Some Things To Consider When Extending Your IdM Into the Cloud

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By Mark O’Neill

Like many organizations, you no doubt face the challenge of extending your IT operations into the cloud to take advantage of the many cloud-based services demanded by your users today. As you make the transition from a firewall-protected in-house IT infrastructure to an IT environment that extends into the cloud, one challenge you cannot ignore is how to also transition your identity management (IdM) platform in such a way that you ensure the security of your new hybrid on-premises and cloud-based IT approach.

Indeed, IT organizations today must consider a number of things before they transition to a cloud-centric IdM strategy, including the probability that they must deal with a number of complex security challenges posed by multiple identity storage siloes.

IT organizations historically have had their own on-premises identity stores containing directories such as Active Directory or Novell. Their IdM challenge was to successfully federate these IdM stores if, for example, they were doing business with, or merging with, another company and needed to tightly integrate the identity stores of both entities. This historical IdM federation challenge, as a result, was small and contained within a small number of organizations working together.

In today’s cloud-centric IT environment, the challenge of IdM federation has grown exponentially. As organizations extend their IT infrastructures to take advantage of the many cloud-based services available, they are faced with a proliferation of different on-premises and cloud-based identity stores because their users have multiple IDs – both corporate and personal – that they use at access multiple cloud-based services.

The proliferation of cloud-based identity siloes has clearly gotten out of control, so corporate IT organizations are now trying regain control – starting by taking a tally of all the different cloud-based services that are being used by employees and then developing a strategy for managing these identities. Meeting this challenge increasingly falls to CIOs and their staffs.

How should they proceed? In many situations, the choice comes down to either integrating identities across their cloud-based services on a one-by-one basis, linking each one back into the on-premises system, or instead adopting a socialized model using an off-the-shelf product to link together their on-premises IdM systems with many cloud-based services in one go, thereby avoiding the complexity of doing it on a one-by-one basis.

Consider Your Options

IT organizations must consider three options in developing an IdM strategy that successfully manages multiple identity storage siloes in a hybrid on-premises and cloud-based IT environment. If their company’s employees use a number of cloud services such as, Dropbox, Concur for expenses and Google apps for email, then they can either (a) give the employee five passwords (which the employee is likely to forget), (b) have the employee use the exact same password everywhere (but then require it to be changed everywhere at once if they suspect it has been compromised), or (c) enable the employee to log into all of the cloud services by logging into the company’s system with a single sign-on.

Option (c) clearly is preferable. It's simple for the employee to remember and use. And it's much more easily provisioned and managed by IT. The employee never needs wrestle with, or even know, the passwords for the company’s cloud-based services.

Complete visibility is critical for the success of this single sign-on strategy. The IT organization must have visibility of all the cloud-based services that are being used. If single sign-on services have been implemented, IT can turn the cloud-based services off, just as easily as they turned them on.

One of our clients – an education management firm that manages over 100 private colleges with 150,000 students in North America – provides an excellent example. Each college has its own portal and homepage providing the students with access to the various student services offered by the college. The common portal creates a common identity across all of the student applications and services – making it far easier for IT to manage. As a result, the student’s college password allows single sign-on access to a number of different cloud-side applications, including various Google offerings, that otherwise would each require its own password. When students log into the college portal, we log them into Gmail. Google Apps or Google Docs based on a single sign-on. And when the students graduate and leave college, we turn off single sign-on and remove the account.

Leverage Industry Standards

Industry standards also must be considered when extending your IdM platform into the cloud. Standards are shaping the way the federation of on-premises and cloud-based services can be set up and managed to ensure security.

A number of standards are in use today. For single sign-on, there’s Open ID and OAuth that allow you to log into one service – your internal systems – then use that identity to log into the other systems without handing your password over to those systems. You log into an Identity Provider and, if the other systems (the Service Providers) trust the Identity Provider, they allow you to log into their systems. For example, powered by Open ID and OAuth, today you can log into other systems using your Facebook, Google or Twitter credentials instead of theirs. And you don’t even need to create a new account with a new password for these systems.

Another standard, called SCIM (Simple Cloud Identity Management), is also important to consider when you are addressing the need for cloud-based user management. SCIM allows you to manage user identity up in the cloud, enabling your users to be easily provisioned and de-provisioned for cloud-based services.

Adhering to standards to build a secure cloud-based IdM platform, however, is not enough. You also must construct an entire framework for identity management, including an audit trail for transactions to ensure identities are not compromised and real-time monitoring that provides a real-time view of what’s going on. This framework also must provide the scalability needed to accommodate all of the users who need to log in at any one time.

… And don’t forget the regulations

Last, but certainly not least, you must be aware of and address the regulations governing the use of the cloud for IdM. Different jurisdictions have different rules governing data retention, how and where information about your users can be stored, and the user notifications required regarding changes to personal information stored in the cloud. These regulations can vary greatly from country to country and must be considered based on the geographies in which your company is doing business.

Mark O’Neill is CTO of Vordel

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