While you are probably using IAM and CIAM at work and home, you might not know what they are or what the difference is, but you are not alone. In this blog, we will define IAM and CIAM, and help you understand the key differences.
Identity management is a discipline or activity with the overarching goal of enabling network entities (individuals and devices) to access resources where permitted. It’s a critical, complex topic with lots of moving parts and acronyms to keep track of.
Customer identity and access management (CIAM) is for managing your IT services’ external consumer identities. In contrast, workforce identity (IAM) is concerned with those internal to your organization.
You might be more familiar with IAM under the label “enterprise authentication.” CIAM and IAM share much of their underlying functionality, such as authentication, authorization, and directory services (identity repositories). But the needs and use cases of CIAM are completely different from IAM. In this article, we’ll explore the important differences between CIAM and IAM.
IAM, also called work force identity management, is for internal organization use cases is typically a minor task, supporting thousands of identities rather than the massive number of users accessing public websites. Because revenue drives CIAM, it must focus on a positive user experience. IAM, in contrast, is about internal operational efficiency. It’s driven by the IT department’s need to reduce support costs while increasing security. The main goal is to grant employees the access necessary to carry out their roles within the bounds of organizational policies.
Organizations are less likely to adopt users’ own identities from consumer credential service providers (CSPs) such as Google and Facebook for internal systems. Instead, they’ll choose to maintain ownership of user data themselves, including access lifecycle management and identity verification. The latter is typically a more straightforward undertaking than establishing trust relationships when working with CIAM.
Processes that involve human input, which is easily manageable at the recruitment pace of most organizations, handle onboarding and other IT support operations.
Large organizations tend to have granular authorization levels in place, and IAM systems have evolved to match. In this respect, an IAM has the advantage over CIAM, where complex access privileges are less common.
Many people believe IAM to be the slower sibling of CIAM. This might be true with some existing enterprise solutions. But it is not typical of services offered by modern identity and access management as a service (IAMaaS) providers.
You can find out more about workforce identity management on CyberArk’s Workforce Identity page.
Customer IAM is concerned with identities external to your organization. We usually refer to these external identities as customers or consumers. These can be people, devices, or APIs.
CIAM is ubiquitous across all publicly available websites that authenticate users. Where it differs from IAM most is in regards to user experience (UX). Most customers don’t expect to complete training just to access your services. There are high expectations to provide a familiar, accessible user experience. Actions that are typically laborious, such as registration and multi-factor authentication, should be quick and easy.
CIAM often requires more flexibility in authentication options. This allows it to cater to more diverse use cases. Keys, tokens, and certificates are just a few examples. Customers can also expect to use their existing digital identities, also known as Bring Your Own Identity (BYOI), such as those from Facebook and Google. Anything that helps a new user access your service and avoids frustration is going to boost retention.
Much of the CIAM process is self-service, meaning that users drive activities like registration instead of an organization’s IT or HR teams. Also, there is typically a requirement to involve the user in privacy and consent operations through the UI.
You can find out more about customer identity management on CyberArk’s Customer Identity page.
Why Not Build Your Own?
Before we delve deeper into the two main options, it is worthwhile considering a common question: Why not build your own access management system?
Identity management encompasses all of your policies and practices for both authentication and authorization. These policies and practices are crucial because they underpin any organization’s security. We want to avoid security breaches, which result in an entity gaining unauthorized access to our system. Effective identity management plays a big part in mitigating the risk of these sorts of incidents.
We need to weigh all the risks and benefits of building an identity management system, as there are many challenges and pitfalls. These include ongoing maintenance costs, responding to new vulnerabilities, changing standards, complying with complex regulations governing privacy, and working with relatively limited functionality.
There are two different identity services that an IAMaaS provider offers:
- Workforce Identity is an IAM service aimed at supporting organizational workforces.
- Customer Identity is a CIAM solution tailored for organizations with a digital presence.
To learn more about CyberArk Identity, check out the CyberArk Identity developer program.
There are many similarities between CIAM and IAM, and some nuances as well. The distinctions we’ve covered above might impact your choice. CIAM and IAM share much of their underlying functionality. This means that whatever you feel is appropriate is what you should use. You’ll still get the core benefits such as secure system access and DevOps pipelines for both people and devices and defense against cyber-attacks.
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John Walsh has served the realm as a lord security developer, product manager and open source community manager for more than 15 years, working on cybersecurity products such as Conjur, LDAP, Firewall, JAVA Cyptography, SSH, and PrivX. He has a wife, two kids, and a small patch of land in the greater Boston area, which makes him ineligible to take the black and join the Knight’s Watch, but he’s still an experienced cybersecurity professional and developer.