What Is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a framework of policies, procedures, and technologies that organizations use to manage digital identities.

September 27, 2023

What Is Identity and Access Management (IAM)? 

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a framework of policies, procedures, and technologies that organizations use to manage digital identities. These identities could be those of employees, customers, vendors, or any other entities that interact with the organization’s systems and data. IAM ensures that the right people have the right access to the right resources at the right time, for the right reasons.

IAM goes beyond granting access to include managing and controlling it. It involves processes like authentication (verifying who you are), authorization (determining what you can do), and audit (recording what you did). IAM is essential for maintaining the security and integrity of an organization’s systems and data. It helps prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and other forms of cyber-attacks.

The need for IAM has become more pronounced in recent years due to trends like remote work, digital transformation, and the rise of cyber threats. With employees accessing company resources from various locations and devices, it’s crucial to have a system in place that can manage and control access effectively.

This is part of a series of articles about application security

In this article:

How IAM Works 

IAM operates through several components, each playing a role in ensuring that the correct individuals have access to the right resources.

Identity Management

Identity management is the process of identifying individuals in a system and controlling their access to resources within that system. This is done by linking user rights and restrictions with the established identity. It involves the creation of user accounts, the management of these accounts, and the termination of these accounts when they are no longer needed.


Authentication is the process of verifying a user’s identity. This is typically done through a username and password, but it can also involve other methods like biometrics or security tokens. Once a user’s identity has been authenticated, the system can then determine what that user has access to.

Authentication methods can be classified into three categories: something you know (like a password), something you have (like an ID card), and something you are (like a fingerprint). The more factors used in the authentication process, the higher the level of security.


Authorization is the process of determining what a user is allowed to do once they have been authenticated. This usually involves assigning roles to users and then setting permissions based on those roles.

For example, a user named John who is part of the HR team can be assigned an HR role. This role can give him access to employee records, but not access to their financial data. This makes it possible to control what John can and can’t do in the system.

Single Sign-On (SSO)

Single Sign-On, or SSO, enables access control for multiple related, but independent software systems. With SSO in place, a user logs in with a single ID and password to gain access to any of several related systems.

SSO is a great way to improve the user experience. Instead of having to remember multiple usernames and passwords, a user only needs to remember one set of credentials. This is not only convenient, but also enhances security because users can use stronger and more unique passwords.

Lifecycle Management

Lifecycle management is the process of managing the entire lifecycle of user identities within an organization. This includes the creation of accounts, the management of these accounts, and the deletion of these accounts when they are no longer needed.

Lifecycle management is crucial for maintaining the security of an organization’s resources. By ensuring that each user has the correct access rights at all times, and that these access rights are revoked when they are no longer needed, lifecycle management can help prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information.

What Security Threats Can IAM Prevent? 

While IAM has many operational benefits, one of its key advantages for an organization is security. Here are severe security threats that can be mitigated with correct implementation and configuration of IAM:

Unauthorized Access

One of the most common and damaging security threats is unauthorized access. This occurs when individuals gain access to systems or data that they should not have access to, often with malicious intent. These individuals may be external actors, such as hackers, or they could even be insiders within the organization.

IAM systems prevent unauthorized access by ensuring that only approved individuals have access to specific resources. They use a combination of user authentication and authorization processes to verify the identity of users and determine what they can and cannot access.

Identity Attacks

In an identity attack, an attacker impersonates a legitimate user to gain unauthorized access to systems and data. This could be done through a variety of methods, such as phishing or credential stuffing.

IAM systems help prevent identity attacks by implementing robust authentication methods. These could include multi-factor authentication, where users are required to provide multiple pieces of evidence to verify their identity, or biometric authentication, which uses unique physical or behavioral traits to identify users.

Lateral Movement

Lateral movement is a strategy used by attackers to move through a network, exploring the environment and looking for further targets after they have gained initial access. This strategy is particularly dangerous because it can allow attackers to gain access to increasingly sensitive areas of the network.

