Identity Gone Wild! Cloud Edition

#IAM #cloud #infosec Identity lifecycle management is out of control in the cloud

Remember the Liberty Alliance? Microsoft Passport? How about the spate of employee provisioning vendors snatched up by big names like Oracle, IBM, and CA?

That was nearly ten years ago.

That’s when everyone was talking about “Making ID Management Manageable” and leveraging automation to broker identity on the Internets. And now, thanks to the rapid adoption of SaaS driven, so say analysts, by mobile and remote user connectivity, we’re talking about it again.

Approximately 48 percent of the respondents said remote/mobile user connectivity is driving the enterprises to deploy software as a service (SaaS). This is significant as there is a 92 percent increase over 2010.” -- Enterprise SaaS Adoption Almost Doubles in 2011: Yankee Group Survey

So what’s the problem? Same as it ever was, turns out. The lack of infrastructure integration available with SaaS models means double trouble: two sets of credentials to manage, synchronize, and track.


Unlike Web 2.0 and its heavily OAuth-based federated identity model, enterprise-class SaaS lacks these capabilities. Users who use for sales force automation or customer relationship management services have a separate set of credentials they use to access those services, giving rise to perhaps one of the few shared frustrations across IT and users – Yet Another Password. Worse, there’s less control over the strength (and conversely the weakness) of those credentials, and there’s no way to prevent a user from simply duplicating their corporate credentials in the cloud (a kind of manual single-sign on strategy users adopt to manage their lengthy identity lists). That’s a potential attack vector and one that IT is interested in cutting off sooner rather than later.

The lack of integration forces IT to adopt manual synchronization processes that lag behind reality. Synchronization of accounts often requires manual processes that extract, zip and share corporate identity with SaaS operations as a means to level access on a daily basis. Inefficient at best, dangerous as worst, this process can easily lead to orphaned accounts – even if only for a few weeks – that remain active for the end-user even as they’ve been removed from corporate identity stores.

“Orphan accounts refer to active accounts belonging to a user who is no longer involved with that organization.  From a compliance standpoint, orphan accounts are a major concern since orphan accounts mean that ex-employees  and former contractors or suppliers still have legitimate credentials and access to internal systems.” -- TEST ACCOUNTS: ANOTHER COMPLIANCE RISK

What users – and IT – want is a more integrated system. For IT it’s about control and management, for end-users it’s about reducing the impact of credential management on their daily workflows and eliminating the need to remember so many darn passwords.


From a technical perspective what’s necessary is a better method of integration that puts IT back in control of identity and, ultimately, access to corporate resources wherever they may be.

It’s less a federated governance model and more a hierarchical trust-based governance model. Users still exist in both systems – corporate and cloud – but corporate systems act as a mediator between end-users and cloud resources to ensure timely authentication and authorization. End-users get the benefit of a safer single-sign on like experience, and IT sleeps better at night knowing corporate passwords aren’t being duplicated in systems over which they have no control and for which quantifying risk is difficult.

Much like the Liberty Alliance’s federated model, end-users authenticate to corporate identity management services and then a corporate identity bridging (or brokering) solution asserts to the cloud resource the rights and role of that user. The corporate system trusts the end-user by virtue of compliance with its own authentication standards (certificates, credentials, etc…) while the SaaS trusts the corporate system. The user still exists in both identity stores – corporate and cloud – but identity and access is managed by corporate IT, not cloud IT.

This problem, by the way, is not specific to SaaS. The nature of cloud is such that almost all models impose the need for a separate set of credentials in the cloud from that of corporate IT. This means an identity governance problem is being created every time a new cloud-based service is provisioned, which increases risks and the costs associated with managing those assets as they often require manual processes to synchronize.

Identity bridging (or brokering) is one method of addressing these risks. By putting control over access back in the hands of corporate IT, much of the risk of orphan accounts is mitigated. Compliance with corporate credential policies (strength and length of passwords, for example) can be restored because authentication occurs in the data center rather than in the cloud. And perhaps most importantly, if corporate IT is properly set up, there is no lag between an account being disabled in the corporate identity store and access to cloud resources being denied. The account may still exist, but because access is governed by corporate IT, the risk is diminished to nearly nothing; the user cannot gain access to that resource without the permission of corporate IT, which is immediately denied.

This is one of the reasons why identity and access management go hand in hand today. The distributed nature of cloud requires that IT be able to govern both identity and access, and a unified set of services enables IT to do just that.

Published Mar 28, 2012
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