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CIEM vs. IAM

In this article, we'll compare CIEM and IAM to explain how these crucial techniques help reduce your attack surface.

Wiz Experts Team
5 min read

TL;DR

  • CIEM is a specialized access management approach that provides visibility and control for cloud environments. It provides a structure for managing entitlements, permissions, and privileged users within your cloud accounts.

  • IAM manages user identities, permissions, and roles across your organization's IT resources. It enables you to enforce permission policies and prevent unauthorized access to resources, but it isn't specifically designed for cloud operations.

Identity and access controls are vital to maintaining safe operations across your cloud resources and other infrastructure, but it can be tricky to understand which mechanisms are right for you. Two of the main contenders are cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM) and identity access management (IAM), both of which can help prevent unauthorized access to your environments. But which should you use—and when?

In this article, we'll compare CIEM and IAM to explain how these crucial techniques help reduce your attack surface. We'll also discuss the ways CIEM and IAM complement each other to achieve the most robust security for your accounts.

What is CIEM?

CIEM secures access to cloud resources by unifying identity management, entitlement authorization, and continuous monitoring. Integrating all these capabilities into one tool enables centralized management of your access controls across the cloud providers that you depend on.

Using CIEM ensures that only correctly entitled identities can interact with your accounts. A cloud entitlement is a set of permissions granted to an identity that allows access to a logical group of resources. The permissions that are part of an entitlement can span multiple providers in a multi-cloud environment, such as an Azure virtual machine that serves an app and an AWS S3 bucket that stores related files.

CIEM’s benefits

  • Centralized management: CIEM gives you one destination for managing all your identities and entitlements, enabling centralized control. This reduces the risk that configuration errors or oversights will occur.

  • Support for multi-cloud environments: CIEM allows you to cohesively manage access controls for all your cloud providers, without needing to manually apply policies to each one. You can use your single CIEM solution to keep accounts synced across clouds, ensuring full protection while minimizing administrative overheads.

  • Provides visibility: CIEM solutions let you analyze access activity, detect anomalous behavior, and find potential weaknesses in your cloud access controls.

  • Supports compliance and governance: Because CIEM works across all your environments, it makes it easier to enforce compliance policies and maintain continual governance of your identities.

How CIEM supports cloud security

CIEM allows you to reliably enforce complex multi-cloud access policies, reducing your attack surface and helping prevent over-privileged accounts (aka accounts with excessive permissions). It also supports identity governance and compliance requirements by providing detailed visibility into identity usage and integrating with cloud providers’ own access management platforms. CIEM solutions let you monitor access activity and see all the entitlements held by your identities, even when you're working with several identity providers and cloud accounts.

Utilizing CIEM as part of your cloud security solution ensures all identities are correctly restricted to just the access levels they require, based on the entitlements they've been granted. Because CIEM is purpose-built for the cloud, it's robust enough to support fast-paced changes as cloud accounts, resources, and identities are added and removed.

What is IAM?

IAM is a mechanism for authenticating user identities and authorizing which resources they can access. It allows you to assign granular permissions to your identities; those permissions determine the level of access provided. When an identity attempts to access a resource, the IAM system will verify the user is who they say they are (such as by requiring reauthentication) then check they hold the relevant permission for that action.

IAM is a generalized approach to access management that's applicable to many different IT security scenarios, not just the cloud. As most systems include their own IAM implementations—such as AWS IAM and Google Cloud IAM—coverage gaps can easily occur when multiple identity providers and permission sets are used. This makes it challenging to consistently enforce IAM security policies at scale.

IAM’s benefits

  • Policy-based access management: IAM solutions allow you to configure rule-based policies that define who can access your resources and how, such as by specifying that particular S3 buckets are restricted to specific users. This simplifies configuration and enhances auditability.

  • Granular permission controls: Each action supported by a resource is assigned a distinct IAM permission. You can configure your identities with the minimum set of permissions they require for their roles, preventing accounts becoming over-privileged.

