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To IAM or PAM – What Are the Differences and Which Is Better for Access Management?

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Almost everything comes down to identity. Every day, digital verification plays a crucial role in our ability to conduct commerce and access information online. It governs how we work and dictates our interactions with one another in a safe and secure manner.

In recent years, terms such as Identity and Access Management (IAM) and Privileged Access Management (PAM) have been used interchangeably. Sometimes, they’re interspersed alongside the greater umbrella term of “access management.” And while both IAM and PAM help to keep critical information and services safe from unwanted access, that is about where their similarities end.

IAM is a system of customizable rules and guidelines that – upon being integrated within an existing software platform – effectively dictates what, how, and to whom information and resources should be accessible.

PAM is actually a sub-category within Identity and Access Management. This software – which requires a bit more technical understanding – can actively orchestrate all aspects of logging into and viewing sensitive corporate data. It can juggle critical authenticators to determine – and, in many cases, extend – authorized access. According to CIO Insight, PAM is a “gatekeeper” for assigning “privileged access” to files. This software allows admins to restrict and control employee access, whether on a case-by-case basis or as part of an all-encompassing, tiered system.

These differences are, of course, surface level. There are many other subtle distinctions regarding IAM and PAM, and several considerations that go into choosing which – if not BOTH – as the superior option for your organization’s own specific needs.

1. Cost vs. Complexity

To simplify things: IAM is far more hands-off, and costs more per deployment.

An IAM system tends to provide more automated, less comprehensive coverage. Upon integrating it within your existing platform(s), Identity and Access Management tools provide a set of go-to rules to determine when an end user is approved to access sensitive materials, then grant admission to those who meet this criteria.

PAM can be a superior solution for the organization that has the resources (and understanding) to properly implement it. While a PAM deployment requires more involvement than traditional IAM, it offers a level of customization that is otherwise unseen. And it traditionally costs less.

2. Reliability

The standardized nature of an IAM can pave the way for misuse (best case) or ultimate security vulnerability (worst case), per CIO Insight.  Such potential holes are really the reason to implement an access-management system in the first place.

Meanwhile, 5.a PAM system tends to offer stronger access-control options, just by its nature. PAM installations and integrations are far more difficult to establish from the onset. This is balanced; however, by its ability to provide a more dependable – and ultimately safer – user experience in the long term.

3. Approach to Control

It all comes down to strategy. IAM offers more of a base layer of protection over logins, and is designed to restrict access to those in an approved tier.

PAM’s goal is to secure user interactions by tightening access to sensitive info. PAM helps to secure your infrastructure by offering levels of customizability … and more granular control over your users, their logins, their activity, and – once they’re logged in – their manipulation of assets. 

4. Hands-On Management

As it is more automated, an IAM system handles most aspects of access management – provisioning users, determining tiers and assigning access – to a degree. It holds your hand through these tasks, and thus is a superior option for organizations with limited technical understanding or resources to handle the pressure that the cybersecurity landscape presents.

PAM offers additional security elements that must be actively configured and managed, but are nonetheless more effective – when effectively deployed. With this type of system, user privilege is more strictly enforced.

5. Security

While IAM offers improved flexibility, PAM is regarded as more secure. It allows admins to gain significantly more hands-on control over their privileged usership.

6. Additional Areas

Again, both IAM and PAM have their distinct advantages over one another. Additional areas include:

  • Monitoring Access – IAM can establish and delete account access.
  • Password Management – PAM can handle passwords, promote server/database communication and adjust to other unique, sensitive aspects.
  • Administrative Functions – PAM supports network and server settings adjustments.
  • Visibility and Reporting – PAM delivers superior oversight in privileged access cases, beyond mere login.
  • Admin Monitoring – PAM can likewise audit the system administrator, in particular for auditor review.


If your enterprise can absorb the cost – and, face it, the price of network penetration can be far higher – than an all-encompassing IAM rollout can provide the base level of access management to keep potential attackers at bay, and keep your information safe.

It is rarely, however, a custom-fitted experience such as PAM.

If your account-management needs are in any way unique, or if you have the ability and tech know-how within your organization to turn to a custom PAM architecture to secure your access need, then you should do so. While PAM is the consensus winner among organizations with deeper security needs – and more detailed resources for handling these assets – it really comes down to your business’ own demand.

In many cases, going with a joint or hybrid identity and access AND privileged access management system is probably your best option. By implementing what CIO Insight calls “centralized tools,” you can gain streamlined access to the best of both worlds, with eased logins and network access reports among the potential benefits.

Through an IAM / PAM integration, the IAM can provide info to PAM that clearly establishes who has access for such sensitive tasks, while PAM lets users shift custom data to the IAM regarding tiered access.

No matter what you decide in terms of bottom-line security; however, you’ll be glad you gave it some thought.

As always, feel free to contact us anytime  – we’re always happy to help.


Meet the Author
Mike Dillon is Quest's Chief Technology Officer.
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