How to choose the right SSO provider
As more applications move to the cloud, Single Sign-On (SSO) has become a popular way to simplify user authentication across multiple services. Instead of remembering multiple usernames and passwords, users can log in once and access all of their applications seamlessly.
But with multiple options available for SSO providers, choosing the right one for your organization can take time and effort. In this guide, we'll outline SSO's key benefits and features. By the end, you'll better understand SSO and what to look for in an SSO provider so you can make an informed decision for your business.
What is SSO?
SSO is a mechanism that allows users to authenticate themselves once and gain access to multiple systems or applications without having to enter their credentials again. In traditional authentication systems, users must enter their username and password whenever they access a new application or system.
It can be cumbersome, time-consuming, and frustrating for users, particularly in large organizations with multiple systems and applications. SSO simplifies this process by allowing users to log in once and access all the applications and systems they are authorized to use without needing to re-enter their credentials.
SSO works through a central authentication server, which authenticates the user's credentials and generates a token to access multiple applications or systems. The token is sent to the applications or systems, which use it to verify the user's identity and grant access.
SSO works best when users need access to multiple systems and applications. This applies equally to enterprise and consumer-facing applications such as social media and email services.
What are the different types of SSO?
There are various approaches to SSO implementation, each providing different benefits for organizations looking to protect their data and improve their security posture.
Web SSO controls the verification and acceptance of employees trying to log in to one or more web-based software systems. This SSO solution, such as Microsoft Azure Active Directory, controls user login across multiple functions and data.
Federated SSO offers users access to multiple enterprise software apps by managing and mapping identities across several identity providers, domains, and organizations. This approach relies on standard protocols such as SAML, OAuth, and OpenID Connect to facilitate communication between identity providers (IdPs) and SPs.
Enterprise SSO is a solution that enables users to authenticate once and access multiple applications within the same organization or domain using a single set of credentials. This approach typically involves a centralized authentication server that manages user authentication and provides access to multiple applications without requiring the user to enter credentials multiple times.
Nonfederated SSO is an emerging class of access control that enables you to log into any application, whether it supports access standards like SAML and SSO or not. The Cerby platform is an example of this.
How does SSO work?
Today users sign into apps on various devices, such as laptops and mobile, and from different hosting configurations, such as on-premises, cloud, and SaaS, using a unique username and password for each.
SSO is a way to provide a reliable association between approved users, an IdP, and the service provider (SP). An IdP has a database and an authentication system containing a client profile. The SP could be a site, software program, or cloud-based service. The process looks like this:
- The login information and password are submitted to the IdP for authentication the first time an individual registers.
- An SSO session starts on the client's browser or mobile app after its authentication server has compared the user's credentials to the information in the IdP's database.
- The user's identification is checked in the background whenever they want secure access to websites, applications, and other SPs.
- Encrypted tokens are privately transferred between the IdP and SP utilizing identification standards like Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), OAuth, and OpenID Connect (OIDC).
- This confirms that they have previously been verified and can log into all their accounts.
The advantages of SSO
If you need help determining whether SSO is suitable for you, consider these advantages:
Access control for multiple applications
Unified access control is the most valuable aspect of SSO for organizations. You can enhance security and streamline management without repeatedly entering user credentials. By using SSO, you can utilize fewer usernames and passwords overall.
Multi-factor authentication (MFA) authenticates a person using multiple identity factors beyond username and password. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is the most common approach. For example, asking a user to enter their username and password first and then enter a code sent to their mobile device second is an example of 2FA.
More advanced SSO solutions enable organizations to use strategies like conditional access (based on geolocation, security of the device they use, etc.) to manage access levels depending on the user's identity.
Simplified access management
Without SSO, users must remember and manage separate usernames and passwords for each application. This can result in increased password fatigue, security risks due to weak passwords, and increased support costs for password resets.
With SSO, users can sign in once with a single set of credentials and access all the applications or services configured to use SSO. This eliminates the need for users to remember multiple usernames and passwords and reduces the risk of password-related security breaches.
Reduce password fatigue: Reducing usernames and passwords minimizes the likelihood of users choosing weak passwords, writing them down, or reusing them across multiple accounts. This reduces the risk of password-related security breaches.
Centralizes authentication: SSO provides a centralized system that can be used to authenticate users across multiple applications and services. This makes it easier for IT administrators to monitor and manage user access permissions and can help to reduce the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive data.
Centralize access control: With SSO, IT administrators can easily control user access to various applications and services. This helps ensure that users only have access to the applications and data they need to do their job, reducing the risk of data breaches caused by unauthorized access.
Better Auditing: SSO can provide an audit trail of user activity across multiple applications and services. This can help to detect and investigate suspicious or malicious activity and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements.
Improve User Experience: SSO simplifies the login process and provides a seamless user experience. Users can easily switch between applications and services without the need to re-enter their credentials, leading to increased productivity and user satisfaction.
Eliminate password management tasks: SSO reduces the number of usernames and passwords that users need to remember, reducing the likelihood of password-related issues, such as forgetting or losing passwords, which can lead to productivity loss.
