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Zero Trust Architecture: 2024 Complete Guide

Never Trust, Always Verify
Last updated May 6, 2024 9 min read
John Martinez, author of Zero Trust Architecture: 2024 Complete Guide | StrongDM
Written by DAM Evangelist StrongDM
Justin McCarthy
Reviewed by Co-founder / CTO StrongDM

Summary: Zero Trust Architecture is an enterprise security strategy that is reshaping how organizations protect their digital environments. Rooted in the principle of "never trust, always verify," Zero Trust Architecture provides a robust framework designed to prevent data breaches and secure sensitive information. In this article, we will explore the fundamental components of Zero Trust principles, such as least privilege access, micro-segmentation, and continuous verification, and how they integrate to form a security infrastructure that assumes no implicit trust is granted to assets or user accounts, irrespective of their location inside or outside the network perimeter.

What is Zero Trust?

Zero Trust is a modern security model founded on the design principle “Never trust, always verify.” It requires all devices and users, regardless of whether they are inside or outside an organization's network, to be authenticated, authorized, and regularly validated before being granted access.

In short, Zero Trust says “Don’t trust anyone until they’ve been verified.”

Zero Trust helps prevent security breaches by eliminating the implicit trust from your system’s architecture. Instead of automatically trusting users inside the network, Zero Trust requires validation at every access point. It protects modern network environments using a multi-layered approach, including:

  • Network segmentation
  • Layer 7 threat prevention
  • Simplified granular user-access control
  • Comprehensive security monitoring
  • Security system automation

With the rise of remote work, bring your own device (BYOD), and cloud-based assets that aren’t located within an enterprise-owned network boundary, traditional perimeter security falls short. That’s where Zero Trust comes in. A Zero Trust architecture (ZTA) is designed as if there is no traditional network edge, retiring the old castle-and-moat model of perimeter security.

In essence, Zero Trust security not only acknowledges that threats exist inside and outside of the network, but it assumes that a breach is inevitable (or has likely already occurred). As a result, it constantly monitors for malicious activity and limits user access to only what is required to do the job. This effectively prevents users (including potential bad actors) from moving laterally through the network and accessing any data that hasn’t been limited.

Zero Trust security can be applied in multiple ways depending on your architecture design and approach.

Zero Trust Network Access
Zero Trust Network Access

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA), sometimes referred to as a “software-defined perimeter,” is the most common implementation of the Zero Trust model. Based on micro-segmentation and network isolation, ZTNA replaces the need for a VPN and grants access to the network after verification and authentication.

As Gartner defines it, under a ZTNA model, “access is restricted via a trust broker to a set of named entities. The broker verifies the identity, context and policy adherence of the specified participants before allowing access and prohibits lateral movement elsewhere in the network.” This minimizes the attack surface, significantly reducing security risk.

Zero Trust Application Access (ZTAA) also operates on Zero Trust principles, but unlike ZTNA, it goes a step further to protect not just the network but applications, too. ZTAA assumes all networks are compromised and limits access to applications until after users and devices have been verified. This approach effectively blocks attackers that enter the network and protects the connected applications.

Zero Trust Access is the umbrella model that encompasses both ZTAA and ZTNA, providing end-to-end Zero Trust across your entire architecture—including all networks and applications. It provides identity-based security that considers not just who is on the network, but what is on the network—extending zero trust to the provider itself. This gives organizations unparalleled data privacy in a true Zero Trust environment

History of Zero Trust Security

John Kindervag developed the original Zero Trust model in 2010. As a principal analyst at Forrester Research, Kindervag realized that traditional access models operated on the outdated assumption that organizations should trust everything within their networks. The thinking was that perimeter-based security (i.e., firewalls) would be enough to validate user access and secure the network entirely. But as more workers started remotely accessing systems through all types of devices and all kinds of connections, this trust structure proved insufficient to effectively manage a distributed workforce. Kindervag recognized this vulnerability and developed Zero Trust in response.

Around the same time, Google began developing its own Zero Trust systems. Google created BeyondCorp for migrating traditional virtual private network (VPN) access policies to a new infrastructure in which no systems are trusted and all endpoints gate and monitor access. Google later developed BeyondProd, which provides a Zero Trust method to securely manage code deployment in a cloud-first microservices environment.

Kindervag’s Zero Trust model and Google’s BeyondCorp center around a few major tenets:

  • Segmentation—Traditional networks exposed direct access to all data assets, servers, and applications. The Zero Trust model segments various subsets of these resources and removes the ability for users to directly access them without first going through a tightly controlled gateway. This is sometimes referred to as “network isolation.” Microsegmentation takes this concept further by isolating workloads from one another so that administrators can monitor and control the flow of information between different servers and applications rather than just between client and server.
  • Access control—Regardless of whether users are physically located in an office or working remotely, they should only be able to access the information and resources that are appropriate for their respective roles. Each segment of the network should authenticate and validate authorization to ensure that traffic is being sent from authenticated and authorized users regardless of the location or source of the request.
  • Visibility—Gateways should inspect and log all traffic, and admins should regularly monitor logs to ensure that users are only attempting to access systems that they’re permitted to access. Commonly, administrators will use cloud access security broker software to monitor traffic between users and cloud applications and warn when they see suspicious behavior.

With the Zero Trust model, organizations can eliminate direct access to networks and resources, establish granular access controls, and gain visibility into user actions and traffic. However, they need models to guide them through implementation.

Google provides extensive documentation for those wanting to emulate BeyondCorp, which sets an industry standard for Zero Trust. However, most companies find Google’s approach to be interesting in theory, but impossible in practice. (Its implementation essentially required a rip-and-replace of Google’s existing network components and global architecture.) Instead, companies must rely on a combination of third-party services to implement Zero Trust architecture across their infrastructure.

Zero Trust Architecture Three Core Principles

Zero Trust is an integrated, end-to-end security strategy based on three core principles.

  1. Never trust, always verify—Always authenticate and authorize based on all available data points—including user identity, location, device, data sources, service, or workload. Continuous verification means there are no trusted zones, devices, or users. Instead, Zero Trust treats everyone and everything as a potential threat.
  2. Assume breach—By assuming your defenses have already been infiltrated, you can take a stronger security posture against potential threats, minimizing the impact if a breach does occur. Limit the “blast radius”—the extent and reach of potential damage incurred by a breach—by segmenting access and reducing your attack surface, verifying end-to-end encryption, and monitoring your network in real time.
  3. Apply least-privileged access—Zero Trust follows the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP), which is the practice of limiting access rights for any entity and only permitting the minimum privileges necessary to perform its function. In other words, PoLP prevents users, accounts, computing processes, etc., from having unnecessarily broad access across the network, which leaves your network vulnerable and creates a higher attack surface in case of a breach.

