Identity management best practice planning

Access & Identity Management Handbook 2011 Access Control & Identity Management

Best practices, insights and recommendations. A Novell technical white paper.

Given its complexity, breadth, implications and importance, the phrase 'do not attempt this at home' might well apply to identity management deployment. But the truth is most organisations today do not have much choice other than to proceed. The privacy, security, compliance and business governance challenges that many organisations face today make identity programmes essential.

Add to this the potential to create business value by improving efficiencies and automating business processes, and there is more than ample justification for investing in identity management (IDM).

As the famous philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” There are many forks in the road along the path to an identity management solution, represented by a host of decisions that must be made in order to deploy successfully as well as to gain the available business benefits.

The limited length of this paper does not permit discussion of the many possible areas of identity management best practice. Instead, we will attempt to create awareness of the IDM best practice planning areas that we consider essential. In the process, we will describe how these planning factors can account for differences between leading and below average identity programmes.

Where practical, we will illustrate some of these factors with examples, criteria and suggested approaches. Our goal is simply to inform decision-makers and sponsors of enterprise-grade identity management (or for short, IDM) programmes about the benefits of best practice identity management planning and increase awareness of the associated (and unfortunately not-so-obvious) pitfalls of failing to do so.

Our experience (formed while working with literally hundreds of IDM clients) reveals that the organisations that are most successful with identity management are those that follow 'best practice' methods and approaches in their planning of identity technology initiatives.

Best practice is easily aspired to, but is fairly difficult to accomplish – for a variety of reasons. Two key reasons are: first, identity management touches so many parts of the organisation, within IT and beyond; and, second, IDM must integrate with diverse areas and components of the technical infrastructure. These two realities can make it difficult to create the support and degree of consensus required for a successful identity management programme. These two issues aside, there are many other challenges that necessitate best practice planning.

A working definition of identity management 'best practice' may be helpful at this point: “Methods, approaches and capabilities that are leading edge and/or that maximise the probability of successful identity and security management programme implementation and business benefit capture.”

Stages of IDM maturity

Although best practice identity management is a desirable goal, it is a status that can realistically be achieved only in stages. That is, the level of IDM 'maturity' at which the organisation finds itself in essence determines the degree of best practice that can be expected and experienced at that stage of programme maturity. That being said, using best practice approaches and technology early on greatly affects an organisation’s ability to achieve best practice capabilities in subsequent stages of maturity.

The 'Identity Services Maturity Continuum' shown in Figure 1 illustrates typical enterprise capabilities by stage.

Figure 1. Stages of identity management maturity
Figure 1. Stages of identity management maturity

At the beginning of 2008, we estimate that most organisations (50% or so) are still in the basic-foundational stages of IDM deployment, while only 30% are in the enhanced or advanced stages. Some have yet to begin in any serious way with a real programme. This is a meaningful observation because it is primarily during the enhanced and advanced maturity stages of IDM deployment that organisations will realise the significant ROI that can come from identity technologies.

So the challenge is to move adroitly from basic to enhanced, and then to advanced maturity stages. While that may seem logical, in practice moving from one stage to the next can be daunting. Our experience has shown that a reliable predictor of such progress is the observability of multiple best practice techniques and approaches during both planning and deployment of IDM capabilities.

Categories of IDM best practice

Our experience with IDM initiatives has revealed seven basic categories of best practice planning to be aware of throughout all stages of programme maturity:

1. Identity strategy and organisational positioning.

2. Future-state 'identity services' architecture definition.

3. Best-in-class identity services technologies and functionality.

4. Business benefit definition and quantification.

5. Identity services initiative road mapping.

6. Planning for implementation competence.

7. Identity services governance.

Each of these categories can by itself make a difference in the quality and success of an IDM deployment. But taken together, achieving best practice in all of these seven areas has tremendous potential to impact the outcome of any IDM programme.

Best Practice 1: Identity strategy and organisational positioning

Identity management initiatives frequently suffer from a lack of broad organisational understanding and support. The reasons for this typically include one or more of the following:

* Lack of education about identity-related technologies and capabilities.

* Poor understanding of programme benefits.

* Point solutions being pursued (rather than enterprise enablement).

* IT sponsorship vs. business sponsorship.

* Lack of realistic business case to justify investments; lack of budget.

* Reluctance of some system/data owners.

* Slow deployment; failure to show rapid value or benefit capture.

* Technical complexity and IDM software product issues.

