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What is Federated Access?



Federated Access refers to a system of identity management that allows users to access multiple, interconnected systems or services using a single set of credentials. This approach enables secure, seamless authentication and authorisation across different organisational boundaries or domains, without requiring users to manage separate logins for each service. Federated access is particularly important in environments where users need to collaborate or interact with resources across multiple institutions, such as in large enterprises, partner networks or cloud services.

The core concept of federated access revolves around identity federation, which involves linking multiple identity management systems to enable trust and secure communication between them. This linkage is facilitated through standards and protocols like Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), OAuth and OpenID Connect. These protocols enable the exchange of authentication and authorisation information between identity providers (IdPs) and service providers (SPs), allowing a user authenticated by one IdP to access resources on an SP without re-authentication. For example, a user authenticated by their organisation's IdP can access a third-party cloud service that trusts the IdPs credentials.

Single Sign-On (SSO) is a key feature enabled by federated access. SSO allows users to authenticate once with their home identity provider and gain access to multiple services within the federation without needing to log in again for each service. This improves user experience by reducing the number of times they need to enter their credentials and enhances security by minimising password usage across different platforms.

Federated access also supports collaboration across organisational boundaries. In a federated system, different organisations or departments can maintain their own identity management systems while still allowing their users to access shared resources. This is particularly beneficial in scenarios where employees, partners, or customers need to collaborate on projects or access common applications. For instance, a university might use federated access to allow students and faculty to access research databases and academic resources hosted by different institutions, enhancing collaboration and knowledge sharing without the need for multiple logins.

Security and privacy are critical considerations in federated access systems. Federated access relies on trust relationships between identity providers and service providers, where each party must adhere to agreed-upon security policies and standards. This trust is established through mechanisms such as digital certificates and secure communication channels, ensuring that identity assertions are reliable and not tampered with. Moreover, federated access systems often implement privacy-preserving techniques to ensure that only necessary information about users is shared between parties, protecting user privacy while enabling authentication and authorisation.

Real-world applications of federated access demonstrate its value in simplifying user access and enhancing security. In the corporate environment, federated access allows employees to use their corporate credentials to access external SaaS applications, partner networks and cloud services without managing multiple passwords. In academia, federated access facilitates cross-institutional collaboration, enabling researchers and students to use their home institution's credentials to access resources hosted by other universities or research organisations. In healthcare, federated access supports secure, seamless access to patient records and clinical applications across different healthcare providers, improving patient care and operational efficiency.

Related Terms

- Single Sign-On


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