In today’s high stakes world of cybersecurity, data breaches now number in the billions when it comes to exposed records. For organizations, a secure infrastructure is important. But it’s critical from a process standpoint to provide secure ways for their customers and employees to access the data they need for daily production.

The problem is that many organizations still rely on passwords. Even though passwords are meant to be secure barriers, they’re inherently flawed. Why? Because people tend to choose short and simple passwords that are easy to remember, and reuse the same five or six across dozens of websites.

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Even if your customers and employees are choosing intricate and unique passwords, they’re likely suffering from password fatigue. This is a feeling of exhaustion or frustration that results from having to remember a large number of passwords to check their email, pay their bills, and otherwise conduct their daily lives. In an age where the average person has anywhere from 70–100 passwords, that fatigue is real.

So what’s the alternative to passwords?

Single sign-on, a holistic approach to authentication, is a popular security measure that allows users access and convenience. The organizations who employ it will also enjoy a more systematic perspective on data that allows better integration, control, and aggregation.

What is single sign-on?

Single sign-on (more commonly known as SSO) is a modern authentication capability and higher-level security barrier. With SSO, a user’s identifying data — what’s known as “claims” to their identity — are stored with a separate entity called an identity provider.

Many of the organization, web, and cloud apps you’re logging into use identity providers that allow you to access the sites or materials you need with a single set of sign-in credentials. By doing so, identity providers help enterprise companies and cloud apps manage access and access levels, bypassing the password dilemma and increasing the level of security.

For example, if you, like millions of others, logged into Zoom yesterday, you probably used an identity provider (if you don’t have a Zoom-specific username and password). You could sign in using an SSO, Google, or Facebook login. That’s just one example of using one set of credentials to get into a third-party app.

Of course, nothing’s perfect. If a hacker somehow accessed your master sign-in credentials, the very structure set up to limit a security breach could offer broad access to bad actors. That said, SSO stacks the odds in your favor, minimizing the risk associated with passwords and the security breaches that result from malicious access.

The cool thing about SSO for enterprises — many of which have moved their own businesses to the cloud — is that a user’s commonly stored credentials, and often their accompanying data (first/last name, email, company role, etc.), becomes known across apps. So the single sign-on gives authorized users convenient access to the tools they need to use.

How Does SSO Work?

The central component of SSO is the identity provider relationship.

The enterprise, web, or cloud app a user tries to log into will employ an identity provider to authenticate them by way of a security token. This token is triggered when the user enters their master sign-in credentials. Calls to the server are validated with that token (or the sign-in key for that particular identity provider). What does the security token contain? A cryptographically signed document full of info about the identity of the person calling the server.

There are three common identity authentication configurations, or types, for SSO. Think of them as different sets of frameworks or rules for the authentication process.

  • OAuth: An open authorization framework created and championed by Google, Twitter, and others, OAuth uses tokens to verify an identity without divulging a password by giving the app secured designated access. A good example of this is the Zoom scenario mentioned earlier or logging into Netflix using your Facebook credentials.
  • Kerberos: Developed by MIT back in the 1980s, Kerberos features enhanced cryptography and requires ticket authentication by three different entities. It has been adopted by OS systems like Windows, Apple, and Linux.
  • SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language): Perhaps the most widely used protocol, and the one used by HubSpot-supported SSO providers, SAML provides user authentication once and repeats that authentication across multiple applications. The number of coding systems and protocols across the internet are vast, but SAML bridges that divide by enabling different machines to communicate with one another, no matter their specifications.

An additional layer of authentication, called multifactor authentication (MFA), can work with SSO. MFA gives the user access only after they successfully present two or more pieces of “proof.” A byproduct of MFA, two-factor authentication (2FA) often involves a code sent to your cell phone. Using SSO and MFA together greatly reduces the chances of an account being breached.

In addition to improved cybersecurity, SSO also provides organizations with an efficient solution to disparate databases and knowledge silos among their users. Let’s take a closer look at how SSO provides these benefits.

