So much of what we do nowadays takes place online: communications, transactions, work, play. And every time we want to post an article on social media, order a product from an online retailer, send an email, edit a document stored in the cloud, or even play Fortnite, we have to log into our account and verify our identity before proceeding. This tedious process is preceded by the even more time consuming registration and setup of said account.
But what if you could skip all this hassle? That’s exactly what single sign-on (SSO) let’s you do.
Identity Management and SSO
Whenever you register for a service, platform, SaaS, etc., you provide certain bits of information to authenticate your identity. This information is stored by the provider under your unique profile. This helps the provider prevent unauthorized access to your data and its systems. This concept of identity management has been around for decades. But with increased online offers and the rise in mobile device usage, many companies have realized the need for a simpler approach. And SSO is exactly that.
SSO identity management eliminates the need to create a separate user account and access credentials for each new service by allowing you to log in using already certified access credentials from a third party source.
How does SSO work?
Simply put, you can think of SSO as identity verification outsourcing. SSO makes it possible for different service providers, platforms, softwares to authenticate your identity through a third party, also known as a central authentication service (CAS). During a standard registration process, the CAS takes care of all the legwork to make sure you are who you say you are. Then, as its name suggests, it centralizes your critical identity management data -- your name, address, date of birth, and other identifying information -- in a database. Now, instead of creating a new profile for a new service or platform, you can simply log in to a new service through the CAS.
The most familiar form of SSO for most of us is the social login. Imagine you want to book your next vacation using an online travel portal. You open the company’s website, browse through all the locations, select a hotel and flights, and then proceed to the final step: the booking. Ordinarily, you’d be prompted to create an account at this point. This is an essential step for identity verification. But it’s also an incredibly annoying additional step to simply complete your booking. However, if the company has SSO activated, you also receive the option to log in using your Facebook or Google login credentials. In this case, Facebook and Google are acting as the CAS. And you are spared the laborious inconvenience of setting up yet another online account.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of SSO?
The most obvious benefit of SSO is that you only have to remember one set of login credentials. This is especially helpful nowadays as passwords have become more complex and intricate to ensure security. Furthermore, having all of your critical data stored in one central database, rather than across multiple service providers and platforms, also makes it less likely that your data will fall into the wrong hands.
SSO also makes it possible to perform transactions more quickly. Let’s go back to the example of your vacation booking. If you have the option to sign up using a social login, you can complete your trip booking with one click instead of having to first create an account, enter personal details and payment information, and then verify your account. This kind of ease is especially important for businesses wanting to maintain customer interest and close sales.
Of course it might not be ideal for every company to be so dependent on a third party CAS. For one, should the CAS not be accessible for some reason (downtime, system failure), all the services that rely on it for user access are also not available to their users. Furthermore, some companies might find it useful for marketing and advertising to have access to user data. By relying on a third party CAS, they simultaneously lose access to user data. However, it’s important to remember that outsourcing identity management also means outsourcing the responsibility and costly expense of data security.
As always, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons before adopting any new features. Consider your target audience and whether or not SSO could mean higher registration and sign up numbers and greater turnover.