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Enterprise Cloud Computing
Three Approaches to Single Sign-On for Cloud Application Providers
Ignore, pretend or do something about it?
By: Kjell Backlund
Feb. 27, 2013 11:00 AM
Did you know that:
These figures, based on research from Totango and Janrain in 2012, clearly show that sign-up and sign-on are major issues for any cloud application provider.
If you are providing cloud applications to businesses, single sign-on must at least have been up for discussion. Like with most other challenges, there are three possible approaches you can choose between:
Let's look at how your choice affects your business, which after all should be your guiding light.
Pretending it is not your problem
Many application providers decide to outsource management of user accounts and password to the customers. They offer some kind of web based administration interface, which one or more local administrators can use to create new user accounts and keeping old ones up-to-date.
However, this approach has some major drawbacks for your business. According to the research mentioned earlier, sign-up and sign-on are among the most critical processes for any online business. This approach transfers the responsibility for these critical processes to people you have no control over, and who have little or no incentives to support your business.
Pretending you are doing something about it
Some application providers choose this approach by deciding that they only support standards. The problem is that there are no widely adopted standards in this field. SAML is promoted as an industry standard, but that is of little value when your customers haven't adopted it. According to Eric Olden, one of the fathers of SAML, in an article in Computer Magazine in 2011: "The problem with federation and SSO is that, after more than a decade, SAML adoption has not risen above 10 percent of enterprise apps - apparently due to the excessive costs of infrastructure software. There simply is not enough return on investment for most service providers to implement, expand, and manage a complex federation network". The adoption among large enterprises is not any bigger, and especially among mid-sized enterprises SAML is practically non-existent. In my own personal opinion, SAML requires too much from too many to make it mainstream any time soon.
If you pretend you have a solution, then you have to pretend the benefits as well. If half of your business comes from large organizations, and if 10% of them support SAML, then this approach can only bring improvements to 5% of your business. From a business point of view, having a solution that improves 5% of your business is nice to have, but it is by no means strategic.
Doing something about it
So, what are customers using today? As stated above, some large organizations have invested in SAML, but what about the rest? The least common denominator is a network, a user directory, a web server and an internet connection. The most typical setup is a Windows Domain, Active Directory and Microsoft IIS. Active Directory has a market share that is reported to be above 90%, and that figure gives a good indication for the other components as well. Such adoption rates are required by true de facto standards, which are solid enough to build strategic solutions on.
If you are serious about growing your business with large and mid-sized organizations, then it is of strategic importance to eliminate adoption and engagement obstacles related to signing up and signing on. You have to proactively convert as big a share of your customer base as possible to automated sign-on as fast as possible. In order to succeed, requirements on your customers have to be as low as possible in terms of time, investments and expertise. In practice this means that you need a solution, which does not require anything more from your customers than the least common denominator described above. From a business point of view, SAML is just a bonus, and only if you have customers who have invested in it.
If you are interested in such a solution, I would love to continue talks in person.
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