Another dead body in IT? Or is XACML still alive?

Since my colleague Craig Burton has declared that SAML is dead, it seems to be in vogue among analysts to take the role of the public medical officer and to diagnose the death of standards or even IAM (Identity and Access Management) in general. Admittedly, the latter case was not about diagnosing the death but proposing to kill IAM, but that does not change much. The newest in this series of dead bodies is XACML, according to another Industry Analyst. So we are surrounded by dead corpses now, or maybe by living zombies. But is that really true? My colleague Craig Burton titled his blog – for a very good reason – “SAML is Dead! Long Live SAML!” That is fundamentally different from saying “XACML is dead”.

There are a lot of good answers from experts such as Ian Glazer, Gerry Gebel (OK, he might be a little biased being the President of Axiomatics Americas), or Danny Thorpe.

I am clearly not suspicious being the enthusiastic XACML evangelist wearing blinders. Just ask some of the Axiomatics guys – we had many controversial discussions over the years. However, for me it is clear that neither Dynamic Authorization Management in general nor XACML in particular are dead.

What puzzled me most in this blog post was that part of the initial sentence:

XACML … is largely dead or will be transformed into access control

OK, “access control”. XACML is access control. Access control is everything around authentication and authorization. So what does this mean? I just do not understand that sentence, sorry. XACML is a part of the overall Access Control story.

From my perspective, the two most important concepts within access control are Dynamic Authorization Management and Risk-/Context-Based Access Control (i.e. both Authentication and Authorization). The latter only will work with Dynamic Authorization Management in place. When we know about the context and the risk and make authorization decisions based on that, then we need systems that externalize authorization and rely on rules that can take the context into account.

The challenge with Dynamic Authorization Management, i.e. technologies implemented in a variety of products such as the Axiomatics Policy Server, the Oracle Entitlements Server, the IBM Security Policy Manager, Quest APS, and many others, is that it requires changes in both application code and the mindset of software developers and architects. That is a long journey. On the other hand we see some increase in acceptance and use of such technologies. Notably, Dynamic Authorization Management is not new. You will find such concepts dating back to the mid ‘70s in mainframe environments, and IBM’s good old RACF can be consider an early example for that.

You still can argue that Dynamic Authorization Management is alive but XACML as the most important standard around it is dead. There are good arguments against that, and I will not repeat what the others mentioned above have said. You might discuss where to use XACML and where to rely on proprietary technology. However, do you really want to lock in your entire application landscape into a proprietary Dynamic Authorization Management technology of a single vendor? That would be a nightmare. You need to isolate your applications from the Dynamic Authorization Management system in use, and a standard helps in doing that. Just think about being locked into proprietary interfaces for all of your applications using a specific Dynamic Authorization Management system for the next 30, 40 or more years.

XACML even is the better choice for COTS applications. They can rely on a standard, instead of every vendor building proprietary connectors. Most vendors will do that for Microsoft SharePoint, because SharePoint is so important. But that is the exception, not the rule. And deducing from the fact that vendors support SharePoint with proprietary interfaces (instead of using XACML) that XACML is dead is just a wrong deduction. The problem in that case is not XACML but the SharePoint security model that clearly is not the best I have ever seen (to say the least). XACML is of value. Standards are of value. And I believe you would need much better reasons to diagnose the death of standards.

To learn more about the real trends in IAM, IAG, Cloud Security, and many other topics, just visit the EIC 2013 that starts on Tuesday, May 14th.

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