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What is Single Sign-On and How Does It Work?

A login screen on a laptop

August 3, 2023

Single sign-on (SSO) merges multiple application login screens into one. It enables users to access all of their SaaS applications by only entering their login credentials on that one page. SSO is typically used by businesses where an internal IT team is assigned to manage user applications. It’s also a helpful tool for remote workers who use SaaS applications. SSO is all about convenience and efficiency as it sidesteps the need to keep inputting login details every time you begin using a different application.

Many identity and access management (AIM) or access control solutions have SSO as a key aspect. It is essential to implement user identity verification in order to establish the permissions a user is supposed to have.


What are the benefits of SSO?


As well as offering simplicity and convenience for users, most will agree that SSO offers enhanced security. You may question how only signing in once, with a single password, can be more secure than multiple sign-ins with different passwords. Here are the security benefits according to SSO advocates:


You Implement Stronger Passwords

Only having to use one password encourages SSO users to create and remember more robust passwords. This is backed up by use cases, with users opting for random passwords that are difficult to guess as opposed to those that are simpler for them to remember.


There Is No Use of Repeated Passwords

When people have to remember multiple passwords for different apps, ‘password fatigue’ can set in. This is when people start to reuse passwords from one service to the next. This poses a security risk because it means the security of all services is only as strong as the one that has the weakest password protection. If an attacker gains access to that service’s password database, they will be able to hack every service. With SSO, this risk is removed due to the single login format.


Improved Enforcement of Password Policy

With only a single place for entering passwords, it becomes easier to enforce password security. For example, rules about changing passwords periodically will be met with less resistance if there is only a single password to change.


Multi-factor Authentication

This refers to the use of more than one identity factor for a user to gain access. Often, in addition to entering a username and password, the user may also have to be sent a one-time passcode (OTP) to their smartphone or email to be authenticated. This is an additional layer of security to confirm the person seeking access is who they claim to be. With SSO, you can activate MFA at a single point instead of needing to use it across multiple apps.


Password Re-entry from a Single Point

Administrators often enforce the measure of having to re-enter login credentials after a certain amount of time. This ensures the same user is still present at the device. SSO enables this to be done from a single point for all internal apps, simplifying the entire process.


Credential Management Handled Internally

When passwords are stored remotely, they are often unmanaged and do not follow the best security practices. SSO allows internal storage where the IT team has greater control.


Less Time Spent on Recovering Passwords

The process of helping users recover or reset passwords for multiple apps is wasted time for internal teams. SSO reduces that to a single point, enabling users to spend less time signing in and more time doing their jobs.


What does SSO login actually look like?


When a user seeks to sign into an SSO service, an authentication token is created. This remembers that the user has been identified. It is a piece of data that gets stored in the user’s browser, or in the SSO service’s servers. Essentially, it functions as a temporary ID card for that user.

Whenever the user attempts to use an app, that app will check with the SSO service. The authentication token is passed to the app and the user is allowed entry, or they will be prompted to sign into the SSO service.

User identities are not stored in the SSO server, so the services typically check user credentials against a separate identity management solution. Essentially, the SSO is a middleman. It confirms whether a person’s login credentials are a match for the identity database, but it doesn’t actually manage that database.


What are SSO authentication tokens?


The SSO process relies on the mechanism of passing an authentication token to external applications. It is this process that verifies identity separate from other cloud services; it is the entire foundation of SSO.

Consider the metaphor of an exclusive event where access is only allowed for a few people. Security guards at the entrance need a way to verify that they have already checked and approved a guest, so they use a hand stamp. Event staff can check people’s stamps to verify that they are permitted to be there. But the shape and colour of the stamp has to be exactly right or it will not be valid.

Each stamp must look identical, and all authentication tokens have their unique communication standards that verifies their legitimacy. The primary authentication token standard is SAML, which stands for Security Assertion Markup Language. This is what authentication tokens are written in.


So how can I incorporate SSO into my access management strategy?


SSO is a single aspect of a wider solution for managing user access. You will need to combine it with measures for things like:

  • Access control.
  • Permission control.
  • Activity logs.

These measures and more are all designed to track and control user behaviour when connected to your organisation’s internal systems. For many, SSO is a crucial aspect of access management strategies, however. If systems are unable to verify who a user is, there is no means of allowing or restricting that user’s activities.

SSO can be integrated with a wide range of access management solutions. This means you could implement it and start benefiting from its many advantages with minimal disruption during the implementation process. Contact us if you would like to learn more.


Why choose Eventura as your Managed IT Service Provider?


Eventura has been providing managed IT services to countless customers for 20 years. Our talented team of people can help you identify all your businesses IT needs and engineer bespoke IT solutions that have real-world benefits to your business.

We are also NetSuite Solution Providers and Sage 200 Business Partners, offering game-changing ERP solutions crafted to automate and streamline business processes.

If you would like to speak to one of our experts, you can request a free call back here.

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