* Divided opinions about technology/vendor selection.

A key issue is often that an enterprise-wide executive level understanding of how identity management will add value to the business does not exist. Frequently, IT or IT security functions begin deploying limited IDM capabilities that benefit their functions, such as user directory integration or automated account creation, but that do not necessarily benefit the business as a whole. Another example is when the finance/audit department wants the capability to monitor access, but few if any other areas of the business will benefit.

These are hard problems that most organisations we have worked with have had to address. What works is a well-defined identity strategy that takes these problems into account ahead of time. It is also useful to always keep the big picture of benefits and capabilities in view; that way the inevitable challenges that arise are kept in context.

Rather than focusing on just one or two favoured point solutions, it is best to define a more comprehensive, enterprise-level identity services programme and strategy. An identity services strategy recognises and plans for a full range of identity capabilities that will drive benefits across multiple areas of the business, thus creating support for an initiative that can be positioned in a more strategic, value-producing way.

An identity services strategy considers many ways the business will leverage and benefit from its IDM infrastructure, including physical security, logical security, asset accountability, compliance, risk mitigation, partner enablement and so on. Because of this broader range of potential capabilities and benefits, a certain amount of internal education is usually necessary to help key stakeholders understand how foundational an identity management infrastructure can be to the business. In fact, an identity management foundation is fundamental to support and enable security, and to risk management, compliance and governance programmes of all types. As an understanding of these critical capabilities develops, broader support for identity management also occurs.

And, even if budgets are small, or the organisation wants to proceed cautiously with identity management, defining enterprise level value and strategies up front is highly beneficial to avoid stalling out as the IDM initiative progresses.

Best Practice 2: Future-state identity services architecture definition

Many organisations have embarked on identity management initiatives and projects without understanding the implications for their larger enterprise infrastructure and architecture. This is especially common in organisations where limited function or point solutions are deployed. Repercussions of 'deploying without architecting' include the potential for implementing technologies that are not standards based (and therefore do not integrate properly with future infrastructure elements), or selecting technologies that will not interoperate with all required existing systems successfully.

Figure 2. Identity services defined
Figure 2. Identity services defined

Best practice, on the other hand, means defining and documenting both a short-term and a longer-term, future-state identity architecture for the enterprise. This proactively created future architecture should be identity services comprehensive, incorporating but not necessarily limited to the following:

* HR systems.

* Service directories.

* Metadirectory, or identity vault.

* Access management system.

* Identity management provisioning system.

* E-mail system.

* File and print services.

* Network; intranet.

* Remote access.

* Telephone system.

* Mainframes.

* Badge system for physical facilities access.

* Databases.

* Helpdesk system.

* ERP systems.

* Document management system.

* Roles management system.

* Portals, and so on. . .

The future-state architecture should define how the identity services infrastructure will integrate with each of these systems as well as any other systems that will be authoritative for identity attributes. The architecture will define how the various systems will synchronise, protect and audit identity data.

A best practice, future-state identity services architecture generally conforms to multiple desired architectural characteristics, including:

* Service oriented.

* Standards based.

* Flexible and interoperable.

* Loosely coupled.

* Secure.

* Appropriately redundant.

* Scalable.

* Efficient.

A best practice identity services architecture is designed in such a way as to accommodate immediate needs and enable short-term identity and security functionality requirements. But its design must also anticipate and provide for future capabilities (both known and unknown) as well as acknowledge the need for growth and scalability over time. Among the identity-related capabilities to be enabled by the architecture are:

* Centralised identity store or metadirectory.

* Identity data synchronisation.

* Reduced or single sign-on.

* Distributed ownership of identity data and permissions.

* Automated provisioning.

* Roles-based provisioning.

* Workflow-based provisioning.

* Integrated physical and logical access control.

* Policy-based roles management.

* Identity federation.

* Compliance monitoring and reporting.

* Zero-day start; zero-day stop.

Among architectural best practices, key (and frequently overlooked) is the design and deployment of a centralised 'identity vault' that functions as the hub of a well-planned hub-and-spoke directory architecture.

The identity vault is the 'central nervous system' or metadirectory that synchronises and manages identity attributes from other authoritative, trusted sources and shares them with other consuming directories and applications. This is the foundational element of an identity services infrastructure. In its absence, deploying advanced identity-related capabilities becomes problematic.