IAM can help to prevent lateral movement by restricting the access of each user to only the resources they need for their role. This means that even if an attacker gains initial access, their movement within the network will be limited.

Privilege Escalation

Privilege escalation is a tactic used by attackers to gain elevated access to resources that are normally protected from an application or user. They do this by exploiting a bug, design flaw, or configuration oversight in an operating system or software application to gain elevated access to resources.

IAM can help to prevent privilege escalation by implementing the principle of least privilege (PoLP). This means that users are given the minimum levels of access necessary to perform their tasks. This reduces the chances of an attacker being able to gain elevated access to sensitive resources.

IAM Solutions by Leading Cloud Providers 

Many leading cloud providers offer IAM solutions as part of their services. These solutions provide the convenience of cloud-based management, scalability, and integration with other cloud services. Let’s look at some of the IAM solutions offered by three major cloud providers: AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud.


Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers an IAM solution called AWS Identity and Access Management. This service enables customers to manage access to AWS services and resources securely. With AWS IAM, you can create and manage AWS users and groups and use permissions to allow and deny their access to AWS resources.

AWS IAM is a feature-rich service that supports various IAM functionalities. For instance, it supports identity federation, which allows users to sign in using their existing corporate or social identities. It also supports multi-factor authentication for enhanced security. Plus, it provides fine-grained access control, allowing you to specify exactly what actions a user can perform on what resources.


Microsoft Azure also offers an IAM solution called Azure Active Directory (Azure AD). This service provides identity and access management for the Azure cloud, Microsoft 365, and a wide range of third-party applications. With Azure AD, you can manage users, groups, and roles and control access to applications and resources.

Azure AD supports several IAM features, such as single sign-on, multi-factor authentication, and conditional access. Single sign-on allows users to sign in once and access multiple applications without needing to sign in again. Multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide multiple forms of identification. Conditional access enables you to apply access policies based on various conditions, like the user’s location or device.

Google Cloud

Google Cloud provides an IAM solution called Google Cloud Identity and Access Management. This service lets you manage access control by defining who (identity) has what access (role) for which resource. With Google Cloud IAM, you can create and manage identities and permissions and enforce them across your Google Cloud resources.

Google Cloud IAM supports several IAM features, such as role-based access control, identity federation, and audit logging. Role-based access control lets you assign roles to users based on their job functions. Identity federation allows users to sign in using their existing Google or social identities. Audit logging records all actions taken in your Google Cloud environment, helping you track access and make informed decisions.

4 Common Challenges You Might Face When Implementing IAM 

1. Integration with Existing Systems

When implementing an IAM solution, businesses need to integrate it with their existing systems. This can be challenging, as each system has its own unique requirements and configurations.

The integration process often involves mapping out the existing system’s architecture, identifying potential conflicts, and designing a solution that can seamlessly work with all systems involved. This process can be complicated and requires a deep understanding of the existing systems, the IAM solution being implemented, and how they can work together effectively.

In addition to technical challenges, there are also organizational hurdles to overcome. For instance, employees need to be trained on the new IAM system, which can be time-consuming and costly. Moreover, there may be resistance from staff who are accustomed to the existing systems and processes.

2. IAM Misconfigurations

Another common challenge in implementing IAM solutions is dealing with misconfigurations. Misconfigurations can occur due to a lack of understanding of the IAM system, human error, or simply a lack of attention to detail.

These misconfigurations can have serious consequences, including data breaches, unauthorized access, and system failures. Therefore, it’s essential to have a thorough understanding of the IAM system, conduct regular audits, and promptly address any identified misconfigurations.

Businesses must ensure that their IAM solutions are configured to meet their specific needs. This includes configuring the IAM system to manage the right access levels, define user roles correctly, and establish appropriate authentication methods.

3. Managing Multiple Identities

Individuals often have multiple identities across various platforms. This can make identity management a complex task for businesses.

