SAML vs SSO – What’s the Difference (Authentication Protocols)

SAML vs SSO – What’s the Difference.  A platform is where several client applications (web based or mobile based ) will need access to. So the platform is a front end to a large enterprise system that holds identity information about the people who would be interacting with it. Instead of each client application maintaining their own user database with usernames and passwords Single Sign On (SSO) came into practice.

 

Single sign on would allow the enterprise system to securely store and own all of the user credentials. The platform then  establishes a trust relationship with the enterprise authentication server and client applications can be built to make the most of the trusted auth server to authenticate users.

Single Sign On (SSO) is a way to authenticate users to sign in to multiple applications through a single credential (username and password). It allows users to create their identity once and access various websites and applications through the same username and password. You are no longer required to keep a diary with different usernames and passwords for each software system. This technology is best suitable for any application that provides IAM or access control solutions.

However, Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is a protocol that enables SSO and follows a standardized way to verify the users’ credentials once and updates other applications about the user’s identity. This article compares SAML vs SSO – What’s the Difference and discusses SSO and SAML in detail.

What is SAML?

Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is an open standard authentication protocol with three essential components. The protocol involves a user, an identity provider and a service provider to authenticate and transfer data between the parties.

Let’s say you work for a company and they provided credentials to access the dashboard. The dashboard includes various external services. When you click on any external service, you automatically sign in to another web application without filling in any credentials. All this happened because of the SAML. The protocol uses XML based authentication to transfer a user’s identity between the IdP and SP. IdP, also known as Identity Provider, is responsible for authenticating and sharing identity data to SP.

SP, also known as Service Provider, receives the validated information from the IdP and authorizes the user to access the external service or resources. Overall, with the help of SAML, any user with a valid account can access resources from multiple applications.

Pros of SAML

  • Single Identity Source: Most corporate or organizations worry that the credentials will leak or the accounts will be hacked once an employee resigns. However, with the introduction of SAML authentication, things have changed. Now, even if the employee resigns, you do not have to manually log in to each website or application to change the credentials. All you required to do is to update it and the rest of the accounts will be secure. No more worries about the countless internal services leak with the SAML authentication protocol.
  • Better User Experience: No employee or user needs to manually sign up for each account and save the passwords at a secret place. SAML authentication protocol has lightened your burden. You only need to log in at one place and you can access an array of service providers. You no longer have to remember the credentials for every application. As a result, the technique supports a faster authentication process. 
  • Enhanced Security: With a single point of authentication, there are fewer chances of data leaks and hacking. Also, under the SAML authentication process, the user request is sent to the identity provider for verification and then to the service provider. It ensures that the username and passwords are only shared with the IdP directly as a user request access.
  • No requirement for Coupling of Directories: Under the SAML authentication protocol, there is no requirement for maintaining user information and synchronizing it among various directories.
  • Reduced Expenses: There is no need to maintain user information by the service provider across multiple channels so it reduces expenses for service providers. Service providers do not store any information. the storage happens with the identity providers.

Cons of Using SAML Service

  • Identity Provider: It is mandatory to have an identity provider as it stores, checks and verifies all the user credentials to save from any external threat.
  • XML format: All the information is managed in the XML format.

What is Single Sign On (SSO)

SSO is a user authentication service that helps users enter multiple accounts using a single credential. For example, try to log in to an account via sign in with Facebook or Google options. You’ll notice that you automatically enter the website and can now access the resources. Basically, each time a user creates an account their identity is saved by the Identity Management service provider as an authentication token. SSO is not accountable for storing the user’s credentials.

Let’s say a user visits a website and requests to sign in via Google. Now, the request will be sent to the Identity Management service provider, who will check and verify if the user’s credentials exist in its database. SSO’s role is to confirm with the Identity Management service provider and authorize a user to access the resources. They also provide another feature, a single sign off system. This feature helps the user log out from all applications or devices simultaneously. The purpose of initiating SSO was to reduce password stability, lower management costs and save time in task completion.

Pros of SSO

  • Stronger Passwords: You do not have to create multiple passwords. Just one password and it will apply to all platforms on which you have an account. SSO helps create a better strategy to keep your information safe from hackers. It also helps save your time as you no longer have to register with a different password and search for credentials before signing in. Just ensure keeping a strong password, including a combination of Capital letters, numbers, and special characters. For example, try keeping something like E#ndv79d@4424jj.
  • Multi factor authentication: Under SSO, more than one party must verify and authenticate credentials to allow the requested user. For example, if you notice a few applications demand One Time Password (OTP) apart from the username and password for authentication.
  • Repetitive Passwords: Earlier, people used the same password for different applications. But, it was not a good idea as it may increase the chances of high security risks and data theft. As a result, you may face repercussions with repeating passwords. Your ex employee or hackers can track other web applications and use the resources. To eliminate such risks, the concept of OneLogin came into practice, i.e., the SSO.
  • External Storage is no more a requirement: Earlier, people saved credentials in computer systems, diaries, notepads, etc. Saving these details in an unmanaged manner could lead to data leaks. As a result, there were high security risks. However, after the introduction of SSO, there was no such risk as all the credentials were stored internally.
  • No Additional Expense on Password Recovery: If the user forgets where he stored all the credentials, then the expert needs to sign in to each application and set a password. But, with SSO there is no worry for password recovery as there will be just one account and IT experts will assist.
  • Password Policy Enforcement: SSO supports strict password security guidelines to protect data from hackers. With only one place to generate the password, it becomes essential to enforce strict security guidelines. You might have noticed most companies periodically request to reset passwords. With SSO service, you just have to go to one account and reset the password. It makes things much easier to manage.

Cons of SSO

  • You may lose all your data and resources if the attacker anyhow manages to crack the strong password. Under SSO, all the accounts and web applications are linked with the same credentials. There are high chances that you may lose information from various accounts.
  • All applications will come to rest if there is any failure or breakdown in the SSO due to an internal issue.
  • In some cases, setting up the SSO takes time.

SSO vs SAML 

SAML and SSO operate quite similarly. Both the authentication protocols serve a similar function to connect users and allow them to access the requested resource.

 

  • SAML is an umbrella standard that covers federation, identity management and single sign on (SSO). 
  • SAML activates single Sign On (SSO) for browser based applications. 
  • Moreover, SAML uses an XML based format to authenticate and authorize processes for the three essential components discussed above.
  • Finally, SAML enables single Sign On (SSO) to share credentials to other cloud and web applications.
  • SAML SSO is easy to use and more secure from a user perspective as they only need to remember one set of user credentials.
  • SAML + SSO provide benefits in enhanced user experience.

SAML vs SSO – What’s the Difference Conclusion

This article was about SAML vs SSO, where we have compared both authentication protocols using their pros and cons. Enabling single Sign On or using SAML authentication  enhances security and saves you time. Also, you can access multiple applications faster. You no longer have to maintain a folder to keep an account of usernames and passwords with SAML SSO. Go through the above listed advantages and to help you make a decision.

 

Security Access Markup Language is an open standard authentication protocol that provides Single Sign On functionality. Currently, many platforms are using SSO services to keep the user’s identity resources safe and secure.

Avatar for Hitesh Jethva
Hitesh Jethva

I am a fan of open source technology and have more than 10 years of experience working with Linux and Open Source technologies. I am one of the Linux technical writers for Cloud Infrastructure Services.

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