Authentication Standoff: OAuth2 vs OIDC vs SAML

Security & Compliance

Authentication frameworks have come a long way in the last decade. The old basic passwords have made way to new technologies due to today’s complex and dynamic cross-platform requirements. An ideal situation would involve a multi-method solution for your multi-tenant users. But how do you even get started? Let’s take a closer look at the lead authentication methodologies out there today and what’s best for you. 

Before you even get started with picking the right authentication for SaaS applications, you should consider implementing Two-Factor Authentication (2FA), which has become a common requirement with the steep rise in cybercrime caused by accelerated digitalization across multiple sectors. This methodology involves the use of the One-time Password (OTP), which basically adds another layer of security.

If your application or website is handling sensitive information, Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) may be needed. This obviously is a less user-friendly option, unlike passwordless authentication for SaaS applications, another upcoming trend.

What is OAuth2?

Also known as OAuth 2.o, OAuth2 is a very commonly used authorization framework that allows third-party applications to access HTTP services. This standard has gained so much popularity as it overcomes many problems with the unsophisticated and old authentication methods, which were extremely vulnerable to third-party exploits and allowed increased levels of risk to server security.  

How does it work? 

OAuth2 solves the aforementioned issues by creating a predefined process:

  • The Resource Owner: This identity, which is basically called the User, authorizes the Application to access their account.
  • The Application: The Application (Client) looks to access the Resource Owner (User) after being approved by it. 
  • The Authorization Server: Once the Application is granted authorization, it goes ahead and gets its Access Token from the Authorization Server.
  • The Resource Server: Once the token is received and authenticated, the Resource Server grants the Application access to the protected resource/s.

Getting started with OAuth2 involves an application registration procedure. The registration form is situated in the API section of the service’s site, where you’ll have to fill in your application name and website, along with a callback URL (or a redirect URI). The latter is the component that will handle access tokens and will serve as the destination where all authorized and denied users will be sent to. 

Related: A Complete Guide to Implementing Single Sign-On (SSO)

There are four different types of grant types with OAuth2. These include:

  1. Authorization codes for server-side applications – This is by far the most commonly used type today since the source code is not exposed
  2. Implicit grant type for web or mobile applications – Also a redirection-based flow, but here refresh tokens are not supported.
  3. Client credentials for API access – This is useful for applications to access their own service accounts via the API.
  4. Resource owner password credentials for trusted applications – This is more common when the application is trusted (or owned) by the user. 

Why Use OAuth2?

As mentioned earlier, this is one of the most popular Single Sign On (SSO) methods, which allows the modern-day user to use applications fast without getting caught up with frustrating resets and support requests. It relies on Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to ensure data privacy and uses tokenizations to limit data access. Besides being a SSO method, it can be implemented easily and tokens can be revoked quickly.

What is OIDC?

Also known as OpenID Connect, OIDC is basically a subset (and a common add-on) of OAuth2, which is controlled by the OpenID Foundation. It helps take OAuth2 one step further by adding a simple-identity authentication layer on top of it’s authorization functionality.
This potent combo essentially allows the creation of a comprehensive Identity and Access Management (IAM) protocol.

How does it work? 

OIDC provides authentication by introducing a new ID token that has a set of new scopes (openid, profile, email, address) and claims (given_name, family_name, etc) that allows different systems to interoperate and share vital authentication status and profile information for seamless and smooth operation. OIDC also involves standardized endpoints for smooth metadata verification.

OIDC makes use of the JWT (JSON Web Token) standard to assign a digital signature to the information, following which it can be verified with a signing key.

Why Use OIDC?

Adding OIDC to the mix allows users to speed up their signing up process and get started faster, something that allows enhanced levels of customer satisfaction and improved brand performance. Also, OIDC is a decentralized standard, which means that it allows the use of a portable identity across the web. It also works seamless across web and mobile applications, another growing need today.

Related: Top User Management Open Source Projects

What is SAML?

Also known as Security Assertion Markup Language, SAML is an open framework that conveys authorization data from identity providers (Microsoft Active Directory, Microsoft Azure, etc.) to service providers (Salesforce, Box, etc.) in a secure way.
This standard was created to simplify authentication and authorization processes for all involved parties in enterprises, something that it has managed to achieve.  

How does it work? 

SAML is powered by Extensible Markup Language (XML), which enables the communication between the identity and the service provider. The communication is made in the form of XML documents, commonly referred to as SAML assertions. There are three types of SAML assertions that are always in play – authentication assertions, arribution assertions, and authorization assertions. 

One SAML flow is initiated via the SAML-enabled service provider, where the user is redirected to the identity provider to handle the authentication process, following which access is granted or denied. The other flow is initiated by the identity provider where the user launches the service application after logging into the identity provider, following which automatic access is gained (assuming an account exists).  

Why Use SAML?

One of the biggest advantages of implementing SAML authentication and authorization is the ease-of-use. With users today depending on dozens of applications, SAML simplifies the log-in process and leads to fewer lost credentials since only one username and password combination is required. SAML also reduces the risk of identity theft with rampant techniques such as phishing.

SSO for SaaS Apps – Read More

OAuth2 vs OIDC vs SAML

While all standards serve a purpose and do a good job at what they are supposed to do, SAML holds an advantage as it is capable of both authorization and authentication, but is better for enterprise applications. On the other hand, OAuth2 and OIDC need to be implemented separately and configured correctly to be effective and secure, but are great for web and mobile applications.

SAML vs OpenID? OIDC vs OAuth? What’s the difference between OAuth and Open ID? What about the difference between SAML and OAuth? Here’s a quick comparison.

OAuth2OIDCSAML
Introduced In200620142001
PurposeAuthorizationAuthenticationBoth
FormatJSONJSONXML
SecurityHas a Provision for Dynamic Client RegistrationGood for Modern Authentication Scenarios Not Ideal for Mobile and Native Applications
FlawsDoes Not Provide Any Kind of Inseparability Due to Framework  Implementations  Creates Data Overhead in Payload of Requests Carrying TokensNo Support for API Management Scenarios. Also, Tokens are Heavy

As evident in the comparison above, there is no clear winner. All three standards are here to stay, as they all serve specific purposes and are suited to different use cases.

Quick(er) Implementation for Faster Results

Regardless of what standard you are opting for as a developer, you need fast results and smooth implementation to achieve your targets. Unfortunately, lack of manpower, time-to-market (TTM) factors, and budget constraints are leading to a wide variety of Identity and Access Management (IAM) issues today.

Frontegg takes it one step further. You can integrate Enterprise SSO with IDPs using protocols such as SAML and OIDC, by integrating just 5 lines of code. Frontegg is multi-tenant by design, so on top of providing customers with full SSO integration, you also enable them to self-control every bit of configuration on their own tenant.

Secure your client access experience through granular, multi-tenant authentication and authorization controls – Open a Free Account

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