What to Choose: Multi-Factor Authentication or Single Sign-on?

Multi-factor Authentication or Single sign-on

Rising incidents of security and data breach, owing to heavy reliance on single-factor authentication i.e. password-based authentication only, led organizations to think and enhance the security of their valuable assets using better and stronger security solution. When it comes to improving and upgrading the security of system and applications, the two names that instantly prompt in our mind are Multi-factor authentication(MFA) and Single sign-on (SSO). Which of these would be better to provide guaranteed and reliable security, is what we will be discussing here.

Multi-Factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication refers to integrated multiple authentication layers to verify and validate the user’s authenticity, multiple times. A user needs to go through multiple authentication checks to prove his/her credibility. Each authentication layer would have different elements and attributes to evaluate the credibility of a user.

Initial authentication, usually involves user’s registered credentials check i.e. username/email-id and the password. Password-based authentication signifies “something a user knows”.
Initial authentication may be followed by the second layer of authentication check by receiving uniquely generated hardware or software tokens from the user. This authentication layer imparts “something a user has”. The complete process may be termed as two-factor authentication.

Second layer authentication check could be followed by the third level of authentication check (three-factor authentication), where a user needs to authenticate him/herself through his body parts i.e. “something a user is” such as the fingerprint or retina scan. Similarly, more authentication layers may be implemented using different elements and attributes, resulting in more stronger security.

In layman’s language, it may be stated that in multi-factor authentication, solely password would not be the only factor of authentication check. A user needs to provide some more inputs besides password to validate his/her identity. Thus, multi-factor authentication is a proven security solution that helps in restricting and blocking the unauthorized and illegal access of the malicious users. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is one of easiest, simplest and widely used multi-factor authentication that most of the organization have implemented or willing to adopt.

Single Sign-On

As the name specifies, single sign-on(SSO) requires the user to sign-in only once and may get access to multiple application and services every time for a specified duration. Single sign-on leverage users to perform a master sign-on at very starting of their work such that the SSO solution authenticates the user’s credential and store it to perform later logins on user’s behalf to other inter-connected yet independent application & systems, within a certain domain or network boundary.

SSO solution internally stores the user’s credential and uses it in a different manner to log in and access other applications, each time. This avoids and saves user efforts in authenticating him/herself each time for getting login to multiple system and applications. Similar to single sign-on, a single sign-out logs out user and terminate access to all interconnected application and systems.

The greatest and may be the only advantage of using Single Sign-on from security perspective is that it avoids and reduces the risk of accessing the third-party website, where user’s credential needs to be used or managed externally.

From the above discussion, it may be inferred that the SSO is a more user-friendly but less security-featured authentication solution whereas MFA ensures fullest protection with multiple & unique authentication layers. A better approach would be the usage of both SSO & MFA or 2FA, to deliver guaranteed security and simultaneously better user-experience.

Author: Jaiwardhan Singh

Jaiwardhan is an ardent blogger and a full time technical writer who loves to research, write and impart useful technical & even non-technical information through his lucid writing. A foodie and a dog lover, Jaiwardhan makes best use of his technical background and creativity to bring quality in his writings.

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