Most organizations have applications and data on-premises, in private clouds, and one or more public cloud environments. A cloud identity and access management (cloud IAM) solution solves many of the challenges associated with these complex environments by providing a system for managing users’ access to distributed resources wherever they are located. 

The best cloud IAM solution is made for the sophisticated needs of today’s modern enterprise, delivering an intelligent, autonomous identity foundation that securely fuels the business.

The framework provided by cloud IAM systems includes the tools needed to streamline the management identities across sprawling systems and to simplify secure access to various IT systems and applications. 

What is cloud IAM?

Cloud IAM is a solution comprised of the tools, policies, and processes needed to protect access to an organization’s critical resources (e.g., systems, networks, data) across cloud, SaaS, and on-premises systems and application programming interfaces (APIs). It is used to manage who can access which resources across multiple systems, including employees, partners, and customers. Cloud IAM can authenticate and authorize users no matter where they are and provide secure access to resources. 

Cloud IAM services may be delivered and managed by a service provider. In addition to identity and access control capabilities, these solutions can include maintenance, support, uptime guarantees, distributed and redundant systems, and short SLAs. In addition, cloud IAM solutions provide visibility into suspicious login attempts allowing security teams to investigate and take action quickly. 

Cloud IAM supports cloud identity and access governance by providing structure and processes for administrators to manage the end-to-end lifecycle of user identities and privileges across all enterprise resources.

This includes assigning permissions to groups of users and granting audit access across systems and applications. Automation capabilities help enforce governance policies, such as triggering changes to access permissions when a user’s relationship with an organization terminates or their role changes.   

Moving to cloud IAM eliminates the limitations and costs associated with on-premises systems IAM for identity verification and access control. A cloud IAM replacement delivers a more flexible, scalable solution that ensures security outside of network perimeters with a range of capabilities, including: 

  • Access management 
  • API security 
  • Authentication 
  • Consent collection  
  • Data privacy management 
  • Directory 
  • Identity verification 
  • Personal identity setup and management 
  • Risk management 
  • User and developer access to self-service tools 

How cloud IAM works

Cloud IAM solutions ensure that users can access what they need and that systems, data, and applications are protected from unauthorized entities (i.e., people or systems) by confirming that the user, software, or hardware are who or what they say they are. This is done by authenticating the presented credentials against a database and granting access based on granular permission levels. Unlike simply accepting usernames and passwords and allowing unfettered access, cloud IAM solutions allow administrators to restrict access to specific pieces with defined rights (e.g., edit, view, comment). 

Key functions of cloud IAM systems include:

  • Capturing and recording login information 
  • Managing the identity database, including people, devices, and applications 
  • Enabling the assignment and removal of access privileges 
  • Allowing the oversight and visibility of all user base details 

Policies in cloud IAM systems define: 

  • How users are identified  
  • Roles assigned to users 
  • What systems, information, and areas are protected, and what the levels of protection and access are for sensitive data, systems, information, and locations 
  • How users, groups, and roles can be added, removed, and amended   

Cloud IAM solutions also address IT components, such as: 

  • Storage, processing power, and analytics 
  • Access to directories, files, or areas within a database 
  • Granular permissions assigned to users based on their roles 
  • Permissions that grant access to an entire group of users (e.g., business unit, department) 

Cloud IAM benefits

  • Enables users to access resources remotely from anywhere using any device.   
  • Enhances security by providing monitoring and access control across IT environments, regardless of complexity, to minimize threats from cyberattacks and malicious insiders.   
  • Improves users’ experiences and increases productivity with single sign-on capabilities that streamline the login process and expedite users’ access to the resources they need.  
  • Offers flexibility and scalability made possible with cloud services that can be dialed up or down based on changing requirements.   
  • Provides seamless role changes, onboarding, and offboarding with robust tools for administrators and self-service capabilities. 
  • Reduces costs by eliminating the need for costly equipment acquisition, deployment, support, and maintenance. 
  • Supports compliance with laws, regulations, and contracts by providing the highest security standards, tracking, and administrative transparency for day-to-day operations. 