Zero Trust Architecture Eight Pillars

These principles create the foundation upon which a Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) is built. Additionally, the eight pillars of Zero Trust security form a defensive architecture designed to meet the needs of today’s complex networks. These pillars each represent a key focus area for categorizing and implementing a Zero Trust environment.

  1. Identity security—An identity is an attribute or set of attributes that uniquely describe a user or entity. Often referred to as workforce or user security, this pillar centers on the use of authentication and access control policies to identify and validate users attempting to connect to the network. Identity security relies on dynamic and contextual data analysis to ensure the right users are permitted access at the right time. Role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC) will apply to policies within this pillar to authorize users.
  2. Endpoint security—Similar to identity security, endpoint (or device) security performs “systems of record” validation of devices (both user-controlled and autonomous devices, such as internet of things devices) that are trying to connect to the enterprise network. This pillar focuses on monitoring and maintaining device health at every step. Organizations should inventory and secure all agency devices (including mobile phones, laptops, servers, and IoT devices) to prevent unauthorized devices from accessing the network.
  3. Application security—Application and workload security include both on-premise and cloud-based services and systems. Securing and managing the application layer is key to successfully adopting a Zero Trust posture. Security wraps each workload and compute container to prevent data collection and unauthorized access across the network.
  4. Data security—The data pillar focuses on securing and enforcing access to data. To do this, data is categorized and then isolated from everyone except users that need access. This process includes categorizing data based on mission criticality, determining where data should be stored, and developing a data management strategy accordingly as part of a robust Zero Trust approach.
  5. Visibility and analytics—Visibility into all the security processes and communication related to access control, segmentation, encryption, and other Zero Trust components provides crucial insights into user and system behaviors. Monitoring your network at this level improves threat detection and analysis while empowering you to make informed security decisions and adapt to ever-changing security landscapes.
  6. Automation—Improve scalability, reduce human error, and increase efficiency and performance by automating manual security processes that apply policies consistently across the enterprise.
  7. Infrastructure security—This pillar ensures systems and services in a workload are secured against unauthorized access and potential vulnerabilities.
  8. Network security—The network pillar focuses on isolating sensitive resources from being accessed without authorization. This involves implementing micro-segmenting techniques, defining network access, and encrypting end-to-end traffic to control network flows.

How Zero Trust Architecture Works

There is no unanimously accepted definition of what a fully functional Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) looks like in practice. That said, there are basic Zero Trust tenets that provide guidance on the most crucial components of a Zero Trust Architecture and how they ought to work together in real-world scenarios. ZTA relies on a combination of strong identity controls, real-time inspection, and strict access policies to remove assumptions of trust from all types of access grants. Through the use of enabling technologies and processes, organizations can implement a security architecture that puts Zero Trust principles into practice daily. 

Let’s look at how Zero Trust Architecture works by focusing on its key components, implementation approaches, and guiding tenets:

Core Components of Zero Trust Architecture

Zero Trust Architecture is built around three critical components: 

  • Policy Decision Point (PDP): The brain of Zero Trust, responsible for making access decisions. It consists of:
    • Policy Engine (PE), which evaluates security policies and contextual information to grant or deny access. It uses algorithms to calculate trust scores and make decisions.
    • Policy Administrator (PA), which implements PE's decisions by sending commands to the Policy Enforcement Point. It manages session tokens and authorizes connections.
  • Policy Enforcement Point (PEP): The gatekeeper, controlling access to resources. PEP:
    • Enables and monitors connections.
    • Terminates connections when access is revoked.
    • Can be implemented as software agents on endpoints, gateways in front of resources, or dedicated portals.
  • Policy Information Points (PIP): Provide data to PDP for decision-making. These consist of:
    • Identity, Credential, and Access Management (ICAM): Manages user identities, authentication, and access controls.
    • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) / Endpoint Protection Platforms (EPP): Monitors and protects endpoints from threats.
    • Security Analytics: Gathers threat intelligence, analyzes network traffic, and detects anomalies.
    • Data Security: Focuses on encryption, data integrity, and access policies to protect data.

Implementation Approaches

Organizations can implement Zero Trust Architecture in different ways, including the following:

  • Identity Governance-Driven: Focuses on identity management and strong authentication.
  • Logical Micro-Segmentation: Divides networks into smaller, isolated segments to reduce lateral movement.
  • Network-Based Segmentation: Uses network controls to isolate different parts of the infrastructure.

Key Tenets of Zero Trust

Zero Trust operates on three key principles:

  • Terminate Every Connection: All connections are terminated and inspected at proxy-based gateways before being allowed to proceed, ensuring deep inspection, even for encrypted traffic.
  • Protect Data Using Context-Based Policies: Access policies are context-based, considering user identity, device type, location, and application.
  • Prevent Risk by Reducing the Attack Surface: Users connect directly to applications or resources, not networks, reducing the risk of lateral movement and making users and apps invisible to potential attackers on the internet. 

Zero Trust Technologies

Choosing appropriate technologies is vital to implementing Zero Trust Architecture. The most important tools for supporting ZTA, include the following:

  • Identity Management and Privileged Access Management: Manages identities, roles, and access controls, often with multi-factor authentication. Examples include Privileged Access Management (PAM) software. 
  • Security Analytics: Collects and analyzes security data to detect threats and anomalies. Examples include monitoring, activity logs, and traffic inspection. 
  • Endpoint Protection: Secures endpoints against threats like malware and intrusion. Examples include endpoint data-collection agents. 
  • Encryption: Ensures data confidentiality and integrity, with tools like TLS/SSL.

Zero Trust Workflow

Setting up Zero Trust Architecture may seem complex at first, but if done properly, the resulting user experience should be simple and frictionless. A typical Zero Trust workflow involves evaluating a connection request through the following three-step process:

  1. Verify Identity and Context: Check who is making the request, the device, the location, and various contextual factors.
  2. Control Risk: Assess the risk level of the request, inspecting traffic for threats, and applying segmentation rules.
  3. Enforce Policy: Based on the risk assessment, either grant or deny access.

