What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Indigo Consulting working on IAM software at computer Defining Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a comprehensive framework of technologies and processes focusing on enhancing security and efficiency. IAM aims to enable the right employees, hardware, and software to access only the tools required to carry out their specific duties.

Implementing and benefiting from a fully matured IAM program is long-term and relies on the right tools, processes, technologies, and people. So, let’s drill deeper into the two aspects of this framework before diving into the wealth of terminology you need to know.


Identity Management vs. Access Management

IAM is a combination of two time-honored IT practices: identity management and access management. Each of these practices involves technologies and processes focusing on specific goals.

Now, IAM has merged these two practices under one overarching umbrella. However, these terms are still not interchangeable and describe separate things. Let’s take a look at them separately to better understand IAM:


Identity Management

An identity is any type of user, machine, or even customer and contains information about the specific user to support authentication. An identity often contains information such as:

  • Name and other basic information
  • Department
  • Job title
  • Supervisor
  • Direct report


Access Management 

What applications, systems, and data should an identity be allowed to access? Answering this question is the focus of access management. Access management is also concerned with what a specific user can do within each application. For example, a user might be able to file an IT procurement request, but they won’t be able to approve it.

Now, identities can be created at an overall level and applied to individual users. From there, access management systems already know what IT assets the given identity can access and what they’re allowed to do. 

For example, instead of creating a new empty user account when a new employee is hired and configuring specific access levels, IT can assign the new employee to a specific identity. This refinement both minimizes human error and increases the efficiency of provisioning new users.


Indigo Consulting IAM specialist working on computer with team Infrastructure: Cloud IAM vs. On-Premises IAM

IAM can be handled in a few ways: on-premises, cloud, or hybrid. Traditionally, IAM has been handled with on-premises systems, which means a specific internal system for handling the necessary processes and technologies.

However, several secure cloud alternatives have emerged in recent years that allow enterprises to reduce costs and enhance usability. Benefits from on-premises systems include higher uptime, redundant backups, and strict service level agreements (SLAs).

Additionally, you might find hybrid systems that use some cloud services and handle other services in-house. The exact ecosystem can vary dramatically, but more and more enterprises are migrating entirely to cloud services.


High-Level Overview of IAM Concepts

Let’s zoom out before getting more granular — what is the overall topography of IAM? There are a few key concepts that form the basis of IAM, which are:

  • Digital resources or IT assets: Any web application, platform, device, API, third-party software, and computer falls into this category. These resources are what every identity in an organization will need to access.
  • Identities: An identity is any entity that wants to access your digital resources. We typically think of these as employees, but this definition extends to non-human identities such as automated tools or third-party platforms. An identity can also be a customer or client identity. Identities are often created categorically and then assigned to specific users as necessary. For example, everyone on the same team likely needs access to the same systems to have the same templated identity. 
  • Authentication: We’ve used passwords for decades — it’s the process of verifying an identity. New authentication methods have emerged in recent years that strive to bolster security for all identities.
  • Authorization: The final mountain in the IAM range is authorization, which determines what a specific identity can access within digital resources.

Authentication and authorization are often confused, so let’s break away from the digital world to demonstrate an example of how they differ.

Let’s imagine an HVAC contractor is called to fix an AC unit in a secure building. They arrive and show their work credentials to security and gain access to the building — authentication. 

Now, they’re given a visitor’s RFID badge that lets them access the area with the problem. Authorization is the badge’s ability to allow them into specific areas of the building; they can’t wander into highly restricted areas.

This example is, more precisely, CIAM — Customer Identity and Access Management, a similar framework to IAM. 

Even though we’ll focus on employee and non-human identities, it’s worth taking the opportunity to touch on CIAM as it still illustrates the difference between authentication and authorization.


IAM Terminology to Understand

Now that we’ve explored some of the overall concepts let’s drill down into the different terms involved in IAM. 

Be aware that even though the following list is extensive, it’s not all-inclusive. Additionally, we’ve broken terms into categories, but some of these terms may straddle the line between two or more categories.



Identities are at the heart of IAM, and there are several related terms to understand, such as:

  • Digital identity: A digital identity is used throughout IAM and refers to the attributes we discussed above (such as name, employee ID, etc.) and also often extends to historical activity and behavior patterns. A digital identity can also be a customer, client, or third-party platform that accesses your IT assets.
  • Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS): Similar to other as-a-Service platforms, IDaaS is a delivery method that offloads identity management to a cloud service. This doesn’t necessarily mean a third party handles everything for you but instead provides you with a ready-made service.
  • Identity governance: Governance in the context of identities is the process of using software, processes, and systems to manage identity access, often with a focus on compliance. Creating audit trails is a crucial component of identity governance.
  • Identity provisioning and deprovisioning: New employees require identity provisioning — the process of assigning identities and ensuring they provide the correct access levels. Deprovisioning is the opposite process, making sure employees who leave the company or move to a new department do not retain access.



