Human beings today spend the majority of their time on digital platforms – from shopping to banking to socializing to running successful businesses to working. Hence, it is not surprising that an average business user works with 190+ passwords which is a massive amount! Since it is humanly impossible to keep track of such a high number of passwords, many users often reuse passwords without realizing the security risks attached to them. Also, today with a significant shift in the work model where employees can literally work from anywhere, the need to have top-notch security has only increased.

When employees have the option to work from home or anywhere else, businesses ensure that their employees can access all their apps, platforms, data, etc., from any location/device. It is extremely vital that all these accesses and system authentication are user-friendly, cost-effective, safe, and protected. This is where federated identities or federated authentication comes into the picture. Read on to find out more about this security feature, its different components, how it works, the benefits of federated authentication, and more.

What is Federated Authentication?

Federated Authentication
Source: Memberpass

First, let’s understand what is federated authentication? In simple words, it can be defined as a single digital authentication that allows users to access a number of systems and platforms, without having to authenticate and reenter their passwords. We are familiar with form-based authentication which requires the user to put in their user name and a password. This is one of the most common forms of authentication provided by digital services as it is quite cheap and similar. However, irrespective of how simple it is, it can also cause several issues, especially when the user forgets the password. They are also high on the security risk level as more than 80% of data breaches occur due to improperly managed passwords.

These traditional forms of passwords also cause inconvenience to the users wherein they spend their valuable time answering security questions to restore their passwords or create new ones. All in all, these types of passwords are cumbersome and inefficient. Federated authentication enables users to avoid all this messiness and completely transforms the way users access their digital apps and platforms. Federated authentication uses an identity provider (IdP) which manages various data points that are built with a single digital authentication for the user. The IdP then uses the single digital identity to set up a trust with the other applications and systems. 

Thus, with the help of federated identities, users no longer have to remember and type in multiple passwords to log in to their various domains, apps, and systems. This also enables the IT team to better manage all the digital accounts and reduce the risks related to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). This security allows the IT team to manage all the authentications and access from one central platform known as the user directory. This in turn enables the IT team to gain visibility and useful insight into all the digital activities of their users. Using this central platform, IT can also perform a wide range of functionalities that include setting up access controls, and policies, granting or revoking access, etc. 

One of the key advantages of federated authentication is that though it may sound complex, it does not put any additional burden on the users, and in fact, makes their lives easier and simpler. 

Different Components of Federated Authentication

As described above, federated identities are all about building relationships between different platforms and infrastructure and allowing automatic authentication and access. It determines the users and what access a user should have in the background. To perform its role, federated authentication has two main components – Identity Provider (IdP) and Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML). 

Identity Provider (IdP) – An identity provider is responsible for establishing the users’ identities and connecting them to a service provider. It helps in creating, managing, and maintaining identity information. IdP also helps in establishing the various details related to the identity, such as the name of the user, email address, type of device, location, fingerprint data, etc. Ideally, the IT teams manage all the user identities as they need to be aware of which user is accessing which system and whether they are authorized to access those systems or not. With federated authentication, the IT teams can centrally manage all the user identities provided there is a cloud directory service set up. This service is then used either as an IdP or it is connected to a vendor IdP. Some of the popular identity providers include:

  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Microsoft’s Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS)

Once the identity provider is set up, the IT teams can use federated authentication to create a connection between their company’s IdP and various service providers used by their employees. So, instead of creating accounts with each service provider, the identity provider connects the user’s identity with the service provider in the background, thus, eliminating the need to create multiple identities and passwords. In order to access external sites, the identity provider needs to use SAML to authenticate the user.

Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) – This is a standard authenticator that enables an identity provider to authenticate various users on behalf of the service provider. It helps in authenticating the users across various domains. The primary role of SAML is to establish a secure trust between the identity provider and the service provider. The service provider depends on the identity provider to perform the user identity verification and authentication. It also depends on IdP to ensure whether the user can access the particular system or not. Once these steps are complete, the service provider pulls up the required page for the user. 

How Does it Work?

So, how do federated identities work? Below is a simple step-by-step process of how it works.

  • First, the user will log in to any portal, system, domain, or application that is equipped with a federated identity.
  • Next, the application or the system requests the user’s authentication server for federated authentication.
  • The authentication server then verifies all the access and permissions related to the user’s account.
  • Once the information is verified, the server will confirm the identity of the user to the application or system.
  • Finally, the user can access the domain, portal, system, or application as required.

The entire process using federated authentication is entirely seamless and hardly requires any input from the user.

Technologies Used in Federated Authentication

There are several standard protocols used by federated authentication. Apart from SAML, the other technologies used in federated identities include:

  • Open Authentication (OAuth) – Third-party services, such as websites or any other applications use open authentication authorization to exchange any user information without having the user type in the passwords of their various services. The trust established between these services ensures that information exchange flows freely while maintaining the user’s details safe and secure.
  • OpenID Connect (OIDC) – This technology adds an identity layer over the OAuth 2.0 protocol, enabling vendor applications to perform identity verification of the user and provide them with one log-In for accessing various applications. Though SAML and OIDC may sound similar, the difference is that SAML is an authorization and authentication protocol whereas OIDC adds a layer of authentication over an authorization protocol.

Federated Authentication vs. SSO

You might be familiar with Single Sign On (SSO) and federated authentication may sound similar to it; however, their major difference lies in identity management. Before we get a deeper understanding of the difference between the two, let’s understand a bit more about SSO. 

Similar to federated identities, SSO also provides authorization to the users to access various services using one set of login credentials. It also ensures that the user is only accessing those platforms or applications for which they have permission. Along with this, users can also access multiple web apps at the same time with the help of SSO. For example, a user who has logged in to Gmail can also concurrently open up Google Drive, Google Photos, YouTube, etc. in various tabs without having to log In again. SSO also uses SAML to ensure that the user is authenticated securely. 

The main difference between federated authentication and SSO is the access range that they each have.  SSO enables users to access various applications and platforms using a single set of credentials within a domain or an organization whereas federated authentication has a wider access range. It allows users to use their single set of credentials to access multiple applications in various domains and companies. 

Benefits of Federated Authentication

Here are some of the top benefits of using federated authentication over traditional authentication systems.

  • One of the primary benefits of adopting federated authentication is that it enhances your security. In a non-federated system, users will have to log in to each application or portal using a different set of login credentials which in turn increases the risk of hacking. But with federated identity management, you can avoid this risk.
  • Having a single set of login credentials for multiple platforms and applications helps in enhancing the user experience, allowing them to be more efficient.
  • Federated authentication facilitates single-point provisioning which makes it easier to provide user access to those who are outside the enterprise as well.
  • Another benefit of federated authentication is that enables companies to share their data in a more safe and secure manner. It allows businesses to simplify their data management.
  • This form of authentication also enables businesses to save a lot of money as they do not have to spend building their own SSO solutions, managing multiple identities of users, etc.


Using the same password for multiple applications may seem quick and efficient; however, it poses a wide range of security risks which is why it is highly recommended to adopt federated identity management. Federated authentication ensures that not only do employees not have to remember their hundreds of passwords, but they can also safely and securely log in to multiple systems and applications with a single set of identity credentials.

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