Zero Trust in the Real World: A Typical Example

To show how Zero Trust works in the real world, let's imagine a large company, "AcmeCo.,"  has set up Zero Trust Architecture. Now let’s look at how ZTA functions in real life, step-by-step, with a user named Quinn, who works in the marketing department.

image1

  1. User Authentication and MFA:
    • Quinn starts their day by logging into their company laptop via Single Sign on (SSO). Before they can access any company applications, multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires their username, password, and a secondary factor, like a code sent to their mobile phone or a biometric scan.
    • MFA ensures that even if someone obtains Quinn’s password, they can't access the network without additional verification.
  2. Software-Defined Perimeter/Policy-Based Access Control:
    • With a Zero Trust software-defined perimeter, Quinn connects directly to applications and resources, not to the network itself. This restricts lateral movement, prevents infection from compromised devices, and keeps users and applications invisible to the internet, preventing discovery and attack.
    • Quinn needs to access specific resources to complete their work. The Zero Trust policy engine computes identity trust scores and confidence levels for Quinn, refers to company policies, and then grants, denies, or revokes access to a resource.
    • The policy engine’s trust algorithm vets each request individually to determine access based on role, department, and other attributes.
    • Even though authenticated for some access types, Quinn can't access sensitive resources like financial data, engineering projects, or HR files because their job doesn't require it.
  3. Network and Microsegmentation:
    • The corporate network is divided into segments. Marketing has its own segment, while other departments have theirs. Access across segments is restricted and monitored.
    • Quinn can access marketing-related resources but not those from engineering or finance.
  4. Continuous Monitoring:
    • As Quinn works through the day, their activity is continuously monitored. Any unusual behavior, such as accessing unauthorized resources or transferring large amounts of data, triggers alerts.
    • This monitoring allows the security team to investigate and take action if needed—by isolating a device or revoking access, for example.
  5. Secure Communication:
    • All data exchanged between Quinn's laptop and company servers is encrypted using secure protocols like HTTPS.
    • All connections terminate, and an inline proxy architecture inspects all traffic, encrypted or not, in real time—before it arrives at its destination.
  6. Endpoint Security:
    • Quinn goes to lunch at a coffee shop, signing into their company email with their credentials, this time with the PAM software verifying their personal tablet as well.
    • Later on, Quinn logs out for the day with Single Log Out (SLO). 

An Example of a Breach Response in ZTA

In the event that a breach does occur—for example, when an attacker obtains an employee's credentials and tries to access sensitive data, the Zero Trust Architecture helps contain and respond to the threat. Here’s how it works:

  1. Alert and Investigation:
    • The continuous monitoring system detects unusual activity, such as the attacker trying to access a restricted resource or logging in from an unexpected location.
    • An alert is triggered, and the security team investigates. They can trace the activity back to a specific user or device.
  2. Containment and Isolation:
    • The security team uses network segmentation to contain the breach, isolating the compromised segment or user.
    • They might cut off the attacker's access by disabling the compromised user's credentials and locking down the affected segment.
  3. Root Cause Analysis and Remediation:
    • After containing the breach, the security team conducts a root cause analysis to determine how it happened and what steps to take to prevent future incidents.
    • They might implement additional security measures, like stronger MFA, enhanced monitoring, or stricter access controls.

This scenario illustrates how Zero Trust Architecture provides comprehensive security by verifying all access, imposing appropriate restrictions, and continuously monitoring for threats. By implementing these principles, organizations can better protect their data and systems from internal and external threats.

Benefits of Zero Trust

An effectively implemented Zero Trust model should go beyond security. It should enable businesses to operate more effectively, enabling secure, granular access for everyone, including:

  • Decreasing infrastructure complexity
  • Working in hybrid physical and cloud environments
  • Working with a variety of different devices and in different physical locations
  • Complying with internal and regulatory standard

Virtual private networks (VPNs) often struggle to keep up with the complexity of modern tech environments. And although Zero Trust and VPN are not mutually exclusive, many organizations find that VPN is unnecessary after the adoption of a Zero Trust model.

VPNs offer perimeter-based security that provides network-wide access; in contrast, ZTNAs grant access only to specific resources after verification and authentication. Compared with VPNs, ZTNA strengthens security around internal and external networks by reducing the attack surface and implementing more granular control. Additionally, ZTNA offers increased flexibility and scalability, improving resource utilization and reducing the strain on IT.

This makes ZTNA a great option for CISOs and IT leaders looking for a security solution that addresses the needs of an increasingly remote and distributed workforce.

Executive Order: "Improving the Nation's Cybersecurity"

In May 2021 the Biden administration announced a new Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity—and emphasized the need for adopting Zero Trust across public and private enterprises:

“To keep pace with today’s dynamic and increasingly sophisticated cyber threat environment, the Federal Government must take decisive steps to modernize its approach to cybersecurity, including by increasing the Federal Government’s visibility into threats, while protecting privacy and civil liberties. The Federal Government must adopt security best practices [and] advance toward Zero Trust Architecture…”

This may leave some IT leaders wondering how to bridge the gap from where they are now to this modern, Zero Trust future. Significant technology and architecture changes can quickly disrupt business-as-usual and complicate daily operations. But standing still isn’t an option either. With increasingly broad attack surfaces, legacy perimeter-based security architectures are no longer going to cut it.

DoD Zero Trust Strategy

Following President Biden’s Executive Order, the Department of Defense has adopted an initiative to implement Zero Trust security throughout the organization. The initiative addresses the rapid growth of cyber threats and the need for an enhanced cybersecurity framework. In October 2022, the DoD published the official DoD Zero Trust Strategy document, which outlines a comprehensive cybersecurity framework that requires all DoD components to adopt Zero Trust capabilities, processes, and technologies. In January 2022, the DoD established its DoD Zero Trust Portfolio Management Office (ZT PfMO) to implement the DoD Zero Trust Strategy and accelerate Zero Trust adoption.

Despite its broad support among security professionals, Zero Trust as a security framework still lacks clear-cut standards in terms of how it is implemented. The DoD Zero Trust Strategy comes as a welcome attempt to introduce Zero Trust standards that organizations across public and private sectors may look to for guidance.

Let’s look closer at the main elements that the DoD has chosen to include in its Zero Trust Strategy. 

Key Principles and Components

The DoD Zero Trust Strategy is founded on eight core assumptions, including: 

  • Complex security threats persist and require ongoing corrective action.
  • Culture must be addressed, not just technology.
  • Modernization requires rethinking how existing infrastructure is utilized.
  • Increased global and industry partner collaboration is increasingly important.
  • Zero Trust requires concurrent enterprise and mission owner implementation.
  • Real-time, risk-based response is imperative as threats become more complex.
  • Legacy IT remains a challenge.
  • Leadership and operator buy-in are a must for a successful Zero Trust strategy.

The DoD Strategy defines seven core pillars that give technical substance to its Zero Trust Security Model. These include the following:

  • Users
  • Devices
  • Applications and Workloads
  • Data
  • Network and Environment
  • Automation and Orchestration
  • Visibility and Analytics

As for adoption and implementation, the DoD Zero Trust Strategy defines certain goals and objectives including cultural, technological, and environmental requirements. These include the following: 

  • Zero Trust cultural adoption: Zero Trust training for all DoD personnel.  
  • Securing of DoD information systems: Zero Trust principles will be applied to all new and legacy systems, with targeted outcomes achieved by the end of 2027.
  • Technology acceleration: DoD’s deployment of Zero Trust-based technologies will match or exceed industry advancements. 
  • Zero Trust enablement: Processes, policies, and funding are aligned to cement the Zero Trust framework across the DoD, sustainably and integrally.  

