Single sign-on: secure and easy access

Bart Hendrickx Small

Posted by Bart Hendrickx

It’s Tuesday morning. You have just started your computer. Now it’s time to open your day-to-day tools: email, chat/phone, tasks and so on. As you go through your tasks, you realize you need to take that data security test you’ve been postponing.

Every day, you interact with various applications. Some are installed on your personal computer, others on servers managed either by your organization by vendors.  Your applications might come from a multitude of service providers, in-house or on the Cloud.

For many of those applications, you need to authenticate—to tell the applications who you are—so that the app can present the information that pertains to you. Sometimes this happens automatically. When your email client connects to the mail server, you read your emails, not those of your co-workers. Your email client has authenticated you against your mail server because you entered a username or email address, a password and some other data, way back when.

You often need to use different sign-ins for different apps. When you log in tor you Questionmark OnDemand portal, for instance, you enter a different username and password than the one you used to unlock your computer earlier today, (Your organization’s data security policy does not allow you to  store your organizational password in other systems.)

Want to learn more? I’ll be discussing this topic and more at the Questionmark Conference 2016 in Miami, April 12-15. Register before March 3 to take advantage of our final early-bird discounts.

Problem: Unrecognized username or password

You’ve logged in for your exam, but you get an error message. Maybe you mistyped the password? Second try. Nope; same results. You must have forgotten your password. You start an instant message window with your internal IT help desk. “Sorry, we don’t manage Questionmark OnDemand. Can you use its password reset function?”

You go back to your Questionmark login page, get a secure on-time login and establish a new, permanent password that complies with the data security policy — “I better not forget my password this time,” you say to yourself as you finally start your data security test. “Isn’t there something more convenient?”

Solution: Single sign-on

We all find ourselves in similar situations, but with Single sign-on (SSO) we can avoid them.

Since, there are several definitions of SSO, here’s how I’ll define it in the context of this blog:

Single Sign-On (SSO) for software is the ability for one application, the identity provider, to tell another application, the service provider, who you are.

By identity provider, I mean a system that contains digital identity information—also known as people data—on users, For example, think of social network sites or Active Directory from Microsoft.

The service provider is the system that users work with to do something—say Questionmark OnDemand, in the case of your data security test.

With SSO, a user does not log on directly to the service provider. Instead, they log on to an identity provider, which then tells the service provider who the user is. The identity provider and service provider have been configured to trust each other. So when the identity provider says: “This is Jane Doe,” the service provider will trust and accept that.

It is important to note that SSO is therefore not about creating accounts with the same usernames and passwords—a prevalent mechanism for different service providers. SSO is about making those service providers accept what an identity provider says about a user.

Why SSO?

SSO comes with several advantages. Users can access all applications that are linked to their identity providers—using one username and password for multiple systems. Depending on the capabilities of the applications and how things have been set up, the authentication can be seamless. You might log on to your identity provider when you start your computer, and the other applications (service providers) you access during the day will automatically check with your identity provider without you having to enter your username and password again.

SSO makes password management easier for IT administrators. Having an employee leave an organization might mean having to decommission access to dozens of service providers. If the authentication to those service providers has been set up with SSO, then an IT administrator only needs to decommission the employee’s identity provider account. Without that account, the employee can no longer log on to any of the linked applications.

There is one disadvantage to SSO: If the account at the identity provider is hacked, all linked applications can be compromised. It is therefore imperative the account is properly secured. How can you set up SSO to ensure its security and effectiveness? Watch for more posts on this subject, which will include information about our newly added support for a popular technique called SAML.

If you would like to learn more, attend my session: Secure Authentication: Accessing Questionmark OnDemand with SSO at the Questionmark Conference 2016, April 12-15. Register before March 3 to take advantage of our final early-bird discounts.

One Response to “Single sign-on: secure and easy access”

  1. Jenny Mark says:

    Hey Bart
    Excellent article! Volkswagen paid about €1 million in IT services each year to help employees retrieve forgotten passwords, reports said in early 2015. Single Sign-On is a savior here. Using Single Sign-On (SSO), a single set of login credentials can be used by customers to sign into multiple applications at the same time without having to do so each time they open a different application within the same domain.
    Jenny Mark

Leave a Reply