SAML Explained in Plain English

Learn all about SAML SSO

What is SAML?

SAML is an acronym used to describe the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML). Its primary role in online security is that it enables you to access multiple web applications using one set of login credentials. It works by passing authentication information in a particular format between two parties, usually an identity provider (idP) and a web application.

What SAML is and how it works

SAML is an open standard used for authentication. Based upon the Extensible Markup Language (XML) format, web applications use SAML to transfer authentication data between two parties - the identity provider (IdP) and the service provider (SP).

The technology industry created SAML to simplify the authentication process where users needed to access multiple, independent web applications across domains. Prior to SAML, single sign-on (SSO) was achievable but relied on cookies that were only viable within the same domain. It achieves this objective by centralizing user authentication with an identity provider. Web applications can then leverage SAML via the identity provider to grant access to their users. This SAML authentication approach means users do not need to remember multiple usernames and passwords. It also benefits service providers as it increases security of their own platform, primarily by avoiding the need to store (often weak and insecure) passwords and not having to address forgotten password issues.

SAML benefits

Due to its many benefits, SAML is a widely adopted enterprise solution. First, it improves the user experience as you only need to sign in once to access multiple web applications. Not only does this speed up the authentication process, but it also means you only need to remember one set of credentials. The organization also benefits from this feature as it means fewer Help Desk calls for password resets.

In addition to improving the user experience, SAML also offers increased security. Since the identity provider stores all login information, the service provider does not need to store any user credentials on their system. Furthermore, as the identity provider specializes in providing secure SAML authentication, they have the economies of scale to invest time and resources in implementing multiple layers of security. For example, IdP’s have comprehensive identity security solutions that include built-in features such as multi-factor authentication (MFA) that protect against common password attacks.

How does SAML work?

SAML works by exchanging user information, such as logins, authentication state, identifiers, and other relevant attributes between the identity and service provider. As a result, it simplifies and secures the authentication process as the user only needs to log in once with a single set of authentication credentials. So, when the user tries to access a site, the identity provider passes the SAML authentication to the service provider, who then grants the user entry. Let's illustrate this concept with a real-world analogy.

How SAML works How SAML works

Organizations often need to confirm your identity before granting you access. A good case is the airline industry. Before you board an aircraft, the airline needs to confirm you are who you say you are to ensure the security of other passengers. So, they verify your identity with some form of government-issued picture identification. Once they confirm that your name on your identity matches the name on your airline ticket, they then allow you to board the aircraft.

In the example above, the government is the identity provider, and the airline is the service provider. Your government-issued identification is the SAML assertion. When you apply for a government ID, you usually need to complete a form, have your picture taken, and in some circumstances, your fingerprints as well. The government (service provider) then stores these identifying attributes in their database and issues you with a physical ID associated with your identity. In the airline example, when you arrive at the gate, the airline (service provider) checks your ID (SAML) assertion. The airline accepts your ID as it contains your details, and the identity card or passport passes scrutiny as a valid document. After successful authentication, the airline then allows you to board the aircraft.

What is SAML SSO?

SAML Single Sign-On is a mechanism that leverages SAML allowing users to log on to multiple web applications after logging into the identity provider. As the user only has to log in once, SAML SSO provides a faster, seamless user experience.

How identity and access management works How identity and access management works

SAML SSO is easy to use and more secure from a user perspective as they only need to remember one set of user credentials. It also provides fast and seamless access to a site as every application they access does not prompt them to enter a username and password. Instead, the user logs into the identity provider and then accesses the relevant web application by clicking on its icon or navigating to the site via its URL.

SAML SSO also offers other benefits in addition to an enhanced user experience. It improves productivity for both the user and the Help Desk. Users do not need to waste time logging into multiple web applications with a unique set of credentials for each one. Consequently, they do not inundate the Help Desk with password reset requests, freeing the service team to attend to other service-related issues.

In addition to increased user satisfaction and improved productivity, SAML SSO also helps reduce costs. For example, Help Desks need to manage fewer calls. Instead of building a local authentication implementation for their solution, they can subscribe to an identity provider, reducing the labor cost of building and maintaining it internally.

How does OAuth compare to SAML?

OAuth and SAML are both protocols we use for allowing access. However, the primary difference between the two is that we use SAML for authentication and OAuth for authorization.

If we revisit the airline analogy, the passenger's ID is the SAML assertion, and the ticket the OAuth token. The airline uses the ID to verify the passenger’s identity before allowing them to board the aircraft. However, once the passengers are on the plane, the flight attendants use the ticket to confirm the passengers' status and entitlement. For example, they may have a first-class ticket giving them access to seats and amenities not accessible by passengers in economy.

SAML example

SAML uses a claims-based authentication workflow. First, when a user tries to access a site, the service provider asks the identity provider to authenticate the user. Then, the service provider uses the SAML assertion issued by the identity provider to grant the user access. Let's illustrate the workflow with an example.

  1. The user opens their browser and navigates to the service provider's web application, which uses an identity provider for authentication.
  2. The web application responds with a SAML request.
  3. The browser passesSAML request to the identity provider.
  4. The identity provider parses the SAML request.
  5. The identity provider authenticates the user by prompting for a username and password or some other authentication factor. NOTE: The identity provider will skip this step if the user is already authenticated.
  6. The identity provider generates the SAML response and returns it to the user's browser.
  7. The browser sends the generated SAML response to the service provider's web application which verifies it.
  8. If the verification succeeds, the web application grants the user access.

SAML tutorial

OneLogin offers several SAML toolkits developers can use to enable SSO for their app via an identity provider that offers SAML authentication. In addition, it provides resources on how to add your app to the OneLogin catalog, code your app to provide your users with SSO via OneLogin, as well as helpful best practices and FAQs.

The OneLogin SAML Toolkit also offers online tools at https://www.samltool.com. For example, you can obtain a self-signed X.509 certificate you can use in a test environment. In addition, since SAML uses the Base64 encoding algorithm, the OneLogin toolkit resources offer an online service where you can encode and decode XML to Base64 and vice versa. The toolkit also supplies resources for encrypting nodes from XML, signing AuthNRequests, and validating your XML against the SAML XSD schema.

In addition to the certificate support and XML encoding, decoding, signing, and validation services, the OneLogin SAML online tools also provide other helpful development resources. For example, you can build the XML metadata of a SAML identity provider. It also provides a tool that extracts the NameID and other relevant attributes from the assertion of a SAML response. Finally, the OneLogin SAML online tools also offer a service that converts an XML or SAML message into a human-readable format.

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