SAML SSO vs LDAP: Differences & Definitions Explained

Javed Shah

SAML SSO vs. LDAP can be challenging to parse out. Still, we go through both methods to help clear up the differences and help you decide which to use.

Is SSO possible with LDAP? Yes, SSO is possible with LDAP as many providers support LDAP for SSO.

What Is Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)?

LDAP is an open and vendor-neutral protocol that applications can use to access directory information services. This means providing support for navigating and interacting with local network resources, like users, directories, files, apps, and other services for local enterprise users.

As the name suggests, the protocol structures these resources like a phone directory only available through the foundational TCP/IP stack–meaning that any computer system can deploy it on top of their existing network capabilities. The directory contains several core pieces of information for each resource on the network:

  • Entry Attributes: Each resource is an entry in the directory, and each entry has a set of attributes that are used to identify it on the LDAP network. At a minimum, these attributes have names and subsequent values, the meaning of which is defined in an attribute schema.
  • Unique Identifiers: Entries each have a unique identifier called its Distinguished Name (DN). This identifier includes a Relative Distinguished Name (RDN) plus some selected attributes.
  • Operations: LDAP provides a set of acceptable operations that allows users to interact with the server itself, including modifying entries, initiating encrypted sessions, and searching for resources. On the front end, however, users interacting with applications won’t see these commands, they will just see relevant network resources.

Because LDAP handles resource access, it also handles authentication, a crucial part of local data security (and an overlap with Single Sign-On capabilities).

Benefits of LDAP

LDAP brings a few critical functions and benefits to enterprise users, especially in the area of managing network resources. These benefits include:

  • Lightweight: LDAP has been around since the earliest days of computing and was created to provide lean, simple, and lightweight directory management.
  • Vendor-Agnostic: LDAP can be deployed nearly anywhere, with any technology, and run relatively smoothly. This, along with its small footprint, means it can scale very easily with new technology or network segments.
  • Directory Security: LDAP provides security layers for authentication and encryption for data in transit. This security will apply to directory entries’ underlying attributes, including personally identifiable information (PII) and username/password credentials.

What Is Single Sign-On (SSO)?

SSO is a method of authentication where a central identity provider handles authentication and authorization requests for multiple system resources or applications. A form of federated identity, SSO allows enterprise organizations to streamline identity verification such that employees do not have to remember multiple passwords.

The term SSO refers specifically to a strategy for authentication. Several different SSO solutions are used in practice, including:

  • Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), an XML-based protocol for token-based authentication.
  • Kerberos, a ticket-based service created at MIST that relies on LAN domains to authenticate users on applications. Most often used in educational settings.
  • Shibboleth, A SAML-based SSO approach is also used in academic settings where federated identity management across institutions is ideal.
  • OpenID Connect, A JSON-based identity verification protocol focusing on web and mobile authentication.
  • OAuth, A protocol more focused on authorization for access to system resources, OAuth often works closely with authentication to provide an overall SSO solution.

Benefits of SSO

The benefits of SSO as compared to LDAP are rooted in singular authentication. While LDAP can provide authentication for users, it cannot support more web-based and portable Single Sign-On like typical SSO methods. These benefits include:

  • Simplified Authentication: Simplified authentication is a major goal for most solutions because user error or poor security practices (often tied to managing too many passwords) lead to the majority of data breaches. An SSO can minimize the attack surface and the potential for social engineering hacks.
  • Stronger Security: While centralizing authentication might seem counterintuitive, it actually provides a stronger platform for robust security. Identity providers can implement strong encryption, multi-factor authentication, and even passwordless authentication that covers several platforms rather than just one.

What Are the Differences Between LDAP and SSO?

It’s not entirely accurate to completely separate LDAP and SSO. Obviously, they aren’t the same technologies, but an organization can deploy LDAP with SAMLof OpenID Connect SSO to support more robust authentication.

However, there are some key differences:

  • Authentication: Both technologies support authentication. LDAP, however, is an underlying server through which other protocols can authenticate users for access to system directories. Other SSO technologies, like SAML, maybe more open in terms of their implementation and more applicable to cloud-based platforms and applications.
  • Features: SSO is typically focused on authentication, possibly authorization. LDAP provides several types of access controls and information cross-checks for network resources above and beyond authentication.
  • Integration: LDAP will usually be more recognizable to users across different applications. For example, using an SSO system will allow a user to access multiple platforms with web portals. LDAP, however, might be a key technology that syncs email contacts in an email client.

Integrate Powerful Authentication For Any Network with 1Kosmos

Most organizations will use more than one authentication method for internal resource access, relying on solutions that can integrate with those solutions.

1Kosmos BlockID offers authentication integration with most SSO protocols and with directory protocols like Active Directory and LDAP. That brings the amazing benefits of 1Kosmos (passwordless authentication, decentralized identity management, streamlined mobile onboarding, etc.) to robust and time-tested tools.

With 1Kosmos, you get the following benefits:

  • SIM Binding: The BlockID application uses SMS verification, identity proofing, and SIM card authentication to create solid, robust, and secure device authentication from any employee’s phone.
  • Identity-Based Authentication: We push biometrics and authentication into a new “who you are” paradigm. BlockID uses biometrics to identify individuals, not devices, through credential triangulation and identity verification.
  • Cloud-Native Architecture: Flexible and scalable cloud architecture makes it simple to build applications using our standard API and SDK.
  • Identity Proofing: BlockID verifies identity anywhere, anytime and on any device with over 99% accuracy.
  • Privacy by Design: Embedding privacy into the design of our ecosystem is a core principle of 1Kosmos. We protect personally identifiable information in a distributed identity architecture and the encrypted data is only accessible by the user.
  • Private and Permissioned Blockchain: 1Kosmos protects personally identifiable information in a private and permissioned blockchain, encrypts digital identities, and is only accessible by the user. The distributed properties ensure no databases to breach or honeypots for hackers to target.
  • Interoperability: BlockID can readily integrate with existing infrastructure through its 50+ out-of-the-box integrations or via API/SDK.

Sign up for a free trial to give our Identity-Based Authentication a try!

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Meet the Author

Javed Shah

Former Senior Vice President Of Product Management

Javed has spent his entire twenty year career designing and building blockchain and identity management solutions. He has led large customer facing pre-sales teams, led product management for identity management platforms like the ForgeRock Identity Platform and the ForgeRock Identity Cloud. Javed has an MBA from UC Berkeley.