DoD Zero Trust Execution Approach

To ensure the DoD Zero Trust Strategy’s long-term success, the DoD planned out a multi-pronged approach to address people, processes, resources, governance, risk management, and technology. It is designed to cover solution gaps in order to and implement Zero Trust across the entire DoD.

The DoD’s approach includes the following key elements: 

  • High-Level capability roadmap
    The DoD’s Zero Trust Capability Roadmap routes the implementation of Zero Trust across the organization, outlining dependencies and interdependencies and providing a general timeline.

  • Resourcing & acquisition
    The DoD will work with its internal components to guide resource priorities and address shortfalls.The DoD CIO coordinates asset acquisition but lets individual components manage the details of technology development, acquisition, and product support.

  • Measurement and metrics
    The DoD will use specific qualitative and quantitative metrics to measure its progress, validate system and network security, and determine the overall status and effectiveness of the Zero Trust implementation.

  • Governance
    The DoD CIO committee will oversee high-level Zero Trust plans, while technical and strategic execution will come from the DoD Cyber Council.

What About Private-Sector Companies?

Although directed at federal agencies and their contractors and subcontractors, the executive order has a ripple effect with important implications for private-sector organizations. Even if your organization has no dealings with the Federal Government, the order could wind up impacting you through your partners and customers or the introduction of new industry standards or regulations.

Implications of the DoD Zero Trust Strategy for non-government organizations include: 

  • Alignment with Federal Guidelines: Private-sector companies, especially federal contractors, may need to align with DoD's Zero Trust principles to maintain contracts and meet government cybersecurity standards.
  • Supply Chain Security Focus: The strategy's emphasis on securing the supply chain may require private-sector organizations to improve their security practices to demonstrate compliance with Zero Trust principles.
  • Collaboration and Information Sharing: The DoD's focus on Zero Trust encourages greater collaboration and information sharing between the government and the private sector. This may benefit enterprises by providing insights into emerging threats and best practices.
  • Industry-wide Impact: As federal agencies upgrade their procurement processes and security requirements, private-sector organizations may adopt similar practices to maintain compliance and competitiveness. This influence extends to industry standards, best practices, and the alignment of enterprise security with federal expectations.
  • Regulations: The federal push toward Zero Trust Architecture may influence regulatory bodies to follow suit with similar requirements. Many organizations will already be familiar with such regulations, like NIST and FedRAMP, and the need for software solutions, like StrongDM, that ensure compliance.Private-sector organizations should stay informed about evolving regulations to ensure compliance with any new cybersecurity guidelines.

7 Barriers to Implementing Zero Trust Network Access

Despite the obvious security gains from a Zero Trust approach, there can be significant obstacles when moving your organization to a new cybersecurity model.

Even with third-party services, many businesses still struggle to successfully implement Zero Trust Network Access. According to a report by Cybersecurity Insiders, only 15% of companies already have a Zero Trust strategy in place, while another 63% of companies intend to develop a strategy in the near future. Similarly, in a survey conducted in 2019, only 16% of physical data centers have implemented a Zero Trust architecture.

If you’re planning to adopt a Zero Trust approach, you’ll need to anticipate and plan for these potential challenges.

1. Accommodating Complex and Hybrid Environments

Modern companies have highly complex and distributed infrastructures. IT leaders face the challenge of creating a Zero Trust strategy that accounts for an environment that may have hundreds of different databases, servers, proxies, internal applications, and third-party SaaS applications. To further complicate matters, each of these may run in multiple different physical and cloud data centers, each with its own network and access policies.

For many organizations, bringing a network to a level that conforms with Zero Trust protocols requires a large number of custom configurations and time-intensive development projects. This burden may drive organizations to take shortcuts that are not scalable or secure.

2. Using a Hodgepodge of Tools

To build infrastructure to support a Zero Trust model in such an organization, you’d have to implement a number of different micro-segmentation tools, software-defined perimeter tools, and identity-aware proxies. This set of tools may include VPNs, multi-factor authentication (MFA), device approval, intrusion prevention systems (IPS), single sign-on (SSO) solutions, and more.

However, many of these systems are specific to cloud providers, operating systems, and devices. Many organizations do not support one homogeneous set of devices, but instead run in multiple clouds and physical data centers, have users on both Mac and Windows, have servers running multiple Linux distributions or Windows Server versions, and support all sorts of different network-connected devices.

Vendors for these tools often require organizations to buy redundant technologies to support all of these environments. These vendors may also add unnecessary complexity by focusing on the network layer rather than placing controls near users and applications.

3. Transitioning from Legacy Systems

Additional challenges arise with legacy systems and third-party applications that are designed around implicit trust. Organizations often cannot configure legacy or third-party applications in a way that conforms with a Zero Trust model without rebuilding them. Administrators often have to create their own frameworks and infrastructure to support them, this adds complexity, time, and expense—and requires buy-in at every level.

4. Addressing Gaps in Security

Transitioning to Zero Trust can introduce gaps in security that can increase risk. Most organizations adopt Zero Trust over time, taking a piecemeal approach. While this helps manage costs and resources, it can introduce gaps in security, especially if you’re migrating from a legacy architecture.

5. Managing Cost Constraints

Migrating to ZTA can be costly, especially if you are transitioning from a legacy system. A comprehensive Zero Trust framework may require you to build infrastructure from scratch. This means a long-term, multi-phase process that requires significant resources and time. Although these costs can be managed somewhat through incremental adoption, the speed and scale of adoption can be a challenge. Not to mention the costs of training talent and investing resources into maintaining a Zero Trust architecture post-implementation.

Even after project development, organizations need to put aside resources for ongoing maintenance. For instance, micro-segmentation requires regularly updating IP data and configuring and verifying changes to minimize access for users. Further, as administrators introduce new systems and applications into the network, they must add them in such a way that conforms to the Zero Trust protocols, often requiring additional framework development.

6. Balancing Security vs. Performance

Zero Trust prioritizes security by locking down access until a user is verified. The challenge is making sure Zero Trust access management doesn’t impact workflows and performance. For instance, if an employee changes roles, they will need updated access to required data. If that role change isn’t recognized quickly, users could be locked out of key files they need to do their job—hurting productivity and causing roadblocks in workflows.

7. Adjusting Mindsets

Building a Zero Trust model in a large organization requires buy-in from key stakeholders to ensure proper planning, training, and implementation. The project touches nearly everyone in the organization, so managers and leaders all must agree on the plan. With many organizations slow to implement such change, the politics of this alone can add a lot of strain on the successful performance of the project.