Cloud IAM in a hybrid cloud

While hybrid cloud environments increase flexibility and agility for IT, they can result in more vulnerabilities. Cloud IAM is critical when running hybrid cloud deployments as resources are increasingly distributed across public and private clouds. 

Despite the difficulty, it is vital to identify users and grant them the right level of access to the right things at the right time to maintain an effective security posture. Hybrid cloud IAM makes it possible to integrate and provide identity management and access control, or resources and identities, regardless of where they are hosted— on-premises or in one or a combination of cloud deployment models. 

The types of organizations where hybrid cloud IAM generally aligns with business and IT requirements include: 

  • Large global enterprises with a wide variety of distributed resources with complex requirements leverage cloud IAM in a hybrid cloud. Many of these organizations have on-premises applications and systems that cannot be moved to the cloud and a full portfolio of cloud solutions. Cloud IAM in a hybrid cloud allows them to provide the requisite security without major overhauls or rearchitecting of systems. 
  • Organizations subject to regulatory compliance requirements, especially those that operate on a global scale, benefit from hybrid cloud IAM, because it supports data sovereignty. Organizations can host and store identity information for multiple regions locally. This makes it easier to comply with the myriad data privacy and other regulations that vary by region and country (e.g., General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and Consumer Data Rights (CDR)). 
  • Digital-forward organizations transitioning to the cloud, but still have on-premises resources, use hybrid cloud IAM to reduce IAM infrastructure and administrative costs. This allows them to support rapidly increasing requests and a wider range of requirements.   

Hybrid cloud IAM advantages

  • Allows for migration of on-premises resources to the cloud to happen when ready, or not at all 
  • Centralizes identities to facilitate audits and investigations 
  • Delivers cost savings by consolidating IAM into one system 
  • Eliminates identity siloes and duplicates across hybrid IT and hybrid cloud environments 
  • Expedites adoption of zero trust strategies  
  • Makes it easy to identify and monitor high-risk user access across disparate systems 
  • Minimizes unknown risk awareness that can lead to negative outcomes, including data breaches, ransomware troubles, reputational damage, fines for non-compliance with regulations, and other financial consequences 
  • Provides seamless user experiences that improve productivity by eliminating multiple disjointed IAM systems 
  • Secures all digital identities across hybrid IT and hybrid cloud environments 
  • Unites on-premises, cloud, and SaaS environments 

Types of clouds for cloud IAM

Cloud IAM can be deployed in any of the five cloud models. 

Public cloud

Public clouds are hosted off-premises by service providers. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) are the most widely used public clouds.   

Private cloud

Private clouds are usually hosted locally by the enterprise. 

Partner cloud

Partner clouds are often hosted in a public cloud by a partner, who manages the environment in a dedicated tenant that is unique to the enterprise or optimized to meet the requirements of a specific industry. 


Multi-clouds are deployments that are made up of multiple public cloud providers’ solutions. 

Hybrid clouds

Hybrid clouds are deployments that combine any or all of the cloud models.

Cloud IAM solutions

The following capabilities and features should be considered when assessing cloud IAM solutions: 

  • Ability to apply zero trust principles of least privilege 
  • Automated workflows for the user lifecycle and policies 
  • Dynamic workflows that allow automation in user lifecycle and access policies 
  • Easy-to-use admin console for managing users, policies, and applications 
  • Flexibility when choosing cloud deployment models 
  • No- and low-code customization options 
  • Rich set of pre-built integrations that support the most commonly used standards 
  • Self-service options for users to minimize IT burden 
  • Service level agreements (SLAs) that meet uptime requirements 
  • Support for all open authentication standards 

FAQs about cloud IAM

What is the difference between IAM and cloud IAM? 

Identity and access management was built for on-premises deployments with in-network users, resources, and hardened perimeters. 

Cloud IAM expands the capabilities of IAM to support distributed environments that can include resources that are deployed and accessed on-premises and through various cloud models (e.g., private, public, multi-cloud, hybrid, partner).  

How is cloud IAM useful to the enterprise? 

Cloud IAM gives enterprise IT administrators the flexibility to cost-effectively and efficiently provide the identity management and access control services required to protect complex environments.   

