Taking a global approach to Single Sign-On

How to protect business data without imposing onerous authentication processes on employees is a challenge that most businesses have or will face. Single Sign-On (SSO) solutions help to alleviate this by managing access to multiple applications using a single login and password. However, choosing the right SSO solution is not a simple decision and depends on the company’s existing IT environment, objectives, risks and investment priorities. Often, companies have to maintain, operate, supervise and audit multiple solutions and for historical reasons, may already have separate SSOs in place to cover different environments, such as Enterprise SSO (eSSO), Web Access Management, Identity Federation and mobile SSO.

But when it comes to cost, ease of deployment and the ability to quickly cover new environments essential to the business of the company, the implementation of a Global SSO solution makes a lot more sense. Global SSO covers every specific SSO challenge from a single platform. This allows organisations to invest at their own pace, while leveraging previous investments and creating a global coverage model. To find out why this is important, let us first review today’s SSO landscape.

Review of the SSO landscape today

Enterprise SSO or eSSO

In our experience, the main driver in implementing eSSO internally is to make users’ lives easier. It requires the deployment of one (or more) components on workstations connected to an organisation’s IT systems. It works by injecting secondary credentials, such as users’ logins and passwords into applications which have previously been ‘enrolled’. It is particularly useful if you need to secure access to a range of assorted applications (e.g. thick client, web, and mainframe), However it does require a specific installation on each workstation by the IT department.

Web Access Management (WAM or Web SSO)

WAM is designed specifically to secure web-based architectures such as extranet/intranet portals. Although WAM only applies to web applications, it generally enforces a stronger level of security than eSSO, thanks to the implementation of advanced access control rules. Unlike eSSO, it does not require deployment on each workstation, but may sometimes require specific developments at the application level.

Identity Federation

Technically, Identity Federation is a way to operate web SSO authentication using industry standard protocols (SAMLv2, OAuth2, OpenID Connect, and WS-Federation). From a business perspective, its main benefit is to allow different legal entities to safely exchange authentication and access rights information, thus providing users with a single secure authentication experience between distinct web domains. Within the extended enterprise this spares companies from having to manage their partners' identities. It also helps set up specific identity management infrastructures for each operational entity within a complex organisation.

Mobile SSO

Mobile SSO provides SSO functions (eSSO, WAM, Identity Federation) to mobile devices, securing access to applications within an organisation’s IT systems from these devices. This market is still relatively immature, but has been stimulated by the boom in mobile devices and their impact on business usage. Currently, many companies rely on specific developments for mobile SSO due to the lack of alternative solutions on the market.

The risk: Implementing different SSO solutions for similar authentication needs

Let us now consider a typical scenario, where an organisation wants to deploy strong authentication, Single Sign-On and audit users’ access to its IT systems, in order to improve both the user experience and IT security.

The organisation’s IT systems typically includes:

  • Internal and external applications (running in SaaS, Cloud mode), managed or not, based on various technologies (thick client, web, virtualised application, mainframe) with different levels of sensitivity and criticality.
  • Internal or external users of managed PCs (or otherwise) or on other devices (thin clients, mobile devices), some of which will require strong authentication.

In this example the organisation has identified a need for eSSO, Web Access Management, Identity Federation and Mobile SSO. Solutions may have been deployed step by step, possibly over several years, depending on priorities. In our experience, in most cases the result will be as follows:

  • An eSSO solution has been deployed internally on each connected workstation to enhance the user experience through single authentication and to enable autonomous password reset
  • A Web Access Management solution is used to protect web applications deployed on the intranet/extranet.
  • Identity Federation is in place, dedicated to B2B exchanges with partners or used to improve user experience while accessing external applications such as Office 365, Google Apps, SalesForce
  • A Mobile SSO solution secures access to the IT systems from mobile devices and mitigates the security risks associated with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

The solutions are based on market software packages, open source components or in-house solutions. In most cases, the organisation has to administer, maintain, operate, supervise and audit four separate environments to address very similar authentication needs.

Global SSO: A new generation of SSO

Now, organisations can benefit from a single common infrastructure to operate and supervise authentication and access, operating a single administration interface to configure every instance of SSO, along with a single audit point providing traceability of all user access across all IT applications.

This offers a potential holy grail for IT departments, with a 360-degree view of access to the IT systems.

Before organisations start any SSO project, it is necessary to carefully consider the interdependence of data, applications and devices. A global SSO solution can not only cover the companies' short term needs, but it can also become part of a long term strategic access management approach, providing the right features in a scalable and iterative manner.

Thierry Bettini, Director of International Strategy, Ilex International