Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is Logical/Physical Convergence the Next Big Thing in IAM?

Traditional identity and access management describes the processes, systems and policies that are used to identify individuals to information systems, control what privileges they have, and what they are doing with those privileges. By now, this is all well understood.

But why should IAM be restricted only to systems? For most large organizations, the need to control physical access to secure facilities and locations is every bit as relevant to a holistic security strategy as controlling access to applications and data. Corporations spend millions of dollars on physical security systems such as CCTV, electronic barriers and identification cards, designed to prevent unauthorized personnel from accessing restricted areas. Typically, these systems are centrally managed by a Corporate Security department, so that individuals are only granted the physical access required of their jobs, and any attempted security breaches can be immediately detected.

You see where I'm going with this, right? Conceptually, physical security represents the most basic IAM use case. One could almost think of buildings as applications and areas within those buildings as fine-grained entitlements, and the paradigm for physical security is identical to that of I.T. security. Once you make that connection, there is no reason why physical security could not be assigned using RBAC. Indeed, most commercial physical security systems already provide for role-based access.

Yet, for some inexplicable reason, physical and logical security are still generally viewed as two separate disciplines, which makes no sense to me. I suspect this is because in most organizations, I.T. Security and Corporate Security are distinct organizations, and there is often very little cross-pollenation between the two. IAM vendors, for their part, clearly haven't felt any pressing need to address this gap, and still focus almost exclusively on managing access to I.T. systems.

Some of the advantages to logical/physical convergence seem glaringly obvious:
  • Reduced TCO achieved by centralized management of all access policies, instead of having to maintain separate systems and processes for logical and physical access.
  • Greater compliance with regulatory mandates such as HSPD-12, GLBA, SOX and FIPS-201.
  • Streamlined offboarding processes, which is particularly important when dealing with a sensitive termination scenario.
  • Smartcards can serve a dual purpose of granting physical access to corporate facilities and providing a second factor of authentication to sensitive systems and data.
Of course, a converged IAM offering would need to be sold in a different manner from traditional IAM solutions. In many cases, IAM products are pitched at the Director/VP level of an I.T. organization, and sometimes at an even lower level than that, particularly when the solution is being acquired to address an urgent tactical need. But only a CIO, CEO, CTO or CCO usually has the appropriate authority over both I.T. and Corporate Security to appreciate the value of a converged offering, and has the political muscle to mandate its implementation. This is yet another reason, as I've argued before, why IAM needs to be positioned more as a corporate governance asset than a back-office I.T. function.

From a technical standpoint, supporting logical/physical convergence should not require a significant re-engineering effort for most IAM vendors. So I find myself asking, why hasn't this happened so far, and who will be the first to address the gap?

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