What is IAM? (Identity and Access Management)

Written by Amy Krishnamohan on March 24, 2021

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Updated on September 10, 2021

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is essentially making sure the right access is being granted to the right users.

When IAM is done well, it means the mailroom clerk doesn’t have access to the company’s financial records, but the accountant does. When IAM is done poorly, it can be catastrophic for a company, depending on what kind of access that identity was given.

IAM may be the most important function that IT performs – ensuring people have access to the IT resources they need to get their jobs done, while also keeping corporate digital assets secure. IAM started as a product category, but over time it has moved to being a core function within the IT organization.

So, let’s take a look at why identity and access management plays such an important role to IT. 

Why You Need IAM

One of the reasons IAM is gaining traction is the crucial function that identities play within an organization. An identity makes it possible for a user to do their job by giving them access to WiFi, the company’s network, file servers, applications, and other digital assets.

In the past, IAM was easier to manage because users needed two or three resources to do their job and the workplace was dominated by Windows systems. User’s also came into a physical office where IT could control the network and overall IT environment.

Today, an IT environment has to maintain visibility and control on Windows, Mac, and Linux endpoints, be able to connect users to a large number of on-prem and web resources, integrate with the cloud, and maintain security, while always considering the fact that users are now working remotely due to the global pandemic and will likely move into a hybrid work-from-home (WFH)/office environment over time. SaaS-based IAM solutions such as Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS) have emerged in response to these changes in the IT landscape.

Identities are the gateway to an organization’s most critical digital assets. With today’s cybercriminals and hackers attacking organizations to compromise identities, it is critical for IT admins to deeply control and secure their digital assets, and IAM is the vehicle to do that. 

Subcomponents of Identity Access Management  

Identity and Access Management Pyramid - identity management components

A modern IAM solution will leverage the following subcomponents of the IAM landscape:

Directory Services

Let’s go back to the mailroom clerk and the accountant. Each has their own identity in an IT infrastructure. They both need access to certain resources in order to do their jobs, and for security purposes, there are certain (probably most) resources they do not need access to.

A directory service takes care of this by storing a user’s credentials. Each time the mailroom clerk accesses an application, the directory service authenticates them to that application and makes sure the clerk has the right to use that application, and is who they say they are.

Further, the directory logs all of this to ensure that compliance statutes can be complied with. Since the directory of identities and resources underlies your entire infrastructure, we consider it the foundation of identity and access management. 

Privileged Access Management

IT infrastructure consists of a myriad of servers, networks, and other IT assets. The accountant might have access to the server that contains the financial records, but privileged access management makes sure the accountant does not have access to the network infrastructure that runs the organization’s data center or cloud infrastructure provider.

As more critical infrastructure shifts to IaaS platforms, this category is becoming more important than ever. Secure access to the digital applications and underlying systems that run organizations is at the top of IT’s list of job functions.

Directory Extensions

Directory extensions were created out of the limitations of conventional directory services. Directory extensions add to the functionality of an existing directory, allowing it to connect to platforms, devices, and applications it otherwise couldn’t.

Directory extensions also extend the functionality of directory services by integrating in device management / MDM services in addition to controlling user access on a variety of platforms. 

However, modern inclusive directory services like directory-as-a-service platforms have revolutionized the directory industry, making directory extensions a thing of the past. 

Single Sign-On (SSO)

Web based applications like Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, GitHub, Slack, Salesforce, and Dropbox (among thousands of other business focused applications) have flooded the workplace.

Typically, you would need a different username and password for each application, but SSO solutions are growing alongside the increase in web-based applications. 

They connect one identity to the various web based applications they need access to instead of having a user create multiple identities. Top tier SSO solutions are adding security features such as Conditional Access and multi-factor authentication as well.

Password Vaults

This allows users to store their password credentials, making it easier to access the large number of applications they might need. By providing a safe place to store passwords and by encouraging long, complex passwords, password vaults are a helpful tool in keeping identities secure.

Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA fortifies identity security by requiring additional login information in order to authenticate access.

Generally, MFA requires the user input information they know (such as a username and password) in addition to something they have (a smartphone or a YubiKey) in order to login. This category is one of the most critical components to securing IAM. 

Identity-as-a-Service – An Optimized IAM Solution

Identity-as-a-Service offers a modern, efficient approach to IAM in the cloud by converging directory services, privileged account management, directory extension, web app SSO, and multi-factor authentication into one optimized SaaS-based solution.

The benefit will be one centralized identity instantly mapped to IT resources like devices, applications, and networks regardless of platform, provider, location, or protocol. Generally, these modern approaches to IAM will leverage multiple protocols such as LDAP, RADIUS, SAML, SCIM, and more to enable IT organizations to seamlessly provision and deprovision access, while users have secure, frictionless access to their IT resources.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to implement an identity and access management (IAM) solution, drop us a note. We’d love to chat about how you can leverage JumpCloud’s Identity-as-a-Service, or try it yourself by signing up for a free account. Your first 10 users and 10 systems are free. If you have any questions, access our in-app chat 24×7 during the first 10 days and a customer success engineer will be there to help.

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