What is Single Sign-On and how can it help developers build successful applications?

The Developer Benefits of Single Sign-On

Making the sign-up process simpler is the first place to start if you want more people to use your product. It can significantly help you improve your application conversion.

Adding single sign-on (SSO) to your app can help you enhance your user experience, gain more significant business transactions, reduce registration friction, and prevent users from abandoning your site. On the other hand, the world of XML, SOAP, and OASIS standards might be confusing for current developers.

This tutorial will lead you through SSO, including what it is, why it’s necessary, and how to integrate it with your app.

What Is SSO and How Does It Work?

Single sign-on is an authentication method that enables users to log in to multiple linked applications or systems by using one ID and password. In the workplace, it is common for users to log onto their Microsoft Windows account and then have access to all the Microsoft Office products that their company uses (Outlook, Excel, etc.) as well as having access to their company’s HR portal without having to log in again. This creates a seamless experience for the user and also eliminates the need for remembering multiple passwords.

Another common occurrence of SSO that almost everyone has seen is when you try to create an account on a website. Most companies now allow you to create an account with a username and password or give you the option to create it using your credentials from Google, Facebook, or other SSO providers.

SSO is built on a trust relationship between the party that owns the user’s identity information and can authenticate them, known as the identity provider (IdP), and the service or application that the user wants to access, known as the service provider (SP). Rather than transmitting sensitive passwords across the internet, the IdP authenticates the user for the SP by passing an assertion (typically using an identity standard, like Security Assertion Markup Language or SAML).

The SSO login process is usually as follows:

  1. The user attempts to access a website or application.
  2. A login page or screen appears if the user hasn’t already signed in.
  3. The user enters some credentials, typically an email address and password.
  4. An SSO token is created with the credentials and sent to the SSO system or the identity provider.
  5. The identity provider checks the credentials against the information in the database to see whether the user is already authenticated.
  6. If the user’s identity has previously been validated, the service provider gets a token to certify the successful identification. If this is not the case or the session has expired, the user is asked to authenticate. This could be by providing their username and password or potentially confirming a One-Time Password (OTP).
  7. The identity provider generates an authentication confirmation token and sends it to the service provider through the user’s browser.
  8. The service provider validates this token.
  9. The service provider grants the user access.

What Is the Purpose of SSO?

The primary goal of SSO is to allow users to log in to multiple apps and resources using a single set of credentials. This is more convenient for the user because they won’t have to sign in multiple times and more secure for the company because there are fewer chances for a password to be forgotten, stolen, or reused.

What Are the Benefits of SSO to Developers?

Integrating SSO saves developers from the headache of implementing their own solution since SSO can be implemented easily and quickly using identity-as-a-service (IDaaS) practices. Moreover, SSO provides a number of other benefits to developers and businesses.

Centralized Control for User Access

SSO authentication allows developers to regulate who has access to their systems from a central location. For example, you can use your SSO service’s management panel to provide specific degrees of access to various systems right away and give each user a single username/password combination for all these systems. You can also remove access across all platforms as soon as someone leaves the organization.

Increased User Productivity

Users have more time for productive tasks if they spend less time trying to log in. For instance, employees generally need to log in to various applications over the course of their workday, meaning they can waste time trying to remember which passwords go where, then changing and resetting forgotten passwords. Users who have a single password for all their applications don’t need to do this. SSO solutions generally provide a convenient dock where they can access all their apps.

Increased Developer Productivity

With SSO, developers can use their time to focus on the core features of their application instead of login features. While some configuration or customization will be required, most SSO systems offer a lot of functionality that won’t have to be coded by the team.

Companies can use off-the-shelf components instead of hiring more engineers to implement and maintain their own components or learn security technologies, like OpenID Connect (OIDC) or SAML.

Increased Compliance and Security

SSO solutions are frequently misunderstood as something that would compromise system security. Some developers believe that once a master password is compromised, all connected accounts are compromised as well.

Actually, when SSO is appropriately implemented, it significantly reduces the likelihood of a password-related hack. Users are more likely to generate robust, complicated, and difficult-to-guess passwords when they only need to remember one password for all their apps. They’re also less likely to repeat or write down passwords, which lowers the danger of identity theft.

Developers benefit because they get best of breed security practices that they don’t need to code. For instance, combining SSO with multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an excellent way to add an extra degree of protection. With MFA, a user must submit at least two pieces of proof to authenticate their identities, such as a password and an OTP sent to their phone.

Another practical security feature is risk-based authentication (RBA), which relies on technologies to monitor user behavior and context for any odd activity that might suggest an unauthorized user or hack. For example, if you see a pattern of failed logins or incorrect IP addresses, you can require MFA or block the user.

