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Last updated date : 14 Jun 2023

What is a service account?

Service accounts are privileged domain accounts, which are used by critical applications or services to interact with their operating systems, and to execute batch files, scheduled tasks, and applications hosted across databases, file systems, and devices. These accounts are controlled by "non-human" users, such as systems, scripts, applications, and are typically provided with elevated privileges to business-critical applications, databases, web services, APIs, and so on.

Categories of service accounts

  • Account Type
  • Shared

    Accounts that are used by two or more users on a system. Account credentials are shared among the users.

  • System

    Also known as "Superuser" or privileged accounts. These administrative accounts are used to enable communications and processes within the operating system (e.g., root on UNIX).

  • Non-Interactive

    Accounts that are used to execute system processes and services, such as running automated scripts, batch files, and scheduled tasks. End users can not log into these accounts.

Note: There could be more sub-classifications of accounts that might fall under the OS and service account categories.

What is an example of a service account?

There are plenty of service accounts that are used for day-to-day interactions in both Linux and Windows environments. Microsoft classifies service accounts in three different categories–Standalone Managed Service Accounts, Group-Managed Service Accounts, and Virtual Accounts–depending on the needs for the respective service.

01. Standalone Managed Service Accounts

Service accounts that fall under this category are autonomous accounts that can manage their own security context for specific services on a single computer. An example is one that handles the security for a web server application like Internet Information Services (IIS) on one computer, acting as a dedicated helper.

02. Group-Managed Service Accounts

Although similar to the Standalone Managed Service Accounts, these accounts extend their functionality across multiple servers. An example is a network load balancer operating across multiple servers, where all instances of the service need the same security context.

03. Virtual Accounts

Virtual accounts are locally managed accounts that provide simple administration of services without the need for password management. These accounts are often used by applications and system services that are bundled with the operating system. For example, the Windows Update services function with the help of virtual accounts.


Similar to those in Windows, these service accounts are commonly found in and help run services, daemons, or processes in a Linux environment. For example, service accounts like mysql and postgres help run database services like MySQL or PostgreSQL. These accounts are designed to have privileges to access and manage the database files.

Service account management challenges

There are several reasons why mismanagement of service accounts can pose significant security risks to organizations.

01. Too complex for manual management

Service accounts, albeit simple to configure and use, are tightly interconnected, and shared with several applications and services. Further, they are referenced in multiple instances across multiple assets and applications, which makes the management of these accounts so complex that even the slightest oversight with the chain of dependencies could cause cascading system failures.

02. Backdoor to privileged information

Service accounts are, more often than not, tied to business-critical applications, and hence can require privileged access to servers, databases, and other assets. With a single compromised account, attackers can gain complete control over privileged assets, endpoints, and shared sensitive information.

03. High-value, easy target for attackers

Since service accounts are mostly used by non-human entities to perform operations, security controls such as two-factor authentication (TFA) cannot be applied, as it requires human interaction for authentication purposes. To complicate this, passwords of service accounts are set to remain permanent because frequent password rotation of these accounts can cause unforeseen lockouts and disruptions. As a result, service accounts become an easy and lucrative target for attackers.

Best practices for efficient service account management

As organizations grow, manual management of service accounts becomes overwhelming and laborious because of the number of applications and services accessed by them. Due to the pervasiveness and proliferation of service accounts, and the increasing risk of them being an easy target, it is important to actively monitor, administer, and audit the use of these accounts. For organizations to identify and thwart possible service account exploitation, they will have to implement a course of action that strikes a fine balance between operations and security.

While identity governance and administration (IGA) tools aid in managing credentials of privileged individual accounts, they do not provide management of service accounts that are tied to non-human entities. Here are some best practices to help you effectively manage and safeguard your service accounts from attacks.

01. Discover your organization's service accounts.

You can not protect your service accounts if you have not identified them yet. The first step in securing service accounts is to discover them throughout the network and within applications, and to identify the activities tied to them. This will help IT admins uncover and fortify the security loopholes that provide a backdoor entry to privileged data.