A best practice identity architecture is service-oriented, meaning that identity capabilities such as those mentioned previously are available to the enterprise as a service that is accessible to a variety of applications, systems and user constituencies. It is this service orientation that accounts for many of the business efficiencies that can be accomplished by a well-designed identity services infrastructure.

For some organisations, deploying a service-oriented identity services architecture is a logical step toward SOA (service-oriented architectures) in general, because the identity architecture can be a good example of how SOA should work.

Best Practice 3: Best-in-class identity services technologies and functionality

Best-in-class technologies are in and of themselves best practice when it comes to designing identity management solutions. IT departments often start down the path of IDM deployment using the technologies they are most familiar with only to realise later that the products selected are not capable of the functionality that is needed in subsequent phases. Or they find that the products selected initially do not integrate well with other systems or will not scale as required.

These organisations then stall in their effort to move from the basic to more advanced stages of IDM maturity where more visible benefits and ROI occur. This problem can be averted by choosing best-in-class technologies.

When scanning for best-in-class IDM technology components, Gartner’s Leaders Quadrant evaluations are a good place to begin identification of potentially useful identity and security-related technologies. But the Gartner criteria of 'ability to execute' and 'completeness of vision' are a bit too high level to compare against specific business needs.

In our experience, best-in-class technologies or products will exhibit several or preferably all of these characteristics:

1. Unique or superior functionality when compared with other products.

2. Ease or simplicity of integration; less need for customisation.

3. High levels of interoperability with other solution components and/or connected systems.

4. Ability to scale to meet future needs or requirements, known or unknown.

5. Low cost of ongoing use.

These criteria should be considered when choosing between commercially available software or when having custom or internally developed technologies designed. In a best practice identity services infrastructure, the full range of needed identity infrastructure components should be evaluated by applying the best-in-class technology characteristics cited previously. Components to consider include:

* Metadirectory.

* Log-in management.

* Access management.

* Identity management and provisioning.

* Roles management.

* Logging, auditing, reporting (compliance).

To provide an illustration of a technology comparison analysis, the metadirectory component is used as an example for comparing multiple directory products (see Figure 3). In our example, specific product/technology characteristics and capabilities are judged to be either:

1. Best-in-Class (or advanced).

2. At Parity—with capabilities exhibited by products in this category.

3. Lagging—compared with capabilities exhibited by products in this category.

Figure 3. Metadirectories: key functionality/capability analysis
Figure 3. Metadirectories: key functionality/capability analysis

This type of analysis can be done for the characteristics of each component of the practice infrastructure. Of course, IDM functionality requirements vary from one organisation to another.

Another factor to consider when selecting technology is that some vendors have assembled their IDM technology components from acquisitions rather than developing them internally. This means that although the various components may perform well separately, when integrated together they either do not perform well, are costly to integrate or both.

When analysing technologies, role-based access control as well as audit/compliance technologies merit special mention because so few organisations have achieved mature capability in these areas.

Role-based access control capability

In organisations that are more advanced with identity programmes, there is rapidly increasing interest in role-based access control (RBAC). RBAC is an approach to policy-driven user provisioning and access control. It is important because it improves security and compliance, while at the same time reducing IT administration costs.

RBAC capability is becoming more common within application suites. Major application vendors such as SAP and Oracle are already using RBAC to manage user access rights within the scope of their applications. However, the real enterprise transforming potential of RBAC is its ability to manage access rights, or permissions, across many applications.

Integrated IDM and security information and event management systems

In today’s enterprise, there is an inordinate emphasis on compliance with government regulations, not to mention the numerous governance requirements imposed internally. In most organisations, the technologies that enable compliance-related tasks and activities such as monitoring, logging and reporting of security events operate completely separately from the identity management infrastructure.

In a best practice identity environment, the identity and security systems are integrated to enable a more robust set of compliance capabilities. These capabilities are able to reliably detect and take action on issues such as:

* Separation of duties violations.

* Unauthorised system administrator activity.

* User provisioning violations.

* Critical file access violations.

* Exploit detection.

* Real-time attack detection.

* Unauthorised access.

* Business policy violations, and so on.

Best Practice 4: Business ­benefit definition and quantification

A frequent barrier to adoption of identity management within organisations is the absence of a clear business case that defines and quantifies the financial benefits of identity initiatives in a format that is meaningful and persuasive to key executives. In the absence of clear financial data, executives tend to view IDM initiatives strictly as a cost issue, rather than as an ROI-producing activity. For this reason, best practice IDM planning includes development of an organisation-specific business case that considers all relevant costs and benefits associated with the initiative.

