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Identity and Access Management in the Cloud

Many companies are beginning to realize that cloud services can often be more secure than in-house data centers

In today's business world, data is the lifeblood of most organizations. As such, it has become a prime target for both external and internal threats. Data breaches made plenty of headlines in 2011 and don't show any signs of slowing down. In fact, a recent report from Privacy Rights Clearinghouse found that there were 535 data breaches reported last year alone. Whether it is for a Fortune 500 business, a university or a midmarket company, the protection of sensitive information is not only important for daily business functions, but is now a security measure required by law. As organizations of all sizes - not just large enterprises - struggle to keep up with evolving security and compliance requirements, many are turning to identity and access management (IAM) solutions to meet their needs.

Unlike traditional IT security technologies, which focus on perimeter and end-point threats, IAM solutions focus on identity lifecycles and access controls, as well as provisioning, authentication, certification and other identity-based processes. Previously seen as a luxury only available to the largest of organizations, cloud computing has increased the accessibility of IAM solutions for businesses of all sizes at a time when they are needed most. In addition, cloud computing provides the opportunity for security vendors to bring mature IAM technology to smaller businesses via a new deployment model - without starting from scratch and losing years of successful development.

Bringing SaaS into the IAM Fold
Originally hesitant to put sensitive data in the cloud, many companies are beginning to realize that cloud services can often be more secure than in-house data centers, as they are held to service level agreements (SLAs) and other third-party regulations. As such, more organizations are now readily adopting Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and cloud solutions to maximize efficiencies, lower total cost of ownership and ultimately "do more with less." How? Cloud-based IAM solutions can be deployed at a fraction of the time and cost of on-premise infrastructure. In addition, because cloud-based solutions are often much easier to use and manage, IT managers can focus on tasks that are more central to business goals rather than spending their resources trying to manage complex on-premise infrastructure.

For many organizations, the strategy for growth over the next couple of years will be heavily focused on expanding and optimizing their extranet community - SaaS providers, cloud service providers, supply chain partners, resellers, integrators and other business partners. The question now becomes how to secure these SaaS-based applications, cloud services and other third-party systems. Having a strategy for external audiences' identities and entitlements - in addition to internal employees - as well as visibility into all identity data is critical to a business's future success. Enter federation.

Federation, which enables companies to extend IAM capabilities to third-party applications and securely share identity information with external audiences, is becoming an increasingly strategic business tool. Two of the most common federated IAM capabilities are Federated Single Sign-On (FSSO) and federated user provisioning.

  • Federated Single Sign-On (FSSO): FSSO capabilities allow a company's user base to access applications while avoiding the need to transmit shared secrets, such as passwords, to third parties - mitigating the risk of important credentials being compromised. FSSO also allows the user to log in to all applications in a uniform way regardless of whether they are housed internally or hosted by an external partner. The flip side of this capability is that the business can also safely provide authorized third parties with access to their applications. Using an industry-proven means of providing SSO capabilities to third parties - rather than using an in-house grown solution that hasn't been vetted or tested - can help companies strengthen security and increase compliance while improving productivity by eliminating password reset requests and other associated help desk calls.
  • Federated User Provisioning: Federated user provisioning allows third-party applications to be included in the same identity and lifecycle process as internal applications. With the use of secure and open-standard protocols, organizations can seamlessly exchange identity data with partners and SaaS providers as well as provision users, roles and entitlements to external applications. Equally as important, using federated user provisioning, companies can also ensure that user role and entitlement information found on third-party systems is timely and accurate, mitigating the risk of important data being accessed by unauthorized users.

At the onset of widespread SaaS adoption, many companies did not consider external applications part of their network infrastructure - and so provisioning and other IAM capabilities were focused on on-premise systems only. As more and more critical data and applications become housed in the cloud, eschewing security liability for systems and information residing outside a company's four walls is a critical and common mistake.

Provisioning encompasses managing role data and access rights throughout a user's life cycle - from onboarding, transfers and promotions to the day they leave the company - and must be applied to both on- and off-premise systems in a timely and accurate manner in order to ensure proper access to important data. Otherwise, companies open themselves up to a variety of dangers, including data breaches, increased IT costs and compliance risks.

For example, effectively deprovisioning a user when they are no longer authorized to access certain resources is just as important as giving them access at the start of an identity life cycle. Failure to deprovision users who have left a company can result in orphan accounts, opening the organization up to a number of potential issues. Compliance requirements aside, ex-employees who still have access to SaaS or on-premise applications can potentially harvest corporate and client information for nefarious purposes. In other cases, it's important to have up-to-date entitlement information when users simply change position or are given different responsibilities. Otherwise, these events can lead to "entitlement sprawl" wherein users accumulate privileges that are no longer necessary for their jobs. In the age of the data breach, IAM solutions are more than just another add-on for a business's security infrastructure. An effective IAM solution will protect sensitive data, help to avoid complications in daily business operations, minimize potential legal woes and ensure a strong reputation among customers.

As technologies, such as mobile devices and social networking sites, continue to further convolute the security landscape, more and more critical assets are being placed outside a company's four walls. In order to put their security measures closer to these assets, many companies are implementing cloud-based solutions. Proficient cloud-based IAM tools can help companies strengthen security and increase compliance while benefiting from unparalleled savings, quick time-to-deployment and greater business efficiencies - a win-win for all involved.

More Stories By Eric Z. Maass

Eric Maass is the chief technology officer at Lighthouse Security Group, where he’s responsible for the roadmap and technology vision for the company’s flagship product, Lighthouse Gateway, a cloud-based identity and access management platform. Maass was formerly the chief security architect for the U.S. Air Force’s Global Combat Support System, where he was responsible for the architecture and design of its net-centric IAM infrastructure.

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