02. Build an inventory of service account credentials and dependencies

To establish accountability and control over service accounts, IT admins need to develop an inventory of associated applications, users, and services that depend on the respective service accounts. Organizations should take the following steps to build a service accounts inventory:

  • Establish a clear-cut workflow for service account creation, onboarding, and usage tracking.
  • Scan the application environment periodically to discover newer service accounts, and the services, applications, and other service accounts they are connected to.
  • Ensure that service account credentials are regularly rotated and updated based on standard password policies.
  • Review the status of service accounts: active, inactive, and deleted. Ensure that expired service accounts are removed from the network.

03. Secure access to service accounts.

To counter the risks of service account abuse, organizations should strongly consider investing in privileged access management (PAM) solutions, which aid in streamlining the management of the service account lifecycle. PAM tools enable IT admins to develop strong governance over the service accounts spread across the corporate network using effective automations to discover, secure, and monitor access to these accounts. A strong PAM solution provides a secure vault to store and rotate the credentials of service accounts, and allows sharing of passwords to non-admin users based on specific requirements. This helps prevent unauthorized access to service accounts, and safeguards these accounts from privilege misuse.

Integrating PAM tools with SIEM tools and IT analytics tools enables IT admins to monitor user activity with these accounts, identify and contain abnormal behavior, and adhere to compliance policies by generating real-time reports.

04. Establish sound governance of service accounts.

It is important for organizations to assert governance over service accounts and passwords by building specific security controls based on existing policies and standards. This includes assigning ownership, roles and responsibilities for privileged users, and delegating ownership with a role-based sharing system for users, owners, admins, and super admins (approvers). Besides user training and education, organizations need to establish a well-defined workflow for service account creation, review, and mapping processes to gain complete visibility over these accounts.

The service account workflow should address these questions:

  • Who should create service accounts, and who should approve access to them?
  • Who will be the default owner of service accounts?
  • How often will these accounts be reviewed? Will the review process be aligned with internal policy and/or compliance requirements?
  • What will be the password policy for service accounts?
  • If a service account has to be renewed, does it have to go through an approval process that is similar to account creation?
  • Is there a provision to automatically decommission expired/inactive service accounts?

05. Embrace automation.

Establishing a tangible workflow can streamline the management of service accounts, but it is almost impossible to manage the entire lifecycle of every account in a large scale environment. This is where automation comes into play.

Once a well-defined workflow is put in place, organizations can leverage automation tools that can centralize the management of service accounts. These tools help IT admins gain granular control over service accounts, and aid in managing the complete account lifecycle from automatic discovery, to building workflow templates that comply with internal policies, to providing compliance reports to meet security objectives.

Automating service account management empowers privileged admins to create and review designated users, groups, and roles, as well as secure access to service accounts. Some automation tools enable admins to provision and de-provision service accounts automatically, and provide admins with options to customize their workflows based on specific business requirements, and type of service account request.

To proactively prevent misuse, automation tools provide real-time status reports for service accounts, and help admins decommission expired or inactive accounts without disruptions in operations. In addition, these tools notify admins whenever service accounts are created, approved, renewed, and deleted.

How are your service accounts managed?

Most organizations have no security measures in place to manage their service accounts. If you haven't safeguarded your service accounts yet, it's time to adopt an effective service account management strategy using a solution like ManageEngine Password Manager Pro. Using Password Manager Pro, you can efficiently discover, manage, and secure all your service accounts from one place.

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Frequently asked questions

  • What is the difference between service accounts and user accounts?

    A user account is often created and managed by human users. These accounts are used by humans to interact with the device and its associated applications and network. A service account, however, is created for and used by non-human entities, such as applications and other machine-managed services, to perform system automated tasks. Unlike user accounts, service accounts are often granted limited privileges to perform their tasks. Also, service accounts do not require human intervention and are often automated.

  • What is the difference between service accounts and managed service accounts?

    Managed service accounts are a type of service accounts that differ from other normal service accounts. For example, managed service accounts can rotate credentials automatically, and provide other enhanced security features, such as isolation. Unlike typical service accounts that might require manual distribution and management of cryptographic keys, managed service accounts can automatically control key distribution.

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