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SAML Finds Its Cloud Legs

Security Assertion Markup Language is now on its second major version

“When I took office, only high energy physicists had ever heard of what is called the World Wide Web... Now even my cat has its own page.” - Bill Clinton

Despite the slow descent into irrelevance of SOA and its core standards, several of its ancillary standards remain steadfastly alive and in some cases are growing in relevance. In particular, SAML is gaining steam thanks in large part to the explosive adoption of SaaS.

SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language), now on its second major version, was most commonly associated with efforts by the Liberty Alliance (long since defunct and absorbed into the Kantara Initiative) to federate authentication and authorization across the web. The "big deal" with SAML was that it was easily supported by the browser. Of course when it was introduced there were few services enterprises felt needed federation with corporate systems and thus despite the energy surrounding the project it was largely ineffective at producing the desired results.


Fast forward to today and the situation out there has changed. Enterprises are increasingly invested in SaaS (which is still really just a web application) and are growing more aware of the challenges associated with that investment, particularly around identity, access, and control.

Re-enter SAML. This time, with a much better chance of becoming The Standard for federating identity across cloud-deployed applications.


The appeal remains, in large part, due to its focus on the browser through which most if not all enterprise resources are accessed today. Add in a healthy dose of mobile devices, roaming employees, and new off-premise enterprise services and you've got a recipe for SAML's success.

The need for organizations to get a grip on (reassert control over) access and identity management is significant. As we recently learned there are mounting concerns with respect to distributed credentials and unfettered access to corporate applications residing off-premise. SAML 2.0 offers a standards-based, increasingly supported means of accomplishing this feat of wondrous power through a combination of well-defined processes and products (er, services).

Salesforce.com: Configuring SAML Settings for Single Sign-On

Single sign-on is a process that allows network users to access all authorized network resources without having to log in separately to each resource. Single sign-on allows you to validate usernames and passwords against your corporate user database or other client application rather than having separate user passwords managed by Salesforce.

Google: SAML Single Sign-On (SSO) Service for Google Apps

Using the SAML model, Google acts as the service provider and provides services such as Gmail and Start Pages. Google partners act as identity providers and control usernames, passwords and other information used to identify, authenticate and authorize users for web applications that Google hosts.

The list goes on: Concur, SugarCRM, FedEx, RightScale. This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to SAML. And it's not just vendors offering support, it's users asking for it, coding it into their applications, demanding it.

And why shouldn't they? SAML 2.0 is highly flexible in its ability to provide a standard process through which authentication and authorization to resources can be provided. It provides the process and the payload necessary to unify and federate identity across distributed applications, and it can be easily used in the browser as well as in custom applications. It's a markup language standard transported largely over HTTP.

Because it has well defined processes that describe how to federate identity using an SP (Service Provider) and an IdP (Identity Provider) organizations and vendors alike can cleanly implement support either directly or through a third-party provider like Ping Identity, One Login, or SecureAuth. SAML can support mobile devices and APIs as easily as it can traditional browser-based resources. When used by a cloud access broker acting as an access control gateway, SAML can be used to provide single-sign on for both cloud and data center hosted resources.

It's really quite a flexible little standard that seems to have finally found its sea legs - if by "sea legs" one means cloud legs.


Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Lori MacVittie

Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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