Access covers a range of technologies and processes that aim to authenticate and authorize identities. Key terms in this category include:

  • Active Directory (AD): AD is a widely utilized Microsoft user-identity service. It remains widely used and can be put to work in IAM; however, other alternatives may be worth exploring, too.
  • Access management: We’ve explored access in the above sections; it’s a set of processes and technologies working together to manage access to company resources. Authentication and authorization fall under access management.
  • Privileged access management (PAM):  Privileged identities are those with a higher level of access than typical identities and are often C-suite executives or IT managers. PAM is a combination of technologies and processes that aim to protect these identities while also separating them from other identities to minimize the impact of a breach.



While we know authentication falls under the access umbrella, it’s worth splitting off into its own category to discuss the different terms involved, such as:

  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA): Several possible factors can be used to authenticate a user. MFA calls for using two or more factors to authenticate a user. Factors may include passwords/pins, codes sent to devices in possession of the user, and even biometrics. MFA aims to prevent access to user accounts if one factor is compromised.
  • Single Sign-On (SSO): Without SSO, users might need to continually authenticate themselves throughout the workday as they access different systems. SSO allows users to authenticate once, and then the system will authenticate with other IT assets in the background when necessary.
  • Biometric authentication: Biometric authentication is the latest category of authentication factors and often takes the form of fingerprint scans but can also include facial and voice recognition.


How Exactly Does IAM Work?

Now we have a strong foundation to build upon, how does all of this work together? All of the terms and definitions we’ve explored in the above sections are specific components of a holistic view of managing identities and access.

IAM’s primary focus is ensuring every user or non-human identity is who they claim to be by validating credentials, login factors, and context against existing identities.

From there, IAM continually authenticates and authorizes users as they move through different IT assets. A valid user account still won’t have access to every system, and the systems they can access will likely have limited capabilities.


Functions of Effective IAM

IAM is a complex and long-term approach to managing identity and access throughout the organization. As such, it isn’t always implemented effectively, so choosing the right IAM partner is crucial to design and implementation. 

Effectively implemented IAM has the following functions:

  • Provisioning and deprovisioning identities: A core function of IAM is increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of provisioning and deprovisioning identities. Human error in both processes will be dramatically reduced, which in turn strengthens security and company-wide operational excellence. Once implemented, these processes can even be automated for additional benefits.
  • Manage machine identities: Older methods struggle with machine identities — they weren’t designed with a focus on the sprawling landscape of IoT devices, APIs, third-party platforms, and cloud infrastructure. Effective IAM increases managing and securing these types of identities.
  • Better authentication of identities: Identities should be authenticated with several factors and throughout the user’s workdown to enhance security.
  • Enable SSO: SSO is a cornerstone of IAM as it improves usability and security. Without SSO, a single user would need to authenticate several times daily, affecting productivity and the user experience.
  • Simplify auditing and reporting: Effective IAM implementation creates a more straightforward way to generate reports for compliance and conduct internal or external audits. Choosing the right tools and processes is crucial for this step.

The above functions aren’t an all-inclusive list, but they give you an idea of what IAM should be capable of post-implementation.


IAM Industry Standards

Any IAM solution needs to be able to integrate and communicate with other solutions. As a result, several industry standards have emerged to provide secure visibility into an enterprise’s users, systems, and roles.

Let’s run through some of the top standards you’ll need to know as you implement IAM:

  • OAuth 2.0: OAuth is an open-standards protocol for identity management that allows for secure access to a wide range of devices and IT assets. Tokens are securely generated and transmitted, so credentials don’t need to be continually passed to different systems. OAuth 2.0 is the latest advancement of the previous OAuth framework and is used by major enterprises and platforms. 
  • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP):  LDAP is a protocol for storing and sorting data so it’s easy to search. LDAP has existed for a while and requires additional security in modern environments. However, it’s still a widely used method of transmitting data between clients and servers that prevents credentials from being intercepted.
  • Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML): This markup language is a standardized method for exchanging authentication and authorization data between IAM solutions and other IT resources. Data is typically transmitted in the background and ensures users are authenticated when accessing new systems without affecting the user experience.
  • System for Cross-Domain Identity Management (SCIM): Managing users’ identities can be done in a few ways, so SCIM creates a standardized and simplified method for adding, removing, or changing identities with an emphasis on modern IT ecosystems — namely, it’s built to facilitate cloud-based platforms.


Do Enterprises Actually Need IAM?

Enterprises have many employees, are often targeted by malicious actors, and typically face one or more regulatory requirements. The result — even a slight improvement in any of these categories significantly impacts the enterprise scale.

And IAM is not a slight improvement. When enacted effectively, IAM secures human and increasingly common non-human identities while guarding against misuse and creating an audit trail.

