Single sign-on (SSO) is a user authentication service where one set of login identifications are used to access several applications. Its effectiveness lies in its simplicity; SSO authenticates you on one specific platform, and with this authentication, it enables you to use a variety of services, without having to log in and out each time.
People might recognize SSO from the social sign-on they see on popular websites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter etc. Each of these platforms allows you to sign-in into a host of third-party services and websites. In the enterprise space, a firm might use SSO to allow users to log into proprietary web applications (hosted on an internal server) or cloud hosted ERP systems, for example.
SSO when implemented correctly, can be great for an organizational efficiency, IT management, and infrastructure security. With one security credential (a username and password), you can enable and de-authorize access of a user to multiple systems, platforms and other resources such as apps etc. SSO also decreases the risk of weak or lost passwords.
A well-executed Single sign on strategy can eradicate costs related to password resets, downtime etc. It can also substantially reduce the risk of insider threats, whilst enhancing user experience and authentication processes. Most importantly, it puts the organization firmly in control of all aspects of user access.
Why single sign-on?
SSO’s rise accords with other notable and interconnected trends, such as the growth of public cloud, password fatigue, advanced developer procedures, enterprise mobility adoption, and rise of web and cloud-native applications.
The trend towards cloud applications in particular presents itself both as an opportunity and a roadblock. Now a days, enterprises use more and more cloud applications for their business and operational needs. This brings the topic of Identity and access to limelight as managing identity on Cloud is different to managing identity on-premise. The technology, scope of security, scope and scale is completely new and this presents itself as a challenge too. Now a days, users tend to login from any location and any device. All their contents are stored on cloud and SSO is a great way for users to access all their content with one go. Enabling this SSO is a different issue altogether.
Let us now look on why you should use SSO. The first and foremost reason is that it enhances user experience by halting the straggle of many usernames and passwords. The second reason is that it enhances security.
Expanding on the security part, the main cause of breaches is compromised credentials. Keeping a large number of usernames and passwords can be a hassle. To counter this, we tend to use the same password everywhere and these passwords are often simple and easy to crack.
Cloud applications are throwing new challenges to IT teams. The questions firms face pertains to creating and managing user accounts, ensuring correct entitlement and making sure that upon departure, an employee’s digital footprints are properly offboarded.
The proliferation of various identity silos over multiple solutions is also a pain. For e.g. an organization might adopt Office 365, DropBox and Slack but it might not be comfortable in having three different set of logins for all the apps. In these scenarios, SSO becomes vital and almost a prerequisite for cloud solutions.
Plus, the BYOD (bring your own device) culture makes SSO a priority as security controls such as features such as continuous and multi-factor authentication, situation-aware access controls, real time user analytics etc. cannot be deployed and controlled by using traditional methods.
Single sign-on benefits
The biggest benefit of SSO is the scalability it provides. Your credentials are now automatically managed and manual intervention for each step is eliminated. This also eradicates the errors caused by humans and IT personnel can now utilize their time to focus on more strategic tasks.
Fast provisioning for cloud-first applications is another important benefit- a SSO can support open standards such SAML 2.0 etc. This way, the application can be quickly deployed by an SSO admin and rolled out to all the employees in the firm. The security aspect of SSO is also enhanced when you combine it with other technologies such as Two-factor or Multi-factor authentications etc. This helps the organization gain in productivity and the IT team has to now deal with lower costs related to password resets etc.
SSO also makes the onboarding of new people into the SaaS applications faster and easier. It also eliminates “shadow IT developing”. Plus, it can also limit the access of employees depending on their workplace. For e.g. you can access an application only when you are in office while it won’t be accessible when you are working remotely. Overall SSO is a straightforward approach in managing approval workflow. The right SSO implementation allows IT personnel to decide who, when and where anyone can access the specific applications. SSO keeps the workplace safe, while facilitating employees to work in a fitting manner. SSO is a key integral part of a firm’s risk management mechanisms, improving security, accessibility and mitigating the chances of a breach.
Single sign-on implementation
The IT landscape changes at a rapid rate. New advancements in technology makes it harder for companies to secure their valuable assets. IAM is the door which protects companies from external or internal privacy breaches. The important question thus arises is how do organization implement Single Sign when the technology around changes so much? This also includes the changes in the infrastructure on which the technology is stacked. Below is the list of recommended steps:
a. The list of applications and their scope must be defined.
b. Ensure that all applications support SSO. If that’s not the case then take it with the vendor.
c. Evaluate the main identity source for users. For e.g. it can be Microsoft Active Directory, Google directory, LDAP etc.
d. Illustrate all the policies and applications which will be leveraged by the SSO solution.
e. Define user access mechanism i.e. which user will be accessing which application and also determine the access scenario w.r.t workplace or remote.
f. Then use the information to grant appropriate access to employees, partners and contractors. This will also serve as a reference point when time comes to tweak the access scenario.
Firms have to access their current authentication schemes and, on many occasions, companies could keep more than one scheme in place. Although it can add to complexity but it can also provide additional security as companies might want a completely different IAM system for assets they deem too valuable. Having said that, the all-important question of cost and accessibility comes into picture-the applications shouldn’t be too complex and the cost shouldn’t burn a big hole in the pocket. It is the duty of firms to look them all under one management solution, expand whenever required, adopt new technologies on-the-go and continue making the Identity system secure and seamless.
Now what about legacy apps? Do you just dump them and go for new tech? Isn’t the cost of this transition, too high? What about the investments you made only a few years back? Afterall, legacy applications are everywhere and for most companies, the shift to cloud is still a work in progress.
This is the reason, Single sign-on is a silver bullet. If offers you a lot of flexibility, security and transparency but it can pinch if you are looking at the deployment side. The key is to look at it from a broader perspective. Cloud and the modern technologies like AI, ML etc. are here to stay and you need a comprehensive IAM system which is attuned with them. While selecting the IAM services, companies should also check the compatibility of SSO with security platforms such as SAML, Kerberos etc.
Single Sign On is here to stay and has a bright future. It follows the zero-trust methodology for security and its flexibility allows users to access their system from any device, anywhere in the world. It’s cloud capability, adaptability with intelligent technologies (like AI, ML) and advanced security measures (like Multi-factor authentication) makes it indispensable for organizations. It is important for companies taking the journey towards cloud and companies who are already on the Cloud.