Streamline access to resources: With SSO, users can access all the applications and services they need to do their job from a single portal or dashboard. This makes finding and accessing the resources they need easier, reducing the time spent searching for and navigating between applications.
Better visibility and control
Monitor user activity: SSO provides detailed logs of user activity, including logins, access requests, and application usage. This information helps administrators identify patterns and trends in application usage and detect potential security threats.
Control access: SSO enables administrators to manage user access to applications and services based on their roles and responsibilities. This helps ensure that users only have access to the resources they need to do their job, reducing the risk of data breaches caused by unauthorized access.
Monitor compliance: SSO can help administrators ensure compliance with regulatory requirements by providing logs of user activity and access permissions. This can help them identify potential compliance issues and take appropriate action to address them.
Application usage analytics: SSO can provide administrators with insights into application usage patterns, such as the number of logins, frequency of use, and peak usage times. This information can help them make informed decisions about resource allocation and application adoption.
Simplify Authentication: SSO reduces the need for IT staff to manage multiple usernames and passwords for each user, saving time and reducing the need for password reset requests.
Streamline user provisioning: SSO can automate user provisioning, enabling IT staff to manage user access to multiple applications and services from a single dashboard. This reduces the time and effort required to provision and de-provision users across various systems.
Manage apps better: SSO can simplify the management of applications and services by providing a centralized dashboard to monitor and manage user access to multiple applications. This can reduce the time and effort required to manage each application separately.
Increase productivity: SSO can reduce the time required for users to access the applications they need, leading to increased productivity and reduced support tickets.
Key features to consider when selecting an SSO vendor
Choosing an SSO provider seems daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Break the task down into the features you need, then check that against what the SSO provider can implement.
Here are some key features to consider:
Ensure the provider can integrate with all your existing applications and infrastructure, not just those supporting standards like SAML or OIDC. An SSO solution that integrates with other applications can provide a seamless user experience across your environment.
Look for a provider with pre-built integrations with your organization's applications and services. This will ensure that your SSO solution can support your organization's application ecosystem and meet your specific requirements.
Security is critical when choosing a single sign-on (SSO) provider. Here are some key security features to look for:
Strong authentication methods: A good SSO provider should offer strong authentication methods, such as two-factor authentication (2FA), to ensure that only authorized users can access applications and services. 2FA requires users to provide two forms of identification, such as a password and a code texted to the user’s mobile device.
Data encryption: Look for an SSO provider that encrypts user credentials and session data in transit and at rest. This can help prevent the interception or theft of sensitive data by hackers or other unauthorized parties.
Access controls and monitoring: Produce role-based access control and activity logs to help administrators detect and prevent unauthorized or malicious activity. The provider should also have a proven track record of implementing security best practices and compliance with industry standards, such as SOC 2 or ISO 27001.
SSO is about streamlining access to applications and creating a great user experience. Integration and customization are part of the user experience. But look for other features that help with user experience.
Easy setup and configuration: The SSO provider should offer an easy setup and configuration process that minimizes the time and effort required to get started. This can include clear documentation, helpful support resources, and intuitive user interfaces.
Mobile support: The SSO provider should support mobile devices, including mobile applications and web browsers. This is essential for users who need to access applications on the go.
User analytics: The SSO provider should provide user analytics that gives insights into how users access your applications, which applications are most frequently used, and other data that can help optimize the user experience.
Scalability is essential when selecting an SSO provider. It can impact the long-term success of your business's security, productivity, and resilience against identity attacks.
Consider if the provider can handle your organization's technical environment, employee growth, and increasing demand for access management. This relates to integration to support all current and future apps.
Reporting and analytics
Generating reports and analyzing usage data can provide valuable insights into user behavior, application usage, and security risks. An SSO solution with reporting and analytics features can help organizations identify and proactively address potential issues.
For example, analytics data can help administrators identify applications that are not being used, allowing them to optimize license usage and reduce costs. Reporting features can also help administrators track user activity and detect suspicious behavior, allowing them to take action to prevent data breaches or other security incidents.
Another important role of reporting and analytics in an SSO solution is compliance and regulatory requirements. Many organizations are subject to regulations such as GDPR or HIPAA, which require them to maintain detailed records of user activity and access to sensitive data. An SSO solution with reporting and analytics features can help organizations comply with these regulations by providing detailed usage data and activity logs. This can help organizations demonstrate compliance and avoid potential penalties or legal issues.
Most providers offer tiered, monthly, or annual pricing plans (for a discount), so mapping out pricing for a solution that fits your budget and meets your business needs is essential.
Keep in mind future scalability when assessing pricing. Check that the SSO provider you choose offers sufficient features and functionality within each tier to upgrade your plan as you grow or your needs change without compromising on security or user experience.
And be aware that most enterprise SaaS vendors offer support for SSO by increasing their base licensing fees with a significant multiplier. Consider services that support SSO without paying the 'SSO tax.'
Selecting an SSO provider is essential for any business looking to protect its data and improve its security posture. Consider factors such as integration with all apps, scalability, feature set, and cost when considering a provider.
Use the software review sites, ask if they offer a trial, and start using the software. With the right provider on board, you can rest assured knowing that your data and user identities are secure and readily available for teams to use effectively and efficiently.