Federated identity has long been a goal of many IT organizations. One look at the promise of federation, and it is easy to see why. After all, empowering one organization to serve as an identity provider for another frees IT from having to manage the identities of partnering organizations' employees and customers, thereby facilitating the pursuit of competitive-advantage projects. In this era of increasing enterprise decentralization, thanks in large part to the Web, establishing a federated identity framework is fast proving as essential as it is hard to pull off.
What has held federation back is not a technical matter; after all, standards are well-defined, and interoperable tools are available from multiple vendors. Instead, the chief obstacles to federation have been the legal and governance issues that surround federated identity.
Suppose your company federates identities with a 401k provider. Which organization is liable in the event of fraud connected with the federation? Hammering out agreements regarding such questions can keep attorneys occupied for weeks. Privacy concerns on the part of users remain another sticking point. What's more, in many places -- such as your company Web site -- federation just isn't possible using traditional methods.
Enter "user-centric identity," a new approach to federation that has gained momentum as of late.
The key to this burgeoning revolution in identity is the fact that the technology places employees, clients, partners, and customers in the driver's seat when it comes to relaying their identity. In fact, the technologies are designed in such a way that sharing data requires user consent.
Implemented prudently and with purpose, user-centric identity may provide hope for those organizations seeking to capitalize on federation, as the technologies can free them from having to hammer out identity agreements, thereby cutting through the Gordian knot of governance while opening enterprise outlets to the promise of federated identity where traditional modes of federation just can't be applied.
Two technologies in particular have emerged to catch the attention of organizations looking to accelerate their federation efforts: CardSpace, a standard developed by Microsoft to provide a comprehensive solution to user-centric identity problems; and OpenID, a lightweight standard that's the result of the work of multiple companies to create identities based on URLs.
User-centric identity comes of age
For many, the thought of employing a fledgling technology as part of an identity initiative is tantamount to writing a resignation. Yet proponents, such as Sxip Identity CEO Dick Hardt, believe the groundswell of vendor support will soon make user-centric federation a viable enterprise play.
"I'd give the industry an A," Hardt says. "Unlike previous identity technologies, almost every major vendor is participating in user-centric technology in some way."
As with any technology, user-centric federation faces an uphill battle in terms of gaining widespread enterprise support. More than a matter of industry consolidation and standards development, a technology's enterprise hope hinges on thorough interoperability testing, trustworthy libraries and tools, and most importantly, products that bring the technology's promise to life.
CardSpace and OpenID have certainly come a long way during the past few years. Yet important steps must be completed before organizations can put them to widespread use. Despite well-baked standards, CardSpace comes up short on functionality such as mobile credentials. More glaringly, OpenID has serious holes that proposed standards aim to fix, but there has been little traction in getting those standards approved.
That is not to say vendors are at a standstill. In fact, interoperability testing is a bright point for both technologies, with interop events taking place multiple times per year to the tune of deep participation from players large and small. Moreover, tools and libraries abound. For enterprises, however, adoption often depends on product selection. Thus, with only a handful of solutions available with CardSpace or OpenID baked in, deployment has been slow.
"There aren't a lot of pieces you can buy off the shelf. We've done well on [tools for the] identity selector, but tools for identity providers and relying parties are still lagging," Hardt says.