SAML Basics: What is SAML And How Does It Work?

SAML Authentication

SAML authentication is a widely used method that makes all of our lives easier. But, most online users don’t know how SAML works or what it even is, for that matter. There are many terms you can use to describe the features and capabilities of SAML for authentication purposes. On this page, we’ll run you through all of the SAML basics and help you understand this open standard the majority of people use daily.

What is SAML?

Short for Security Assertion Markup Language, SAML is a standardized way of verifying your identity with external applications and services. It’s like your online identification card in the way that it helps authenticate your identity once and then transmit this authentication to other applications.

It makes SSO (single sign-on) technology possible and is widely accepted among cloud service providers as a way of communicating the user’s identity. SAML is an interoperable standard, meaning that it allows services and devices from many different providers to interact with each other and work together.

From this perspective, it’s also essential to know the relationship between SAML and SSO. SSO is easy to accomplish across one domain. But, when you want to extend SSO across several security domains, interoperability issues quickly arise, making this process challenging. SAML was explicitly designed to provide a standardized way of extending SSO across many platforms and services as an interoperable method.

The current version of SAML is the SAML 2.0 one, which has been in use since 2005. It’s the modern standard and combines several SAML authentication standards that have been previously in use. Many systems support backwards compatibility with SAML, most notably with the 1.1 version.

Is SAML a Protocol?

No, it’s essential to understand that SAML is not a protocol but instead a complete authentication standard. To be more specific, it’s an XML-based makeup language that also includes the following SAML components and characteristics:

  • A unique set of XML-based protocol messages
  • A set of protocol message bindings
  • A set of profiles, utilizing the two aspects above

How SAML Authentication Works

In simple terms, SAML authentication works by transferring your identity from one place to another. It’s an exchange of the subject’s digitally signed XML documents between the identity provider and the service provider.

For example, let’s say that you’re trying to access a service provider such as Gmail. The traditional way is to log in to the service directly. But, when you’re using SSO, SAML is used to give you direct access instead of you manually logging in. In this context, the identity provider is the service that stores and confirms your identity. In other words, it serves to verify your identity and confirm to the service provider what you’re allowed to do.

This system also allows you to conveniently and safely log into a remote application without much effort. You can access the remote app through a link, bookmark, or similar access point. The remote app identifies your device by origin and redirects you to the identity provider, which then authenticates you.

The identity provider builds the authentication response through an XML document containing all of the relevant information on the user. It will either establish a new session or bring up an existing one if you’ve already authenticated your identity on a previous occasion. The service provider will validate the authentication response, after which you’ll gain access to the app or service you want to use.

The Benefits of SAML Authentication

With the understanding of how SAML works, let’s take a closer look at the most significant benefits of SAML authentication:

  • Single User Identity - From the user’s standpoint, one of the most significant benefits of SAML is the convenient user experience it comes with. SAML provides you with a single user identification method across all devices and services you’re using.
  • Single Sheet Management - Since SAML is interoperable, it has a massive advantage over proprietary SSO mechanisms. With SAML, you can support a single implementation with many different partners. This flexibility allows for more convenient single-sheet management of all services and user identities.
  • Reduced Risk of Data Breaches - As the authentication process includes securely passing authorizations between the identity provider and the service providers, the risk of potential data breaches is significantly lowered.
  • Lower Help Desk Costs - The previous benefits also mean that you can save a considerable amount of money on help desk services. On average, SAML authentication can help you lower your help desk costs by around twenty percent.

SAML vs. OAuth

One narrative that’s often pushed by some security experts is that SAML is dead and that we need a new authentication method, mainly an alternative one like OAuth. With that in mind, how can you tell which way is better from the user’s standpoint? Should you use SAML or OAuth? Here’s a direct comparison to help you better understand the two:

  • SAML - SAML is the most commonly used authentication method used by businesses to allow their users quick and simple access to the services they’re paying for. It aims to provide more security and control for enterprises and their SSO logins.
  • OAuth - Compared to SAML, OAuth is a newer standard that uses a similar methodology when it comes to sharing information. It was developed by Google and Twitter to offer a more streamlined model for internet logins. OAuth uses JSON and is generally better on mobile and tablet devices than SAML.

Besides the differences and similarities of the two options, it’s also important to always remember what each of the two technologies used for. For example, SAML is prevalent for businesses in terms of cloud-based applications. On the other hand, OAuth is used mainly for large-scale consumer apps. The two most notable examples of OAuth providers are Facebook and Google.

SAML Authentication with Hideez

With all of the above in mind, SAML undoubtedly presents a vital part of every cybersecurity strategy, especially for large-scale businesses. Within Hideez Enterprise Solution, we offer a SAML Identity Provider that supports the latest SAML 2.0 Web Browser SSO Profile and complements the Hideez Enterprise Server with new capabilities.

Our solution is an elegant and streamlined IAM tool that consists of individual Hideez Key security tokens and a centralized Hideez Enterprise Server. It eliminates the need for employees to remember or write down their passwords and ensures seamless password-based and passwordless authentication for a wide range of online services and applications. Enterprise admins can assign Hideez Keys to specific employees, manage their profiles, review workstation sessions, and manage access to any services and resources quickly and securely.

Hideez Solution can solve the problem of unauthorized access, unattended computers and eliminate the possibility of insider attacks and data breaches. It enables compliance across different regulations and provides a simple means of unique user identification.

Contact us today to request a free demo and test for yourself how the seamless authentication can help streamline your daily activities in different web services and applications.