Tech

What are the Key Differences?


Identity and Access Management (IAM) controls and manages user access, whereas Privileged Access Management (PAM) is a subset of IAM, with a focus on users with special privileges. So, it’s safe to say that the two concepts are related, but they’re not the same.

The best way for your organization to know whether or not you need one or both is to gain a firm understanding of each, their pros and cons and how they should be implemented.


What is identity and access management?

IAM policies control user access to organizational resources such as files, databases and applications. This vital function acts as a gateway to who is granted access, who has administrative privileges and who is restricted.

What is privileged access management?

As a subset of IAM, PAM concerns the management of access specifically to sensitive resources and critical services. Certain employees may only have the right to access privileged information, such as those in IT who have administrative privileges. Similarly, executives often have privileged access to the files and systems of those under them.

Identity and Access Management Privileged Access Management
Identity validation. Resource access validation.
Credentials. Attributes.
Broadly protects against data loss and unauthorized access. Is focused on specific highly sensitive or privileged assets and information.
Addresses all users. Addresses privileged users.

IAM vs. PAM: Key differences

While there are many differences between IAM and PAM, there are also definite similarities. They both deal with access and identity. But it is their target that makes the big difference. IAM is implemented broadly across the organization, whereas PAM is addressed to those who need privileged access to key organizational assets — such as database administrators, IT managers and accounts/finance personnel.

As such, IAM directly affects credentials and their validation, while PAM is based on resource-access validation using attributes that indicate the person’s right to enter core systems and carry out sensitive operations. IAM provides the organization with broad control over general rights across the organization. In comparison, PAM guards very specific systems, databases and files to restrict access to a privileged few.

Further, IAM generally includes a broader feature set. It encompasses automation, authorization, single sign-on (SSO), multi-factor authentication (MFA), encryption, role-based access control (RBAC) and more. It also contains plenty of features related to governance, compliance, risk and integration with other security applications.

IAM vs PAM: Use cases

To better understand the differences between IAM and PAM, it is smart to understand their different use cases.

IAM use cases

  • Single Sign-On (SSO) provides access to a wide range of applications via one set of credentials, streamlining authentication processes, reducing IT overhead and improving security by creating trusted relationships that can be authenticated.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) requires several forms of identification before a user is granted access to an account; extra layers of protection make it difficult for outsiders to gain access.
  • IAM provides the tools for provisioning, onboarding and offboarding user access.
  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) restricts system access based on the role of the user.
  • Identity governance employs various policies, procedures and technologies to manage digital identities and access organizational resources.

PAM use cases

  • PAM identifies, tracks and manages privileged accounts, whereby only certain users are granted access to sensitive systems and applications.
  • Account monitoring issues alerts anytime new uses are added to privileged accounts, making it easier to spot rogue permissions.
  • Application control to allow or block access, adds extra layers of protection to highly sensitive applications and databases.

IAM and PAM integration

IAM deals with who can access what, while PAM determines if access is appropriate and according to authorized usage. In many organizations, these functions need to be well integrated to maintain security. Some vendors provide platforms that integrate both functions.

There is risk when PAM and IAM are operating in separate silos. Inconsistent access policies between IAM and PAM solutions can lead to security gaps. As well as the underlying coding or API management needed to bring AIM and PAM together, there is a need to unify the policies both use to operate. Policies should fully align so that each wants the same kind of profile and uses the same basic workflows. Ideally, both identity stores will be brought together to simplify operations, reduce overhead and eliminate any blind spots for either system.

IAM pros and cons

Pros of IAM

  • Keeps data and identities secure courtesy of features such as MFA, SSO and encryption.
  • IAM shuts out unwanted visitors and provides a secure space in which collaboration can occur.
  • The presence of IAM makes it easier for those working on compliance to demonstrate adherence to various regulations.
  • IAM incorporates features such as SSO so that once you are in, you have no need to enter further credentials for other applications and systems.
  • IAM helps IT administer identity management centrally.

Cons of IAM

  • Poor identity and access management can cause users to gain greater access privileges than they should.
  • A rogue insider or a disgruntled employee can abuse the system by granting rights to unauthorized users or opening systems up broadly and often without detection.
  • Aligning all applications and users onto one central identity system requires skilled IT and security personnel who can do a thorough job of implementing IAM and overcoming the many barriers that lie in their path.
  • Gaining administrative privileges to the IAM system itself poses risks to the entire organization.

PAM pros and cons

Pros of PAM

  • Organizational security postures can be enhanced by controlling access to privileged accounts as a way to lower risk and prevent unauthorized access.
  • Privileged accounts are monitored for security and compliance purposes to detect and prevent abuse of areas such as administrative privileges for IT changes.
  • Many PAM tools include features that can monitor all privileged sessions in real time for a fast response.

Cons of PAM

  • Privileged accounts might span multiple divisions, devices and applications, making it difficult to set up and maintain at times.
  • PAM must align with other systems such as IAM and Active Directory (AD) and work smoothly with other applications without slowing user productivity.
  • PAM can sometimes be expensive and out of reach for SMBs due to the cost of the software, the need for trained resources to maintain it and the training required.

Should your organization use IAM or PAM?

IAM has broad applicability in most organizations. PAM is often also needed in large organizations or in businesses where the information involved is particularly sensitive or the risk of an incursion is high. For some, unified IAM and PAM suites can simplify implementation and operation. But whatever software is utilized, the key factor is to minimize the risk of a breach.



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