a good thing!
SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) is an open authentication standard that makes single sign-on (SSO) to web applications possible. SSO allows users to sign on to multiple web-based applications and services using a single set of credentials. Designed to simplify user sign-on experiences, SAML is most widely used in enterprise organizations and allows users to access applications and services that they pay for.
Most importantly, SAML sign-on experiences are secure because user credentials are never transmitted. Instead, they’re handled by identity providers (IdPs) and service providers (SPs):
The IdP stores all of the user credentials and information necessary for authorization and provides it to the SP, when requested. It's the IdPs’ job to say, “I know this person, and they should be able to access these resources.”
The SP hosts the applications and services that users want to access. These applications or services might include email platforms, such as Google or Microsoft Office, or communications apps, such as Slack or Skype. It’s the SPs’ job to say, “You can access these applications or services for a specified period of time without having to sign-on again.”
When users attempt to access these applications or services, the SP asks the IdP to verify their identities. The IdP issues SAML assertions, or tokens, which contain the information necessary to confirm user identities, including the time the assertions were issued and the conditions that make the assertions valid. After they’re received, the SP gives users access to the resources they requested.
You can compare a SAML sign-on experience to that of checking out a library book:
You find a book that you want to read and take it up to the counter.
The librarian asks if you have your library card. You say, "No, I just moved to town." The librarian says, "Well, I can't let you check out the book until you have a library card. Go over to the desk and have the assistant librarian make you a card so that we have a record of who you are."
You go to the desk and give the assistant librarian your driver's license. The assistant librarian enters your name and address into the library system, creates the card, and hands it to you. You take the card back to the librarian, who scans it and checks out the book for you. You can now take the book home for a specified period of time.
In this scenario, you authenticate with the assistant librarian (IdP) by showing them your ID. Then, the assistant librarian (IdP) creates the card using your information. When you present the library card to the librarian (SP), they use the card to check out the book for you.
This short video provides additional examples of how SAML is used to quickly and securely connect employees, partners, and customers to an organization's digital resources.
SAML is an XML-based framework, which means it's extremely flexible, can be used on any platform, and can be transmitted by a variety of protocols including HTTP and SMTP. Federation partners can choose to share whatever information they want in a SAML assertion as long as the information can be represented in XML.
A typical SAML authentication process works this way:
SAML sign-on experiences are secure because user credentials are never transmitted. SAML assertions, or tokens, are used instead.
SAML assertions are XML documents sent from an IdP to an SP that identify users, contain pertinent information about them, and specify their privileges in the target application or service. These messages also provide assurances that the information is valid and specify how long users can access these resources without having to sign-on again.
SAML assertions are primarily used for authentication purposes, but they can also include authorization information:
SAML is widely used in enterprise organizations to share identity information between existing IAM systems and web applications. The ways that these processes are implemented depend on the ways sign-on processes are initiated -- either through the IdP or the SP.
IdP-initiated SSO is often found in workforce solutions. The steps involved in this type of process are outlined in the following diagram.
SP-initiated SSO begins when a user tries to access an application or service directly, instead of authenticating through the IdP first. The steps involved in this type of process are outlined in the following diagram.
Because it’s an XML framework, SAML is extremely versatile. Many different SSO connections with different identity federation partners can be supported with a single implementation, which is why it’s often used in business and enterprise organizations.
However, SAML only supports SSO to browser-based applications and services. It does not support SSO for mobile applications or applications that access resources through the API.
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