The goal of authentication is to confirm that the person attempting to access a resource is actually who they say they are. As you can imagine, there are many different ways to handle authentication, and some of the most popular methods include multi-factor authentication (MFA) and Single Sign On (SSO).
However, these methods just skim the surface of the underlying technical complications. In order to implement an authentication method, a business must first establish an authentication protocol. A business might also choose to blend multiple authentication methods together. The question is, where do you start?
This guide provides an overview of the most common authentication methods, along with the most popular protocols, that businesses can use to verify a person’s identity and keep systems secure.
- Authentication vs. Authorization
- Authentication Methods vs. Authentication Protocols
- Authentication Methods
- MFA vs. 2FA
- SSO vs. MFA/2FA
- Can SSO and MFA/2FA Be Used Together?
- Authentication Protocols
- SAML vs. The Rest
- Why Is SAML Best for Business?
- Supporting Cybersecurity and Data Governance
Authentication vs. Authorization
Before we dive into the intricacies of authentication, it’s worth understanding the difference between “authentication” and “authorization” as these two concepts go hand-in-hand but serve two different purposes.
Authentication seeks to validate the identity of a user. Once that is done, authorization verifies their permission level. For example, authentication is necessary for a user to enter the company database, but authorization is what decides what information they are allowed to view and change.
Both authentication and authorization are fundamental to cybersecurity, but as authentication is the foundation, let’s start there.
Authentication Methods vs. Authentication Protocols
The terms “methods” and “protocols” have two different meanings for authentication. An authentication protocol is an underlying framework that lays out the rules for verification. For instance, the Password Authentication Protocol (PAP) requires someone to enter a username and password to verify who they are.
Meanwhile, an authentication method sits on top of the protocol. An enterprise might have multiple authentication methods that help verify a user’s information against the protocol. For instance, a person might enter their username and password, but they may also be asked to verify their identity using a code sent to their phone, which is a method known as two-factor authentication (2FA).
With one or more methods of authentication in place, authentication protocols are able to verify that a user is who they say they are with extreme confidence. The following is a closer look at the various types of authentication methods and protocols, along with side-by-side comparisons of the most popular options.
A business might use one or more authentication methods to improve the security of its systems. Generally, if more sensitive information is involved or higher privileged users, more authentication methods should be enabled and enforced to maintain proper. Of course, increased security often comes as a tradeoff of convenience, which is why it’s important to choose the right methods.
Multi-factor authentication requires at least two methods of authentication. This is becoming more common because passwords alone are no longer considered secure. With advanced tools, cybercriminals can crack a password with relative ease, especially if users don’t follow good password hygiene by re-using passwords across sites or failing to make them secure enough.
With multi-factor authentication, a user is asked to enter a username and password. If it matches, a code is sent to an authentication app, phone number, email, or another resource that only the user is supposed to have access to. The user will then enter that code on the login page. For multi-factor authentication, they may repeat this method more than once.
For instance, after entering their username and password, the user may be asked to verify a code that was sent to their phone number on file. They then may be asked to verify a code that was sent to their email on file. As you can imagine, this process is very secure but can become inconvenient very quickly.
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a subset of MFA. The only difference is that 2FA requires exactly two methods of verification, which would mean entering the user’s password in addition to one of the methods mentioned above (e.g., verifying a code sent to their phone, email, app, etc.).
Two-factor authentication is becoming more common with consumer applications because it offers much more security than a password alone without causing a lot of inconvenience for the user.
Single-sign-on (SSO) is a method of authentication that strives to offer the most convenience to the user by eliminating the need to sign in at all. Instead of entering a username and password for every website and application they use, the website will connect with an identity provider that helps authenticate users without logins.
The user will need to create an account with the identity provider and log in every so often, but as long as they are logged in to that identity provider, all participating websites and apps will authenticate them automatically.
Within an enterprise setting, using an SSO provider means that employees need to only log in once each day. From there, authentication takes place behind the scenes as the identity provider exchanges verification keys with all of the websites and apps that you have set up to use SSO.
MFA vs. 2FA
The biggest difference between two-factor authentication and multi-factor authentication is ease. Multi-factor authentication is inherently more secure because the more times you ask a user to verify themselves, the less room you leave for unauthorized access.
However, it is also far slower and more complicated when you ask a user to enter a password, verify their number, verify their email, and so on with each login. Making your app too difficult to access might increase security, but it will also damage the user experience. Therefore, 2FA strives to find a middle ground where security is vastly improved over just a password, but without adding much inconvenience.
SSO vs. MFA/2FA
If you like the security of MFA, turning to SSO might seem risky. However, when partnering with the right identity provider, SSO is incredibly secure. The biggest benefit of SSO is that it significantly speeds up the user flow, contributing to a positive user experience.
Plus, since users only need to remember one password (which is the one that gets them into the identity provider), they are more likely to use good password hygiene and create one that’s truly secure.
When it comes to security, whether MFA is more or less secure than SSO depends on how it’s implemented. One thing is for sure: SSO is far more user-friendly.
Can SSO and MFA/2FA Be Used Together?
SSO and MFA can absolutely be used together, and it’s actually considered the most secure solution that strikes a balance between ease of use and protection. To use both, your users still only need to remember one password, which means they’re more likely to use a secure one. But that’s still only one password standing in the way of a cybercriminal.
To protect your business’s most sensitive data or apps, you can implement MFA for an additional layer of security. The user flow goes like this: The user logs in to the SSO provider, and this can give them access to any app or site you wish. But, when there are databases or assets you wish to secure further, you can use MFA to verify them a second time.