Enhanced Password Policy

You can also use SSO authentication to impose a single password policy across all your platforms. For example, you can establish rules on how often team members should update their passwords, how long passwords should be, and other criteria to ensure team members only use safe, high-quality passwords. This may be required for compliance.

Here are some password regulations that you can choose to enforce with an SSO system:

  • A password history policy prevents the reuse of outdated passwords.
  • A minimum password age policy stops users from using the same passwords when they change it.
  • A maximum password age policy requires users to update the password by a certain time; for instance, every three months.
  • A minimum password length policy requires passwords to be a certain length.
  • A check that the password selected doesn’t belong to a corpus of compromised passwords.

While the current NIST guidelines don’t recommend forcing rotation of passwords, different compliance certifications require different rules. By using SSO, you have flexibility to enforce what is required.

Reduced IT Costs

There are a number of ways in which SSO reduces the IT department’s costs and workload. SSO saves time on password resets because users only have to remember one set of credentials. Password reset requests are less likely to pile up, which means fewer support tickets. With some SSO systems, you can allow users to reset their passwords so IT won’t have to handle lost password resets.

As part of a unified access management system, SSO uses a common directory to provision and deprovision users, making the process more efficient and cost-effective. Policies can be set based on the user’s role, location, and other characteristics. For example, managers might be able to see all candidates in a recruiting application, while regular employees will see information about only the candidate they are currently interviewing. Workers, partners, and customers can be easily provisioned across numerous apps in a single step rather than needing to provide each application separately. Also, deprovisioning can be completed in minutes rather than hours.

Improved User Satisfaction and Usability

Employees increasingly use applications to complete their tasks, and each third-party service requires a unique username and password. This puts a lot of pressure and aggravation on employees. Notably, on average, US employees can switch between thirteen applications thirty times a day. Limiting employees to one sign-on improves their productivity and allows them more uninterrupted work time as they quickly access whatever they need. This reduces stress and improves user satisfaction.

Enhanced Customer Experience

The improved customer experience is one of the biggest benefits of deploying SSO. According to a recent survey, 34 percent of customers abandon their shopping carts because they don’t want to create an account or remember their password. Using SSO eliminates this problem. Customers will have a better experience, leading to more loyal customers, higher conversion rates, and better brand awareness.

Increased Adaptation Response

A new app that irritates users with a cumbersome sign-on procedure will be less successful than one that provides a more pleasant experience. Thanks to today’s competitive market, customers will always have an alternative if yours is too much trouble to use. SSO increases the odds that consumers will choose your app.

What Are the Challenges when Using SSO

While implementing SSO seems like a win for your application, it does carry some potential disadvantages:

  • What happens if SSO is down?
  • Who controls integrated third-party SSO IDaaS?
  • What if someone breaches your user account?

Linking multiple apps to a single point of entry can be risky, especially if it’s compromised or the service goes down. This could block or compromise access to all connected applications. Additionally, integrating third-party SSO services could affect your control over your service or application.

However, possible control issues can be addressed by implementing your own SSO solution or by relying on a trusted third party provider to manage SSO for you. As for potential breaches, many SSO platforms offer customizable security integrations and policies to address the needs of your environment.

Why the Pros of SSO Outweigh the Cons

Ultimately, the benefits of SSO for developers make it worth the potential control or security risks.

For one thing, SSO decreases the number of attack surfaces. Cybercriminals are primarily interested in usernames and passwords, and they gain a new opportunity every time a user signs into a new application. With SSO, users log in at regular intervals, often as little as once per day. They only use one set of credentials, which means they only have to remember one set.

Additionally, SSO helps with regulatory compliance. Regulations, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, mandate that IT controls be documented and that firms prove they’re using proper data security measures. SSO is a way to fulfill data access and antivirus protection needs. It can also aid compliance with standards, like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which require proper authentication of users accessing electronic records and audit procedures to track activity and access. HIPAA regulations, for example, require users to log out automatically, which most SSO solutions provide.

Keep in mind that some liability does lie with users, who need to use robust passwords or enable MFA while using SSO. Customers almost never use distinct passwords for separate apps. In fact, 53 percent of US residents surveyed said they use the same or similar passwords across numerous accounts. A hacker who gains access to one of these accounts will likely get access to the others.

An even stronger method of ensuring secure access is using SSO in conjunction with an identity and access management (IAM) system. A central directory regulates user access to resources on a more granular level, which helps businesses comply with rules mandating that users be given necessary permissions. With role-based access control (RBAC) and security policies, IAM systems enable SSO. Another typical compliance need is deprovisioning users quickly or automatically to ensure that former employees can’t access sensitive data.

Conclusion

The multiple systems and apps that your team members or customers use daily can simplify their lives, but the increased need for multiple passwords can make their lives harder as well as cause security problems.

SSO allows them to access apps and services more conveniently, quickly, and securely. This is a win for your customers and team members as well as for your organization.

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