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Privileged Account Management

Mar 12, 2009 by Martin Kuppinger

Over the course of the last few months, PAM (Privileged Account Management), also called PIM (Privileged Identity Management) or PUM (Privileged User Management) became increasingly popular. The main driving force behind this increase in popularity are the auditors, which more frequently look at the state of privileged accounts and, in many cases, detect and criticize shortcomings in that area.

Privileged accounts include administrative accounts (UNIX/Linux root accounts, Windows administrators), system accounts, service accounts, and technical users. It is important not to limit the scope of PAM to root account management. There are far more privileged accounts which have to be covered by PAM solutions. Privileged accounts are at high risk, because they have all or many or at least some sensitive access rights. And privileged accounts typically aren't personal user accounts but specific types of accounts which in some cases (root accounts, administrators, and to some degree technical users) are actively used by several users.

In fact it is a combination of three factors which puts privileged accounts at risk: The broad range of access controls assigned to this accounts (up to full access), the lack of a clear responsibility for these accounts and thus a reliable life cycle management, and the fact that at least some of these accounts are used by different people and thus the credentials tend to become common knowledge.

The vendors in the PAM space support different approaches to deal with these issues, including restricted access, automatically generated one-time passwords, and a better support for lifecycle management. Given the technical differences between operating systems, there have to be differences in the approaches. Over time, we will need (and we expect, from an analyst perspective) more comprehensive tools which support several of these approaches.

However, the current state of the PAM market shows that there is still a long way to go. There are several strong solutions as well for Unix/Linux as for Windows environments. But tools which support both "operating system worlds" are still missing. The integration with existing lifecycle management solutions (e.g. identity provisioning) is, if existing, typically week. PAM is, despite the fact that some of the point solutions are out for years, still sort of an emerging market. With the increasing awareness and increasing sales two things are very likely to happen:

  • Established vendors in the IAM space will start acquiring PAM specialists and integrate these tools with their existing offerings. Novell has been amongst the first with their Fortefi acquisition (correctly: the asset deal) and has a clear vision for integrating the new Novell Privileged User Management with other Novell offerings and to expand the functionality. Quest has as well a tool in its portfolio.
  • The feature sets of existing products will be enhanced. It is the typical phase of "feature comparison checklists" where vendors try to add some features which customers find valuable in competitive products. That as well will include an increasing support for as well Unix/Linux as Windows environments.
Despite the fact, that PAM still is sort of an emerging market with many smaller vendors, the risks associated with privileged accounts make it mandatory for many organizations to either invest in PAM or to expand their investments beyond some core systems (like the critical AIX or Solaris servers) to other platforms.

By the way: We'll provide a lot more information and thoughts around PAM in an upcoming webinar (German Language) as well as at our European Identity Conference in May.

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Martin Kuppinger
Founder and Principal Analyst
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