Using SSO means they do not need to use a password for any resource, but MFA has them verify themselves with a code on their phone, app, or email before they can access something that requires additional protection. It’s highly recommended that you consider using these methods in unison to protect your company.
Authentication protocols lay out the underlying rules that verify a user is who they say they are. The least secure protocol of all is known as the Password Authentication Protocol (PAP) and simply asks a user to enter a password that matches the one saved in the database. PAP does not utilize any encryption, which is why it is considered insecure and outdated.
A number of other authentication protocols have been introduced over the years, all with the goal of improving security. Here’s a look at the most common.
- SAML: SAML stands for Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML). It’s designed to support SSO by allowing a user to log in to an identity provider, which verifies their identity each time they request access to an app or site through a participating service provider. SAML was designed to simplify user access to multiple apps without requiring multiple logins.
- OAuth: OAuth stands for “Open Authentication.” It allows apps to grant “secure designated access.” It is one of the most popular authentication protocols on the web. For instance, Facebook uses it to allow users to grant websites permission to view and post on their timeline without sharing the user’s Facebook password.
- OIDC: Built upon OAuth 2.0, which is an authorization service, this protocol adds a simple identity layer on top of the authorization service, allowing clients/service providers to verify the end user’s identity.
- LDAP: The lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP) was designed for speedy authentication. User information is stored in the Active Directory (AD) and can only be extracted in a usable format with the use of LDAP.
With all these authentication protocols on the market, it can be difficult for businesses to determine which one is best for their use case. However, when it comes to security and reliability, SAML is considered the industry standard. To follow is a comparison of SAML versus other authentication protocols.
SAML vs. The Rest
SAML is not the only protocol that can be used to implement Single Sign On (SSO), nor is SSO the only authentication method that you can use with the SAML protocol, but the two have become synonymous with one another. But, with so many options, why is SAML considered the best?
One of the most important advantages of using SAML for SSO purposes is that it is open standard. This means that providers and vendors can easily interact with each other assuming they adhere to the SAML standard. Additionally, because SAML uses XML, it is extremely flexible. You can transfer all sorts of data so long as XML can render it.
With these details in mind, some businesses still debate between SAML and OAuth. OAuth is somewhat newer than SAML, but it was developed by Google and Twitter, partly to compensate for some SAML shortcomings. For that reason, OAuth uses JSON instead of XML.
The other primary difference between SAML and OAuth is that OAuth was created as an authorization network, not for authentication purposes. The OpenID Connect layer sits on top of OAuth to handle authentication, and it was released much later. Another differentiator is the use case: Google and Twitter designed OAuth for use across the internet. SAML was designed with the open internet in mind, but it’s ideal for closed enterprise networks.
If you go through the list and compare SAML individually next to every other protocol mentioned here, it quickly becomes clear that SAML may not be the best for every application, but it is the clear winner when it comes to businesses looking to establish better authentication for their users. It’s also widely recognized as the fastest solution for business use.
Why Is SAML Best for Business?
For businesses who are interested in adding SSO capability, many are inclined to go down the route of creating a proprietary solution. Often, this process begins with good intentions and typically under the false mindset that a proprietary solution will be the most secure, the most flexible, or even the most cost-effective.
In reality, proprietary SSO solutions rarely work out as intended. At the enterprise level, implementing a proprietary SSO solution could mean that connecting with each app or software requires a new integration or implementation, which represents major development resources and a lot of unnecessary complexity.
If you are thinking about creating a proprietary authentication platform, think twice. By using a trusted protocol like SAML, you can invest your development resources into one implementation and then easily connect with very many partners without the need for a lot of complex coding and testing.
SAML is ideal for an enterprise that needs a reliable and scalable authentication protocol. It’s flexible not only because it’s built on XML but because its developers provide future users with a lot of leeway as to how it’s implemented. For instance, if the need arises, you can even involve multiple identity providers in the authentication process.
Obviously, SAML is also preferable because it is ideal for implementing SSO. When it comes to authentication methods, the combination of SSO and MFA is considered the new standard, so choosing SAML will set your business up with a solid foundation as your cybersecurity practices evolve to meet the needs of increased security and user experience.
All in all, SAML has proven that it is a dependable protocol for authentication, especially at the enterprise level and especially for SSO. So, where do you go from here? In most cases, businesses will want to seek out an SSO provider who uses SAML. Some examples include OneLogin.
Supporting Cybersecurity and Data Governance
Finding the right authentication protocol and methods is fundamental to shaping your organization’s cybersecurity. However, it’s far from the only piece of the puzzle. As cyber-attacks grow more frequent and more sophisticated each day, it’s critical that businesses find the time to step back and look at their cybersecurity and data governance procedures as a whole.
Data governance has rapidly secured a position in the cybersecurity conversation. Not only does it have to do with compliance and data privacy, but it also means knowing what data you possess, how it needs to be protected, who should have access to it, and what happens if it gets out. Therefore, any organization that is thinking about authentication should also be thinking about data governance.
As you go down the line, one critical element of data governance is transparency. Without visibility into your organization’s data assets, your cybersecurity team doesn’t know what it needs to protect or how to do it. That’s why a monitoring system like LogicMonitor will prove invaluable to daily operational efficiency in addition to cybersecurity and compliance.LogicMonitor offers a set of cloud-based infrastructure monitoring tools designed to support security, access, visibility, and compliance at scale. Interested in learning more about how LogicMonitor can help your business achieve observability and reduce your wasted IT resources? Try it free today and see for yourself.