Single Sign-On vs. MFA

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on October 25, 2022

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In today’s world, security teams have to strike a delicate balance between intrusiveness and security. Employees are prone to password fatigue when they have to remember numerous passwords and change them frequently. And even with those protocols in place, the mental burden it carries can push employees to reuse passwords and reduce their complexity, putting your company at risk of a data breach.

The good news is there are easier ways to ensure security while streamlining the login process and minimizing employee disruption: SSO and MFA. But what’s the difference between the two, and do they work better together?

In this post, we’ll explain how SSO and MFA work, delineate their similarities and differences, and explain how you can use them together to prevent unauthorized access and bolster your company’s security posture.

How Does Single Sign-On (SSO) Work?

Single sign-on, or SSO, only requires a user to log in once to access multiple resources. In other words, users only have to learn and provide one global set of login credentials instead of remembering multiple passwords and typing them into every single application.

On the back end, a company’s identity vendor exchanges keys with all preconfigured apps or sites. Typically, this process is driven by Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), which uses Extensible Markup Language (XML) certificates to verify the authentication. Once everything matches, the user is authenticated, and sites and apps are ready for their use.

Employees favor SSO because of its user-friendliness and convenience. IT admins also benefit from SSO because it’s usually implemented as part of a larger identity access management (IAM) solution, which allows them to monitor network, device, app, and server permissions simultaneously.

How Does Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Work?

You might be familiar with 2FA, but MFA takes 2FA to the next level. Whereas 2FA only requires two verification factors to log in, MFA requires two or more.

After someone enters their username and password, they are prompted to share multiple things they have — such as a token — or things they are, like a biometric factor. Some examples of these authentication factors are codes received via SMS, security questions, time-based one-time passwords, fingerprints, or retina scans.

MFA is becoming more widely adopted because it makes hacking someone’s username and password increasingly difficult. Even if an attacker can guess or intercept one verification method, they probably won’t be able to crack several others.

SSO vs. MFA

SSO and MFA have distinct similarities and differences that security teams should keep in mind as they build their authentication plan.

Similarities

  • Access: Both approaches control access to various applications and websites
  • Passwords: Both rely on a username and password
  • Decreased costs: Both have the potential to cut down on time IT spends on password resets

Differences

  • Management: MFA is a bit more difficult to manage than SSO
  • Security: MFA is considered more secure than SSO
  • Convenience: SSO is viewed as more straightforward and quicker

How Are SSO and MFA Used?

Single sign-on is used when it makes sense to authenticate users into multiple applications at once. Google is one of the best examples of a large-scale SSO implementation. Once you’ve logged into your Google account, you’ll also be logged into Drive, Gmail, YouTube, and any other Google-managed applications.

Multi-factor authentication is used when more stringent security measures are required. For instance, say you’re logging into your health insurance portal to view your claims. After logging in, you may need to scan your face, enter a one-time password sent to you via email, and/or accept a push notification on your authenticator app.

Can SSO and MFA Be Used Together?

It’s important to note that SSO and MFA are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many companies consider a joint SSO and MFA approach the best of both worlds — you can appease employees and keep your applications safe and secure.

With a joint SSO and MFA solution, an employee will enter their password and then use their phone, email, authenticator app, finger, or face to complete the sign-in process. If one of those methods fails, cyberattackers will still have a tough time breaking into their account, let alone specific applications.

SSO and MFA With JumpCloud

Modern Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS) solutions were built with the dual SSO-MFA concept in mind. With the added flexibility of the cloud, the best IDaaS platforms let you control access and increase your security all in one place, with password complexity management, MFA, and SSH keys. 

JumpCloud’s IDaaS infrastructure does just that, unifying your company’s architecture, improving the user experience, and safeguarding your data, all while reducing total cost of ownership.

Not sure if JumpCloud is right for you? Sign up for JumpCloud Free today and test it out yourself, for up to 10 users and 10 devices.

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and Content Writer at JumpCloud. She is particularly inspired by the people who drive innovation in B2B tech. When away from her screen, you can find her climbing mountains and (unsuccessfully) trying to quit cold brew coffee.

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