Describe the process of single sign-on (SSO) in identity management.

Single Sign-On (SSO) is a mechanism in identity management that allows a user to access multiple applications or services with a single set of login credentials. The goal of SSO is to simplify the user experience by reducing the need for users to remember and manage multiple usernames and passwords for different systems. Below is a detailed technical explanation of the process of Single Sign-On:

  1. Authentication Process:
    • User Authentication:
      • When a user attempts to access a protected resource or application, the SSO system initiates the authentication process.
      • The user provides their credentials (username and password) to the Identity Provider (IdP), which is the central authority responsible for authenticating users.
    • Token Generation:
      • Upon successful authentication, the IdP generates a security token containing information about the user and their authentication status.
      • This token serves as proof of authentication and is securely transmitted to the user's device.
  2. Token-based Communication:
    • Token Format:
      • The security token is typically formatted using industry-standard protocols such as Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), OAuth, or OpenID Connect.
      • SAML, for example, defines XML-based assertions that contain information about the user and the authentication event.
    • Token Transmission:
      • The security token is securely transmitted to the user's browser or device, which acts as a token carrier.
  3. Access to Applications:
    • Application Request:
      • When the user tries to access another application within the SSO environment, the application requests authentication information.
    • Token Presentation:
      • The user's device presents the security token to the application.
      • The application trusts the token because it comes from a trusted IdP.
  4. Token Verification:
    • Token Validation:
      • The application validates the security token to ensure its authenticity and integrity.
      • This involves checking the digital signature or other validation mechanisms depending on the token format used.
    • User Authorization:
      • The application extracts user information from the token to determine if the user is authorized to access the requested resource.
      • Authorization decisions can be based on user roles, attributes, or other criteria embedded in the token.
  5. Session Management:
    • User Session:
      • Once the token is verified and the user is authorized, the application establishes a session for the user.
      • The session allows the user to interact with the application without re-authenticating for a certain period.
  6. Logout Process:
    • Single Logout (optional):
      • In some SSO implementations, a single logout mechanism allows the user to log out from all connected applications simultaneously.
      • This involves notifying the IdP to terminate the user's session across all applications.

Single Sign-On involves a central authentication authority (Identity Provider) that issues secure tokens upon user authentication. These tokens are then presented to and verified by individual applications, allowing users seamless access to multiple resources without the need for repeated authentication.