Identity – Last Man Standing?

Somehow the Hofbraeukeller in Munich, one of my favorite city’s nicest beer garden restaurants, seems to lend itself particularly well to long, meandering discussions of identity management. It’s the place the U.S. participants at the European Identity Conference regularly gather for their pre-conference pigs’ feet feast, and since it’s conveniently located around the corner from where I live, I often use it as a meeting place for visitors from all over the world. I mean, if you’re in Bavaria, by all means go to a Bavarian place for lunch instead of one of the ubiquitous sushi stalls.

I thought my latest guest, Tom Stewart, CFO of MultiFactor Authentication out of Irvine, CA, would be thrilled, but it turns out he spent two years working for Intel in Munich, so he’s been there and done that. Which is okay, because it gave us more time to get down to basics about his company’s strategy and products.

Tom is in the business of making security tokens obsolete. I know you’re going to hate this if you just gave a pile to RSA or Verisign, but MultiFactor believes that hardware-based strong authentication is poised to go the way of the dodo.

Of course, software tokens have been around for quite awhile, but they are often considered to be weaker than hardware tokens, or else they require some fancy PKI architecture to make them safe enough for serious corporate use.

Well, think again, Tom says. His “SecureAuth” system sits inside the firewall and handles full bidirectional X.509 authentication for apps and other systems without any tokens or PKI infrastructure and, more importantly, at a fraction of the cost. The system used to connect the client with your company network is proprietary, but it uses SAML or any other system you want to use to connect to outside applications or SaaS providers. Just how they do it and whether it really works the way they say it does is beside the point here, but readers are invited to visit their website at www.multifa.com for a free online demo and as much nerdy prose as you can stomach. (Tom is a marketing guy, but he is apparently surrounded by a team of true, dyed-in-the-wool techies.)

Personally, my attention perked up when Tom began to describe the way SecureAuth acts as a kind of gatekeeper for Active Directory (in 90 percent of cases, he says) or any other directory service you happen to be running.

This seems especially exciting to me when you consider it in terms of Cloud Computing, where we are seeing a rash of new cloud-based identity services. Bob Blakley of Burton described what he calls the “ability to build a virtual identity provider using a multitude of different services”. At the Catalyst Conference in San Diego a few weeks ago, he expressed his surprise that, unlike what everyone was expecting, providing identity services for the Cloud wasn’t turning out to be “this big monolithic thing”. Instead, the market is building a set of small specialty firms that handle identity tasks and offer discrete billable units that companies can put together. Ping, for instance, integrates PingConnect with Google Apps so a user's Google ID can be used for single sign-on across some 60 online services.

Sourcing your identity management may appear to make good business sense, but does it really? After all, companies are sourcing just about everything else related to their IT. But Tom believes, and I agree, that identity management is the last thing you want to see going out the door. “As long as you control the directory, you control everything”, he maintains. Letting external service providers make changes or allowing them to make copies of your directory, which some do, is simply asking for big trouble.

My feeling, and it’s nothing more than that, is that companies will be very cautious in moving towards the cloud, choosing a step-by-step approach rather than taking the sudden plunge. As much as small and medium-sized enterprises would love to say goodbye to their IT and concentrate on their core business, they should draw the line at their directory, be it active or otherwise.

In fact, you could probably make a case for keeping only your directory and sourcing everything else, but then what is the poor CIO to do? Anyway, directory services might actually prove to be the Last Man Standing as corporate IT gradually disappears into Cloud-cuckoo-land.



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