The importance of federated identity management in a hyper-connected world

While both SSO and Federated Identity Management are closely related, they are not the same. Single Sign-On lets users access multiple services or applications using single login within a single organization. Federated Identity Management takes it further by allowing access across multiple systems or enterprises. FIM is a broader framework that connects two identity management systems securely and seamlessly.

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Single Sign-On

Our online identities are a maze of user names and credentials. Each time we use a website or service, we need to create an online identity. For organizations, this means creating multiple credentials for employees and customers each time a new application is deployed. Ultimately, users and employees have too many identities and passwords to remember. This leads to security issues like weak password hygiene that compromises businesses and individuals alike.

As a result, organizations need to enable users with simplified access for all their apps using technology such as single-sign-on (SSO) and federated identity management (FIM). This is typically done with the help of an Identity provider IdP - a trusted provider that enables the access of SSO and other technologies to manage identities. However, there are many differences between FIM and SSO and different use cases for each solution. Here’s taking a look at these in detail:

Single-sign-on helps users access various web apps at once with just a single set of credentials. For enterprises that need multiple apps for HR, payroll, communications, project management etc, an SSO approach lets employees access these services using a single set of credentials.

This allows users to do their job easily without having to remember multiple passwords, making errors, using compromised passwords etc. It also reduces IT resources and spends on password resets and support.

But in addition to internal use, businesses can leverage SSO to help customers use various sections of an account. An example of this: retail networks with many brands use SSO to allow customers to access their accounts for multiple stores using one single dashboard. When users shuttle between each store, the site re-authenticates customers with the same credentials.

Federated Identity Management

SSO is a subset of Federated Identity Management. FIM is a set of protocols that helps enterprises and apps share user identities. It is an arrangement that scales beyond a single company to multiple apps and companies so that users leverage the same set of identifiers to use many applications.

Therefore, it is FIM that allows you to sign in to Spotify with your Facebook login details. But how does authentication work in the federated model? The responsibility of verifying and authenticating user ids and passwords lies with the identity provider (IdP) and not the applications. So, when users attempt to log into specific apps or service providers, the app then communicates with the IdP to authenticate the user. The process of user identity authentication is executed using protocols such as Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), or OpenID Connect or OAuth 2.

How does Identity Federation work?


How does Identity Federation work in practice? Let’s say a user wants to access a secured application that needs user authentication. This is what happens:

  1. Users will navigate to the service provider (SP) application
  2. SP needs the user to be authenticated at the IdP(SP uses various mechanisms to check whether the user is authenticated). Unauthenticated users are redirected to the login page at the IdP
  3. Users authenticate with IdP. If user details are validated correctly, the user is authenticated and offered an authentication claim.
  4. The user is directed back to the app with the authentication claim and the app allows the user access.

Identity Providers or IdPs

Identity Providers (IdP)s are trusted 3rd party vendors that create and manage user identities for an organization along with associated attributes. One of the main advantages of IdPs is authentication for third-party service providers like websites, apps etc by federating user identities and authenticating the end-users to service providers without using actual login details.

This is also known as Bring Your Own Identity (BYO). IdPs help manage identities of varying degrees of strength and identity attributes including those for social networks, banks, mobile network operators, governments, digital identity providers etc.

There are multiple Open Source IdPs(OpenAM, Keycloak) and Proprietary IdPs(Okta, AuthO, OneLogin, Redhat/IBM Identity and access management) that enterprises can leverage to manage and secure user authentication and build identity controls.

Top protocols for federated identity

Some of the leading websites and services use OpenId, SAML and OAuth for identity federation.

OAuth is an open-standard protocol for authorization that enables apps with the ability for secure designated access. Where SAML uses XML, OAuth uses JSON and provides a simpler mobile experience. For mobile apps, modern web, gaming, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, OAuth offers a better user experience compared to SAML.

OAuth 2.0 is a framework that controls authorization to a protected resource. OpenID Connect and SAML are both industry standards for federated authentication.

OpenID Connect is an open standard built on the OAuth 2.0 protocol, It is sponsored by Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Ping Identity, PayPal, Symantec, and Yahoo. It helps users to be authenticated with 3rd party identity providers. Users can select their own OpenID providers to access websites that use the OpenID authentication system.

SAML is an open standard that enables IdP to pass credentials to SP using XML data format. Iit is independent of OAuth and uses XML SAML format as opposed to JWT. SAML helps secure web domains exchange user authentication and authorization data. It is one of the most popular open standards because of its efficiency and speed in accessing multiple apps through assertion.

Why must your business consider a federated identity?

Identity federation can be the key differentiator for application vendors catering to large enterprises with strict compliance and security requirements. Potential customers will look for a secure authentication system, and identity federation wins major brownie points from most CTOs and CISOs.

Identity federation can help automate many manual processes in a secure identity framework to help deliver revenue-boosting services to customers. In addition, many companies want to outsource certain areas of operations so they can focus on their core activities. With identity federation, businesses can easily hand over these operations to partners without fearing information and security breaches.

In today’s globally connected landscape, there is immense value in establishing and managing identities within organizations, across enterprises and for individuals globally. Identity Management paves the way for innovation with little or no friction.

Effective identity management and security are not only business and privacy requirements, they are also key to a company’s digital transformation efforts.


TenUp has implemented complex identity management projects successfully for our customers to enable access across the TenUp product suite using Federated Identity Management and Identity Providers. Find out more about how we can help you implement enterprise-grade IDP and simplify your IT security with robust access management solutions.

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