A thorough business benefit analysis for IDM focuses not just on benefits that accrue to the IT and security functions, but also identifies benefits that are achievable within business operating units. This means that business initiatives that could potentially benefit from identity services enablement should be investigated to determine the financial value of such enablement. For example, in a large benefits management company, the identity services solution is being used to dramatically shorten the time required to reassign and reprovision client data access for customer service personnel. At the same time, it is also validating the security clearance of these representatives so as not to violate client confidentiality commitments. This secure, automated access provisioning capability has delivered considerable financial benefit to the business unit.

Of course, not all business benefits are quantifiable, so it is also reasonable and appropriate to include such benefits as user satisfaction or time savings in the analysis, even if they are not quantifiable.

A well-implemented identity services initiative is capable of delivering meaningful benefits in a combination of ways, such as:

* Cost avoidance (reducing planned future expenditures).

* Cost reduction (reducing existing costs).

* Time, productivity and process improvements.

* User convenience and satisfaction and complaint reduction.

* Sales and revenue improvement (customer facing initiatives).

* Security and compliance enhancement.

The key is to understand which benefits in each of these categories apply to specific user groups, functions or business units across the enterprise. Then you can calculate the magnitude of the financial benefit over time.

Best Practice 5: Identity services initiative road mapping

There are typically multiple identity initiatives or projects that need to be implemented once an overall identity strategy has been defined and the business benefits have been established. Experience has shown that there is normally uncertainty (or even internal competition) about the priorities of these initiatives.

Best practice for these decisions is represented by an identity services deployment roadmap. Considering business need, business value, technical dependencies and prerequisites, resource availability, budgets and other factors, an implementation roadmap should be developed that defines the preferred, optimal and agreed upon path forward for identity programme implementation.

The identity services roadmap becomes the agreed plan for implementing the future-state identity architecture over time as outlined previously.

The roadmap is typically laid out for an 18 to 24 month period. Once finalised, it serves as the guidepost against which more detailed planning can be done and implementation progress can be monitored. Because identity programmes touch so many of the organisation’s systems, the roadmap becomes a valuable planning and communications tool for all those involved, as well as a coordination mechanism for avoiding duplication of effort and overlapping technologies (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Identity services roadmap – example
Figure 4. Identity services roadmap – example

Best Practice 6: Planning for implementation competence

Although thoughtful planning and road mapping are key predictors of success, they do not guarantee successful implementation. The breadth and depth of coordination required to successfully implement IDM capabilities demands strong programme management skills and tools. Typically, IDM implementations are characterised by multiple tracks or projects being underway simultaneously, with numerous interdependencies. This requires implementation oversight and coordination beyond management of discrete projects. Organisations need to view IDM implementations as a programme with the necessary levels of visibility and authority to span multiple projects.

Competent implementation means that the individuals responsible for deploying IDM capabilities are appropriately skilled in their new roles and technologies. This may require that skills assessments and corresponding training plans be in place early, well before any advanced identity services capabilities are scheduled to go live. Implementation competence also means addressing business process change and technology change in parallel, not as separate issues.

Best Practice 7: Identity services governance

The very same issues that make identity initiatives difficult to advance in organisations (for example, many organisational areas being affected and involved; a large number of systems to integrate) make it necessary to provide governance to guide the overall programme, ensuring that it is properly sponsored and managed. At its most basic, governance means creating the structure, processes and policies required to keep the initiative in line with the organisation’s expectations and plans. Governance provides appropriate oversight, ensuring steady, co-ordinated progress. It will also provide a mechanism for cross-functional involvement and decision making. What takes governance beyond the realm of traditional programme management is its ongoing nature and its focus on continuous improvement.

At a practical level, there are varied constituencies (as well as risks) that need to be considered as part of an identity services governance plan. Best practice identity governance is a priority from the beginning and is ongoing. Governance must focus on both the business and technology domains of the identity equation. Representative issues and topics are illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Identity services governance
Figure 5. Identity services governance


Identity services deployment is a challenging journey for any organisation, but it is a journey made considerably less risky and with eminently more impact when undertaken in a well-orchestrated manner. Our experience convinces us that shortcutting the IDM planning disciplines described here frequently results in less than desired rates of progress toward the more advanced stages of programme maturity and resulting ROI.

We assert with considerable confidence that the best, most effective identity management programmes will be those that benefit from best practice planning approaches.

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