What is SAML and how does SAML Authentication Work (Explained)

What is SAML and how does SAML Authentication Work (Explained). Have you ever seen a pop up message that gives you a choice to log in to an online account using your Google account, Facebook account, or Apple ID? If so, you would have noticed that when you choose any of the options, you will sign into your account without entering your login details. If you’ve ever experienced this, the only thing probably new to you about SAML is its name.

What is SAML?

SAML, an acronym for Security Assertion Markup Language. Is an identity and access management tool. It is also an open standard based on Extensible Markup Language (XML) and used by web applications to send identity data between a Service Provider and an Identity Provider for authentication.

It is created to make identity authentication easier when users sign in to different online applications or websites, using one unique login credential such as a username, password, two-factor authentication, and so on.

However, this means SAML authentication simplifies the process of creating an account or signing in by erasing the need for users to remember numerous login credentials. Also, it helps improve the security of service providers’ platforms such that there would be no need to keep passwords thereby preventing password-forgotten problems.

In addition, many organizations set up Active Directory domains or intranets, making user identities to be known. Therefore, it makes sense to use this information to log users into other applications, such as online applications, and one of the most simple ways to do so is with SAML.

How Does SAML Authentication Work?

Simply put SAML and the authentication is confirming a user’s credentials and identity. It gives the service provider instructions on what kinds of access to give the verified user.

This tool supports a feature known as Single-Sign-On (SSO). This enables users to log in only once and reuse their login information across numerous service providers. It is made possible by integrating user authentication with an identity provider. Then, web apps can use it through the identity provider to give users access.

Types of SAML Providers

SAML is impossible without the two types of it’s providers; identity provider and service provider. The identity provider validates the user and sends the user’s identity and authorization to the service provider.

Meanwhile, a service provider relies on the identity provider and grants the specified user access to the requested resource. For instance, a service provider could be a website that hosts apps as long as the user is granted access after consulting the identity provider.

SAML Authentication Process with Examples

The case of accessing an ATM is a good illustration of how this Authentication functions.

1. When you intend to withdraw money at the ATM, it is required that you go along with your ATM card. Your card is the SAML assertion that contains your credentials, such as your name, card number, and security code. While the ATM is the service provider and the bank is the identity provider.

2. When you apply for an ATM card, you usually need to fill out a form, submit a means of identification, and set your transaction pin. The bank (identity provider) then stores these identifying attributes in their database and issues you with an ATM card associated with your identity and bank account. 

3. The ATM accepts your card as it contains your details, and the card passes through examination as a valid assertion. After consulting with the bank database (identity provider), the ATM (service provider) grants the user access by using the assertion provided by the identity provider. Then the ATM allows you to go on with your transaction.

4. Another example of the Authentication workflow is when a user goes to their browser and opens a service provider’s web app that uses this type of authentication. The web app then sends an SAML request to the identity provider from the browser. The identity provider handles the user’s authentication request by demanding a username, password, or other credentials.

5. Afterwards the identity provider prepares the SAML response and returns it to the user’s browser. The browser then sends the response to the web application of the service provider to verify it. The user is granted access to the online application if the verification is successful.

SAML Authentication Process

Here’s a step by step process of the the authentication process:

  1. The user attempts to access a network resource or web application through a service provider (SP).
  2. Service provider sends an SAML request to the identity provider(IdP).
  3. The IdP then validates the user’s identity and ensures the user is correctly authenticated.
  4. After the identity provider authenticates the user, it constructs an SAML assertion and sends it to the SP for verification.
  5. If the verification is successful, the SP creates a session for the user in the target application, allowing the user access to the application.

SAML Authentication with diagrams

Here’s a quick summary of the authentication process using diagrams:

Entry level

Authentication level


As mentioned earlier SSO (Single Sign On) is an element that SAML supports, allowing users to access multiple applications with the help of a single set of credentials. The SSO integration is super beneficial to the user experience. It is secure and easy to use, providing seamless access to users because they do not have to enter a username or password for every application they visit. Instead, the user can access the web application by going to the site.

Integration of SAML/SSO is also important to any enterprise cybersecurity strategy. Best practices require user accounts to be limited to only the resources the user needs to do their job and to be audited centrally. Your data is protected from theft by implementing an SSO solution, which enables you to disable accounts from one system and remove access to all resources simultaneously.

SAML and OAuth

OAuth (Open Authorization) shares login information like SAML. It is a more recent standard that Twitter and Google jointly created to allow for more efficient internet logins. The OAuth is better on mobile and uses JSON (JavaScript Object Notation). However, SAML gives businesses greater power to keep their SSO logins more secure. 

Benefits of SAML

This  universally embraced enterprise solution has it’s benefits as it contributes to web relations and user experience. 

Improved User Experience

With this tool you only need to log in once to access many web applications. This means you need to remember only one set of login details or credentials. It makes the authentication process faster with this feature. Organizations benefit from this as it reduces requests for a password reset as there would be no need to keep passwords. 

Increased Data Security

It provides a straight line authentication that ensures credentials are only sent to a secure identity provider directly. The service provider does not need to retain user credentials on their system because the identity provider stores all login information. Service providers only need to receive the identity information transferred after a request has been made to verify the user.

Thus, SAML provides enhanced security for service providers due to users logging in less frequently and in fewer locations. It considerably lowers the danger of identity theft and cybercrime

SAML Multi Access

Most organizations already have access to their users’ identities thanks to Active Directory on Azure and LDAP. This is set up through the use of a cloud domain controller. With SAML, you may also create single sign on (SSO) scenarios, in which users log in to one application once and then use the same login details to access services from different Service Providers. 

Lower Expenses for Service Providers

Service providers do not have to retain account data across several services when using SAML. This duty falls on the identity provider because it has complete identity security solutions that guard against common password threats. As a result, service providers can save money on user credential storage.

What is SAML and how does SAML Authentication Work (Explained) Conclusion

SAML is important to any enterprise cyber security strategy. It is one of the best identity and access management tools in the cybersecurity industry. It reduces the risk of cybercrime and helps improve administration efficiency. In addition, it improves the overall user experience of an application, starting from a less cumbersome login process.

Take a look at our Single sign on content here  

Avatar for Kamso Oguejiofor
Kamso Oguejiofor

Kamso is a mechanical engineer and writer with a strong interest in anything related to technology. He has over 2 years of experience writing on topics like cyber security, network security, and information security. When he’s not studying or writing, he likes to play basketball, work out, and binge watch anime and drama series.

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