Strategies for Successfully Managing Privileged Accounts


One of the most important aspects of an identity and access management (IAM) program is the securing, management and governance of the accounts belonging to superusers — privileged accounts.

Like the accounts used by regular users, these superuser accounts require access management – ensuring that admins have the access they need to do their job — and governance – ensuring that there is oversight and control over that access, often for the purpose of compliance. Unfortunately, privileged accounts have some unique idiosyncrasies that make both access management and governance difficult or impossible with traditional PAM methods.

To learn how to deal with those unique characteristics and manage your privileged accounts successfully, assume that the ideal PAM program addresses the broadest range of privileged accounts and elevated-access users. That's where the problems start for most organizations.

What goes into PAM?

PAM goes by a variety of names, including privileged identity management (PIM) and privileged identity and access management (PIAM). By whichever name, here are several of the most common ways of managing privileged accounts:

  • Unix root delegation – This widely used approach overcomes the all-or-nothing nature of the Unix/Linux root account by allowing an administrator to delegate to certain users the right to run certain commands.
  • Credential vault or safe – This newer approach eliminates the sharing of privileged passwords by storing them in a virtual vault, complete with workflows and automation, to control their issuance, return and modification.
  • Windows delegation – This approach temporarily elevates a regular user's permissions to those of a Windows administrator on their workstation. While that elevated access is technically a PAM issue, the risk of regular users exploiting the temporarily elevated status to cause a breach is low compared to that of granting them widespread network and system access.
  • Active Directory Administrator delegation – Similar to delegating the Unix/Linux root account, this approach delegates the AD Administrator account on Windows Server.
  • Session monitoring – In this approach, the business is able to monitor activities performed by users while they have elevated access.

PAM covers all of those approaches, but the problem is that many PAM programs address only one or two of the underlying issues, which is why many of them underdeliver, fail to achieve desired objectives or fail outright. As in other areas of IAM, addressing PAM in silos and without a comprehensive view is bound to disappoint.

Is your PAM program on the right path?

Based on our experience with hundreds of customers over many years, if people in your organization are saying (or thinking) any of a few, choice sentences, then chances are your PAM program is in trouble:

"Sudo is good enough."

Sudo (superuser do) is a free, open source tool for Unix/Linux root delegation. Sudo ships with nearly every Unix/Linux distribution, so it is almost ubiquitous; however, building a PAM program on sudo is shortsighted. In organizations with large numbers of Unix servers, the lack of centralized policy management in sudo leads to inefficiencies, inaccuracies and vulnerabilities. Sudo is not designed to allow tracking and auditing, and there are ways around the security offered by sudo that make it unacceptable for systems with strict compliance requirements.

"I trust my admins."

After all, you're the one who hired them, so you may believe that they are good employees. Surely they have a vested interest in seeing your business succeed. But the 2014 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report points to an "increase in insider espionage targeting internal data and trade secrets, and a broader range of tactics" compared to previous years, with privilege abuse accounting for 88 percent of instances of insider and privilege misuse. Most regulations demand controls on access and separation of duties, which you cannot satisfy by saying, "I trust my admins." Too often, this bury-your-head-in-the sand approach leads to addressing an unfavorable audit or patching a hole after an incident, then a hurried PAM implementation, then a siloed and incomplete PAM program.

"All we need is a credential vault."

IAG ensures that the proper protections and controls are in place to remove as much risk as possible.

If you eliminate the sharing, you solve the problem of privileged credentials, right? Maybe, but what does it cost you? Consider the management overhead involved in issuing, tracking, returning and changing administrative passwords every time anyone needs them. Most organizations have teams of IT staff dedicated to administering with elevated access. When that access depends on a credential vault, your IT staff may spend more time managing the overhead than it does managing elevated access. Do you really want to use a vault for even the most mundane of IT tasks, those that fill the majority of your staff's day?

Approaching PAM in a disjointed, siloed manner is a recipe for failure.

"We can approach PAM in a piecemeal manner."

Putting PAM in place one piece at a time, without considering the ideal endstate and the required connections and integrations, is a bad idea. Imagine an organization that has sudo for Unix root delegation, uses a sudo replacement from vendor A when sudo doesn't suffice, manages a credential vault from vendor B, has an AD Admin delegation tool from vendor C, and is floating an RFP for a governance solution for PAM involving vendors D, E and F. Just as in user access management, approaching PAM in a disjointed, siloed manner is a recipe for failure.

"Governance doesn't apply to PAM."

Governance is governance, and your auditor doesn't care whether it's easy to prove compliance or not. Auditors want to see that you can correctly provision elevated access across all systems and perform attestation on that access. Since privileged accounts are prime targets for breaches, the requirement to govern those accounts and that access is omnipresent.3

If those attitudes prevail in your organization, it is time to re-evaluate and improve your approach to managing and securing privileged accounts.

