SSO vs. MFA: Understanding the Key Differences
Single Sign-On (SSO) and Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) are two popular authentication methods, but many people often confuse them. While both methods are used to protect against cyber threats, they have different approaches to security and user experience. This blog post will explore the key differences between SSO and MFA and how they can work together to provide strong authentication for your organization.
What is Single Sign-On (SSO)?
Definition of SSO
What is SSO, and what is SSO meaning in the organization? Single Sign-On (SSO) is an authentication method that allows users to access multiple applications and services with a single set of credentials. SSO eliminates the need for users to remember multiple login credentials for different services, reducing the chances of forgotten passwords and the associated password reset requests. Once a user has logged in, they can easily move between different applications without needing to authenticate again.
How SSO works
SSO authenticates users once and then provides access to all connected applications and services. SSO uses a centralized authentication server that provides a secure connection between the user and the applications they are trying to access. Once a user logs in, they can access all the services and applications without having to enter their login credentials again.
Benefits of SSO
The primary benefit of SSO is that it simplifies the login process for users, improving workflow and reducing the need for password resets. SSO also provides better visibility into user activity and makes it easier to enforce complex password policies.
Security risks of SSO
The main security risk associated with SSO is that it creates a single point of failure. If an attacker gains access to a user’s SSO credentials, they can gain access to all of the applications and services that the user has access to. Additionally, if the SSO system is down, users won’t be able to access any of the connected accounts.
What is Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)?
Definition of MFA
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is an authentication method that requires users to provide two or more forms of authentication before accessing an application or service. Using MFA means adding an extra layer of security to traditional password-based authentication methods. The three common types of authentication factors are knowledge, possession, and inherence.
Types of authentication factors
There are three main types of authentication factors:
- Knowledge factors: These are something the user knows, such as a password, passphrase, or PIN.
- Possession factors: These are something the user has, such as a physical token, smart card, or mobile device.
- Inherence factors: These are something the user is, such as biometric characteristics like fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans.
How MFA works
MFA requires users to provide multiple forms of authentication before gaining access to an application or service. For example, a user might be required to provide a password and a fingerprint scan. MFA can be implemented using hardware tokens, software tokens, SMS messages, or mobile authenticator apps.
Modern MFA often uses biometric authentication, such as a person’s unique physical characteristics, like fingerprints, facial features, or voice patterns, to verify their identity. When a user attempts to access a device or application, they are prompted to provide a biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint or a facial scan. The system then compares this identifier to a stored template of the user’s biometric data to confirm their identity.
Benefits of MFA
The main benefits of MFA include the following:
- Increased security: MFA provides an additional layer of security to the login process, making it more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access to an application or service.
- Compliance: Many regulations and standards require the use of MFA to protect sensitive data and systems.
- Better user experience: Modern MFA implementations can provide a seamless login experience for users without compromising security.
Security risks of MFA
The main security risk of MFA is that some traditional authentication factors can be vulnerable to attacks. For example, SMS-based authentication codes can be intercepted by attackers. Additionally, the traditional approach to MFA implementations can be complex and confusing for users, leading to adoption resistance and reduced productivity.
MFA vs. SSO: The Main Differences
Overview of differences between MFA and SSO
What SSO has to do with MFA? MFA adds additional factors and obstacles to the sign-on process, while SSO seeks to reduce the number of times a user must sign in. MFA adds a security layer to the login process, while SSO makes signing on more convenient and improves workflow.
The main difference between MFA and SSO is their focus. MFA primarily focuses on security, while SSO focuses on user convenience. MFA requires users to provide multiple forms of authentication, while SSO only requires a single set of credentials.
Focus on security vs. convenience
MFA focuses on user security, while SSO focuses on user convenience. The primary focus of MFA is to provide added security by requiring multiple forms of identification. This extra security comes at the cost of some user convenience, as users may need to go through multiple steps to access their accounts.
In contrast, SSO prioritizes convenience by allowing users to access multiple accounts with a single login. While this can improve workflow and reduce time lost to password resets, it also means that if the SSO is compromised, all connected accounts are at risk.
Types of applications and services supported
MFA can be used to protect a wide range of applications, VPNs, and services. In contrast, SSO is mainly used for cloud applications and is integrated with a security provider using the SAML protocol.
MFA deployment considerations
MFA and SSO have different deployment considerations. MFA requires users to have access to a separate device or authentication factor, while SSO relies on a centralized identity provider. The deployment of MFA with a traditional approach may also require more IT resources and training for employees.
MFA and SSO: How They Work Together
So, can you use MFA with SSO? MFA and SSO are not mutually exclusive and not only can but should be used together to provide a more secure and streamlined login experience. By adding an extra layer of security with MFA, SSO logins are further protected from potential attacks.
Benefits of combining MFA and SSO
The benefits of combining MFA and SSO include increased security and user convenience. By deploying MFA and SSO together, organizations can significantly reduce the risks of authentication and account takeover attacks while providing a seamless login experience for users.
Best practices for deploying MFA and SSO together
When deploying MFA and SSO together, following best practices is important to ensure a successful implementation. This includes evaluating the authentication needs of the organization, choosing the right combination of MFA and SSO technologies, and providing adequate employee training and support.
One of the alternative ways to traditional MFA adoption is the so-called user access security broker approach, which means that MFA is deployed through a security broker and therefore doesn’t require any coding. Any MFA (including modern MFAs like FIDO2 from FIDO Alliance) can be deployed on modern apps as well as legacy ways in the same no-code way.
Choosing the Right Authentication Method for Your Organization
When choosing the best MFA to protect SSO, organizations need to consider a variety of factors, including the level of security required, the type of applications and services being accessed, and the user experience. Evaluating your organization’s needs and goals is important to determine the best authentication strategy.
Factors to consider when choosing the best MFA for SSO
- Security needs: If your organization needs to maintain a higher level of security, then FIDO2-based MFA may be the better option as it is phishing-resistant because it relies on public key cryptography to authenticate users. In contrast, traditional authentication methods like TOTP are vulnerable to phishing attacks because they still rely on generated one-time codes that attackers can steal or intercept.
- User experience: Balancing risk and convenience is important when picking the best MFA method.
- Application support: Traditionally, the organization would need to consider the types of applications and services that the organization uses and whether they are compatible with MFA (legacy applications). Some applications may traditionally require specific authentication methods. However, this limitation is gone with a user access security broker approach to MFA adoption. With user access security broker MFA can be introduced without touching the applications code so modern apps and legacy apps can be protected with MFA in the same frictionless and codeless way.
In summary, the main differences between MFA and SSO are their focus on security versus convenience, the types of applications and services they support, and deployment considerations. SSO and MFA are not really substitutes but rather complementary cybersecurity tools, and the question should be what’s the best MFA to put on top of SSO and how it should be implemented.
It is important to consider your organization’s specific security needs, user experience, and application support. A successful authentication strategy should include a combination of modern MFA (like FIDO-based authentication) and SSO. The authentication mechanism should also be added in a frictionless way allowing adding and/ or replacing MFA in the same easy way; therefore user access security broker approach should be considered for a scalable adoption.