NIST Compliance: 2022 Complete Guide

Everything you need to know about NIST in one place
Last updated June 16, 2022 9 min read
Andrew Magnusson, author of NIST Compliance: 2022 Complete Guide | strongDM
Written by Director, Global Customer Engineering strongDM

Summary: NIST compliance is a key strategy for managing security risks and protecting sensitive data—especially for organizations working with the government or bidding for defense contracts. In this article, we’ll define NIST and explain why it’s important, who is required to follow it, and what the best practices are for compliance. By the end, you will have a clear understanding of the three main NIST security frameworks, how they compare to other popular security standards, and what it will cost to invest in NIST compliance. 

What is NIST Compliance?

NIST compliance broadly means adhering to the NIST security standards and best practices set forth by the government agency for the protection of data used by the government and its contractors. 

What does NIST stand for?

NIST stands for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It is a non-regulatory government agency that promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology, all with a goal of greater economic security. 

What does NIST do?

The purpose of NIST is to set standards and best practices for handling and securing data within government organizations and any organizations that contract with the government. 

While NIST guidelines are designed for use by government agencies and their contractors, anyone can benefit from NIST certification. NIST requirements help public and private sector organizations alike to plan comprehensive security programs with robust controls that ensure systems and data are well-protected. 

How to become NIST-compliant

So what does NIST compliant mean? NIST compliance depends on which NIST framework is being used. Here are three of the most commonly used cybersecurity frameworks:

  • NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF)
  • NIST 800-53
  • NIST 800-171

We’ll cover each of these standards in more detail below.

History of NIST

NIST was organized in 1901 under the U.S. Department of Commerce. At the time, the U.S. measurement infrastructure was falling behind its European and other economic rivals. NIST was created to improve U.S. innovation and competitiveness across industries “by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”  

Today, NIST remains one of the nation’s oldest physical science laboratories with a focus on three core competencies: 

  • Measurement science
  • Rigorous traceability
  • Development and use of standards

NIST’s technical contributions to the development of information security standards have saved private industries more than $1 billion and drive consumer and business confidence.

Why Is NIST Important?

Having a clear security framework and requirements is especially important as cyber threats grow worldwide. But many organizations lack the direction and resources to implement a security program with confidence. And fragmented security efforts can leave organizations vulnerable to blind spots and gaps in security—not to mention wasted time and resources. 

That’s where NIST comes in. The NIST rules, recommendations, and guidance documents give both federal agencies and the organizations they contract with a robust security framework that clarifies standards and demystifies an increasingly complex cybersecurity landscape. 

“Every organization needs to manage cybersecurity risk as a part of doing business, whether it is in industry, government, or academia,” says Commerce Deputy Secretary Don Graves. “It is critical to their resilience and to our nation’s economic security. There are many tools available to help, and the CSF is one of the leading frameworks for private sector cybersecurity maintenance.”

And the results speak for themselves. 

As of 2015, 30% of U.S. organizations had implemented the NIST CSF and the most recent estimates projected that adoption would grow to 50% by 2020. Today, more than 20 states use the Cybersecurity Framework, and the documents have been downloaded more than 1.7 million times. 

“The NIST Framework has proved itself through broad use by the business community,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shared in a 2017 statement

It continues, “Among the sectoral associations that have incorporated the framework into cybersecurity recommendations are auto manufacturers, the chemical industry, the gas industry, hotels, water works, communications, electrical distribution, financial services, mutual funds, restaurants, manufacturing, retail sales, transportation, and corporate directors.”

Benefits of NIST Compliance

NIST compliance strengthens an organization’s security posture, improving resiliency in the event of a successful breach.

The benefits of NIST extend to both government and private sector businesses, including: 

  • Protecting critical infrastructure from malicious attacks and human negligence
  • Reducing the risk of business disruption due to a data breach
  • Qualifying businesses to work with the government 
  • Increasing competitive advantage
  • Supporting IT teams and helping them handle new sources of risk
  • Safeguarding confidential information and protecting national security

Following NIST guidelines helps businesses keep their systems protected from breaches—and it offers the added bonus of ensuring compliance with other mandatory regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

Is NIST Compliance Mandatory?

All federal government agencies and any federal contractors (and subcontractors) handling government data must be NIST-compliant. Contractors that fail to meet NIST compliance (or have a history of NIST non-compliance) risk losing future contracts. 

Organizations that should be in compliance include, but aren’t limited to: 

  • Government staffing firms
  • Academic institutions like universities
  • Manufacturers that sell to the government or to government suppliers
  • Consulting companies
  • Service providers

While NIST compliance isn’t mandatory for the private sector, it is recommended and widely used by non-government organizations and businesses across industries as a best practice standard for cybersecurity and data protection. Organizations and businesses that achieve NIST compliance can use that as a competitive advantage when marketing and negotiating new contracts. 

