If you're a tech company, identity and access management (IAM) should be at the very foundation of your cybersecurity strategy. Safeguarding credentials and authenticating users can help you guard against many forms of application security breaches. A strong and reliable authentication provider can help you keep out both internal and external threats to your digital assets.
Most small-to-medium companies struggle to find the right authentication service provider. A full-fledged IAM solution may prove too costly for many companies to adopt. This is why several open source tools have been developed. Some of these free tools, like Keycloak ,Ory, and ZITADEL offer you the power to outsource all your authentication tasks and user identity management, and achieve scale with minimal operational costs.
In this article, you'll learn about open source authentication providers, their common use cases, and what your organization stands to gain from adopting an open source authentication solution.
What Is an Open Source Authentication Provider
As the name suggests, an open source authentication provider is simply an authentication service provider that is open source for developers and companies to use. Authentication lives at the core of the IAM system services, and some of these IAM system providers offer their services in the open source.
More recently, there has been an industry shift toward centralized authentication solutions and APIs, which is driven by the market demand for fast and seamless logins across several systems, as well as the desire to create robust security architecture for data.
Just like cloud infrastructure providers now provide their platform as a service, third-party authentication providers provide authentication as a service (AaaS). Whether you're in finance, sales, healthcare, or any other sector, you need a secure authentication system that can protect your digital assets and systems. Open source authentication providers are essential for the digital ecosystem for many reasons:
- Safety and stability: Using an authentication service has the inherent advantage of reducing the security risk to your system. It helps you detect unlawful accesses and breaches, ensuring your organization complies with regulatory standards. Adopting a well-maintained open source authentication tool ensures that your security architecture is built on a stable and available IAM solution, which allows backward compatibility. It's important to note that your preferred IAM solution should guarantee 100 percent availability all the time.
- Vendor lock-in and Escrow: Using an open source authentication solution ensures that your organization can avoid vendor lock-in with commercial providers. Since open source software is usually developed with an open standard, your team can easily switch between vendors for your authentication services without having to redesign your architecture to integrate with a new provider. Open source authentication software gives you direct access to the technology that would, at best, be accessible under an escrow agreement with a commercial vendor.
- Code Quality: Open source code is usually on par with the highest standards in the industry. Tools developed in the open source have hundreds, or even thousands, of contributors from all over the world. This ensures developers from different sectors raise issues and keep the codes to the highest quality possible with constant improvements.
- Abundant support: One major challenge companies and developers face when integrating proprietary tools is compatibility and support with other developer tools and workflows already in use by the company. Even though open source projects are usually sponsored by a variety of affiliated companies, the software tools are built from the ground up without bias for integration with specific tools. Because of this, open source software will most likely support integration with the most common tools developers use.
- Possibility to contribute: What if you want a specific feature or integration support? Open source is code written by developers, for developers. You can easily code your preferred feature, or even contract others to build them, and propose the change to the core team. In this way, you can have a say in the road map the product development follows.
Why You Need an Open Source Authentication Provider
If you want to be able to focus on developing your application logic, you should consider using a turn-key authentication service. The ease with which you can evaluate what particular open source authentication provider will suit your needs and technology stack at zero upfront cost is one major reason open source authentication providers are gaining popularity.
Choosing between commercial (closed source) authentication and open source authentication providers can confound even the best engineers if you fail to properly highlight your requirements and the specific offerings of each provider in consideration. Many of these “closed” source and proprietary authentication providers hardly provide sufficient information about their protocols. As such, you will find it difficult to get detailed reviews or documentation on them before subscribing to the service.
Following are a few benefits of choosing an open source authentication provider for your application:
Build Trust into the Security-Critical Service
You should consider adopting an open source application for your authentication needs mainly because of the trust and security built into them. Open source communities generally have a shared interest in upholding the security of their product. Developers and users promptly find and report security flaws to the core team or creators, who in turn fix the problem right away.
An open source service provider can be trusted not to misuse or abuse their access to your users' data intentionally, unlike the way many commercial software platforms misuse code because they don't have a trusted avenue of verifying their codes. Essentially, the trust and security of open source technologies are widely seen as the responsibility of the community developers and the other stakeholders. Although fostering openness and operational transparency of open source applications also help build trust.
Furthermore, the concept of distributed trust shows how trust is inherently built into open source applications. This follows Aristotle's theory of the wisdom of the crowd, which assumes that the opinion of many carries more wisdom than that of the few. The concept carries relevance in open source communities in that once you join a community for a project, you assume responsibility that allows you to participate in the project development, and the more involved you are, the more trust you have in the community and its product.
Builds on Open Standards
According to an IBM article discussing open standards, "an open standard is a standard that is freely available for adoption, implementation and updates." Standards are set for businesses operating in the same industry so as to provide value for customers and stakeholders alike. SQL, PDF, and HTML are all popular examples of open standards developers interact with daily.
Many open source authentication providers tend to build their software with open industry standards. For authentication, examples of open standards include, OpenID Connect, Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), FIDO2, and JSON Web Tokens. This means your business can avoid vendor lock-in, a phenomenon that is likely to occur with commercial authentication providers.
For instance, let's assume your organization secures the license to use a PDF editor and viewer from a popular vendor. For years, your organization has used the PDF service to generate millions of valuable PDF documents. Your business will not have any challenges switching from one vendor to another since the PDF is an open standard. A similar example with authentication providers occurs when large commercial providers build proprietary solutions that are not compliant with the open standard for authentication. This makes it difficult for you to switch over to other providers in the open source since you may need to rebuild some parts of your system to integrate with the new provider.
This example can be cascaded to authentication standards, and it illustrates the advantages of choosing an open source authentication service.
Fix Bugs Quickly
As mentioned earlier, when open source products get critical bugs, they are easily detected by the active users and developer community. In fact, some projects undergo intensive and targeted security audits by the stakeholders to ensure they are responsible and maintain a high-security standard.
Even more fascinating is the speed with which these community-supported projects fix bugs. However, you need to note that there are also many open source projects with convoluted and exasperating bug reporting and resolution processes. This should not discourage you from following the guidelines and advice provided by the community for responsible disclosure of critical issues. A responsible open source project will ensure the issues are acknowledged and resolved within a reasonable timeframe. Ultimately, you (the user and maintainer) and every other stakeholder are responsible for the processes, maintenance, and security of the software.
Open source software shines bright when it comes down to cost. In many cases, open source authentication providers charge nothing. The catch here is that you have to run the authentication software application on your own in-house infrastructure, which could add an extra layer of cost implicitly.
It's important to note that while you can run the software on your own infrastructure, open source providers usually bear the responsibility of maintenance and security. The extent of these additional operational responsibilities afforded to you may depend on the tier of license you procure. Dual licensing of open source software makes this possible.
In this article, you learned about open source authentication providers and why choosing an open source authentication provider is beneficial. Open source is not restricted to providing you with free codes and resources to build your application. It also means that you can be an active contributor to the security, stability, and maintenance of the product.
ZITADEL is an open source identity management platform that provides you with a wide range of features like OpenID Connect, SAML 2.0, OAuth 2, FIDO2, OTP, and an unlimited audit trail. With ZITADEL, you can solve all your authentication and authorization needs. Check out our repo and give us a GitHub star. We appreciate the feedback.
This article was contributed by Idowu Odesanmi.