Single sign-on (SSO) is an authentication method that allows users to access multiple applications or websites with a single login. SSO eases the user experience, enhances security, and reduces IT costs. In this article, we will explain how SSO works, what are the benefits and challenges of SSO, and elaborate on what a passwordless SSO is.
How does SSO work?
SSO works by using a central identity provider (IdP) that verifies the user’s identity and grants them access to various service providers (SPs) that rely on the IdP. The IdP can be an internal system, such as Active Directory or LDAP, or an external system, such as Google or Facebook. The SPs can be web applications, cloud services, or mobile apps.
The basic steps of SSO are:
- The user requests access to an SP, such as a web application.
- The SP then redirects the user to the IdP for authentication.
- The user enters their credentials (such as username and password) into the IdP.
- The IdP validates the user’s credentials and generates a security token that contains the user’s identity and attributes.
- The IdP sends the security token back to the SP.
- The SP verifies the security token and grants the user access to the application.
The next time the user requests access to another SP that uses the same IdP, they do not need to enter their credentials again. The IdP will automatically send a security token to the SP, and the user will be logged in. This process is called single sign-on.
There are different protocols and standards that enable SSO, such as SAML, OAuth, OpenID Connect, WS-Federation, etc. These protocols define how the IdP and the SP communicate and exchange information. They also provide mechanisms for encryption, signing, and verification of the security tokens.
Benefits of SSO
SSO offers many benefits for users, administrators, and organizations, such as:
- Enhanced user experience: SSO eliminates the need for users to remember and enter multiple passwords for different applications. Users can access all their applications with a single login, which saves time and reduces frustration.
- Improved security: SSO reduces the risk of password breaches, phishing attacks, and credential theft. Users do not have to use weak or reused passwords for different applications. Administrators can enforce strong password policies and multifactor authentication for the IdP. SSO also enables centralized control and monitoring of user access and activity across all applications.
- Reduced IT costs: SSO reduces the IT costs associated with password management, such as help desk calls, password resets, account lockouts, etc. Administrators can manage user accounts and permissions from a single dashboard. SSO also simplifies compliance with security and privacy regulations.
Challenges of SSO
SSO also poses some challenges for users, administrators, and organizations, such as:
- Dependency on the IdP: SSO relies on the availability and performance of the IdP. If the IdP is down or compromised, users may not be able to access any of their applications. Administrators need to ensure that the IdP is secure, reliable, and scalable.
- Integration complexity: SSO requires integration between the IdP and the SPs using compatible protocols and standards. This may involve technical and operational challenges, such as configuration, maintenance, and troubleshooting.
- User education: SSO may require users to learn new ways of logging in and managing their accounts. Users may also face confusion or errors when switching between different applications or devices. Administrators need to provide clear guidance and support for users to adopt and use SSO effectively.
What is Passwordless SSO?
Passwordless SSO is a type of SSO that eliminates passwords altogether and uses other methods of authentication, such as biometrics, tokens, or codes. This type of SSO enhances the benefits and reduces the challenges of SSO by providing a more convenient, secure, and cost-effective way of accessing multiple applications.
A passwordless SSO works by using a passwordless identity provider (IdP) that verifies the user’s identity and grants them access to various service providers (SPs) that rely on the IdP.
The passwordless IdP can use different methods of authentication, such as:
- Biometrics: The user authenticates using their physical characteristics, such as fingerprint, face, or voice recognition.
- Tokens: The user authenticates using a physical device, such as a smart card, a USB key, or a smartphone app.
- Codes: The user authenticates using a one-time code that is sent to their email or phone number.
The next time the user requests access to another SP that uses the same passwordless IdP, they do not need to provide any information again. The passwordless IdP will automatically send a security token to the SP, and the user will be logged in. This process is called passwordless SSO.
There are different platforms and solutions that enable passwordless SSO, such as Beyond Identity, Okta FastPass, Microsoft Entra ID, etc. These platforms and solutions use different protocols and standards to implement passwordless SSO, such as FIDO2, WebAuthn, CTAP, etc. These protocols and standards define how the passwordless IdP and the SPs communicate and exchange information. They also provide mechanisms for encryption, signing, and verification of the security tokens.
In conclusion, let me emphasize that SSO allows users to access multiple applications or websites with just a single login. However, SSO also poses some challenges, such as dependency on the IdP, integration complexity, and user education.
On the other hand, a Passwordless SSO eliminates passwords altogether and uses other methods of authentication, such as biometrics, tokens, or codes. Therefore, a Passwordless SSO enhances the benefits while reducing the challenges of SSO and provides a more convenient way of accessing multiple applications safely without having to strain your bank account.