Identity management for the masses

How Sabre Holdings provides distributed ID management for hundreds of thousands of travel services users

Imagine having to provide authentication and authorization services for some 1,000 departments within your organization, while giving about 360,000 administrators control over which individuals get access to what resources. Now imagine that the vast majority of those groups and administrators work for companies other than your own.

That is essentially what Sabre Holdings has to deal with in order to give its clients access to the array of travel services and data that Sabre provides. Sabre Holdings, which spun out of American Airlines, provides travel services such as reservations for airlines, travel-related businesses and, through its Travelocity unit, to consumers. During a presentation at the recent Network World IT Roadmap Conference, Kurtis Holland, principal, IT security for Sabre, explained the steps Sabre has taken over the years to enable an extensive identity management capability on open systems.

"Our main goal is to offload legacy services from our mainframe environment and to maintain the same level of control for authentication, authorization and accountability," Holland said in a follow-up interview. "That's a big challenge, considering we peak at 1.5 million transactions per minute across our enterprise -- about 25,900 per second -- many of which are based on identity transactions."

In the beginning

Sabre began its migration to open systems in 1998 when it embarked on a plan to implement a service-oriented architecture (SOA) based on Unix and Linux systems and using standards including TCP/IP, IBM WebSphere MQ, and CORBA. The business goals behind the SOA plan included allowing for delegated administration by group and role as well as an identity management service with common APIs, enabling it to be used by various core applications and over any transport. The service also had to support more than 100,000 domains, 200,000 groups and millions of individual user names -- requirements that have only grown since. And the identity solution had to utilize a central database and directory service with support for replication and federation.

At least three types of products are integral to delivering on all those identity management requirements, Holland says: a Web single sign-on (SSO) solution, directory store and a provisioning tool.

In 1999 Sabre implemented Netegrity SiteMinder on its Windows NT systems to provide the SSO function. (Netegrity has since been acquired by CA.) For its directory the company implemented the Sun iPlanet Directory Server (now known as Sun Java System Directory Server).

"SiteMinder gave us the ability to use the native [Sun] directory source, and Active Directory source, as well as integrate an API that'd talk to our legacy [mainframe] systems," Holland says.

As the number of applications Sabre had to support grew, with more and more of them on the open systems platforms, it became apparent that the company needed a tool to help it automate the provisioning of those applications to users. In late 2004 and early 2005, the company implemented SiteMinder on its Linux platforms and bought another package of tools from Sun, including the Sun Identity and Access Manager.

The Sun tool essentially mimics the provisioning features of the mainframe for an open systems environment, while providing additional features. They include enhanced audit trails and reporting, and a capability to do secondary-level approvals.

But perhaps most important, the Sun tool supports applications written in Java. That gives Sabre the ability to write more and more new applications for its open systems environment. "That allows us more flexibility and faster time to market. We don't have that many TPF programmers in the world anymore," Holland says, referring to the mainframe operating system that is geared to transaction processing applications.

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