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Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) is one of the oldest and most widely adopted identity protocols that facilitates the secure transfer of identity information between parties. Based on XML formatting, SAML is most often used in the context of single sign-on (SSO). It provides a secure mechanism for exchanging authentication and authorization data between different parties efficiently, ensuring robust and reliable protection of sensitive user information.

SAML Providers

A SAML provider is a system that enables users to access services or resources within a trusted environment.

There are two types of SAML providers:

  • Identity Provider (IdP) – Authenticates users and passes authorization information to the SP.
  • Service Provider (SP) – Authorizes users to access resources based on the authentication and authorization information from the IdP.

How SSO Integrates with a SAML Provider

SSO streamlines user access to various services by enabling authentication through a centralized SAML provider. Users authenticate once with the SAML provider and, subsequently, the SAML provider securely communicates their authentication status to participating services, granting them access without repeated logins.

Advantages of SAML

SAML has a mature ecosystem of libraries, tools, and documentation that makes it easy for developers and administrators to use.

Some benefits of adopting SAML include:

  • User experience – SAML reduces the need for users to remember multiple sets of credentials via SSO and federated identity, allowing users to access multiple applications and services with a single set of login credentials.
  • Enhanced security – SAML utilizes strong authentication methods and secure communication protocols. These enhanced measures protect sensitive data and reduce the risk of identity theft and other cyber threats (e.g., man-in-the-middle attacks).
  • Standardized protocol – SAML has widespread adoption among a variety of platforms, services, and applications. This standardization ensures interoperability and simplifies integration efforts when connecting different systems.
  • Reduced costs – SAML helps to lower administrative costs by streamlining the authentication process with fine-grained access control and centralized identity management. It also reduces the need for manual user management.

Alternatives to SAML

While SAML is popular (especially for organizations with an already mature SAML infrastructure in place or legacy systems built on SAML) there are alternatives. Two of these alternatives include Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and OpenID Connect (OIDC).

LDAP is a mature protocol designed to maintain and access directory services within a network. It primarily serves as an on-premises hub for authentication. SAML offers a streamlined approach with a single set of user credentials, making it better suited for and more scalable in cloud-based computing environments.

OIDC is a newer authentication option that can be used as a replacement for SAML. While OIDC is commonly viewed as more lightweight and performant, SAML is still viewed as a more stable and scalable option.

When considering OIDC, SAML adopters should consider the following:

  • Existing infrastructure – If your organization already has a mature SAML infrastructure in place, transitioning to OIDC might involve significant changes and migrations. Sticking with SAML might be more feasible and cost-effective in such cases.
  • Legacy systems – SAML has been around longer than OIDC and has deeper support in legacy applications and systems. If you have older applications that support SAML but not OIDC, choosing SAML could simplify integration efforts.

How Can NGINX Help?

NGINX recognizes that you have options when it comes to an authentication and authorization strategy. In many cases, it isn’t a matter of whether to use one or the other, but rather when to use one or the other.

Contact us today to explore how SAML might fit into your authentication and authorization strategy. You can also check out the resources below to learn about NGINX’s SAML implementations and other ways you can use SAML for secure data exchange.

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