How to Achieve Zero Trust

Modern Access Management begins with one question: Who has access to what?

Zero Trust implementation won’t happen overnight. Often, existing infrastructure can be integrated into a Zero Trust approach, but to reach maturity, most networks will need to adopt and incorporate additional capabilities and processes.

Fortunately, transitioning to a mature Zero Trust architecture can occur one step at a time. And in fact, incrementally adopting a Zero Trust security posture can reduce risk as improved visibility enables the organization to adapt to meet threats as they emerge. Follow a strategic plan to adopt Zero Trust as part of a continually maturing roadmap.

From the initial planning to basic, intermediate, and advanced stages, your Zero Trust maturity model should help you improve cybersecurity protection, response, and operation over time.

Migrating to ZTA requires a thorough understanding of your network architecture’s current state, including all its assets (both physical and virtual), subjects, and business processes. If this information is incomplete, you will have blind spots in your network security—particularly if there are unknown “shadow IT” components operating within your ecosystem.

By conducting a comprehensive audit and analysis of your network’s current state, you can then map out what steps need to be taken to optimize the network for ideal ZTA.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) describes a Zero Trust Maturity Model enterprises can follow based on the key defensive pillars listed earlier. Additionally, it cites governance, how you control and direct your security strategy, as another key part of a mature ZTA foundation.

CISA’s model represents a gradient of implementation across those key pillars “where minor advancements can be made over time toward optimization.” Organizations can take isolated steps focusing on one pillar at a time, with each category progressing at its own pace until cross-coordination is required. This model supports gradual evolution toward Zero Trust, distributing costs and resources over time, and easing the burden of implementation.

Illustration of Star Trek Enterprise actors with message that reads "Who needs access to what?"
Who needs access to what?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has outlined six steps for migrating to a Zero Trust architecture.

  1. Identify Actors on the Enterprise.
    Who are your subjects and users? In order for Zero Trust to work, your policy engine needs to know who your enterprise subjects are and their access permissions. Pay attention to users with special privileges, such as developers or systems administrators who are often given blanket access on legacy systems. Zero Trust should allow these users enough flexibility to perform their work while applying logs and audit actions to verify and validate access.
  2. Identify Assets Owned by the Enterprise.
    Zero Trust Architecture also needs to be able to identify and manage assets and devices. These assets include hardware components like laptops, phones, and IoT devices, as well as digital artifacts, such as user accounts and applications.

    Managing enterprise assets involves not only cataloging but also configuration management and monitoring. Your architecture should be designed to observe the current state of an asset in order to effectively evaluate access requests.
  3. Identify Key Processes and Evaluate Risks Associated with Execution.
    The next step is to inventory and rank your business processes and data. Business processes should inform how resource access requests are granted and denied.

    Your assessment will help you identify which processes to target first for ZTA migration. You may want to start with low-risk business processes as disruptions are less likely to negatively impact the rest of the organization. Then, you can migrate more complex and business-critical processes.
  4. Formulate Policies for the ZTA Candidate.
    Which services or processes you target for initial ZTA migration will depend on a number of factors, including:

    • The importance of the process to the organization
    • The group of subjects affected
    • The current state of resources used for the workflow

    Assess the value of assets and workflows based on risk. Consider all upstream resources, downstream resources, and entities that are used or affected by the workflow. These can all influence which assets are chosen as candidates for migration.
  5. Identify Candidate Solutions.
    Once you’ve identified a list of potential candidates, create and consider a list of solutions to implement Zero Trust strategies. Keep in mind the various Zero Trust principles and requirements as you determine which candidates are best suited for migration.
  6. Initial Deployment and Monitoring.
    When you’ve chosen a candidate workflow and identified which ZTA solutions you’ll be applying, you can start deployment. This will be an iterative process as you observe and monitor the new solution and update the workflow as needed.

As you build up your Zero Trust architecture and gain confidence in the process, you’ll enter a steady operational phase. While you will continue to monitor and make adjustments to the network and assets, you can start planning the next phase of Zero Trust deployment.

Zero Trust Best Practices

  • Rigorously enforce authentication and authorization—All resources must be verified and authenticated. This often includes using technologies like multi-factor authentication (MFA) to grant access rather than operating on implicit trust.
  • Maintain data integrity—Measure and monitor the security of all owned assets to ensure data integrity and reduce cyber threats.
  • Gather data for improved security—Regularly collect data from multiple sources, like your network infrastructure and communication to continuously adapt and improve your security posture.
  • Consider every data source and computing device as a resource—Any device that has access to a network should be treated as a resource.
  • Keep all communication secured regardless of network location—Location no longer carries implied trust. Users and devices connecting via external or internal networks must undergo the same security requirements to gain access.
  • Grant resource access on a per-session basis—Enforce least privilege, requiring users to request access for each session.
  • Moderate access with a dynamic policy—Protect resources with a transparent and dynamic security policy that adapts to the evolving needs of the network and its users.

Zero Trust Architecture Examples (Use Cases)

Making the shift to Zero Trust may seem like a lengthy, technically complex process, with risks of service interruption and security gaps along the way. However, significant progress can be made simply by choosing technologies with Zero Trust principles built in, like StrongDM’s Zero Trust Privileged Access Management (PAM) Platform with Continuous Zero Trust Authorization. The following customer stories show exactly how companies dealing with overly complex, inadequately secured access management transitioned smoothly to advanced Zero Trust access control with StrongDM. 

Clarity AI Improves Visibility and Eliminates VPN

Clarity AI, a sustainability technology platform leveraging machine learning and big data, delivers environmental and social insights to investors, organizations, and consumers. Clarity AI’s platform analyzes over a million data points weekly from more than 49,000 companies, 220,000 funds, 198 countries, and 188 local governments. Clarity AI maintains offices in North America, Europe, and the Middle East, and a fully remote workforce spread across the globe.

Read the full Clarity AI case study here.

Over-Provisioning Access with VPNs Leads to Security Risk, Poor Visibility

Clarity AI relied on OpenVPN servers in AWS to manage developer access, leading to complexity and limited auditing capabilities. Users had to request temporary credentials via Slack and wait out a slow, manual approval process that burdened administrators. The OpenVPN setup also meant engineers had access to the entire infrastructure, an over-provisioning of access that brought security risks. As for auditing, it was only possible in broad strokes, with admins able to review who connected to the VPN, but not who connected to databases or what commands were issued. This setup was unsustainable and made Clarity AI a prime candidate for Zero Trust.

Clarity AI Secures Access with PoLP and Just-in-Time Access

Clarity AI’s IT and security manager, Luis Cuervo, researched various solutions and ultimately recommended StrongDM. The ease of implementation, flexible pricing structure, and exceptional customer support made StrongDM an easy choice over its Zero Trust competitors. StrongDM's tools and processes felt familiar, engineers didn’t need to overhaul scripts, and end users could access databases using their preferred clients. According to Cuervo, “It was flawless.”

