What is an Identity Provider?

Find out what an Identity Provider does, who the big players are, why businesses use them, and why it's important to start supporting them quickly

If you're building apps for enterprise customers, chances are you've come across the term Identity Provider or IdP. But what does the term actually mean?

In this article, we'll explain what Identity Provider means, who the major identity providers are, why enterprises use them, and why you need to support them as soon as you can.

What is an Identity Provider?

An Identity Provider (IdP) stores and manages user identities (such as usernames, passwords, and emails) for your enterprise customers. It also provides authentication services for enterprise applications and acts as a centralized authority from which IT admins can control who can access what within the organization.

What are the most commonly used Identity Providers?

The most commonly used Identity Providers include:

What can an Identity Provider do?

An identity provider can do the following:

  • Authenticate users: An IdP verifies a user’s identity through methods like passwords, Passkeys, or multi-factor authentication.
  • Manage user profile: IdPs store and manage user profiles which may include their email addresses, names, and permissions.
  • Single Sign-On (SSO): This is one of the main roles of an IdP at the enterprise level — to allow employees to multiple apps from a centralized directory.
  • Authorization and access control: Besides authentication, IdPs also handle authorization, meaning who can access what. Your customers’ IT team can use their IdP to assign roles, permissions, and access levels to a specific user or employee.
  • Factor management: IdPs are used to manage the different authentication factors including PINs and passwords, answers to security questions and tokens that generate one-time passwords (OTPs).

Why does every enterprise use an Identity Provider?

Here are some of the reasons why enterprises use an Identity Provider and why they need you to support their provider:

Centralized identity management

When a company reaches a certain size, they have someone joining, changing roles, or leaving the company on a daily basis. This constant flux, combined with the need to make sure that people can only access what they need, demands a streamlined approach.

By using IdPs to centralize identities, companies can efficiently assign roles, update permissions, or deactivate accounts, all from a single dashboard.

If you want to land these enterprises as clients, your app needs to fit into the IdP-driven processes they use to manage users. This goes beyond just supporting Single Sign-On (SSO) using a standard like SAML or OIDC. You might also need to enable support for SCIM to allow your customers’ IT teams to provision users at scale to your app.

Enables Single Sign-On (SSO)

IdPs enable SSO — employees can log in to the IdP and gain access to all the connected apps. This not only reduces the work that goes into managing credentials for the hundreds of apps each employee uses but also reduces password fatigue and the number of support calls to IT for forgotten passwords.

Because of these benefits, support for SSO is the most essential feature enterprises look for in apps they want to add to their ecosystem. If you want to work with them, you’ll need to add SSO to your app.

Improved security

Even for an enterprise company with security teams and plenty of money to spend, building a secure authentication system is trickier than it seems. If something goes wrong, employee data could be at risk — and that’s just the best-case scenario. Plus, certain industries have strict rules about safeguarding data that these companies need to follow.

IdPs have the know-how and resources to keep user data secure that’s their core business. By outsourcing authentication to IdPs, enterprises don’t have to worry about enforcing password security rules, securely resetting passwords, adding support for multi-factor authentication, or validating emails/usernames — the IdP handles that for them.

How does SSO work with an Identity Provider?

Single Sign-On (SSO) allows a user to access multiple apps or services with a single set of login credentials and an IdP plays a critical role in this process. It acts as a central authentication hub that verifies the user’s identity and allows them to access protected apps.

Here’s how it works:

  • When a user tries to log in to your app, you redirect them to their IdP’s login page.
  • The IdP authenticates the user and generates a token containing their identity data and authentication status.
  • The IdP sends the user back to your app with the token.
  • Your app validates the token and if it is valid, grants the user access without requiring them to do anything further.

Identity providers use various SSO protocols to implement SSO, the main ones being OpenID Connect (OIDC), WS-Fed, and SAML to enable SSO. And unless all your customers use the same provider, you may eventually need to support each of these protocols, and unfortunately, that gets complicated really fast.

Each protocol handles the SSO process a bit differently, and even providers using the same protocol might implement it differently. Plus, you need to constantly maintain your integrations and stay on top of security vulnerabilities (especially for SAML) as well as any of the provider's policy or pricing updates.

Next steps

If you’d rather not deal with the complexities of supporting SSO authentication for all the IdPs your customers use, use WorkOS:

  • Get started fast: With SDKs for every popular platform, and Slack-based support, you can implement SSO in minutes rather than weeks.
  • Avoid the back-and-forth: WorkOS’ Admin Portal takes the pain out of onboarding your customers’ IT teams and configuring your app to work with their identity provider.
  • Pricing that makes sense: Unlike competitors who price by monthly active users, WorkOS charges a flat rate for each company you onboard - whether they bring 10 or 10,000 users to your app.

Explore Unified SSO by WorkOS.

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