What is Identity and Access Management?

What is Identity and Access Management?

Joe Raschke

Joe Raschke

Principal Solution Strategist

Identity and Access Management (IAM) programs protect data security and privacy starting with user authentication and authorization. Often, IAM programs use a single sign-on solution with multi-factor authentication to assign users access rights to resources, continuously monitor access, and prove enforcement of and governance over “least privilege” access rights. 

As governments and industry standard organizations place greater focus on data privacy and security, organizations need to meet increasingly stringent compliance requirements. Identity and Access Management (IAM) helps protect data from unauthorized access. With complex on-premises, hybrid, and cloud infrastructures, organizations struggle with IAM as more identities interact with information. Identity and Access Management, at its core, is about ensuring that the right users have the right access to the right resources at the right time for the right reason. 

What is the Difference Between Identity Management and Access Management?

Identity management and access management are the two parts involved in governing how users interact with data and applications across information systems, networks, databases, and software. 

Identity can be any person, object, or code that interacts with your information. 

For example, an on-premises employee is one type of identity that presents a certain set of risks, while a remote employee is an identity that presents a different set of risks. Meanwhile, robotic process automation, code that manages administrative tasks, is a different type of identity from an Internet of Things (IoT) device.

Each identity requires its own identification, authentication, and privileges. As the number of identities grows, this becomes more and more complex. 

Each identity requires certain resources to do their job. Access involves establishing what these resources are and who is able to use them. 

For example, as instructors, university professors need access to sensitive student information such as grades. However, if a professor is also taking a class at their university, they should only have access to their own grades and information, not their classmates’. 

Neither access nor identity can exist without the other.

How is Identity Managed? 

Identity Management (IDM) is how organizations identify, authenticate, and authorize users. Authentication is a particularly important aspect of IDM because it ensures users are who they say they are, and it establishes who the identity is – an individual or a bot. Once a user has been identified and authenticated, they will need authorization to access resources that allow them to do their job. This becomes more and more complicated as organizations increase their number of resources. 

How is Access Managed?

Each identity in an ecosystem is authorized to access certain resources. Because authorizing each individual identity would be too time consuming, identities are assigned roles, groups, or attributes that define which resources they need and the level of access allowed. Access management helps create and define these groups and allows the humans and bots in them access to needed resources. 

Access management allows new users to quickly get the resources they need to do their job by assigning them to a category.

Access Privileges & Entitlements

Permission to access and interact with information is given to users through privileges. It is best practice to follow the “Least Privilege” rule. This means users can only make the minimum amount of changes needed to do their jobs. 

During employment, users accumulate privileges, or experience “privilege creep.” When users move through an organization and interact with other departments, they request access to new resources. Often, users only require this access for a short period of time, and it is easy to lose track of when this access needs to be revoked. This means some users are left with far more access than they need.  

Why is Identity and Access Management Important?

Digital transformation shifts the security perimeter, moving it from firewalls to identity. As organizations integrate new technologies into their business models, they need to protect identity and access more proactively. SaaS to IaaS rely heavily on Identity Management and dynamic Access Management to manage these platforms — more so than legacy solutions. 

On an enterprise level, you need to focus on creating and enforcing an IAM policy that limits the amount of information and applications with which your identities can interact. You also need to expand your definition of identity to align with non-human identities such as robotic process automation (RPA), IoT devices, service accounts, and bots. 

IAM mitigates identity risks which can lead to breaches where private or personal information is exposed, organizations lose money, or a company’s reputation is damaged. IAM prevents these breaches by helping organizations understand who has access where and to what. 

Every organization deals with risks, but IAM helps manage them. Some of these risks include security, privacy, operational, and compliance risks. 

Information Security Risk

IAM risks increase as organizations create complex IT infrastructures. According to the Verizon 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report, 34% of data breaches involved internal actors. Additionally, 15% of data breaches involved authorized user privilege misuse. The report detailed that privilege misuse was one of the top three data breach patterns for the Financial and Insurance, Healthcare, Public Administration, Manufacturing, and Retail industries.

Privacy Risk 

Although privacy and security are often used interchangeably, they are two different types of risk. Privacy involves giving people control over their personally identifiable information (PII). For example, Human Resources may need access to an employee’s medical history. However, that employee has the right to keep the information private from a manager. If your company is not managing access and identity effectively, you may be violating someone’s right to privacy. 

Operational Risk

IAM also protects you from operational risks such as embezzlement and fraud. Organizations use IAM to manage Segregation of Duties (SOD). For example, a person accessing Accounts Receivable should not access Accounts Payable. If the person can access both, the individual can create a fake vendor account and pay it from the corporate bank account without oversight. 

Compliance Risk

Depending on your industry, you likely need to meet regulatory compliance requirements. Most regulations require organizations to limit access to data. For example, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a healthcare provider can face fines ranging from $100 to $50,000 per violation.

What is the Difference Between IAM and IGA?  

At a high level, Identity Access and Management (IAM) focuses on user identity management and access control. Identity Governance Administration (IGA) focuses on the regulatory and compliance side of governance and administration. The differences between these two can be difficult to understand as they both focus on identity. IGA supports and expands on IAM. While IAM focuses on roles and privileges of identities, IGA reduces the risk of unnecessary access and automates business workflows. IAM and IGA work together to keep organizations and their data secure. 

What are the Key Features of Identity and Access Management Solutions?  

Identity and Access Management

IAM is crucial for employee success and the security of organizations’ data. Because IAM systems are so essential, it is important to understand the key features. 

Lifecycle Management 

IAM helps organizations keep track of their employees through every stage of their employment. New employees need access to resources as they go through the onboarding process. As employees move in the organization their permissions change. Then when an employee leaves or transfers, their access needs to be restricted. Managing this for an entire organization is extremely complicated, which is why lifecycle management is an important feature of IAM. 

Request Fulfillment 

When employees and other identities request access to resources, it is important that an IAM system is able to fulfill those requests accurately and quickly. These requests don’t just come one at a time, so it is also important that the IAM system can fulfill high volumes of requests at a time. 


As organizations grow, they need to manage identities across multiple technologies. It is important that an IAM system is compatible with either on prem or cloud technologies. This will allow the organization flexibility as it grows and changes. 

User Experience 

User experience is an important feature of IAM because many teams within an organization may be using the IAM system. If the IAM system is not intuitive for users with different levels of IT knowledge, it will not be effective. Since users are increasingly relying on mobile access as well, this should be taken into account.


Regular auditing of IAM systems allows an organization to identify weaknesses. It is important that these audits produce clear reports and analytics so organizations can understand and track data. 

In response to today’s cybersecurity environment, organizations need to meet increasingly stringent compliance requirements for data privacy and security. Identity and Access Management (IAM) best practices are essential to protect data from unauthorized access and to remain compliant with industry regulations. By focusing on proper Identity and Access Management, organizations can ensure that the right users have the right access to the right resources at the right time for the right reason. 

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