How SSO Plays a Role in Better Data

SSO gives enterprises confidence in accurate and error-free user data for a multitude of use cases.

Any user details on the server that are associated with a secure login will be correlated with the information added by that user or group of users. So you’ll have better, more accurate data attribution for what these users are doing, whether that’s filling out forms or using internal software.

And, not to go down a rabbit hole, but it’s not a leap to say that better data can inform artificial intelligence for a new range of related uses. For example, SSO permits Enterprise users to access AI-driven chatbots that can automatically retrieve business information (or credentials) in order to perform necessary actions.

This isn’t lost on the market and is resulting in steady momentum for SSO. The single sign-on market is estimated to grow to approximately $1.6 billion in 2021. That’s a growth rate of 89 percent.

It makes sense. Considering the scale of the largest enterprises and companies in the world, ensuring that the right people have access to their affiliated apps and software usage trends is important. The volume of users alone demands high-level administration (IT and departmental), aggregation, and user segmentation to support effective decision-making, be it organizational servicing, internal system investment, or more.

In fact, the central tenet of how SSO functions is the same reason it plays a role in better data collection. SSO enables an organizational process that allows for efficient data integration and control spanning multiple sources, or, put another way, a single source of truth.

Without SSO, many different users access web or cloud apps through different methods. With each login, enterprises open themselves up to data leakage and security concerns. Additionally, when individual users have their own sign-ons to apps, data collection can get complicated. For example, a user could argue that, though they work for the enterprise, they own some of the data (sourced through an app they initiated). With SSO, the company owns all data collected through accessed apps.

Single Sign-on Solutions

SSO is growing among enterprises and organizations because of its significant benefits. Having a centralized database helps validate user details and gives a unified view of usage. The elimination of potential data breaches mitigates attacks and provides one resource for identity maintenance.

Here are a handful of SSO solution providers that will help your organization take an enhanced approach to security and data.

Microsoft Azure (Active Directory)

Single Sign-on solution Microsoft Azure's dashboard

For those who opt for Azure AD and have ties to the MS cloud platform, you’ll enjoy a natural extension of systems for your corporate network. Azure’s scale is evident as it manages more than 1.2 billion identities and processes over 8 billion authentications every day. With $1 billion spent annually on cybersecurity research and development, its war chest is impressive.


Single sign-on solution Okta's dashboard

Well respected in the industry for the flexibility and usability of its cloud-based solution, Okta offers real-time security reporting for mobile device management with geolocation tracking. Okta’s integration network covers more than 6,500 pre-integrated apps for SSO. On the user experience front, Okta features a portal for end users to access all their applications, tailored to each of their devices and customizable to their workflow.


Single sign-on solution onelogin dashboard

OneLogin offers a simple but secure identity and access management (IAM) platform that features a one-click access solution. OneLogin is popular among companies connecting their workforce to cloud apps. Once users are logged into their operating system, they don’t need to log in again to access apps, increasing productivity and enhancing security.


Single sign-on solution DuoSecurity's dashboard

Backed by Cisco, Duo SSO offers a user-friendly and easy dashboard to log into your applications. You can create custom access policies based on role, device, location, and other contextual variables. The platform also supports required third-party authentication technologies upon login.


Single Sign-on solution LastPass's dashboard

More suited to the small business segment, LastPass is a neat and easy-to-use SSO solution that offers cloud authentication, compliance, and identity management (via password vaulting). The feature set may be lighter than some of the larger players in the space.

SSO Is the Path to Better Data

The mission of single sign-on is to grant users secure and convenient access to the tools they need to use everyday. In addition to security and convenience, SSO also gives organizations and administrators an efficient solution for uniting disparate databases and knowledge silos among their users.

SSO allows for a unified view of usage, internal segmentation of user data, and accurate analysis of external response data. Of significant importance is the idea of a single source of truth, where enterprises now have a framework for integrated data from a variety of sources. No matter which solution a company selects, single sign-on will help play a role in cleaner, and better, data.

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Originally published Dec 8, 2020 5:00:00 AM, updated December 10 2020


Cyber Security