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AWS IAM vs Amazon Cognito: What are the differences?

AWS IAM (Identity and Access Management) and Amazon Cognito, both services are offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS) and provide different functionalities for managing user identities and access to resources. Let's discuss the key differences between the two:

  1. Scalability and User Management: AWS IAM is primarily designed for managing access to AWS resources within an organization. It allows administrators to control user identities, their permissions, and access to various AWS services. On the other hand, Amazon Cognito is a fully managed authentication service that provides scalable user management capabilities for web and mobile applications. It offers features like user sign-up and sign-in, social identity providers integration, and multi-factor authentication.

  2. Federated Identity and User Pools: AWS IAM supports federated identity through its Identity Providers feature. This allows users to log in to AWS services using their existing identities from external providers like Active Directory or Facebook. Amazon Cognito, on the other hand, provides user pools which are user directories that enable sign-up and sign-in functionality for applications. User pools also support social identity providers integration and can be used as federated identity providers for AWS services.

  3. Temporary Credentials and Access Control: AWS IAM allows users to generate temporary credentials to access AWS resources for a limited duration. These credentials can be used by applications or services to access resources securely without storing permanent credentials. Amazon Cognito, however, provides a different approach to access control using identity pools. Identity pools allow applications to exchange user authentication for temporary, limited-privilege AWS credentials. This enables fine-grained access control based on user attributes and roles.

  4. Single Sign-On (SSO) and Identity Federation: AWS IAM supports Single Sign-On (SSO) through the use of SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) or OpenID Connect identity providers. This enables users to sign in to the AWS Management Console and access multiple AWS accounts or applications without separate authentication. Amazon Cognito also supports SSO but focuses more on decentralizing authentication for applications using user pools or social identity providers.

  5. Pricing Model: AWS IAM is mainly included in the overall pricing of AWS services and is not charged separately. However, some additional features like IAM roles for EC2 instances may have associated costs. Amazon Cognito, on the other hand, has its own pricing model based on the number of monthly active users and the amount of data stored. It offers different pricing tiers based on the specific needs of applications and the desired level of scalability.

  6. Integration and Use Cases: While AWS IAM is tightly integrated with AWS services and is commonly used within organizations for managing access to AWS resources, Amazon Cognito is more suitable for web and mobile applications that require user authentication and authorization capabilities. It provides out-of-the-box integration with mobile SDKs and web frameworks, making it easier to implement user management functionality in applications.

In summary, AWS IAM focuses on managing access to AWS resources within an organization, while Amazon Cognito provides scalable user management for web and mobile applications with features like user sign-up, sign-in, federated identity, and single sign-on capabilities.

Decisions about Amazon Cognito and AWS IAM
Brent Maxwell
Amazon CognitoAmazon Cognito

I started our team on Amazon Cognito because I was a Solutions Architect at AWS and found it really easy to follow the tutorials and get a basic app up and running with it.

When our team started working with it, they very quickly became frustrated because of the poor documentation. After 4 days of trying to get all the basic passwordless auth working, our lead engineer made the decision to abandon it and try Auth0... and managed to get everything implemented in 4 hours.

The consensus was that Cognito just isn't mature enough or well-documented, and that the implementation does not cater for real world use cases the way that it should. I believe Amplify has made some of this simpler, but I would still recommend Auth0 as it's been bulletproof for us, and is a sensible price.

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Pros of Amazon Cognito
Pros of AWS IAM
  • 14
    Backed by Amazon
  • 7
    Manage Unique Identities
  • 4
    Work Offline
  • 3
  • 2
    Store and Sync
  • 1
    Free for first 50000 users
  • 1
    It works
  • 1
    Integrate with Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, SAML
  • 1
    SDKs and code samples
  • 23
    Centralized powerful permissions based access
  • 3
    Straightforward SSO integration

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Cons of Amazon Cognito
Cons of AWS IAM
  • 4
    Massive Pain to get working
  • 3
    Documentation often out of date
  • 2
    Login-UI sparsely customizable (e.g. no translation)
  • 1
    Docs are vast but mostly useless
  • 1
    MFA: there is no "forget device" function
  • 1
    Difficult to customize (basic-pack is more than humble)
  • 1
    Lacks many basic features
  • 1
    There is no "Logout" method in the API
  • 1
    Different Language SDKs not compatible
  • 1
    No recovery codes for MFA
  • 1
    Hard to find expiration times for tokens/codes
  • 1
    Only paid support
  • 1
    Cloud auth limited to resources, no apps or services
  • 1
    No equivalent for on-premise networks, must adapt to AD

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What is Amazon Cognito?

You can create unique identities for your users through a number of public login providers (Amazon, Facebook, and Google) and also support unauthenticated guests. You can save app data locally on users’ devices allowing your applications to work even when the devices are offline.

What is AWS IAM?

It enables you to manage access to AWS services and resources securely. Using IAM, you can create and manage AWS users and groups, and use permissions to allow and deny their access to AWS resources.

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What companies use Amazon Cognito?
What companies use AWS IAM?
See which teams inside your own company are using Amazon Cognito or AWS IAM.
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What tools integrate with Amazon Cognito?
What tools integrate with AWS IAM?

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