Understanding the Role of Identity and Access Management Services in Authentication

By Janice Thompson

Identity and access management (IAM) systems are evolving rapidly. They address the challenge of authenticating parties needing access to critical resources—people, IoT devices, or applications.

To do this, they validate identities using multiple methods, such as multi-factor or adaptive authentication. They also use the principle of least privilege to ensure users have only the permissions necessary for their tasks.


Verifying a user’s digital identity is the first stage in the identity and access management (IAM) process. The IAM system checks the login credentials supplied by the user against information kept in an internal database whenever someone tries to access a system. The IAM system allows users to access the network if the credentials match.

When a user authenticates, they need to verify their identity by using something they know (like a password) or something they have (like a security token or one-time password), or something that is part of the body (like biometrics). Some IAM systems implement Single Sign-On, so users only need to log into one system once to access all other scenarios without entering the same login credentials each time.

Once the user has verified their identity, the IAM system checks a directory for access privileges and authorizes them only to use the resources they have permission to use. IAM systems also track activity and can report on what users have done on the system to help companies comply with regulatory requirements for things like customer ID verification, suspicious activity detection in money laundering cases, or PCI-DSS compliance.

Some IAM systems also implement privileged access management (PAM), which manages the permissions for highly secret accounts like admins who oversee databases or servers. Because hackers often target these accounts, IAM systems with PAM isolate these digital identities uniquely and use credential vaults to control access and protect sensitive information.


While authentication and authorization often get conflated, they are two distinct processes. Authentication proves a user’s identity, while approval confirms the appropriate permissions to access specific files, applications, and data. Robust authentication and authorization processes are critical for today’s increasingly hybrid and remote workplaces, ensuring that only authorized users can access organizational resources.

Types of authentication services involve a username and password for sign-on, but more advanced security measures like 2FA and MFA (multi-factor authentication) are also used. These additional layers of security can include a code sent to a mobile device, a fingerprint scan, or facial recognition.

Once a user is authenticated, the system must determine the individual’s permissions. Authorization services decide who can view, edit or delete files and the level of permissions they can have to underlying data. These permissions are collectively known as client privileges.

To make these decisions, an authorization service takes in the request, translates it into a triple (actor, action, resource), and then passes that information to the decision process. There are multiple strategies for making these decisions, including Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC), and Graph-Based Access Control (GBAC). The best approach depends on your organization’s needs. A centralized authorization service can keep decision logic consistent across multiple applications, but decoupling policy changes from the decision process is essential. A hybrid solution is an excellent middle ground, as it allows a centralized service to make decisions and allows developers to incorporate authorization into their application code.

Access Control

Access control ensures users are who they claim to be and are authorized to perform what needs to be done. It lets users access physical and digital resources, including servers, files, software, and other systems. It also shows that the login credentials are legitimate and authorized. Additionally, restricting the number of times a user can attempt to log in ensures that nobody can access the systems without authorization.

The simplest access control model is identity-based, which matches a visual or biometric match to a list of authorized users. This is the default model in most operating systems. The second is role-based, which attributes permissions to a person based on their job duties. This is the most popular access control model and enables admins to easily give permissions for new employees and revoke licenses for prior ones.

The third is mandatory access control, which grants access only to custodians who can manage settings. This is the most secure model used by military and government organizations. The fourth and final access control model is discretionary access control (DAC). In DAC, the owner of an object decides who has access to it and what actions they can take. This is the default model in many operating systems. It may result in security problems, such as consumers disclosing private information or installing malware that endangers personal data, other systems, and plans.


Managing access to digital resources involves using two components: authentication and authorization. Authentication ensures that someone or something is who they say they are by confirming identity through verification. The commission determines whether a user or device can access the requested resource by evaluating the database’s roles, attributes, and rules.

A user’s permission level is determined by their assigned role, which can be dictated by their job title, security clearance, project, or time on the company clock. A company’s IAM systems should adhere to the principle of least privilege, meaning that each person is only granted the minimum permissions required to perform their tasks. This is often achieved by leveraging risk-based authentication that increases login requirements when it detects abnormal behavior.

A robust IAM solution provides data and IT systems security from inside and outside threats. It supports the security goals of a company by offering tools for identity governance, user provisioning, and directory services. It is also designed to reduce the risks of cyber intrusion, fraud, and data breaches by automating security monitoring based on predetermined criteria. This is especially important for businesses supporting compliance with regulatory standards. In addition, it helps to keep an organization’s agility by ensuring that the right people have access to the most critical systems and data at the correct times.