With StrongDM, Clarity AI could eliminate its VPN, the central point of failure, and simplify access management. StrongDM's automated workflows and just-in-time privileged access streamlined the onboarding process and reduced administrative work. The comprehensive audit logs provided unprecedented visibility, allowing Clarity AI to track user activities and ensure compliance with security policies.

Key Benefits of StrongDM for Clarity AI:

  • VPN Elimination: By deploying StrongDM, Clarity AI eliminated OpenVPN, reducing security risks and simplifying access management.
  • Automated Onboarding and Offboarding: StrongDM's automation capabilities made onboarding and offboarding employees much easier, saving administrators’ time and labor.
  • Just-in-Time Privileged Access: StrongDM's Slack integration allowed developers to request privileged access directly within chat, with automated approval processes, reducing delays.
  • Detailed Audit Logs: StrongDM's detailed audit logs provide visibility into user activity, allowing Clarity AI to monitor every query and command, supporting compliance and security policy enforcement.
  • Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP): StrongDM's dynamic access workflows enabled Clarity AI to implement PoLP, granting access only when needed and minimizing security risks from over-permissioning.
  • Progress Toward Zero Trust: With StrongDM, Clarity AI has a powerful tool to pursue a full Zero Trust security model, with the flexibility to adapt as needed. It’s now on its way to achieving ISO 27001 compliance and other security goals.

Beekeeper Eliminates VPN Pain with Zero Trust Security

Beekeeper, a leading platform for connecting frontline teams, helps companies ditch paper and manual processes and improve employee engagement, retention, and performance. With fast growing adoption of its frontline success system, the company faced significant challenges in scaling its access management while maintaining security and efficiency. 

Read the full Beekeeper case study here.

Multiple VPNs Lead to Complexity, Security Risks, and Delays

The company relied on numerous VPNs—one for each region in AWS and GCP—creating a complex and cumbersome system. Engineers had to juggle multiple VPNs, leading to slow, frustrating processes. Also, each engineer required credentials to access different endpoints within the network, complicating access management and expanding the attack surface.

Beekeeper's Head of DevOps, Daniel Solsona, knew there had to be a better way. After evaluating several solutions, including Teleport and HashiCorp Boundary, Beekeeper selected StrongDM for its simplicity and technical advantages. StrongDM was easier to deploy and use, with a straightforward architecture compared to the competition. This made it easier for Beekeeper to transition from their existing setup to a Zero Trust model while streamlining their operations.

StrongDM Streamlines, Simplifies Access Management

A key benefit of StrongDM was its ease of use, leading to widespread adoption across Beekeeper's teams. Solsona recalled, "The previous approach was nuts and painful, but [StrongDM] is glorious." StrongDM's user-friendly deployment and seamless integration meant faster employee onboarding and offboarding. The ability to remove a user from the single sign-on (SSO) provider and instantly revoke all access was extremely simple, Solsona said.

"StrongDM was much simpler architecturally than Teleport. With Teleport, you need to run all these different services, and it got to be too much. It was much simpler to run StrongDM compared to Teleport. Hashicorp Boundary was 4-5 years away from what StrongDM is doing now"

- Daniel Solsona, Head of DevOps, Beekeeper

StrongDM's Access Workflows also helped Beekeeper automate workflows and route human approvals for access. With this feature, admins could make universal changes in the infrastructure without provisioning every user manually. It enabled Beekeeper to implement the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP), granting specific people access only when needed and with appropriate controls. By reducing end-user credentials and adopting a just-in-time access approach, Beekeeper took significant steps toward achieving Zero Trust.

Key Benefits of StrongDM for Beekeeper:

  • Elimination of Multiple VPNs: StrongDM enabled Beekeeper to eliminate the need for separate VPNs for each region in AWS and GCP, simplifying access management.
  • Simplified Onboarding and Offboarding: StrongDM made it easy to add or remove users from the system, ensuring a smooth, secure transition when employees join or leave the company.
  • Automated Access Workflows: StrongDM's Access Workflows feature automated the process of granting access, reducing manual interventions and streamlining operations.
  • Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP): With StrongDM, Beekeeper could implement PoLP, granting access only when necessary and reducing the risk of over-permissioning.
  • Comprehensive Audit Logs: StrongDM's detailed audit logs allowed Beekeeper to track user activities and ensure compliance with security policies.
  • Zero Trust Implementation: StrongDM provided the flexibility and simplicity needed for Beekeeper to pursue its Zero Trust initiatives, offering a clear path to achieving this security model.

Better.com Adopts Zero Trust Access

Better.com is an online lender that provides a 100 percent digital home buying process that is faster, easier, and more transparent. As a financial tech company handling sensitive customer data, Better.com needs a robust network security approach. But prior to strongDM, they didn’t have an efficient management system for database access. 

Read the full Better.com case study here.

Weeklong Waits for Access Lead to Productivity Losses

Despite their highly digitized public-facing services, their backend management processes and governance operations were highly manual—creating burdensome overhead costs and increased risk of error. As a result, it often took up to a week to get access provisioned. This not only took team members away from higher priority activities but also had a downstream impact on productivity in favor of security. And with 41 databases and five database management systems, this approach was unsustainable—they needed a solution that could help them implement Zero Trust across their systems while scaling and strengthening their data security posture.

StrongDM Makes Access Control Easy, Boosting Productivity

That’s where strongDM came in. StrongDM makes it easy to grant access and audit access control. Better.com was able to implement strongDM within a day and started seeing results immediately. In fact, within a week, Better.com saw an increase in user requests once users saw how easy it was to access databases.

And users can access the database from anywhere. “For Zero Trust, StrongDM is an amazing tool—BYOD, within the company, outside [the company], wherever you need to go, you can access the data in a secure way,” says Ali Khan, CISO at Better.com.

Key Benefits of StrongDM for Beekeeper:

  • Proactive data loss prevention: With StrongDM, Better shifted from a reactive security posture to a proactive approach to data loss prevention. By monitoring and detecting suspicious activity in real time, Better.com was able to suspend users before they could cause damage.
  • Faster incident response: StrongDM’s audit capabilities ensure all activities are logged and tracked, from permission changes to employee queries. This provides peace of mind while ensuring compliance and the ability to respond quickly to potential incidents.
  • Reduced overhead costs: StrongDM relieves the burden on security teams to monitor and manage database connections so they can focus on other priorities. Before strongDM, it took Better.com’s team a week to get someone provisioned. Now it takes just minutes.
  • Improved compliance and regulatory adherence: StrongDM enables stronger and simpler compliance without unnecessarily locking down data and preventing business users from accessing the information they need to do their jobs.

