Redesigning access controls for IAM deployments?

A few weeks ago I read an article in Network World, entitled “A common theme in identity and access management failure: lack of Active Directory optimization”. Essentially, it is about the fact that Microsoft Active Directory (AD) commonly needs some redesign when starting an IAM (Identity and Access Management) project. Maybe yes, and maybe no.

In fact, it is common that immature, chaotic, or even “too mature” (e.g. many years of administrative work leaving their traces with no one cleaning up) access control approaches in target systems impose a challenge when connecting them to an IAM (and Governance) system. However, there are two points to consider:

  1. This is not restricted to AD, it applies to any target system.
  2. It must not be allowed to lead to failures in your IAM deployment.

I have frequently seen this issue with SAP environments, unless they already have undergone a restructuring, e.g. when implementing SAP Access Control (formerly SAP GRC Access Control). In fact, the more complex the target system and the older it is, the more likely it is that the structure of access controls, be they roles or groups or whatever, is anything but perfect.

There is no doubt that redesign of the security model is a must in such situations. The question is just about “when” this should happen (as Jonathan Sander, the author of the article mentioned above, also states). In fact, if we would wait for all these security models to be redesigned, we probably never ever would see an IAM program succeeding. Some of these redesign projects take years – and some (think about mainframe environments) probably never will take place. Redesigning the security model of an AD or an SAP environment is a quite complex project by itself, despite all the tools supporting this.

Thus, organizations typically will have to decide about the order of projects. Should they push their IAM initiative or do the groundwork first? There is no single correct answer to that question. Frequently, IAM projects are so much under pressure that they have to run first.

However, this must not end in the nightmare of a failing project. The main success factor for dealing with these situations is having a well thought-out interface between the target systems and the IAM infrastructure for exposing entitlements from the target systems to IAM. At the IAM level, there must be a concept of roles (or at least a well thought-out concept for grouping entitlements). And there must be a clear definition of what is exposed from target systems to the IAM system. That is quite easy for well-structured target systems, where, for instance, only global groups from AD or business roles from SAP might become exposed, becoming the smallest unit of entitlements within IAM. These might appear as “system roles” or “system-level roles” (or whatever term you choose) in IAM.

Without that ideal security model in the target systems, there might not be that single level of entitlements that will become exposed to the IAM environment (and I’m talking about requests, not about the detailed analysis as part of Entitlement & Access Governance which might include lower levels of entitlements in the target systems). There are two ways to solve that issue:

  1. Just define these entitlements, i.e. global groups, SAP business roles, etc. first as an additional element in the target system, map them to IAM, and then start the redesign of the underlying infrastructure later on.
  2. Or accept the current structure and invest more in mappings of system roles (or whatever term you use) to the higher levels of entitlements such as IT-functional roles and business roles (not to mix up with SAP business roles) in your IAM environment.

Both approaches work and, from my experience, if you understand the challenge and put your focus on the interface, you will be quickly able to identify the best way to handle the challenge of executing your IAM program while still having to redesign the security model of target systems later on. In both cases, you will need a good understanding of the IAM-level security model (roles etc.) and you need to enforce this model rigidly – no exceptions here.

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