitive information than the average user. For IT admins, this means the ability to provision or deprovision accounts. For accounting, it’s their access to company payment and financial information. For c-suite executives, it’s…well, all the things c-suite executives can access that typical employees cannot. 

The thing with privileged accounts is that they’re risky when it comes to cyberthreats. That’s because bad actors are more likely to try to compromise privileged accounts than other account types, due to their extra access and permissions. Because of the extra risks, IT admins must be correspondingly diligent in creating a failsafe Privileged Access Management (PAM) solution for managing these accounts. 

In this article, we’ll explain how PAM tools work and the benefits of implementing them – and the risks if you don’t. Then, we’ll give you some considerations when choosing your PAM solution, and some best practices on implementing your new policy. 

How Does PAM Work?

A robust PAM solution isn’t just one security protocol; instead, it’s a layered solution with multiple security and safety failsafes put in place. While any one component alone may be breached, a multifunctional PAM tool provides so many layers of protection that cyberattack becomes very difficult, if not impossible. Let’s look at a few examples of how PAM solves some of the most common security problems.  

IT Management Sprawl: Unified Platform 

Problem: Without a single pane of glass from which to manage all identities and devices, IT admins are burdened with organizing and overseeing hundreds of separate devices and users. This makes management challenging – especially in the event of a breach or suspicious activity. With device management spread out in multiple platforms, admins may not be properly alerted to the issue, or may struggle to contain the problem. 

Solution: Modern PAM tools offer a single, unified platform where admins can easily oversee all their devices and privileged users. They’re able to create a single entry point all users must be verified through before accessing critical resources. Time or session limits can easily be created for additional security, and in the event of an issue or attack, the session can remotely be terminated almost immediately. 

Weak Credentials: Heightened Password Requirements

Problem: Many users have weak, easy-to-guess passwords, or re-use the same passwords for both privileged business access and unsecured personal accounts. This provides a foothold for cybercriminals into these privileged resources. And every personal account with the same credentials provides an additional attack vector. 

Solution: PAM tools provide password protection resources like password managers and single sign-on (SSO). They also allow admins to specify more advanced password requirements or more frequent password changes. Password vaults/SSO replace all individual, easily-guessed passwords with a single, complex security key, providing access to all assigned privileged resources at a much lower risk. Even if SSO isn’t utilized, PAM tools allow IT admins to require complex passwords (like passwords that must be at least 12 characters, include a number, a symbol, and no words, for instance), and frequent password changes. 

Oversimplified Login Processes: Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) 

Problem: Legacy credential solutions simply require a username and password (of dubious complexity) to gain access to resources. Passwords are not only frequently included in data leaks, but are fairly simple for cybercriminals to guess. What’s more, simple login processes don’t protect against users sharing their credentials with others, or writing the information down and leaving it somewhere visible.

Solution: PAM tools include multi-factor authentication set ups. MFA makes it much more difficult for bad actors to gain access by requiring a user to enter something they know (typically their username and password) and something they have (like a push notification to their personal phone, a time-based one-time password [TOTP], a YubiKey, or even biometric data, like their fingerprint). 

Why do you need a PAM Tool?

The benefits of a modern PAM solution for increased security are evident. But implementing PAM is about so much more than simple security. Let’s get into the detail of some of these benefits. 

  • Helps Identify Privileged Accounts: PAM tools allow IT admins to automatically discover and manage all privileged accounts. This is an important first step to implementing a PAM solution. First, admins must find all privileged accounts, then review each of their permissions and ensure they have the access they need, and no more (a principle called least privilege). 
  • Provides a Condensed Attack Surface: Limiting permissions through least privilege, ensuring there are no rogue privileged accounts, and implementing policies like SSO and MFA significantly reduces the surface bad actors can attack from. Fewer platforms mean less risk. 
  • Streamlines IT Admin Efficiencies: PAM solutions enable admins to see, provision, deprovision and manage privileged accounts from a single platform, reducing the time it takes them to manage these identities and allowing them to automate many policies. 
  • More Easily Proves Compliance: Reducing the number of privileged accounts and carefully monitoring the remaining ones creates a shorter, more simplified compliance management process. 

How Do You Choose the Right PAM Tool?

While you may now appreciate the importance of a PAM solution, choosing which platform to go with can feel daunting. Ultimately, choosing a tool will be a personal choice, combining features and your company’s unique use case, but you should begin by looking for solutions with the following capabilities. 

  • MFA and SSO: As the two most important features of security, skip right over any PAM tools that don’t contain multi-factor authentication and single sign-on as givens. 
  • Session Management with Tracking: Moreso than with average user accounts, all privileged activity should be easy to monitor and track. Bonus points if the tool contains user activity algorithms that will alert admins to changes in a user’s behavior. 
  • Automated privileged account identification: As previously stated, your PAM solution should be able to find all privileged accounts (including unused or ghost accounts) and provide for easy management of these accounts. 
  • Time-based access: Look for a platform that grants just-in-time privileges or access for a limited time period. This requires privileged users to continue to prove their credentials regularly. 
  • Reports and Auditing: Choose a tool that makes pulling activity reports and metrics quick and intuitive. Look for reporting features like access levels, check-ins and check-outs, session monitoring information, and any other information you are regularly asked for during compliance audits. 

How do you Implement PAM?

While you can (and should) implement PAM policies at your organization regardless of whether you have an open directory platform or not, the steps to implementation are certainly easier with a modern solution in place. Regardless, you should begin with these three steps. While this information is enough to get you started, we have plenty more to say on developing a privileged access management strategy. Check out our guide to privileged access management for more info. 

Step 1: Increase Privileged Account Security

If your privileged accounts aren’t currently under management, they need to be. That way, you have close oversight to ensure privileged users are following policies and security best practices, like unique, complex passwords, SSO, and MFA. 

Step 2: Extend PAM Beyond User Identities  

The next step to tightening your security strategy is to bring your server infrastructure and end user devices under the same management platform as user identities. Having the ability to delegate privileges and authorizations without giving away passwords for the root account increases your application security tenfold. 

Step 3: Combine PAM Strategies with a Cloud-Based Solution 

The gold standard in a PAM strategy is integration with a cloud-native platform. A modern open directory platform offers an efficient approach to PAM by converging directory services, privileged account management, directory extensions, web app SSO, and multi-factor authentication into one optimized SaaS-based solution.

These platforms offer centralized privileged identities instantly mapped to IT resources like devices, applications, and networks, regardless of platform, provider, location, or protocol. They also leverage multiple protocols such as LDAP, RADIUS, SAML, and SCIM so IT admins can seamlessly provision and deprovision, while users have secure, frictionless access to their resources.

JumpCloud Directory Platform: Modern PAM

If you’re interested in learning more about how to implement a PAM solution, drop us a note. We’d love to chat about how you can leverage JumpCloud’s Cloud Directory Platform, or try it yourself by signing up for a free account.

Molly Murphy

Molly Murphy is a Senior Content Writer at JumpCloud. A self-professed nerd, she loves working on the cutting edge of the latest IT tech. When she's not in the [remote] office, Molly loves traveling, rescuing animals, and growing her all together unhealthy obsession with Harry Potter.

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