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AWS IAM: Full Guide with Features, Benefits, and Pros and Cons

AWS Amazon Web Services

AWS IAM: Full Guide with Features, Benefits, and Pros and Cons

You’re probably here because you’re wondering what AWS IAM is. IAM stands for Identity and Access Management, and though this might not sound like the flashiest of the AWS products, it is a critical one. As the name suggests, AWS IAM is basically the clearance checkpoint standing between individual users and your organization’s suite of AWS resources. 

By providing a centralized way to manage user access and permissions to AWS resources, IAM helps you put safeguards in place to prevent users within your organization from meddling with data, applications, or functions that fall beyond the scope of their role. IAM lets you get pretty granular with setting access and permissions policies. It’s also highly scalable so that no matter how large and complex your organization gets, you can easily maintain access and privileges across your workforce. 

We strongly feel that AWS IAM is essential for any larger or even mid-size organization using multiple AWS resources. If this product doesn’t interest you, then we hope that you can count the number of people who work at your company on both hands. Otherwise, read on to find out everything you need to know about using IAM! 

6 Must-know Facts about AWS IAM

  • Amazon IAM is an Identity and Access Management tool that helps you control who can access your organization’s resources and the parameters under which users can access these resources. 
  • IAM lets you articulate numerous policies with JSON so that you can achieve granularity in defining identity types and the permissions that go along with those. 
  • IAM provides high flexibility by giving you the freedom to define identities based on either individual users, entire groups, or specific roles. 
  • The IAM Analyzer delivers ongoing monitoring of the performance and effectiveness of your policies, giving you the insight to ensure your ecosystem moves towards “least privilege.” 
  • AWS IAM works with all major AWS resources—and even some non-AWS products, such as Salesforce and Microsoft 365. 
  • IAM is free to use. All you need is an Amazon account to start using it. 
largest cybersecurity companies

AWS IAM is a service that helps securely manage access to AWS resources in your organization.

What is AWS IAM: Explained

It’s important to understand that using Identity and Access Management is not quite the same thing as using a data security service. Both are vital to ensuring the integrity of your cloud computing systems, but they do different things. Security features protect information and applications from intrusion or interference from bad actors. AWS IAM, on the other hand, helps you specify who can access certain services and how they can interact with those services. 

At the most basic level, IAM is all about creating “identities” and then assigning customizable permissions to those identities. Here, when we say identity, we’re talking about users, groups, or roles. In other words, people or teams within your organization. When you set permissions to these identities, you’re ensuring that each user is only able to access the services, resources, and information that is pertinent to their job. 

Say, for instance, your company uses a data visualization tool to keep track of business metrics. You want your salespeople to be able to see the data. But to protect your system integrity, you only want your data analysts to be able to manipulate or update the data. Well, with AWS IAM, you can easily set policies that would limit the sales team to only being able to view the data, while the analytics team would have permission to edit the data. 

That’s one basic example to give you an idea of IAM’s main function. But in reality, the identity and access management game gets much more granular than that. And AWS IAM is equipped to handle all the nuances of attribute-based access control. IAM does plenty of other useful things as well, such as facilitating multi-factor authentication and granting temporary security credentials to trusted identities so that a user gets timed out. 

The following video from Amazon Web Services provides a succinct overview of AWS IAM in just 1:17 minutes:

IAM Identity Center

Think of this as the hub where you produce and set up connections for workforce identities and oversee their access across different AWS resources. In the Identity Center, you perform all the necessary administrative functions that ensure the entire lifecycle of identity and access management runs smoothly. 

The Identity Center is where you assign user permissions based on parameters that make sense within your organization. This is also where you can set up single sign-on authentication for users across various Amazon cloud services—including popular non-AWS apps like Salesforce and Microsoft 365. 

1Password vs LastPass

You assign user permissions through the Identity Center based on organizational parameters.

Access Analyzer

The IAM Access Analyzer is designed to keep your AWS resources moving towards “least privilege”—meaning that identities only have the permissions necessary to perform their roles. The Analyzer helps you achieve the least privilege in three steps. 

First, the analyzer recommends nuanced permissions policies based on access activity recorded in your logs. It also helps you test-run these policies before making them active. 

Second, the analyzer helps verify your policies once they’re deployed. In other words, it checks to make sure that your permissions policies are actually functioning as intended. 

As a final step, the analyzer will surface data about when a service was last used, and by whom, so that you can continuously fine-tune permissions in your AWS ecosystem. 

The best part of all: the analyzer repeats all these processes for as long as you continue to engage with AWS resources. As it’s understood that your workforce and technical projects will always evolve, this makes perfect sense.

Fine-Grained Access Control 

AWS IAM comes with various permissions- and role-management features designed to customize access management to the fullest possible extent. IAM allows you to articulate access policies both at the identity level and the resource level, thereby putting multiple levers in place to manage access. 

Conveniently, you can also attach attributes to IAM identities—such as department or job role—so that you don’t have to bother updating policies whenever you add a new resource. 

For even further nuance, IAM also comes pre-loaded with “preventive guardrails” that act as boundaries placed on individual IAM roles as they move through your AWS network of services. Such guardrails include service control policies, permissions boundaries, session policies, and data perimeters. With guardrails in place, you could enable an identity to access a resource, but only certain parts within that resource that you deem necessary for their role. 

How to use AWS IAM

To get started with AWS IAM, you need to make sure you’re registered with an AWS account. If you already do have an account, you can start using the service by enabling it from your console. For unfettered use of IAM, though, you’ll need to have a root account—only root users can perform functions with completely unrestricted access. 

If you’re worrying about any surprise bills from using this service, don’t be. IAM is available to AWS users free of charge. All you have to do is enable it. 

