What is SAML, and How Does Authentication Work?

  • By Greg Brown
  • Sep 26, 2022

saml

The meteoric rise of SaaS applications delivered to consumers and businesses created an underlying need for a Single Sign On (SSO) login standard. The SAML method offers secure authentication with a better consumer experience than user names and passwords. 

SAML and Digital Security

Once online payments and digital authentication became mainstream, the sub-industry of foundational security software began. The massive infusion of new applications for online security created companies whose only function was to hold and authenticate online identities in a fast-paced environment. Once the identity is verified, the SAML authenticator passes a token to service providers and end users.

The Identity Provider (IdP) and the Service Providers (SP) are two critical stops along a SAML flow. IdP is a service that manages digital identities using the SAML protocol. The SP offers resources to an end-user for its SSO.

SAML, or Security Assertion Markup Language, is an open standard that allows Security Providers (SP) to operate without performing their authentications. SAML became the OASIS standard when it was first developed in 2003. SAML is an XML-based framework that facilitates security authorizations for consumers and businesses; these consumers include Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Consumer (B2C) applications.

SAML is a web-application mechanism that uses the browser to handle redirects and authentication flow. SAML protocol is asynchronous by design and offers a single authentication point for consumer-rich service providers. 

A simple SP-initiated process flow, without redirects: 

    • An application from a service provider initiates a sign-in flow by generating a SAML Authentication Request. The request is directed to an Identity Provider (IdP). Once a request has been received and verified, the IdP transfers identity information back to service providers and end-users, offering additional resources for the SSO.
  • The SP doesn’t have any information about the request.
    • A SAML response is returned with a deny, approve, phone number, address, and a host of additional information that may be requested. 
  • Service providers won't know anything about the deep links that trigger requests. A SAML parameter, the RelayState, controls the amount of information supplied to the SP. This value is attached to the token to get additional context on the initial request.

When users first approach SAML and try to understand the language, more than likely, the user has no clue about the high-level terms. The terms themselves offer insight.

    • SAML Request, known as a request for authentication. The token is generated by the Service Provider requesting user verification.
    • SAML Response, generated by the IdP. The response states an actual assertion of an authenticated user. Additionally, the message may have additional information, such as profile and group/role information. The format and size are dependent on what the SP can support.
    • A service Provider, provides services in the form of an application.
    • Service Provider Initiated (SP-initiated), SAML sign-in flow initiated by the service provider. 
  • Identity Provider Initiated (IdP-initiated), sign-in flow by an IdP. 

Anyone wanting to utilize SAML, in any form, must be an IdP and a quick way to become an IdP is to implement SecureAuth. As a SecureAuth organization, your company is transformed from simply holding secure identities to a secure, guidance-compliant IdP. 

Providers such as Google, Salesforce, and WebEx quickly implemented the SAML standard. Organizations were able to deliver security information about user identities and access privileges to service providers in a safe and secure environment.

Future of Authentication

Security Assertion Markup Language

In the world of technology, one truism says it all; the sector never slows down. Any company sitting on its hands is out of business. One key to technology success is always looking for the next best thing. 

In 2003, SAML was the next big thing in authentication, and today remains at the top of the heap. However, nothing lasts forever, and OpenID is considered the heir apparent in digital authentication.

Most experts agree OpenID is the future of SSO. SAML has been a capable protocol for years. However, SAML has been caught up in rapid technology change. 

OpenID Connect is built on OAuth2, making it a great combination. The authentication protocol has only been around for a couple of years, with prominent players implementing the protocol, including Microsoft Azure, Twitter, and PayPal. As of now, OpenID is a more consumer-based protocol with government and education clients on the way.

OpenID’s exploding popularity is based on a few features:

  • It is a cloud-native protocol 
  • Highly adaptable to new burgeoning technologies
  • Rather than being heavy, it relies only on JSON
  • Mobile Friendly

SAML will not go away soon and will remain a major player in the single sign-on space. The language is firmly entrenched in education and government. The 21st century has ushered in a digital revolution for secured access to various divergent services.

SAML Tools

Nothing works in a vacuum, and the same holds true for bedrock software. Over the last two decades, countless tools and tips have been available to customize the application exactly as the user wishes. One of the easiest ways to implement SAML is to leverage The OpenSource SAML Toolkit.

  • Toolkits contain the logic needed to understand the SAML Response. Logic is given to users for a Service Provider sign-on request. 
  • Protecting data is what ATAKAMA is all about. Working with SAML and OpenID, the company is well equipped to handle any size encrypt/decrypt project.
  • OneLogin handles x.509 certificates for the SAML method. 509 certificates are used in SAML to validate, sign, and encrypt messages
  • SAML Decoder decodes messages, metadata, and additional SAML encoded output and formatted in XML.
  • SAML Tracer is used for viewing SAML and WS-Federation messages sent through the browser.

Maintain Your Safety by Authenticating Every App You Use

Every corner of the technology space is growing fast, and some sub-sectors are seeing a meteoric rise with the right product or service. Virtual Organizations without hard assets are dynamic enterprises and getting stronger by the day. Security will continue to grow and keep up with other faster-growing businesses. 

SAML is a foundational software application for thousands of global top-line corporations. SAML will continue its unwavering performance for years, with new applications coming online each year.

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