Understanding Single Sign-On Authentication

Single sign-on (SSO) solutions are an increasingly popular system for managing digital identity in medium and large enterprises. But what exactly is it, and how does it work? In the following article, we’ll look at the basics of how SSO can help manage user access and explore SSO’s many advantages for managed services providers (MSPs).

What Is Single Sign-On Authentication?

In small businesses and large enterprises alike, employees often need to access different websites, databases, and applications throughout the day. Working with a secure set of login credentials is key when it comes to keeping employees and their companies safe. But as companies move to cloud computing, user accounts tend to proliferate.

Single sign-on (SSO) solutions are designed specifically to address this problem. SSO is a property of identity and access management (IAM) that enables users to access multiple applications by using one set of login credentials. Instead of juggling various usernames and passwords and handling repeat requests for authentication throughout the day, users can use one set of credentials. These credentials are typically managed by a third-party service and allow users to access multiple applications on a variety of devices.

SSO solutions focus on addressing the growing number of identity management problems in settings where employees typically switch between multiple accounts and applications throughout the working day. Managing multiple sets of logins can create complications, especially when strong security requires users to have unique passwords and usernames for each portal. Unable to remember a password, employees may repeatedly reset passwords and resort to using weak or similar passwords that make the entire company system vulnerable to attacks. Alternatively, employees may waste valuable time searching for their login information or flood the IT help desk with requests for login information or password resets.

SSO streamlines security management by enabling unique users to access information without creating multiple sets of login credentials. It also makes it easy for employees to access applications and websites on different devices. Utilizing SSO capabilities can resolve problems relating to data security, compliance, user-friendliness, and high IT costs.

How Does Single Sign-On Work for Users?

Generally, single sign-on solutions are relatively easy to understand from an end user’s perspective. SSO involves the following simple steps:

  1. The user is directed to a login portal on an intermediate site before being directed to the website or application they’re attempting to access.
  2. If a user is already logged in, they’re automatically forwarded onto the site. If not, they’re directed to a portal for authentication, usually via a third party who provides the SSO service.
  3. When authenticated, the website or application receives a token from the third-party identifier verifying the user.
  4. This token links the user’s web activity with the rest of their associated data, history, and preferences.
  5. As users continue to access the site or app, the system issues a tracker to make sure that the authentication is up-to-date.
  6. If the authentication expires, the user is redirected to the portal mentioned in step two to verify their credentials.

How Does Single Sign-On Work for Organizations?

With SSO, businesses can streamline user identity verification and make their systems more convenient for in-house and third-party users. SSO solutions use different types of configuration, including Kerberos, smart-card-based, and SAML that each authenticate in different ways:

  • In Kerberos-based services, the user provides credentials and is then issued a ticket for the application they wish to access. The access ticket retrieves service tickets for other applications or sites the user wishes to access without requesting a second login.
  • Smart-card-based SSO uses a microcontroller to authenticate the user. Software on the in-use device recognizes the information on the card controller—and the user doesn’t have to reauthenticate after their credentials are recognized.
  • SAML (Security Authentication Markup Language) is an XML standard that manages user authentication for many service providers. SAML-based SSO services involve communications between the user, a third-party identity management provider, and a service provider.

Because mobile devices have unique IDs, new SSO solutions are also being developed that use mobile device signatures as access credentials in combination with SAML and other methods.

When switching to an SSO solution, organizations should:

  1. Identify which applications support SSO and which don’t. If there are specific applications that don’t support SSO, figure out whether vendors who don’t support SSO would be open to supporting SSO solutions.
  2. Decide on the applications the business absolutely needs.
  3. Decide on an SSO service based on the user base and choose how much access to grant each group of users. Managers can typically adjust the security clearance they would like to enable for different users. Depending on the user and purpose, this may mean limiting access to certain pages or functions vs. providing full use of the site. Depending on the SSO provider, users may be able to customize what information they allow website managers to see.

With these three things in mind, organizations should be able to assess whether their commonly used applications support SSO, whether SSO solutions are a good idea for their user base, and whether the cost of implementation will be within budget.

Why Is Single Sign-On Important?

SSO integration comes with advantages for both the business and the customer (or end users). SSO is rapidly becoming a must-have for organizations shifting to cloud-computing for security, convenience, and compliance reasons.

For many organizations, SSO is a remarkably convenient solution to the identity and access management problems that arise with cloud applications. As more and more businesses shift their IT to the cloud, employers require employees to use an increasing number of apps (Slack, Dropbox, and so on). As the number of workplace and enterprise apps grows, identity management itself also becomes increasingly complex. Businesses accumulate multiple sets of logins for every user, as well as proliferating accounts that are siloed from one another.

Poor information management and deteriorating password practices can lead to costly security breaches that hinder productivity. By implementing SSO solutions, users can avoid having to log into multiple different portals throughout the day, allowing them to save valuable time and spend it on more pressing tasks.

For end users, whether they’re internal employees or consumers, SSO offers a welcome alternative to multiple logins and password fatigue. Easy logins and authentications can increase team productivity and even improve employee satisfaction. With SSO in place, businesses will also be further discouraged from storing internal passwords in their databases—a point of vulnerability that can leave the entire system exposed if hacked. As such, an SSO system ultimately makes it easier for businesses to stay compliant with data security policies and protocols.

For end users, SSO can also provide added transparency and convenience by alerting them to what data is shared when they access an app or website. In a delegated system, consumers will have the option to opt out of giving new apps and sites access to their sensitive data. This transparency makes it easy for businesses to comply with data-security standards and means customers will feel more secure.

What Are the Benefits of Single Sign-On Integration?

As discussed already, SSO can increase security and make compliance easier for organizations across industries. But beyond security, there are numerous other key benefits still worth highlighting:

  • Convenience: One of the biggest benefits of SSO authentication is convenience. SSO solutions save employees time and enable them to stay productive even when switching between multiple platforms. It facilitates easy sharing of data across apps when necessary instead of creating information silos.
  • Onboarding: SSO makes it easier than ever to onboard new users. Instead of introducing new or sporadic users to an array of login portals and requiring multiple new sets of credentials, the system will directly connect to an existing third-party account. Users simply need to remember one set of login details—and generally it’s a set of details they’ve already committed to memory.
  • Organizational scalability: SSO makes it easier for businesses to scale upward by supporting cloud applications and lessening IT costs. Automated credentials take the pressure off IT desks and systems administrators, who would otherwise spend countless hours handling regular service requests pertaining to login information and authentication. By exporting authentication to a secure third party, organizations can free up their IT desk to handle more urgent and complex tasks. Additionally, IT desks can quickly launch cloud-first applications that support SSO without worrying about password resets and related security issues.
  • Data analytics: In the long run, SSO integration also increases the availability of data without the accompanying hassle of having to manage databases in-house. When a third-party service manages user activity, management can also tap into data collected by the third-party services. By viewing user history and activity, organizations can conduct analytics without storing data—which allows them to easily identify trends that drive growth and improvement.
  • Customer satisfaction and conversion: Businesses that have a direct-to-consumer dimension may find switching to SSO solutions can increase sales and widen their customer base. Depending on the business, switching to SSO solutions has been shown to increase consumer sign-ons. End users respond well to websites with lower-barriers to access. By offering consumers an easier way to “sign-up” and “sign-in,” businesses may see higher conversion rates. Additionally, consumers are more likely to trust websites that export SSO to a known social media partner.

Switching to SSO doesn’t guarantee compliance, nor do SSO solutions prevent against all security attacks. But switching to SSO is an ideal option for organizations looking to scale or to move their operations to the cloud, and it comes with a myriad of other advantages.