What features and capabilities are typically included in cloud IAM?

  • Access management controls with unified access policies that can include single sign-on (SSO) and multifactor authentication (MFA) enablement 
  • Single sign-on (SSO) to consolidate user passwords and credentials in a single account with strong password enablement to streamline access to services 
  • Multifactor authentication (MFA) that requires secondary authentication controls that ensure the authenticity of users and limit risks posed by stolen credentials 
  • Automate user provisioning (i.e., creating and assigning new user accounts) and deprovisioning (i.e., removing access privileges) 
  • Directory services for centralized and consolidated credential management and synchronization 
  • Identity analytics that leverage machine learning to detect and prevent unusual identity activities 
  • Identity governance and administration (IGA) to manage the user account lifecycle, including privileges and provisioning 
  • Risk-based authentication that uses algorithms to calculate the risk of rogue users, block suspicious activity, and report actions with high-risk scores 
  • Privileged access management functionality to integrate with the employee database and pre-defined job roles to establish and provide the access employees need to perform their roles 

Are there any challenges associated with cloud IAM?

Cloud IAM requires extensive planning and collaboration across multiple constituent groups and, often, geographies to develop strategies with clear objectives, defined business processes, and buy-in from stakeholders. Then, there is the technical part of the implementation. However, these are part and parcel of any enterprise IT solution, and experienced teams know how to navigate the details and develop project plans that assure efficient and timely deployments. 

Management tools within cloud IT solutions help streamline the implementation process as well as ongoing maintenance. Within cloud IAM consoles, administrators can manage all aspects of the system, from onboarding and decommissioning users, defining and enforcing policies, auditing, reporting, responding to alerts and alarms, and other common management and operations requirements. In addition, because cloud IAM systems run in hybrid and different combinations of cloud models, they can be easily implemented in existing enterprise environments. 

What are best practices for cloud IAM?

Best practices for cloud IAM include: 

  • Centralize identity management with the cloud IAM system by migrating users from other systems or synchronizing it with other user directories within the enterprise (e.g., human resources directories). 
  • Confirm the identities of those logging in using MFA or a combination of MFA and adaptive authentication to consider the context of the login attempt (e.g., location, time, device). 
  • Pair SSO with adaptive MFA to protect against single-password-related threats. 
  • Create tiers of access to ensure that sensitive information requires privileged access with extra layers of security. 
  • Extend security protocols beyond human users, requiring an identity and appropriate permissions for non-human users, such as APIs, containers, and applications. 
  • Federate with identity providers to grant users access to an application with a single set of sign-on credentials. 
  • Implement policy-based access controls based on the principle of least privilege.  
  • Integrate zero trust across all parts of cloud IAM to continuously monitor and secure users and validate their identities.   
  • Limit administrators’ power by establishing roles that grant the minimum capabilities needed and distributing responsibilities to avoid single points of failure. 
  • Monitor each user’s system utilization to ensure no users can access resources beyond their permissions. 
  • Provide training for the users who will be most engaged with the cloud IAM. 
  • Set conditional access that checks the user’s device, location, and network, then assigns a risk rating in real time.  
  • Track, monitor, and control accounts that have access to sensitive data. 

How does cloud IAM support compliance? 

Data privacy laws continue to be enacted in states across the US and throughout the world. While these laws share common threads, each has its own nuanced rules for data privacy.  

Cloud IAM allows organizations to leverage dynamically updated and geographically distributed IAM services that enable them to ensure compliance with all regulations. It also provides the security, tracking, administrative transparency, auditing, and reporting capabilities required to support compliance. 

Cloud IAM Extends Protection Beyond Perimeter

A critical component of organizations’ security posture, identity and access management systems can create friction. Cloud IAM solutions address this by creating streamlined workflows to extend protection to resources inside and outside traditional enterprise perimeters.  

Cloud IAM takes into account the explosion of connected resources that digital transformation has brought to the ecosystem, from remote and third-party end users to IoT devices and hosted applications. With cloud IAM, organizations can reap the benefits while maintaining strong security postures. 

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