IAM increases operational efficiency, security, and compliance. Let’s dive deeper into these three topics to see how IAM makes it possible.


Indigo Consulting IAM specialists team meeting

IAM and Security

One persistent issue with enterprise security is passwords. IT can enforce strict password policies, but all it takes is a phishing email or other social engineering attack to compromise a password. A compromised password can be all it takes to access many sensitive IT assets with legacy security methods.

IAM aims to address this common attack vector by introducing additional authentication factors and context awareness and embodies the principle of least access. All identities are only given access to the bare minimum amount of resources necessary to handle their daily responsibilities.

Context awareness also considers past user behavior, creates patterns, and identifies anomalous behavior. Even if someone has the correct password and even compromises MFA — the system may still prevent access if the login device, timeframe, or location is unusual for the user account.


IAM and Compliance

Enterprises are no strangers to compliance. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a requirement for almost every business of all sizes, with each industry having its own additional regulatory requirements.

While the specifics certainly vary, most compliance requirements require some form of reporting, auditing trail, and security. 

IAM makes these requirements easier than legacy methods by already including IT asset monitoring, creating audit trails when identities are changed, and having built-in reporting tools. 

Implementing IAM effectively while considering your specific needs is crucial to maintaining your compliance standing. But when done well, you’ll likely avoid the possible fines and penalties for non-compliance.


IAM and Efficiency

How long does IT take to provide a brand new employee identity with legacy methods? The process is typically handled manually, with identity information and access levels added from scratch (or a simplistic template) each time.

What happens when a new tool is introduced to your tech stack? Every user account and non-human identity will need to be manually given access to the new tool.

When an employee leaves the company or moves to a new department, IT then has to deprovision the account or configure it to match the needs of their new role.

Each scenario is common for enterprises, and IAM makes each of them significantly more efficient. For example:

  • Provisioning and deprovisioning user and non-human accounts is done by assigning them to the appropriate pre-defined identity. For example, everyone on a sales team is given the same baseline identity, as they all have the same access levels.
  • Automation can make the above process entirely hands-off for IT but should only be explored once IAM is effectively implemented.
  • New tools or platforms that become part of the tech stack can be easily mapped to existing identities’ roles and access levels. Instead of manually configuring each account, IT can map these attributes, deploy them, and address any issues that may arise.

You can see how IAM goes a long way in maximizing efficiency in the context of IT. The user accounts themselves also benefit from faster provisioning, easier access to new tools, and other elements of IAM, like SSO.


Top Business Benefits of IAM

We’ve already explored how IAM benefits businesses in a few ways, but let’s quickly touch on a few more perks businesses can expect post-implementation: 

  • Enables advanced anomaly detection: Anomalous behavior often indicates a cyber attack. Contextual data for each user account creates a baseline pattern, which then allows for detecting any unusual activity to notify IT or block access entirely.
  • Builds the foundation for zero-trust: IAM alone isn’t zero-trust architecture, but it provides all the tools necessary to enact zero-trust later. You’ll have a streamlined way to manage users, additional authentication factors, and contextual awareness to start securing the entire infrastructure.
  • Enforce strong authentication: Strong passwords are necessary, but only in the beginning. IAM benefits businesses by enabling stronger, advanced authentication methods to protect user and non-human identities.
  • Allow for greater automation: IAM enables new levels of automation, although it’s wise to start with a base level of implementation and then add automation as the program matures.

Manage and mitigate insider threats: Not every data breach or incident is caused by an outside attacker. Insiders may try to gain access to sensitive data or systems for various purposes. IAM allows for easier management and monitoring of every user and strictly enforces authorization levels.


What is the Future of IAM?

What’s on the horizon for this evolving framework? AI and machine learning will undoubtedly affect the future of IAM — we’re already seeing this happen with the current state of IAM.

And while we like to take an optimistic view of AI advancing productivity and effectiveness, it’s still worth noting that threat actors will also have increasingly advanced tools. IAM may become a necessary guard against a new wave of AI-powered attacks.

Preparing for the future starts with implementing IAM in the present. An effective IAM program provides many benefits now while building a future-ready foundation for whatever may come next.


Let Indigo Consulting Help You Upgrade to Future-Ready IAM

Adopting IAM is no small project; it’s not as easy as adding a new cloud vendor and calling it complete. Upgrading from legacy methods to leading-edge technologies and processes that enable IAM is an extended, ongoing campaign.

Above, we’ve detailed how comprehensive and far-reaching IAM is in practice. It’s a fundamental shift in how you manage identities and access. You must have the processes, technologies, and people in place to ensure a successful upgrade and prepare for the future.

Indigo Consulting is an industry leader in guiding businesses through the process of migrating from their current methods to the latest technologies and processing necessary for effective IAM.

Are you ready to enhance how you manage identities and control access to enhance security, efficiency, and future readiness? Contact Indigo today for a discovery call to learn how we can help.