What is single sign-on (SSO) login and how does it work?

by | May 24, 2022

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Imagine, if you will, going to a club to unwind at the end of a busy week.

It’s only right to be asked for an ID or some other form of verification to be granted access. But imagine being asked for verification every time you want to enter a specific room in the club.

I’d find it annoying too!

Your chances of returning to such a place would likely reduce drastically.

And the situation is the same when it comes to the use of multiple websites and applications for the same organisation. Do users have to log into each of the different applications separately? Wouldn’t it be time-consuming and stressful to deal with multiple sets of credentials?

Thankfully, the option of single sign-on (SSO) registration provides the golden key that gives instant access to a suite of services with just one entry of the user’s credentials. Let’s dig in to know what exactly single sign-on is and how it works.    

What is single sign-on (SSO) login?

Single sign-on (SSO) is a session and user authentication service and authorisation process that allows a user to employ one set of login credentials to access multiple enterprise applications. Basically, it combines different application login screens and presents them as one. So, a single sign-on login permits the user to automatically sign in to the full suite of websites or applications without having to log in to each one individually.

SSO login guarantees a seamless experience for users when they browse your apps and sites. Instead of tearing out their hair over a variety of credentials to access your services, they can log in just once and enjoy the entire array of applications regardless of the platform, technology or domain they’re using.

A relatable example is logging in to any Google service. Logging in to Gmail instantly logs you into other Google apps. 

A crucial element of Identity and Access Management (IAM), SSO works well in a business context when user applications are assigned and managed by an internal IT team. Since organisations use multiple sites and applications for their daily business, a centralised login system can be very useful. 

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The benefits of SSO login

Single sign-on login has the following advantages:

  • It’s much simpler and more convenient for users.
  • Single sign-on boosts customer involvement with your platform. 
  • Implementing SSO can cut down on support calls or IT issues because they only have one password to retain. 
  • It has the potential to increase business productivity as less time is wasted on password recovery and signing into various apps.
  • Single sign-on login reduces the risk of lost, weak or forgotten passwords
  • SSO login bolsters security through stronger passwords, no repeated passwords, multi-factor authentication, stronger policy enforcement and internal credential management.
  • It also makes integration and the smooth use of multiple applications a breeze. 
  • Single sign-on also supports organisations’ regulatory compliance efforts as it helps meet data access and security risk protection requirements.

The possible downsides of SSO login

While we may not be prepared to entertain it, the reality is that single sign-on login can have its disadvantages too. Let’s consider them.

  • In the event that an SSO account is hacked, the unauthorised user would have access to all the applications.
  • Creating and executing single sign-on login can be complex for organisations, especially those without a dedicated engineering team.      

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How does single sign-on login work?

While SSO appears simple to the users, there’s a lot of magic going on backstage.

Single sign-on is a federated identity arrangement that involves the sharing of identity attributes across trusted but autonomous systems. It works based upon a trust relationship set up between an application that a user wants to use, called the service provider, and an identity provider. Google and Facebook are good examples of identity providers. 

The trust relationship is typically predicated upon a certificate that’s exchanged between the identity provider and the service provider. This certificate can be used to sign identity information sent from the identity provider to the service provider so the latter knows that it’s coming from a trusted source. 

The identity data takes the form of single sign-on tokens containing identifying bits of information about the user like their email address or username.

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Single sign-on in action

Actually, the single sign-on operation begins when the user visits the application or website they want to use. When a user attempts to access an application from the service provider, the service provider will send a request to the identity provider for authentication. 

Next, the identity provider ascertains whether the user has been authenticated; if yes, it will grant them access to the service provider application or website. Otherwise, they will provide the credentials – usually a username or password – required by the identity provider. 

Upon the validation of the credentials, the identity provider will then send an SSO token back to the service provider confirming the authentication. The SSO token is forwarded to the service provider through the user’s browser and that token is validated in accordance with the trust relationship created between the service provider and identity provider originally. 

Finally, the user is granted access to the service provider.      

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What are the authentication best practices?

SSO and authentication are like ham and egg; discussing one usually brings up the other. Also, with organisations being a prime target for cyber attacks as they use different applications and services, it’s imperative to know what to do to ensure data security. 

Let’s consider best practices to prevent authentication weakness. 

1. Use single sign-on

As we’ve already discussed, SSO is an authentication process that allows users to access multiple sites and applications with just one set of credentials. Single sign-on increases security because it eliminates the need for various entries of credentials; this makes it easy for users to have stronger passwords without having to worry about remembering them. 

2. Implement passwordless authentication

As long as passwords are being used, there’s always the unpleasant possibility of the password being compromised through phishing, password cracking or any other means. The solution? A passwordless authentication approach. 

With the current popularity of smartphones and mobile devices with face ID features and more, enforcing passwordless authentication is within reach.  

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3. Enable multi-factor authentication and other authentication processes

Enabling multi-factor authentication is another authentication best practice. As it turns out, having just one level of protection made up of the username and password isn’t enough to give the desired security. Additional levels of cybersecurity – at least 2 (the popular 2-factor authentication) – are the order of the day. 

Some other authentication methods have proven tougher for hackers to copy. They include fingerprint scans, facial recognition, OTP and more. Incorporate these authentication processes as well to bolster security. 

4. Hash the passwords

A notable authentication practice is to store sensitive information safely in a version that can’t be reversed. Use secure password hashing algorithms to hash passwords before storing them in the database. Take your security ambitions a step further by salting and peppering the hash values.  

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5. Be mindful of session length

Session length is a pivotal element of authentication. In the bid to be sure that users are who they claim to be, there’s no room for errors. Ensure that there’s a defined period of time after which they have to re-authenticate even if they’ve been inactive. When they’re active, let there be a request for some form of verification after a defined threshold of time. 

6. Stop automated and brute force attacks

For greater security, you need to slow down both automated attacks and brute force attacks. A good way to achieve this is using CAPTCHAs. As annoying as they might seem, CAPTCHAs can help protect against automated attacks. And when they’re used along with rate limiters which keep track of failed authentication attempts and stop attempts for a while to neutralise brute force attacks, they form a sturdy duo. 

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7. Pick a suitable authentication solution

It’s recommended that you adopt a malleable approach to authentication. Take into consideration the fact that there are different risk levels and ensure that your security system is suited for all of them. 

To achieve this, you need to implement different authentication technologies. Whether certificate-based authentication uses a unique public and private encryption key or context-based authentication that ascertains a user’s identity through contextual information, ensure that these different authentication processes are woven into your security system.

In this digital age, convenience and security are the watchwords. Organisations typically use different services and it behoves them to make it easy for their employees to access them all with minimal effort. 

Similarly, SaaS companies are saddled with the responsibility of granting their users hassle-free entry into their software if they integrate with others.          

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Learn how Good Grants offers SSO authentication and other handy integration tools for grantmakers. 


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