The difference between IAM and CIAM

Author: Thomas Bröker

Last updated: August 1, 2022

The terms IAM and CIAM may seem interchangeable, but there are some important differences. Time to clear things up: we’ll outline the basic concept and functionalities of each system so you can decide which is right for your business.

What is IAM?

Identity and Access Management (IAM) systems were originally developed to manage access for employees. This internal focus naturally resulted in strong corporate access management tools with excellent employee functionalities. On the flip side, IAM systems were not designed to accommodate user demands: since employees are a captive audience, the user experience did not really matter. Although most IAM systems can be adapted to serve external parties as well, it typically takes a lot of work to get them working with external applications, and the resulting customer experience is often far from smooth.

What is CIAM?

Customer Identity and Access Management (CIAM) platforms are specifically designed to cater to external parties. This is reflected by the flexibility and scalability of the design; these solutions typically offer mass-market scalability and can be integrated with many different external applications. If you’d like a more in-depth perspective, take a look at our article “What is CIAM?”


What do they have in common?

As the names reveal, both IAM and CIAM are about identity and access management. They allow users to create an identity and use it to securely access certain systems and information. Both IAM and CIAM systems will offer built-in security and integrations with other software, notably databases and business systems. According to analysts KuppingerCole, CIAM is really a segment of IAM: it is based on the same concept.

Key differences

Although IAM and CIAM systems certainly have a lot in common, there are some notable differences that strongly affect the value each system can add to your business. These differences all stem from one core element: the intended user base. Let’s take a look at what this means in practice:




Primary focus


Inward-looking, employees

Outward-looking, customers and stakeholders

User experience


One size fits all, legacy systems can create obstacles, not designed for customization

Seamless, omni-channel, progressive profiling, fully customizable



Accommodates up to 1000s of accounts

Scalable to mass consumer numbers (billions if need be)



Selected authentication methods available, rigid structure, limited flexibility in terms of devices and user experience

Flexible authentication, agile structure (plug and play through integrations, see below), BYOD, customizable user experience


Limited integration compatibility resulting in manual work (e.g. data-entry into CRM)

Internal systems, external identities, innovative third-party applications (IoT), etc. through APIs

Data management


Not designed to capture rich profile data

Progressive profiling, generate data based on user activity

Why does this matter? 

We are in the middle of a digital transformation: business and retail activity across all market segments is rapidly moving online. As this shift continues, consumers and stakeholders expect a frictionless online experience. At the same time, regulators are tightening their grip on the security of online (personal) data (GDPR) and financial transactions (PSD2). To stay competitive as a business, you will need to get ahead of these developments with an adaptable, highly secure identity and access management solution. That is why it is important to know what your options are. If you are dealing with external users, such as customers, business partners or other stakeholders, a CIAM system is the perfect solution to future-proof your business.

To find out whether CIAM is right for you, take a look at our article “What can CIAM do for your business?”