In a highly digitized world, human work and activities are increasingly eased with the presence of technology and the internet. To access and make use of certain digital products, we are often asked to create an account. With that account, we can log in to the system and secure our activities in it by putting in a secret password. The problem is, we can’t just stay on one platform while working. Oftentimes we have to access cross-platform information which requires us to repeatedly sign in and provide authentication. The more platforms we are using, the more username and password combinations we must memorize. Memorizing dozens of login credentials can be challenging, and Single Sign-On or SSO is a great solution to this.
What is SSO
Single Sign-On (SSO) is an authentication mechanism that allows users to access all resources, such as multiple sites or other services, using only one credential. This system allows websites to use other trusted websites to verify users.
Now imagine that in one day you have to login into five different systems. This means that you must store and memorize five different credential combinations (usernames, passwords, etc.). SSO will help reduce all this nuisance by streamlining the user authentication process. This type of centralized login system has become a necessity as the number of websites and services increases. This method offers stronger security because it can avoid and minimize double logins by hackers, by strictly identifying subjects and denying unverified logins.
A popular use of SSO that you might have been familiar with on a daily basis is Google. When you log into your Google account, you can do more than simply checking your emails. With SSO, you are automatically logged into Google’s system and able to access other platforms such as YouTube, Google Sheets, Google Drive, Google Maps, or Google Analytics. This way, SSO will save you from the hassle of logging in repeatedly on these different platforms and give you a better internet experience.
How SSO Works
SSO works based on a trust relationship between an application, known as the service provider, and an identity provider. To build this trust relationship, there needs to be an exchange of certificates between the service provider and identity provider. This certificate will be used to sign identity information that is being sent from the identity provider to the service provider so that the service provider knows it is coming from a trusted source. In SSO, this identity data takes the form of tokens that contain identifying bits of information about the user like a user’s email address or a username.
According to OneLogin, the login flow can be described like this:
- A user browses to the application or website they want access to, aka, the Service Provider.
- The Service Provider sends a token that contains some information about the user, like their email address, to the SSO system, aka, the Identity Provider, as part of a request to authenticate the user.
- The Identity Provider first checks to see whether the user has already been authenticated, in which case it will grant the user access to the Service Provider application and skip to step 5.
- If the user hasn’t logged in, they will be prompted to do so by providing the credentials required by the Identity Provider. This could simply be a username and password or it might include some other form of authentication like a One-Time Password (OTP).
- Once the Identity Provider validates the credentials provided, it will send a token back to the Service Provider confirming a successful authentication.
- This token is passed through the user’s browser to the Service Provider.
- The token that is received by the Service Provider is validated according to the trust relationship that was set up between the Service Provider and the Identity Provider during the initial configuration.
- The user is granted access to the Service Provider.
When the user tries to access a different website, the new website would have to have a similar trust relationship configured with the SSO solution and the authentication flow would follow the same steps.
1. Users do not need to remember many usernames and passwords. Just with one credential, users can perform the authentication process only once to gain access permission to all application services available on the network.
2. Ease of data permission. If each application stores user’s data on its own, then any changes made in user’s account must be performed on each of the existing applications. With SSO, the process will be simplified. If any changes are made, it is enough to only do one look at the server database backend.
3. No need to create the same user’s data in every application. Since all services in the network can connect directly to the server database backend, once the data is put into the database, the user’s credentials will be valid in all services.
4. Save the cost for password maintenance. When you have to reset the password because the user forgot the password, service provider does not need to spend time and bandwidth to find the user’s credential data.
- The importance of user awareness to keep credentials confidential and maintain their login state. If still logged in, an unauthorized user can freely use the system that its legitimate user has left off. Therefore, users must be really careful when logging in via new gadgets.
- The complexity of implementing the SSO system into a heterogeneous and multiplatform network, so that many service providers are reluctant in implementing it.
- Security weaknesses. If the network service manager’s password is known by an unauthorized person, then that person can make changes to all data in the system.
- Single point failure. Since every service relies on an SSO, this system can become a point of failure if not designed properly. Any conditions that can cause the SSO system to shut down might result in the user not being able to access all application services protected by the SSO system.
How businesses can benefit from SSO
According to Capterra, here are the benefits you can gain from incorporating SSO into your business.
- Encourage user to sign-up. SSO provides a lower barrier to entry, so new customers can sign up easily and securely, by relying on a known brand.
- Less work on the back end. As mentioned earlier, you can save time from managing passwords. While reducing your hack risk is important, even more important is not having to reset people’s passwords every five minutes. All the authentication and password heavy-lifting is managed by the trusted authenticator.
- Data collection. You can tap into more information that service provider makes it available. It’s all the benefits of data collection without all the hassle associated with it.
- Reduced risk. Hackers have less incentive to hit your site if you don’t host a ton of login details. You’re also less likely to have a bunch of users with horribly weak passwords poking holes in your site’s overall security.