The concept of building a federated identity architecture at Milliman Benefits Resource Center came on the fly, during a harried phone call in June with its client JP Morgan Chase.
A JP Morgan sales rep was meeting with a potential retirement and pension-plan customer, and called Milliman directly from the sales pitch, asking if Milliman could offer a single sign-on for JP Morgan's pension plan services, which Milliman runs for the financial services firm.
The new scheme would let JP Morgan's potential customer's employees access both their retirement plan system -- which JP Morgan runs itself -- as well as the pension plan system with a single log-on and password.
"I got a call from JP Morgan asking us if we could do it in 60 days, and I said 'yeah, I think we can,'" says Craig Burma, a principal with Milliman Benefits Resource Center, a business unit of the $435 million Milliman. "It was a sales-floor decision, made at the eleventh hour with a client in the next room."
Milliman Benefits Resource Center's decision to go with single sign-on for JP Morgan evolved into an overall federated identity architecture for Milliman. "It opened up the possibility of linking our systems to others' in a single sign-on format," he says.
Federated identity is basically a trust relationship among the participating organizations, typically business partners like Milliman and JP Morgan. The technology lets users rely on a single log-on and password or other authentication method to access their applications, typically Web apps.
Federated identity is starting to catch on for e-businesses now that the industry has settled on a standard for it, Secure Assertion Markup Language (SAML) 2.0.
"SAML 2.0 is taking hold, and customers are coming off the sidelines to see if it's a technology they are willing to invest in," says Carlo Cadet, a product marketing manager for RSA Security, the supplier for Milliman's federated identity management system. "We see business drivers kicking in for" federated identity.
Milliman chose RSA's Federated Identity Manager as its platform. Burma says the project cost him about $400,000 in licensing and staff time, including rewriting the login logic in each of its internal apps that will use FIM. That represents about 5 percent of his overall $6 million IT budget for the group, he says. About $100,000 of its costs were professional services from RSA, he adds.
Burma says the biggest security risk the FIM addresses is attackers guessing passwords and user names. Users now have more complex passwords that are less likely to be spoofed, he says. "By simplifying logins and passwords [with FIM], we are [actually] increasing the complexity of the 'single' user name/password internal users use to gain access to their applications."
"But FIM as a solution is less about minimizing threats, and more about increasing compliance with external regulations and client expectations for security," Burma notes.
And in Milliman's business of hosting benefits plans, single sign-on is a strategic feature for its clients. "If [our clients' users] have to log in [multiple times], they feel that disconnection" with their services, he says.
Managing user credentials and rights to specific applications and data is a key element of federated identity. Aside from the requisite SSL-encrypted pipe between federated sites, RSA's Federated Identity Manager (FIM) also connects a user's ID to the site or system's access management infrastructure, RSA's Cadet explains. "The first piece a federation connects to is typically the Web access-management application. This is the policy engine that captures -- for a particular resource -- who has access to it, and what credentials are required to gain access."
Milliman also uses FIM for some of its internal applications, including its call center applications. Call center agents used to spend about 15 minutes each morning logging into the different applications they needed with their separate user names and passwords for each. That became time-consuming, especially when different passwords would expire, Burma says.
Milliman did hit one big technical snag during the JP Morgan FIM implementation, however. Because JP Morgan's applications used a Java-based single sign-on tool that predated SAML, they couldn't speak SAML. "So we wrote a wrapper that unpacks their message with their 'legacy' [single sign-on] tool and turns it into a SAML assertion we feed through RSA's FIM," Burma says.
Meanwhile, Burma says the federated identity system has helped eliminate Post-it notes of passwords on screens or under keyboards. "One of the things we have found is once you unify an application login, then people have less of a need to store it manually" somewhere.
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading