How SSO and MFA Can Enhance Your IAM Infrastructure

How SSO and MFA Can Enhance Your IAM Infrastructure

Author: Mariah West, Identity & Access Management Analyst

Ever hear the saying, “two is better than one?” Well, in the case of Single Sign-On (SSO) and Multi-factor Authentication (MFA), this rings true. Let’s start by briefly going over each concept. 

Understanding Single Sign-On (SSO)

An authentication mechanism that allows users to access multiple applications and services with only one set of credentials and only logging in once, without the need for repeated authentication. 

High-Level Overview: How SSO Works

Okta, what is SSO?
  • A user tries to access a protected application or resource. They are then redirected to the organization’s central Identity Provider (IdP) to log in. 
  • The user provides their credentials (username and password) to the IdP. 
  • If the IdP verifies their credentials, the user is assigned a security token or session identifier. 
  • The security token or session identifier contains the user’s identity and permissions, which are presented to the application or resource. 
  • The application or resource validates the token with the IdP to ensure its authenticity and checks the user’s permissions. If authorized, the user is granted access without needing to re-enter their credentials. 

Benefits of SSO

  • Enhanced User Experience and Productivity– Users gain quick and seamless access to necessary applications, reducing frustration and increasing productivity. Admins save time and resources by avoiding manual access requests and password resets. 
  • Improved Security – SSO provides administrators with the means to centrally manage and control access and permissions. 
  • Reduced IT Overhead – Decreased costs related to supporting password-related issues allow resources to be allocated elsewhere. 
  • Enhanced Compliance – Since access to applications is centralized, the logs are as well. This makes it easier to monitor user activities, help detect security incidents, and facilitate audits.  

Challenges of SSO

  • Single Point of Failure – A user’s compromised credentials can provide access to multiple applications and services SSO is being used for.  
  • Compatibility issues – There are legacy applications and systems that may not be compatible with modern SSO technologies and may need additional integration efforts.  
  • User resistance – Users may be resistant to a new way of authenticating and login process.  

Brief Implementation Overview of SSO  

  1. Planning and requirements gathering 
  1. Choose an SSO solution 
  1. Set up the Identity Provider (IdP) 
  1. Configure applications to use SSO 
  1. Implement Security Measures – MFA and enforce access policies 
  1. Test the SSO implementation 
  1. User training and rollout 
  1. Monitor and maintain 

Types of Authentication Protocols that can be used with SSO: 

  • SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) – Commonly used for integrating web-based and enterprise-level applications—best for attribute sharing. 
  • OAuth (Open Authorization) – Widely used for authorization, especially where applications need to access resources on behalf of a user. OAuth allows users to grant third-party apps limited access to their resources without sharing their credentials. 
  • OIDC (OpenID Connect) – Built on top of OAuth 2.0, used for both authentication and authorizations; suitable for modern web and mobile applications but not for IdP-initiated logins. 
  • LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) – Often used for accessing and maintaining distributed directory information services.  

Integrating Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)


Multi-factor Authentication (MFA): An additional step to the login process besides username and password, requiring users to verify their identity with another authentication factor. These factors can be something you know, something you have, and something you are. 

  • Something you know: pin, password
  • Something you have: hardware token, mobile phone app push notification, one-time-passcode, SMS, phone call, etc. 
  • Something you are: biometrics such as facial recognition, fingerprint 

Learn more here

Relationship of SSO & MFA: Enhancing Security & User Experience

Using both SSO and MFA together can streamline and add security to the authentication process.  

Navigate the Logon Experience  

1. User logs into the SSO portal.  The user is asked for their username and password. If initial credentials are accepted, they are next asked to provide another factor to complete the authentication process. This can be code or biometrics. 

2. SSO system generates session token/credential.  Next, the user is granted a session token/credential for their session and is directed to the SSO portal. Length of a session is determined by administrator configuration.  

3. Access to applications and services.  The user can access the applications and services without having to re-enter their credentials. Depending on the configuration, the user may be periodically challenged throughout the session to verify their identity again with MFA.  

Maximizing Benefits with SSO & MFA Integration

  • Strengthened security. Without needing multiple passwords with SSO, users won’t be tempted to write down passwords and risk compromise. MFA adds that extra layer of verifying the user’s identity, creating a more complex process for threat actors to possibly infiltrate. 
  • Decreased password fatigue. Password fatigue is the common occurrence that comes with having to remember different passwords for multiple applications, leading to password resets and delaying tasks, and frustration. SSO and MFA negate the use of multiple passwords since the user can login once with their credentials and MFA and multiple applications. 
  • Smoother user logon experience. SSO portals becomes a one-stop shop for users to access applications and services. Typically, the portal will show each application the user is authorized to have access to after they successfully authenticate with MFA. 
  • Streamlines IT security management. Implementing SSO provides a centralized location for provisioning, deprovisioning, and auditing users and their access to applications and services. 

Leading Providers of SSO & MFA Solutions

Adopting SSO and MFA is a strategic decision, and choosing the right provider is critical. Prominent names include:

  • Okta: Renowned for its comprehensive identity management solutions featuring both SSO and MFA.
  • Duo: Offers a flexible approach to SSO and MFA, catering to a variety of business needs.
  • Azure: Microsoft’s identity platform, providing robust SSO and MFA services among a plethora of other features.

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