Managing multiple identities involves ensuring that each identity is accurately tied to the right individual and that each individual has the right access levels. This can be particularly challenging in large organizations, where thousands of identities may need to be managed.

Businesses also need to consider how to handle identity lifecycles. This includes creating, managing, and deleting identities as individuals join, move within, or leave the organization.

4. Hybrid Cloud Environments

More and more businesses are adopting hybrid cloud environments, which combine on-premises infrastructure with cloud-based services. While these environments offer many benefits, they can also add complexity to IAM implementation.

In a hybrid cloud environment, businesses need to manage identities and access across both on-premises and cloud-based systems. This requires a unified IAM solution that can seamlessly integrate with all systems and manage access across the entire environment.

Businesses must also consider how to maintain security and compliance in their hybrid cloud environments. This may involve implementing additional security measures, conducting regular audits, and ensuring that all systems meet regulatory requirements.

Best Practices for Implementing IAM in the Cloud 

Apply the Least Privilege Principle

The principle of least privilege is a computer security concept where a user is given the minimum levels of access necessary to complete their job functions. This principle is a fundamental layer of security and a critical component of any effective IAM strategy.

By limiting access rights, organizations reduce the risk of accidental data exposures or deliberate data breaches. It is easier to manage user privileges and protect sensitive data when access is restricted. It simplifies the auditing process for access rights, ensuring that only authorized personnel have access to critical resources.

However, implementing the least privilege principle does require careful planning and management. Roles must be accurately defined, and access rights must be meticulously mapped out. It’s a worthwhile effort, though, as it strengthens your overall security posture.

Centralize Identity Management

Centralized identity management involves managing identities from a central location, providing a unified view of all users within the organization. This approach streamlines the process of managing identities, improving visibility and control over user access rights.

A centralized IAM system allows for efficient user provisioning and deprovisioning, ensuring that users have the right access at the right time. It also simplifies user authentication and authorization processes, reducing the risk of unauthorized access.

However, centralized identity management requires an effective IAM solution that can handle the complexities of managing identities across multiple systems and platforms. This includes the ability to integrate with various cloud services, support different types of identities (such as employees, contractors, and partners), and provide robust security features.

Regularly Review and Update Access Rights

Regularly reviewing and updating access rights is another critical practice for implementing IAM in the cloud. This practice involves continuously monitoring user access rights and making necessary adjustments to ensure they align with current roles and responsibilities.

Regular reviews can help identify and correct excessive access rights, which can pose a significant security risk. It also helps keep track of changes in user roles, job responsibilities, or employment status, ensuring that access rights are always up-to-date.

Regular reviews can help detect anomalies or suspicious activities, such as unusual access patterns or attempts to access restricted resources. This can assist in identifying potential security threats and taking prompt action to mitigate them.

Leverage Identity Federation

Identity federation is a process that allows for the sharing of identity and authentication data across multiple IT systems or even organizations. By leveraging identity federation, businesses can provide seamless access to resources, even across different cloud environments or business entities.

Identity federation simplifies the user experience by allowing users to authenticate once and gain access to all authorized resources, irrespective of where they are hosted. This improves user productivity and enhances security by reducing the number of times users need to authenticate.

However, implementing identity federation requires careful planning and a robust IAM solution that supports federation standards. Businesses must also ensure they have appropriate agreements in place with their partners regarding the sharing and protection of identity data.

Monitor and Audit IAM

Monitoring and auditing processes involve continuously tracking and recording user activities and access rights, providing visibility into who is accessing what resources, when, and how.

Effective monitoring can help detect unauthorized access attempts, irregular user behavior, or potential security threats. It provides the necessary insights to take proactive steps to secure your environment.

Auditing involves periodically reviewing the recorded data to ensure compliance with security policies and industry regulations. It helps identify any gaps in your IAM strategy and provides the necessary evidence during compliance audits.

Both monitoring and auditing require robust tools that can effectively track and record user activities across multiple systems and platforms. These tools should also provide advanced analytics capabilities to identify patterns and detect anomalies.