Why PAM Requires a Zero Trust Approach

Privileged access management is a crucial security tool, protecting access to important systems and data. However, it can create a major weakness in an organization’s security posture if it is not managed correctly. Old-fashioned PAM depends on static permissions and fixed roles, which many times give more access than needed. Once users receive permission, they can freely move around the system, creating openings for exploitation or attacks if credentials fall into the wrong hands. A new breed of PAM with Zero Trust built in provided a stronger and more adaptable solution by constantly verifying permission  access according to contextual data that are updated in real time.

Zero Trust Privileged Access Management (PAM) must include continuous authorization, micro-authorizations, and strong policy enforcement and management to deal with the ever-changing character of today's security dangers. Combined, these capabilities verify users at all critical points, keep privileges to the minimum necessary, and stop attackers from moving sideways.

Let’s look closer at each of the three key elements of Zero Trust PAM. 

Continuous Zero Trust Authorization

Continuous Zero Trust Authorization is a dynamic access control approach that monitors privileged access and activities across an organization's infrastructure in real time. With traditional PAM, access is typically evaluated once and remains static until explicitly revoked. By contrast, Zero Trust PAM requires Continuous Authorization to enforce contextual policies to authorize access wherever appropriate, ensuring faultless security.

Zero Trust PAM should feature continuous authorization with several key elements including: 

  • Visibility: Continuous monitoring of access and operations enables real-time detection of unusual behavior or potential threats. This requires comprehensive logging and tracking capabilities.
  • Flexible Access Controls: Policies must consider a wide range of factors such as device type and posture, user roles, geographic location, IP addresses, and resource-specific attributes. Flexible and customizable policy management enables dynamic authorization based on current conditions rather than static roles. 
  • Support for Multiple Authentication Factors: Role-based access control (RBAC) alone is not enough to enable Zero Trust Continuous Authentication. In addition, Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC), Policy-Based Access Control (PBAC), and *BAC (Anything-based Access Control) are needed. For example, Integrating device trust ensures that only devices meeting specific security standards gain access, adding an additional layer of security, 
  • Distributed Policies: Enforcement must be possible across the entire infrastructure, regardless of location, system, or network topology. This ensures consistent application of security policies.
  • Dynamic Risk Assessment: The ability to evaluate risk in real-time and adjust access accordingly is crucial. This includes responding to potential threats by enforcing stricter policies or revoking access if necessary.

Policy Enforcement and Management

The second key element to Zero Trust PAM is a rigorous and adaptable approach to policy enforcement and management, designed for consistency, context, and continuous compliance. Consistent application of policies across an organization's entire infrastructure is needed. However, with a large number of systems and applications, ensuring uniform security can be challenging. 

Here are the most important elements of Zero Trust PAM policy enforcement and management:

  • Centralized Policy Management
    Centralized policy management is the foundation of Zero-Trust PAM, encompassing existing security resources while adding layers of protection. A robust policy engine allows security teams to apply policies universally, reducing administrative overhead and conflicts caused by redundant, disjointed security solutions. By creating policies once and applying them across all systems, organizations keep the number of roles manageable and streamline access control.
  • Granular Context-Based Policies for Zero Trust Access Control
    Fine-grained, context-based policies reduce the risk of unauthorized access, limit potential damage from compromised accounts, and enable real-time responses to unapproved actions. By considering factors like user roles, device type, geographic location, and resource attributes, organizations can define precise permissions to control exactly who can access what, when, and under what circumstances.
  • Continuous Compliance
    Adaptable policies that can be enforced instantly in response to suspected threats eliminate trust from any and all access decisions. They provide constant, verifiable compliance, preventing lateral movement by attackers and allowing quick response to suspicious activity.
  • Distributed Policy Enforcement
    A key aspect of Zero-Trust PAM is the ability to enforce policies regardless of where the activity takes place. Distributed policies ensure that access controls are effective throughout the network, whether in on-premises environments or the cloud. This flexibility enables organizations to maintain a strong Zero Trust security posture, even as infrastructure evolves and expands.

Micro-authorizations and fine-grained access control

Traditional PAM, with its implementation of RBAC and PoLP, leaves something to be desired when it comes to Zero Trust security. Zero Trust PAM solutions that offer micro-authorizations and fine-grained access control can limit and define access much more granularly. With micro-authorizations, companies can flexibly and precisely apply context-based policies at the operational level. This shift parallels the principles of microservices but applies them to the realm of access control.

Here’s why fine-grained access control (FGAC) with micro-authorizations are essential forZero Trust PAM:

1. Flexibility and Precision with Fine-Grained Access Control (FGAC)
Traditional Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) often relies on a single factor—like user roles—to grant access. This coarse-grained approach doesn't account for varying contexts, potentially leading to access decisions that assume trust,  implicitly or explicitly. Fine-grained access control (FGAC) provides a more flexible and precise mechanism for determining user access. Unlike CGAC, FGAC uses multiple factors, including policies, attributes, and user behavior, to grant or deny access. This allows organizations to enforce specific permissions, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and limiting the damage caused by compromised accounts.

2. Multiple Access Controls
FGAC supports multiple access controls, such as attribute-based access control (ABAC), policy-based access control (PBAC), behavior-based access control (BBAC), and even anything-based access control *BAC.  Context-aware policies consider a wide array of factors, like device type and posture, user roles, geographic location, IP addresses, and resource-specific attributes, to grant or deny access based on current conditions rather than static roles. They allow organizations to enforce permissions based on real-time data, dynamically adjusting as circumstances change.

3. Automated Micro-Authorizations
Micro-authorizations allows organizations to customize policies for highly granular contexts that traditional RBAC may not be able to handle. By integrating with identity providers and security systems, micro-authorizations can adjust access permissions based on current conditions. Instead of a single point of control, a network proxy forms a secured bridge between trust and authorization. A granular policy engine can authorize a specific user to perform a precise operation on a particular resource. For example, a user might have permission to read from a database table but not to drop or update it. It’s also possible to enforce additional controls for high-risk actions, like secondary approvals or enhanced verification methods.

4. Just-in-Time and Zero Standing Privileges
Fine-grained access control supports just-in-time (JIT) access, allowing users to gain access to resources only when necessary and for a limited time. This approach aligns with Zero Standing Privileges, where permanent access is minimized, reducing opportunities for breach or attack. With JIT access, users no longer need standing permissions for multiple resources, decreasing the risk of lateral movement by attackers.

5. Improved User Productivity
With FGAC, users can quickly determine what they can access based on their roles or attributes, reducing long approval processes and streamlining workflows. This results in a seamless user experience, allowing employees to focus on their work without delays or friction from their PAM solution.

