The Difference Between LDAP and SAML SSO

Written by David Worthington on January 28, 2022

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Updated on April 13, 2022

Many IT organizations are trying to understand the single sign-on (SSO) market and the protocols involved. As a result, the “SSO: SAML vs. LDAP” discussion takes on some significance. LDAP and SAML are both authentication protocols and are often used for applications, but the two are leveraged for very different use cases. Despite this, organizations don’t have to choose between using LDAP or SAML. The optimal approach is for IT teams to evaluate how it’s possible to leverage both protocols within their IT environment. Leveraging a combination of authentication protocols gives most organizations access to more types of IT resources, which can ultimately support their business objectives better. The trick is accomplishing that without increasing the overhead for your IT team.

You can compare SAML to other internet protocols as well, such as OAuth or OpenID.

The Origins of LDAP and SAML SSO

Before we dive into the similarities and differences between the two authentication protocols, let’s first discuss how they’ve evolved into their current specifications. LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is an open standard that was created in the early 1990s by Tim Howes and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, and is still a widely used protocol for authentication into a wide range of applications. That speaks to the flexibility and power of LDAP. 

Illustrated man sitting next to a laptop displaying applications and a login screen.

Created in the early 2000s, SAML (Secure Assertion Markup Language) is an assertion-based authentication protocol that federates identities to web applications. While that explanation is an oversimplification, the protocol is effectively integrated with an identity provider (IdP), which asserts that the person is who they say they are. 

Next, a service provider (i.e., web application) admits the user to their platform after an XML-based authentication exchange. More technically, an IdP is an authentication authority that produces and relays SAML attribute assertions. This process of using authentication and authorization data was created to happen securely over the internet rather than utilizing the traditional concept of the domain. Significantly, account credentials aren’t stored by individual service providers (SPs), which could be subject to data breaches and add administrative overhead when many different credentials exist for users.

Similarities

While the differences are fairly significant, at their core, LDAP and SAML SSO are of the same ilk. They are effectively serving the same function — to help users connect to their IT resources. Because of this, they are often used in cooperation by IT organizations and have become staples of the identity management industry. As web application use has dramatically increased, organizations have leveraged SAML-based web application single sign-on solutions in addition to their core directory service. 

Differences

When it comes to their areas of influence, LDAP and SAML SSO are as different as they come. LDAP, of course, is mostly focused toward facilitating on-prem authentication and other server processes. SAML extends user credentials to the cloud and other web applications.

A major difference that is easy to miss between the concepts of SSO and LDAP is that most common LDAP server implementations are driven to be the authoritative identity provider or source of truth for an identity. Most often with SAML implementations, it is not the case that the SAML service is the source of truth, but rather it often acts as a proxy for a directory service, converting that identity and authentication process into a SAML-based flow.

Use Cases

LDAP works well with Linux®-based applications such as OpenVPN™, Kubernetes, Docker, Jenkins, and thousands of others. LDAP servers — such as OpenLDAP™ and 389 Directory — are often used as an identity source of truth, also known as an identity provider (IdP) or directory service within Microsoft Windows (Active Directory) and cloud directories such as JumpCloud that work cross-OS.

LDAP runs efficiently on systems, and gives IT organizations a great deal of control over authentication and authorization. Implementing it, however, is an arduous technical process, creating significant work upfront for IT admins with tasks such as high availability, performance monitoring, security, and more. SAML, on the other hand, is generally used as an authentication protocol used for exchanging authentication and authorization between directories and web applications.

Over the years, SAML has been extended to add functionality to provision user access to web applications as well. SAML-based solutions have historically been paired with a core directory service solution. Vendors used SAML to create software that could extend one user identity from AD to a host of web applications, creating the first generation of Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS) — single sign-on solutions. Examples of applications that support SAML authentication include Salesforce®, Slack, Trello, GitHub, Atlassian solution, and thousands of others. JumpCloud Single Sign-On provides hundreds of connectors to ensure you can grant access to cloud applications without friction.

Using the Protocols Together

Because these protocols often authenticate users to vastly different types of IT resources, the question is less about SAML versus LDAP, but more about how to create a True Single Sign-On™ experience where one identity can connect users to whatever IT resources they need. But how?

The JumpCloud Directory Platform makes use of the most flexible and powerful protocols and rolls them into one comprehensive directory service delivered from the cloud. That means you don’t need to set up and maintain on-prem LDAP servers any longer. Like LDAP, JumpCloud works as the core identity provider for organizations. But, because it is already integrated with SAML, there is no need to add on solutions to enable access to web applications. In fact, JumpCloud employs several industry-leading protocols in addition to SAML and LDAP including RADIUS, SSH, and others.

Try JumpCloud SSO Free Today

When it comes to SAML vs. LDAP, you no longer have to try and decipher which one is best for you. Get the best of both worlds — risk free — from JumpCloud today when you sign up for a free account for up to 10 users or devices. If you need any information about how to set up or configure JumpCloud, contact us today.

Beyond LDAP and SAML, IT organizations can leverage group policy object (GPO)-like functions to enforce security measures such as full disk encryption (FDE), multi-factor authentication (MFA), and password complexity requirements over user groups and Mac, Windows, and Linux systems. Admins can also use JumpCloud’s Cloud RADIUS to tighten up network security with VLAN tagging, patch management, and more.

If you would like to see our cloud directory platform in action before you buy, visit our Demo page to schedule a live product demo or watch a recorded one. If you have any additional questions, feel free to give us a call or send a note. You can also connect with our 24×7 premium in-app chat support during the first 10 days of your platform use and our engineers will help you.

David Worthington

I'm the JumpCloud Champion for Product, Security. JumpCloud certified, security analyst, a one-time tech journalist, and former IT director.

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