Compliance demonstrates that an organization has a robust security posture and is invested in establishing and maintaining the best security controls and procedures. This means clients can be confident their information is being managed safely. 

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework was released in February 2014 as voluntary guidance, based on existing standards and practices for critical infrastructure, for organizations to improve security risk management. It is widely considered the gold standard for building cybersecurity programs and is a scalable and customizable approach that can work in organizations of any size across various industries. 

The Framework covers 23 categories and 108 security controls, organizing cybersecurity capabilities into 5 core functions: 

Identify—Assess and uncover cybersecurity risks to systems, assets, data, and capabilities. This includes categories such as asset management, business environment, risk assessment, and supply chain risk management. 

Protect—Develop and implement safeguards and controls to ensure delivery of critical infrastructure services. This includes categories such as identity management, authentication and access control, and data security.

Detect—Develop activities and controls to monitor and detect cybersecurity events. This includes categories such as anomalies and events, security continuous monitoring, and detection processes.

Respond—Develop techniques to control and mitigate cybersecurity incidents. This includes response planning, communications, analysis, mitigation, and improvements.

Recovery—Develop and implement processes to restore capabilities. This includes response planning, improvements, and communications. 

The CSF can help businesses address key security challenges in their organizations, such as: 

  • Uncovering hidden risks and vulnerabilities
  • Leveraging the right tools and resources to address risks
  • Prioritizing risks to focus on critical threats
  • Understanding which assets need protection 

According to NIST, “The [Cybersecurity] Framework not only helps organizations understand their cybersecurity risks (threats, vulnerabilities, and impacts) but how to reduce these risks with customized measures. The Framework also helps them respond to and recover from cybersecurity incidents, prompting them to analyze root causes and consider how they can make improvements.” 

Developing the CSF

NIST developed the Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity (aka the Cybersecurity Framework or CSF) following Executive Order 13636 in February 2013. The Executive Order by then-President Obama introduced efforts to share cybersecurity threat information and create a systematic approach to reducing risks to critical infrastructure. 

NIST was tasked with several requirements, including:

  • Identifying security standards applicable across sectors of critical infrastructure
  • Providing a flexible, repeatable, and cost-effective approach
  • Helping critical infrastructure operators to identify, assess, and manage cyber risk
  • Enabling technical innovation while accounting for organizational differences

To meet these goals, NIST solicited input from stakeholders across government, industry, and academia. Over the course of a year, NIST sent out a Request for Information and Request for Comment to: 

  1. Identify existing cybersecurity standards and best practices.
  2. Specify critical gaps in current security approaches and the required revised standards.
  3. Outline action plans to address these gaps. 

Thousands of stakeholders contributed to the framework’s development and design. This is one reason the CSF is so valuable. The decentralized, collaborative approach helped NIST create a comprehensive framework that is both rigorous and flexible to the needs of diverse industries and organizations. 

NIST vs. ISO vs. CIS vs. COBIT vs. SOC 2

So how does NIST stack up against other security frameworks and security compliance standards? Here’s a quick comparison of the most common standards:  

NIST vs. ISO

NIST CSF and ISO 270001 are complimentary frameworks that both take a risk-management approach to security. However, each covers distinct areas of security with specific purposes. ISO 27001 is a framework for developing Information Security Management Systems (ISMS). It is an internationally recognized standard that requires independent auditors and certifying bodies to determine compliance.  

In contrast, NIST CSF was created specifically to support government agencies and the organizations working with them (though anyone can use it). Unlike ISO 27001, CSF is a voluntary security framework that is self-certified and self-paced. As a result, it tends to carry lower upfront costs than ISO 27001, which depends on independent auditors and must be continuously updated, with recertification required every three years. 

While the two are distinct, they have a lot of overlap in their approaches and security controls. So if you implement one, you’re well on your way to being in compliance with the other. Because NIST CSF is voluntary and self-paced, it’s a good option for organizations that are starting to build up their security infrastructure. And ISO 27001 is best suited for organizations with a more mature security posture. 

Learn more about the difference between NIST and ISO.

NIST vs. CIS

CIS Critical Security Controls (CIS Controls) are recommended actions for cyber defense developed by the Center for Internet Security (CIS). The CIS outlines 20 controls describing “must do, do first” actions to protect systems from attack. Like NIST, CIS Controls are voluntary. The main benefit of CIS Controls is prioritizing risk and defense steps so organizations can direct their resources to the most important actions. 

The controls map to most major compliance frameworks, including NIST CSF. In fact, NIST calls out the CIS Controls as an informative reference to help implement the CSF, and most organizations that use one also use the other.

NIST vs. COBIT

Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology (COBIT) is a framework developed by the ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association) for IT governance. Its purpose is to help managers assess risks and strengthen weak areas of infrastructure efficiently. 

COBIT is essentially a more simplified version of NIST CSF with four administrative categories: planning and organization; support and delivery; acquisition and implementation; and monitoring and evaluation.  