Getting privileged account management right

The good news is that many organizations get PAM right by following a few guidelines, without a wholesale rip-and-replace. While the following list is not comprehensive, it contains the ingredients most common to successful PAM programs:

  1. Unix has special needs. The Unix/Linux root account is unique in that it is all-powerful, it is independent from every other root account and it is a point of vulnerability for the entire system, including Unix data. Observance of a few simple rules helps to improve security, efficiency and compliance for the Unix/Linux root account and the administrators who use it:
    • When using sudo, manage it as efficiently and consistently as possible. Look for ways to centralize policy across all sudo instances.
    • When sudo doesn't meet your needs, choose a sudo replacement that can draw from the same policy set, management capabilities and account administration as those systems that use sudo.
    • Unifying Unix/Linux access through an Active Directory bridge can go a long way toward getting PAM right on Unix machines. If the AD bridge also influences sudo and any sudo replacements, then the traditional difficulties in PAM on Unix/Linux systems evaporate.
    • Don't forget keystroke logging. Ensure that you can adequately monitor what your Unix/Linux admins are doing, whether they use sudo or not, and make sure you audit only once with a single toolset across all Unix-based PAM systems.
  2. AD is important. While Microsoft solved many of the Unix-like security problems of Windows NT with Active Directory in Windows XP, the native management and security tools in AD lack support for PAM. Every AD management or PAM program should allow for delegating precisely the activities that AD administrators may perform and providing the permissions they need to do their jobs. Look for an AD delegation tool (preferably one that integrates fully with your AD bridge) to eliminate this often overlooked weakness in most PAM programs.
  3. Don't just vault. Anonymous administrative access is a big obstacle to successful privileged account management. A credential vault is a good way to deal with this problem, if you follow these rules:
    • Combine vaulting with delegation to provide convenient and secure access for the day-to-day activities of your administrators (particularly for Unix/Linux and Active Directory). Also, provide the extra-elevated access required for the occasional firecall, to grant emergency access to administrators.
    • Choose a vault that covers the widest range of accounts. Just as risky, and often much less efficiently managed, are the service accounts associated with infrastructure such as routers and firewalls, and the hardcoded passwords that your applications pass to other applications and data sources.
    • Unify policy and identity. Imagine how many silos you can eliminate if the credential vault uses the same set of policies, identities and roles used by the delegation tools and your IAM systems. But if the vault represents yet another silo, it will stand in the way of a truly successful PAM project.
    • Include session audit. You achieve even greater security and compliance gains when your credential vault also allows you to audit sessions and impose individual accountability on activities performed with elevated rights.
  4. Do it all with an eye toward governance. Governance is the ultimate goal of IAM. Unfortunately, few PAM projects anticipate the governance issues that will eventually arise. Governance on privileged accounts requires that provisioning of elevated access (including provisioning of delegated permissions, credential vault access and workflows) be unified with the provisioning of standard user accounts. In addition, the attestation/ recertification required for regular user access must extend to privileged users and the access controlled by PAM. If your PAM solution was not designed with governance in mind, it will be difficult to retrofit it later.

To summarize, the ideal approach to PAM uses a unified policy and identity set, combines vaulting with delegation (for Unix/Linux and AD) and leads easily into governance.

One Identity for Privileged Account Management

One Identity includes a complete set of privileged account management solutions designed to give you the best chance at IAM success. One Identity includes:

  • Credential vault technology – In an ultra-secure appliance, the One Identity privilege safe offers the complete set of capabilities required to eliminate superuser password sharing across the enterprise, including application-to-application (A2A) and application-to-database (A2DB) scenarios.
  • Session audit – Easily added to the privilege safe, session audit enables you to watch what administrators do through the credentials issued by the safe and to restrict the commands they may run.
  • Unix-optimized privileged account management – One Identity includes a comprehensive suite of PAM solutions with a single interface, perfectly suited to Unix and Linux environments. Features include the Active Directory bridge, a centralized policy server with reporting for sudo and a deep, granular replacement for sudo (depending on need).
  • Active Directory – One Identity optimizes privileged account management with management and security tools for AD, including a least-privileged model for the AD Administrator account.
  • Privileged account governance – Integrated with the privilege safe is governance for privileged accounts as well as for application access and unstructured data access.

One Identity includes a complete set of privileged account management solutions designed to give you the best chance at IAM success.


Privileged account management (PAM) ensures that administrators and superusers with privileged accounts have the access they need to do their jobs. Organizations that rely excessively on sudo, credential vaults and the best intentions of administrators have difficulty complying with governance requirements, but they can get PAM right by following a few simple guidelines and rules.

One Identity for privileged account management offers a credential vault, audit capabilities and a suite of solutions for control of administrator access across the enterprise, helping organizations manage their privileged accounts successfully.