Once you’re signed into your account, and your IAM Management Console is fired up, you can get started with fine-tuning access policies across your organization! Keep in mind that once you integrate various AWS resources, IAM will assume that users do not have access to those resources until you explicitly grant users permission. 

You’ll need to be strategic, then, about how you approach using IAM, which means you’ll probably need to learn a thing or two about working with IAM. Sound overwhelming? Don’t worry; in the next section, we’ll cover some of the basics behind learning to make the most out of IAM.  

How to learn AWS IAM

Learning how to manage resource access for an entire workforce of people can be fairly daunting, depending on the size and complexity of the organization. Even still, as a technology itself, IAM is an easy tool to learn how to use, and though it won’t eliminate all your headaches, it will make the job of managing access easier. 

Thankfully, AWS IAM comes with its own instruction manual—a series of documentation geared towards helping you be successful with the tool. There, you will find an introduction to IAM’s main functionality, use cases to inspire you, sample policy codes, and best practices for articulating policies. 

If reading how-to guides isn’t your bag, we’d recommend starting your learning journey with Amazon’s video tutorials. Granted, these tutorials are purely introductory. So, they won’t cover everything. They will prime you for further action, though. You can always find more advanced tutorials on YouTube. Once you set yourself up in the tool and are making your policies, you can always refer to the documentation for guidance for your problem. 

Lastly, if you want to get really granular with IAM, you need to be comfortable working with JSON—a simple scripting language that IAM uses to flesh out fine-grained identity-based and resource-based policies. Don’t let the “code” intimidate you, though, as it’s very beginner-friendly. 

If you have prior experience with a different programming language, all you’ll need are some of AWS’ sample templates to start with JSON right away. Although if you’re a programmer, you probably don’t need us to tell you that! 

AWS IAM: When is it Not The Best Choice?

Considering that it’s free to use, should that be incentive enough to use AWS IAM, or should it not? On top of that, though, AWS IAM comes with lots of useful features for achieving fine-grained and scalable least privilege across your organization. 

The only major drawback to this IAM is the fact that it’s not compatible with most non-AWS products. For this service to really pay dividends, AWS basically must be your exclusive vendor for all your software needs. 

If your organization prefers an a la carte tech stack that pulls from a variety of different applications and services, then AWS IAM probably wouldn’t be the best option for you. With that being the case, here are some alternative IAMs to consider. 

Okta Workforce Identity 

A top competitor to AWS IAM, Okta has carved out a strong niche for itself in the tech field’s identity management segment. Key to Okta’s success has been delivering consistently reliable security and being easy to use for both end users and the professionals who manage an organization’s Okta policies. 

Okta lets you quickly get up and running with single sign-on, multifactor authentication, and permissions rules. It’s also incredibly flexible, allowing you to integrate Okta with practically any application you can imagine. Unlike Amazon, though, it is not free. Expect to pay at least $2 per user per month when using this service. 

Azure Active Directory 

A Microsoft product, this is a great IAM option if your organization relies heavily upon the entire suite of 365 products. Beyond that, though, it’s more important to think about your organization’s specific makeup and needs. In that regard, Azure Active Directory is noted as being particularly geared towards corporations with a more traditional approach to IT—i.e., a mixture of on-site and cloud-based deployments. 

AAD also has some useful features that give it an edge over AWS in certain respects. For instance, AAD provides some pre-defined role types so that you can get started on your journey to least privilege even faster. AAD also provides greater capacity for creating custom role assignments. Along similar lines, it doesn’t have a character limit for writing policies with JSON. 

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure Active Directory might be a better choice if your company uses Office 365 products extensively.

AWS IAM: Release History

Amazon IAM rolled out in 2012, initially only providing identity and access management for AWS EC2—Elastic Cloud Computing. Since then, IAM has expanded to cover practically every AWS resource and even some services outside of Amazon—such as Salesforce and Microsoft 365 products. 

IAM’s functionality has also improved since its first iteration. In 2015, for instance, Amazon announced a new feature they called “Managed Policies” to replace the more redundancy-prone policy model that preceded it. Amazon said that managed policies would add a “level of indirection” to IAM by reimagining policies as objects that could be attached to multiple roles, groups, and users at the same time. 

Along with managed policies also came the introduction of a handful of predefined policies that Amazon found to be common across different organizations and use cases. Such policy templates include especially the division between “read-only” and “full access” permissions in a given application—a crucial policy for ensuring the integrity of data and software systems. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is AWS IAM?

AWS IAM stands for Amazon Web Services Identity and Access Management. It is a tool that controls who can access your organization’s resources and the parameters under which users can access these resources. It allows you to define access policies at a granular level, ensuring that each user is only able to access the services, resources, and information pertinent to their job.

How does AWS IAM work?

AWS IAM creates “identities”, which can be users, groups, or roles within your organization, and assigns customizable permissions to those identities. This way, it can limit a user’s access to resources based on their role in the organization. For instance, while a sales team can view data, only the analytics team would have permission to edit the data.

What are the 3 types of IAM principals?

The 3 main types of IAM principals are root users, IAM users, and instance.

What are the 4 components of IAM?

IAM comprises four crucial elements: identification, access control, user administration, and a unified user database.

What is IAM hierarchy?

IAM enables policy setting at four hierarchical levels: organization, representing your company where roles are inherited by all underlying resources; folder, where roles granted are passed down to contained projects or folders; project, serving as a trust boundary within your organization with inherited roles for resources within the project; and resource, which permits granular roles assignment to individual resources within a project.

What are the alternatives to AWS IAM?

Two key alternatives to AWS IAM are Okta Workforce Identity and Azure Active Directory. Okta provides robust security and is compatible with many applications. Azure Active Directory, a Microsoft product, is particularly suited to organizations that use the suite of 365 products and prefer a mix of on-site and cloud-based deployments.

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