Transition to Zero Trust Today

Access management is a key part of building a successful and robust Zero Trust security posture. But disparate systems and manual processes mean creating unique roles for every individual is a time-consuming and costly endeavor—and one that can leave your network vulnerable. StrongDM makes it easy to transition to a Zero Trust security model by managing and auditing access to databases, servers, clusters, and web apps for you.

StrongDM simplifies the implementation of Zero Trust to your infrastructure by providing:

  • A single Zero Trust tool for all of your infrastructure—strongDM integrates out of the box with any identity provider via OpenID Connect (OIDC) protocols to secure access to any server, database, or other firewalled resource regardless of where it's hosted. You don't have to worry about complex configuration of access controls or using a range of micro-segmentation tools to authenticate users. From a central control plane, admins can view all connected resources, all active users, and all user permissions.
  • Segmentation—StrongDM architecture creates a software-defined network (SDN) that proxies client traffic through a centralized gateway to monitor and manage access to your resources. By doing so, the backend network topology and configurations can be greatly simplified by only processing traffic from the gateway, allowing access logic to be implemented and managed in a single location.
A diagram of strongDM Zero Trust Segmentation
  • Access control—StrongDM allows admins to create and assign roles, or a collection of permissions, to groups of users. By doing so, admins can manage access control at a higher level of abstraction and can easily assign permissions across different subsets of users. The implementation of the configuration and network changes is handled automatically and the changes are deployed across the network. In addition to ensuring proper Zero Trust infrastructure, this makes it very easy to onboard and offboard employees, contractors, and vendors. The administrators simply have to link their identity account and assign the appropriate roles, with the backend registrations and access controls automatically set.
A diagram of strongDM access control while ensuring proper Zero Trust
  • Visibility—By centralizing logic into a control plane, strongDM allows administrators to easily audit usage. This greatly simplifies the process and reduces the possibility of human error.

Imagining an ideal, fully Zero Trust architecture can make the path to achieving it seem daunting (not to mention cost-prohibitive). But it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, Zero Trust isn’t a technology but a security framework and philosophy, which means you can build it into your existing architecture without completely ripping out existing infrastructure.

Zero Trust PAM: The Future of Zero Trust with StrongDM

Zero Trust Architecture is the new security standard for modern enterprises, yet Privileged Access Management (PAM) has traditionally been a weak point, often relying on static permissions and long-lived access. StrongDM's Dynamic Access Management (DAM) with Continuous Zero Trust Authorization offers a solution by enabling real-time monitoring, contextual policies, and distributed enforcement to ensure privileged access is granted only when highly specific fine-grained criteria are satisfied, and only for the time and the task needed. 

Continuous Zero Trust Authorization

StrongDM's Continuous Zero Trust Authorization is designed to provide real-time control over access and operations across an organization's infrastructure. It addresses a critical weakness in traditional PAM: once access is granted, users can navigate the system with limited oversight, leading to potential over-permissioning. By continuously evaluating and authorizing access based on dynamic context, StrongDM reduces the risk of unauthorized access and prevents the escalation of privileges that can lead to security breaches.

Micro-Authorizations: A New Approach to Access Control

Traditional Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) grants access static permissions based on a single factor, often resulting in over-provisioning. This can lead to users with excessive access, posing significant security risks. The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) aims to grant the minimum access necessary, but without granular controls, it can still allow for over-permissioning, as roles and permissions remain broad with little reference to context.

StrongDM introduces micro-authorizations as an improvement on traditional RBAC and PoLP. Micro-authorizations grant permissions at a much finer granularity, allowing organizations to control access not just per user, but also for specific operations. This approach leverages distributed policy enforcement and context-based controls to grant or deny access based on real-time data, reducing the potential for over-provisioning. The shift to micro-authorizations parallels the principles of microservices but applies them to the realm of access control.

Organizations can customize policies for highly granular contexts. For example, with micro-authorizations, a user might be allowed to read from a database table but not drop or modify it. This level of control ensures that high-risk actions are automatically subject to additional checks, such as secondary approvals or enhanced verification checks. Automated Just-in-Time privileged access eliminates static permissions, granting access only when needed, reducing the potential for lateral movement and aligning with the Zero Trust principle of "never trust, always verify."

Strong Policy Engine and Centralized Policy Management

StrongDM's Strong Policy Engine, powered by the Cedar Policy Language, plays a crucial role in enabling micro-authorizations. The engine supports distributed enforcement of centralized policies, allowing for sub-millisecond policy evaluations. Centralized policy management further simplifies administration, enabling organizations to create policies once and apply them universally across all systems and applications, on premises or in the cloud. This is essential for modern IT environments with an unprecedented number of systems, each with its own unique configuration and access requirements. This approach supports rapid adaptation to changing conditions while maintaining Zero Trust security.

Context-Based Signals and Device Trust

StrongDM's Zero Trust PAM technology can analyze context-based signals to assess risk and determine appropriate access. Factors like geography, device type, IP addresses, and resource-specific tags offer a nuanced understanding of a user's environment, supporting dynamic access control. The addition of Device Trust, which integrates with security solutions like CrowdStrike and SentinelOne, adds a critical context signal, allowing organizations to assess device health and security posture when making authorization decisions.

Global Visibility and Auditing 

StrongDM provides detailed audit logs, allowing organizations to monitor user activity and ensure compliance with security policies. These granular audit trails provide a complete record of policy changes, access requests, and approvals. Also, distributed policy enforcement ensures that these monitoring capabilities extend across all environments, whether on-premises, cloud-based, or hybrid. This level of visibility and monitoring is essential for a successful Zero Trust strategy, enabling swift response to threats to maintain a high level of security.

Enter the Future of Security with Zero Trust PAM

StrongDM offers a superior alternative to traditional PAM for modern enterprises facing an growing landscape of novel threat types. Our Dynamic Access Management platform with Continuous Zero Trust Authorization makes implementing true Zero Trust access control easy. By addressing the limitations of traditional RBAC and PoLP with capabilities that reduce over-provisioning, secure access at the operational level, and support flexible, context-aware policies, StrongDM provides a powerfully transformative tool for organizations moving into the future of security with Zero Trust architecture.

Want to learn more? Get a demo of StrongDM.


About the Author

, DAM Evangelist, has had a long 30+ year career in systems engineering and architecture, but has spent the last 13+ years working on the Cloud, and specifically, Cloud Security. He's currently the DAM Evangelist at StrongDM, taking the message of Dynamic Access Management to the world. As a practitioner, he architected and created cloud automation, DevOps, and security and compliance solutions at Netflix and Adobe. He worked closely with customers at Evident.io, where he was telling the world about how cloud security should be done at conferences, meetups and customer sessions. Before coming to StrongDM, he lead an innovations and solutions team at Palo Alto Networks, working across many of the company's security products.

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