NIST vs. SOC 2

A SOC 2 audit assesses a service organization’s internal controls governing its services and data. These controls include security, availability, processing integrity, confidentiality, and privacy. A SOC 2 audit focuses on the organization’s data processing integrity and on how customer data is managed and protected within the company and among third-party vendors. 

NIST is a great first step in achieving SOC 2 compliance. The NIST Framework provides a foundation for developing the policy statements and internal controls an organization can then map to SOC 2 controls. 

NIST 800 Series Compliance

NIST 800-171 Compliance

NIST 800-171 compliance protects controlled unclassified information (CUI) within the networks of government contractors and subcontractors by defining the practices and controls contractors must follow when their networks store or process CUI.  

CUI is information created or owned by the government that is sensitive but not classified. This can include information like patents and proprietary business information, personally identifiable information (PII), protected energy infrastructure information, etc. While the information isn’t classified, it is sensitive and confidential and requires safeguarding from bad actors. 

Because CUI has fewer controls compared to classified information, it is a vulnerable target for adversaries—and loss of aggregated CUI remains one of the most significant risks to national security.

NIST 800-53 Compliance

NIST 800-53 standards provide guidance to agencies as they implement information security systems that protect government information. Compliance is mandatory for all federal information systems except those related to national security, but it can be adopted by any organization. It primarily helps protect against a variety of threats through a catalog of privacy and security controls.

NIST Compliance Requirements

So what are the NIST standards an organization must follow? While there isn’t a master NIST compliance checklist—that will depend on which NIST standards the organization is implementing—the Cybersecurity Framework and subsequent NIST standards all provide clear steps to follow to create the security programs and controls that will ensure data security.   

NIST 800-171 Compliance Requirements

NIST 800-171 protects CUI through 110 requirements covering an organization’s IT technology, practices, and policies. These requirements help organizations mitigate cybersecurity risk across their systems through things like access management, authentication processes, and configurations.  

NIST 800-53 Compliance Requirements

NIST 800-53 defines the minimum baseline for security controls required for compliance with the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS). It outlines over 1,000 controls under 20 control families, including access control, risk assessment, incident response, and more.

How to Prepare for NIST Compliance (Best Practices)

Evaluate your current state

When preparing for NIST compliance, the first step is to evaluate the current state of the organization’s security infrastructure. What controls are already in place? What gaps exist and where? How mature is the security program?

Answering these questions will help determine which NIST standards to apply and where the greatest need is. For instance, NIST CSF is foundational to other controls. But if the organization already has a mature framework in place, it can look to standards such as NIST 800-53 to fill in the gaps.  

Identify your compliance goals 

What is the organization trying to achieve? Identifying security and compliance goals will give the implementation effort direction and focus. Based on the security goals (whether that’s to achieve compliance with government standards such as HIPAA or FISMA or to fill gaps in other security areas), stakeholders can determine which standards and controls to focus on.

Create a plan

The NIST Framework is designed to be user-friendly and to walk organizations through high-level compliance. But it’s always helpful to outline a clear plan for implementation. This should include the budget and resources available for implementation and plans for who will be involved and who will be responsible for each stage. 

How Much Will NIST Compliance Cost?

The cost of achieving NIST compliance varies, depending on factors such as the size of the organization and the maturity of its security systems. However, because compliance is self-managed, there is some leeway in how resources can be allocated, allowing organizations of all sizes and budgets to pursue compliance. 

Factors that can impact cost include:

  • Time invested in compliance (longer implementation means resources must be dedicated for a longer period, potentially pulling staff away from other priorities or necessitating new hires to fill the gap if conducting compliance in-house) 
  • Staff resources during implementation — and after, for continual monitoring and maintenance 
  • Investment in compliance consultants or implementation solutions  

Ultimately, compliance costs will depend on the organization and its approach, but the investment can range anywhere from $25,000 to over $35,000.

How strongDM Can Help with NIST Compliance

Achieving NIST compliance is an organization-wide initiative. strongDM can help streamline the audit and implementation processes so you can reach compliance faster. 

Use strongDM to implement and enforce NIST standards and best practices at every level of the organization to:

  • Authenticate users so only those having appropriate permissions can gain access to your critical infrastructure
  • Enforce granular access policies to secure data and prevent data breaches
  • Streamline the audit process with comprehensive audit logs that support investigations and continuous monitoring

Want to see how strongDM can help with NIST Compliance in action? Sign up for a free, no-BS demo today.


About the Author

, Director, Global Customer Engineering, has worked in the information security industry for 20 years on tasks ranging from firewall administration to network security monitoring. His obsession with getting people access to answers led him to publish 'Practical Vulnerability Management' with No Starch Press in 2020. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Clark University, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut, and an M.S. in Information Management from the University of Washington. To contact Andy, visit him on LinkedIn.

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