  • Enforcement of identity requirements: Utilizing IAM gives you control over your identities and how they interact with your systems, such as by demanding access to be initiated using multi-factor authentication (MFA) and a known device. Microsoft Entra ID allows you to enforce MFA by activating a global policy within its admin center, for example, while the AWS IAM Identity Center provides multiple options for controlling MFA requirements for your accounts.

  • Secured perimeters: IAM systems define a clear perimeter for your networks and resources. All access attempts flow through the IAM solution, making it harder for attackers to gain a route to sensitive services.

How IAM supports cloud security

IAM is a fundamental part of cloud security. Authenticating identities and authorizing whether they can access resources is a critical task that IAM provides a proven solution for.

Defining identities within an IAM solution and then assigning them granular permission policies allows you to safely access secure resources without having to authenticate as a privileged account. By using IAM, you can create precisely scoped identities with the minimum set of permissions they require, limiting the risk if an identity is compromised. IAM also makes it harder to execute attacks against identities by enforcing authentication requirements and providing visibility into access attempts. For example, IAM tools typically integrate with cloud provider audit tools like Google Cloud Audit Logs and AWS CloudTrail to write detailed logs for each access event that occurs.

Comparing CIEM and IAM

CIEM and IAM look similar at first glance—they both provide identity management controls, let you enforce access policies, and allow you to monitor how identities are being used. They help you properly secure your cloud resources and maintain any audit and compliance requirements that apply.

Where CIEM and IAM differ is in the environments they support. Whereas IAM is a versatile strategy for managing identity authentication and authorization, CIEM adds a cloud-native layer that unifies different IAM implementations to provide robust multi-cloud identity management and risk detection. This includes the ability to detect exposed credentials, catalog cloud misconfigurations, and produce holistic recommendations for tightening your identity protections.

Here's a breakdown of how CIEM and IAM compare on key points:

Comparison pointCIEMIAM
ObjectiveManage identities and entitlements across cloud environmentsManage identities and their privileges within specific environments
Use caseEnforce consistent identity controls for multi-cloud and hybrid cloud architecturesEnforce identity authentication requirements and prevent unauthorized resource access
What it protects againstCloud misconfigurations, coverage gaps, privilege escalation, unauthorized access, and forgotten accounts and identitiesUnauthorized access and privilege escalation
Visibility and monitoringEnables unified visibility across all the infrastructure providers you useOffers visibility into activity associated with a specific set of identities
Compliance supportAllows you to maintain centralized compliance and auditability across your infrastructure, including for cloud configuration requirementsFacilitates governance of identity provisioning and privilege assignment

Should I use CIEM or IAM?

The decision whether to use CIEM or IAM comes down to how heavily you rely on cloud infrastructure. CIEM and IAM are complementary technologies, with CIEM adding critical capabilities for multi-cloud and hybrid cloud scenarios. But if you're only working with a single provider, then you might be able to use IAM without a CIEM solution—provided you accept the possibility that rule duplication and misconfiguration could occur later if you start using other providers too.

Because each cloud platform has its own IAM solution, misconfigurations can easily arise when you’re manually managing IAM identities and policies in multi-cloud cloud environments. CIEM addresses this issue by providing centralized visibility and control for identities across all your cloud infrastructure and resources, including ephemeral endpoints like containers and serverless functions.

Including CIEM in your cloud native application protection platform (CNAPP) ensures you'll be protected against the risks posed by over-privileged, forgotten, or compromised identities. Wiz is a complete CNAPP solution that includes CIEM capabilities to enforce least-privilege cloud access, analyze how permissions are used, and prevent accidental exposure caused by incorrectly configured IAM policies. Our industry-leading, all-in-one solution also supports a comprehensive set of CSPM features that proactively detect and remediate potential cloud configuration issues, further reducing your attack surface.

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