Microsoft identity acronyms—what do they mean and how do they relate to each other?

As a security advisor working with one to three Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) each week, the topic of identity comes up often. These are smart people who have often been in industry for decades. They have their own vocabulary of acronyms that only security professionals know such as DDoS, CEH, CERT, RAT, and 0-Day (if you don’t know one or several of these terms, I encourage you to look them up to build your vocabulary), but they often find themselves confused by Microsoft’s own set of acronyms.

This is the first in a blog series that aims to lessen some confusion around identity by sharing with you some of the terms used at Microsoft. Terms like MFA, PIM, PAM, MIM, MAM, MDM, and a few others. What do they mean and how do they relate to each other?

Multi-Factor Authentication or MFA

Let’s start with what identity means to Microsoft. Identity is the ability to clearly and without doubt ensure the identification of a person, device, location, or application. This is done by establishing trust verification and identity verification using what Microsoft calls Multi-Factor Authentication or MFA. This is a combination of capabilities that allow the entity to establish trust and verify who or what they are.

MFA is an authentication method in which a computer user is granted access only after successfully presenting two or more pieces of evidence (or factors) to an authentication mechanism: something the user and only the user knows (such as a password or PIN), something the user and only the user has (such as a mobile device or FIDO key), and something the user and only the user is (a biometric such as a fingerprint or iris scan).

Microsoft does this with technologies such as Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) in the cloud combined with Windows Hello. Azure AD is Microsoft’s identity and access management solution. Windows Hello is a Windows capability that allows a user to verify who they are with an image, a pin, or other biometric. The person’s identity is stored via an encrypted hash in the cloud, so it’s never shared in the clear (unencrypted). A cryptographic hash is a checksum that allows someone to proof that they know the original input (e.g., a password) and that the input (e.g., a document) has not been modified.

Privileged Identity Management or PIM

What is Privileged Identity Management or PIM? Organizations use PIM to assign, activate, and approve privileged identities in Azure AD. PIM provides time-based and approval-based role activation to mitigate the risks of excessive, unnecessary, or misused access permissions to sensitive resources.

Key features of PIM include:

  • Just-in-time privileged access to Azure AD and Azure resources.
  • Time-bound access to resources.
  • An approval process to activate privileged roles.
  • MFA enforcement.
  • Justification to understand why users activate.
  • Notifications when roles are activated.
  • Access reviews and internal and external audit history.

Privileged Access Management or PAM

What is Privileged Access Management or PAM? Often confused with PIM, PAM is a capability to help organizations manage identities for existing on-premises Active Directory environments. PAM is an instance of PIM that is accessed using Microsoft Identity Manager or MIM. Confused? Let me explain.

PAM helps organizations solve a few problems including:

  • Making it harder for attackers to penetrate a network and obtain privileged account access.
  • Adding protection to privileged groups that control access to domain-joined computers and the applications on those computers.
  • Providing monitoring, visibility, and fine-grained controls so organizations can see who their privileged admins are and what they are doing.

PAM gives organizations more insight into how admin accounts are being used in the environment.

Microsoft Identity Manager or MIM

But I also mentioned MIM… What is this? Microsoft Identity Manager or MIM helps organizations manage the users, credentials, policies, and access within their organizations and hybrid environments. With MIM, organizations can simplify identity lifecycle management with automated workflows, business rules, and easy integration with heterogenous platforms across the datacenter. MIM enables Active Directory to have the right users and access rights for on-premises apps. Azure AD Connect can then make those users and permissions available in Azure AD for Office 365 and cloud-hosted apps.

OK, so now we know that:

  • PIM is a capability to help companies manage identities in Azure AD.
  • PAM is an on-premises capability to manage identities in Active Directory.
  • MIM helps organizations manage users, credentials, policies, and on-premises access.

Mobile Application Management or MAM

What’s left… Oh yes: Mobile Application Management or MAM. MAM is important because if organizations can only manage identities—but not the apps then they miss a key aspect of protecting data. MAM is connected to a Microsoft capability called Microsoft Intune and is a suite of management features to publish, push, configure, secure, monitor, and update mobile apps for users.

MAM works with or without enrollment of the device, which means organizations can protect sensitive data on almost any device using MAM-WE (without enrollment). If organizations enable MFA, they can verify the user on the device. MAM also helps manage that apps the trusted user or entity can access. If you add in the Mobile Device Management or MDM feature of Intune, you can force enrollment of devices and then use MAM to manage the apps.

It’s well known that Microsoft has a lot of acronyms. This is the first in a series of blog posts aimed to assist you in navigating the acronym forest created by companies and industry. The Microsoft Platform includes a powerful set of capabilities to help encourage users to make the right decisions and gives security leadership, like you, the ability to manage and monitor identities and control access to critical files and network assets.