What is a Federated Login?

By ivision December 15, 2022

Very often, there’s an indispensable need for users to access multiple applications, which are hosted by several organizations directly involved in the project. This need is almost always present irrespective of the size or criticality of the project. With multiple security domains comes the greater pain of having to remember the different credentials for each and every one of them.

The need to remember all those credentials and use them frequently is loathed for obvious reasons. The concept of federated login aims to simplify a time-consuming and highly repetitive login process. Since this is obviously a good thing and worth discussing, this post will explain the concept of federated login, where it works best, and its pros and cons.

How Security Worked Before Federated Login

In the days of yesteryear, users’ login identities were dispersed across the different websites that they visited. As a result, you had to create a new username and password every time you tried to log in to a new site. And these sites stored your credentials. Every time you revisited a site, you had to re-enter them. This made sense when there wasn’t a single parent organization to manage those sites. But even if a single organization did own multiple sites, each time you tried to access those sites, you still had to log in separately.

What Is Federated Login

Federated login enables users to use a single authentication ticket/token to obtain access across all the networks of the different IT systems. As a result, once the identity provider’s authentication is complete, they now also have access to the other federated domains. The users don’t have to perform any other separate login processes.

Federated identity is all about assigning the task of authentication to an external identity provider. Federated identity management (FIM) is an umbrella term that encompasses the federated identity concepts, the policies, agreements, standards, and the other factors that affect the implementation of the service.

How Federated Login Works

The identity provider saves the login credentials of the users, and they log in directly to this identity provider. Typically, that’s the parent organization. When users want access to another connected domain, they don’t have to provide credentials to the corresponding service providers. Instead, when there’s a login attempt, that application sends a request to the user’s identity provider. It approves the request, after which the login happens. The user’s identity provider thus provides the authorization, and the remote applications trust it.

Scenarios Where Federated Login Works Best

Federated login implementation doesn’t work well with all IT environments—although, when implemented right, it usually goes hand in hand with most of them. This section lists out examples of the best environments for federated login.

Federated Login Within an Enterprise

Here, the applications are hosted in the cloud, which doesn’t fall under an organization’s security perimeter. Implementing federated login is a good idea in such a scenario. When done right, the process workflow is the same as accessing on-premise applications. That is, once users successfully sign into a corporate network, they can then also access all the other applications in the network without having to sign in again.

Federated Login With Multiple Organizations

Users can realize the benefits of federated login to its fullest in this scenario. A use case is when users from multiple organizations want access to the resources that are exclusive to a single organization. The problem that arises when you don’t have federated login is that other users wouldn’t have an account in the corporate directory. When you do implement federated login, even other users can have access to resources by signing in only once to their identity provider.

Federated Login for Software as a Service (SaaS) Applications

In this scenario, multiple parties sign in with different sets of accounts. Independent software vendors (ISVs) provide a service used by multiple clients. Implementing federated login in this environment would enable different types of users to sign in with different identity providers. For instance, the employees of an organization will use their corporate credentials to sign in. On the other hand, their clients might use any of their social network credentials.

Advantages of Federated Login

Federated login could be your answer to the rapidly evolving scope of identity management systems. Read on for some benefits that it brings to the table.

Reduced Administrative Overheads

Why do users prefer to remember the fewest number of usernames/passwords possible? For an IT administrator, the fewer user identities across multiple applications, the less the headache. Federated login’s single sign-on (SSO) mechanism calls for the user to have only a single set of login credentials, thus directly reducing the administrative efforts needed. SSO is a win-win for both the users and the IT administrators. Thus, federated login has a direct impact and minimizes the resources in the form of manpower and cost deployed for addressing users’ login issues.

Minimized Security Risks

One of the inherent benefits of federated login over most other cloud-based SSO products is that the login credentials are stored on-premises, protected by the home organization’s firewall. Besides, it significantly reduces the number of passwords involved in an organization’s overall security pipeline. Having multiple login credentials invites various security threats. It might also have a psychological impact on the users and weaken password strengths. Federated login helps organizations overcome this obstacle, and it minimizes security risks.

Enhanced User Experience

Users want seamless access to resources they need without any high-demand processes. The last thing they want is to work in an environment that requires them to remember 10 different passwords to access 10 different applications every single day. You don’t want them to spend a large chunk of their time just trying to access your resources, either. And you have the opportunity to delight them since federated login can utilize their credentials from social media sites for account registration—they can log into your services on the go.

The Downside

Federated login does come with some drawbacks, though. Here are a few of them.

High Initial Setup Costs

Federated login demands massive upfront costs. That’s due to the architectural modifications that your current applications/systems have to go through to be federated. Naturally, that makes things difficult for low to mid-level IT decision-makers.

SSO Becomes Critical

The most crucial element in the whole federated login concept is the SSO, and it becomes extremely business critical. Any issues in the SSO account will also affect all the federated accounts under its authentication. This also means that it’ll present itself as a single point of target for the hackers.

Ownership Issues

The different organizations in a single federated domain must mutually trust each other. Ownership issues may arise if there are conflicts regarding data mismatch of various identities. For that reason, it’s vital to create policies that don’t violate the security requirements of all the participating members. But different organizations have different rules and requirements, and it complicates the process.

Should You Implement Federated Login?

Federated login offers an extensive array of benefits that are hard to ignore, but it also comes with its own risks and complications. It’s definitely not a silver bullet, but in the environments where you can implement it successfully, it’s certainly worth going through the hardships to ultimately reap bigger rewards in the long run.

The results of implementing federated login are promising enough for you to start thinking more about why you haven’t embraced it yet rather than the reasons why you should implement it!