SFTP Integrations vs. Native APIs for User Provisioning

SFTP integrations and native APIs are two methods that exist when SCIM is not available. Both have pros and cons, but ultimately, for developers prioritizing simplicity and cost-effectiveness, SFTP is the recommended route, and for those prioritizing flexibility and scalability, native APIs are recommended.

Applications serving enterprise customers must implement robust security measures to ensure that only authorized users can access data. Consequently, user provisioning and deprovisioning become integral elements in application development. While these are foundational requirements, managing them across complex customer ecosystems poses unique challenges. The System for Cross-domain Identity Management (SCIM) protocol streamlines this challenge, but how should one proceed if a customer's tools don't align with this protocol? From a developer’s perspective, two primary methods exist: (1) employing the Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) or (2) architecting native API integrations.

The choice between the two methods ultimately comes down to the following prioritizations:

  • For simplicity & cost-effectiveness, choose SFTP, which offers a direct approach with less technical complexity and often comes with a lower initial setup cost.
  • For flexibility, scalability, and automation, choose native APIs, which offer a more robust, scalable solution that can be tailored to specific needs and handle dynamic changes more efficiently.

This post explains the technical nuances of each approach and assess their applicability in varying scenarios.

What is SFTP?

SFTP, which stands for Secure File Transfer Protocol, represents a network protocol designed to facilitate secure interactions when accessing, transferring, and managing sensitive data across a network environment. Its primary purpose is to ensure that data remains confidential and protected from unauthorized access, making it a valuable tool for user management where it can be used as a secure means of creating, updating, or deleting accounts.


  • Security: Transfers are encrypted, ensuring data confidentiality. This can help applications adhere to popular standards like HIPAA and SOC 2.
  • Simplicity: No need to understand complex coding or integration techniques; it's all about handling files.
  • Compatibility: SFTP is widely recognized and can integrate with a broad range of systems and platforms.
  • Batch Processing: Ideal for bulk operations, as files can contain multiple records, allowing for mass user provisioning or deprovisioning.


  • Latency: File-based transfers might not be real-time, causing potential delays in provisioning or deprovisioning users.
  • Manual Handling: Requires the regular creation, updating, and management of files, which can be error-prone and time-consuming.
  • Lack of Feedback: Errors in user provisioning via SFTP may not be immediately apparent until the file is processed.
  • Scalability: As organizations grow and user management needs become more dynamic, SFTP might be less efficient than direct API integrations.

What are Native APIs?

Native APIs refer to a set of predefined functions, routines, and protocols designed specifically for a particular software or system. They allow different software applications to communicate with one another directly and efficiently. In the context of user management, native APIs provide a direct method to programmatically create, update, or delete accounts. These interfaces facilitate direct communication between software components without the need for intermediary protocols or file transfers.


  1. Real-time Operations: Direct API calls enable instant modifications, ensuring timely user access management.
  2. Flexibility: APIs can be tailored to specific use cases and can be integrated with a variety of systems and platforms.
  3. Error Handling: Immediate feedback on provisioning issues allows for quicker resolution.
  4. Automation: APIs allow for a higher degree of automation, reducing manual effort and the risk of human error.


  1. Complexity: Proper implementation of APIs might require specialized knowledge, making it challenging for organizations without dedicated IT or development teams.
  2. Maintenance: APIs can change over time, necessitating regular updates to integrations to ensure compatibility.
  3. Security Concerns: While APIs themselves can be secure, improper implementation or lax security measures can expose vulnerabilities.
  4. Rate Limits: Many platforms impose limits on the number of API calls within a given time frame, which can hinder operations if not properly managed.

Comparing SFTP vs Native APIs

Organization Size & Needs:

  • For small to medium-sized organizations that have infrequent or batch-based user management tasks, the simplicity of SFTP might be more appealing.
  • For larger organizations that need real-time provisioning and deprovisioning or handle a high number of user changes, native APIs might be more suitable due to their scalability and immediacy.

Technical Expertise Available:

  • For organizations with smaller IT teams or limited in-house expertise to handle API integrations, SFTP's file-based approach may be more accessible.
  • For organizations with a dedicated development team or IT professionals familiar with API integrations, leveraging native APIs can offer more flexibility and automation.

Integration Complexity:

  • Systems that don't offer native API support or where API integration is overly complex might make SFTP a more viable option.
  • For platforms with robust API support and documentation, direct API integration could be the preferred route.

Security & Compliance:

  • If the primary focus is out-of-the-box encryption and security designed to envelope both commands and the actual files, SFTP is the optimal choice.
  • If the primary focus is more granular access control or real-time auditing capabilities, APIs offer more advanced options and is the optimal choice.

Frequency of User Changes:

  • For occasional or batch updates, SFTP can be efficient.
  • For frequent, dynamic, or real-time changes, native APIs would be the better option.

Future Scalability:

  • For organizations with user management needs expected to remain relatively static, the simplicity of SFTP might suffice.
  • For organizations anticipating significant growth or increased complexity in user management, investing in API integrations now might save time and effort in the future.

Costs & Maintenance:

  • Consider the potential costs associated with both methods, from software licenses to maintenance efforts. SFTP generally provides lower implementation and maintenance cost, but setting up, securing, and maintaining SFTP servers, especially at scale, might incur its own set of costs.
  • API access, on the other hand, is usually accompanied by licensing intricacies and pricing tiers that gate more advanced features. Support for high-frequency API calls, more accessible support, and increased rate limits are capabilities that might be only reserved for the highest pricing tier.

Harnessing WorkOS for Efficient User Provisioning

As the business grows and attracts a diverse range of customers, the complexities of user provisioning and deprovisioning can grow out of hand. It's typical to adopt various methods to align with the distinct requirements and preferences of customers. Leveraging protocols are strategic moves to simplify this crucial aspect of application functionality.

For those looking for an even more efficient approach to user management, consider WorkOS. WorkOS uses SCIM and SFTP to streamline the process of developing and managing integrations from scratch. This approach can not only expedite the development cycle but also reduce the complexity of juggling multiple provisioning methods. The result? An application that's secure, agile, and adept at catering to the dynamic needs of a growing customer base.

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