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ghosts of the interscaler directory at #cat10; let’s do it!

There were a lot of points at Catalyst 2010 where Kim Cameron’s Interscaler, Federated Directory and Identity Schema came up in my mind, though went unmentioned by the speakers. I know I wasn’t alone, either. It was there like a ghost in every discussion. When Anil John spoke about Background Attribute Exchange (BAE), one of the first questions was about how to ensure schemas would be in sync. When Nishant Kaushik spoke about federated provisioning, again questions had everyone talking about how directories would be able to rely on attributes being “exchangeable” across domains. And when the folks from GM gave their talk the second or third question was about how they decided what attributes would be included in their avatar identities and which would not.

How does this move forward? I get dizzy when I look at all the standards bodies around identity. I’ve got a lot of energy to offer around this and don’t know where to push it. It’s not about a product or a vendor. I’d like to see this be an industry thing that everyone can benefit from.

#eic10 part 2: lacking policy, lagging XACML, authZ not so externalized

I’m not sure why, but the theme for me at EIC10 was policy. It wasn’t that the sessions or discussions were intent on going there. If anything, it was quite the opposite. I sat in on one of the “pre-conference” sessions that was titled “Moving beyond the Perimeter: Identity & Access Management for a Networked World“. That was what set the tone. I went in expecting a lot of discussion about how organization could, should and have been able to overcome the tricky policy barriers to open themselves up and manage access. The reality was that we spent a lot of the time discussing how to get over the challenges of making IAM work inside the perimeter so they can start thinking about the outside. For those that had some established outside presence for identities accessing other resources or accessing their own (and it was only a few), they were set back on their heels by my questions about policy and challenges to explain the legal implications of those access points. Later on, in a session titled “It has been Quiet around Federation. Is this a good Sign or a bad one?“, asked what challenges were faced by your organization when trying to federate, I answered that we (Quest) had faced numerous legal challenges to getting federation done. Each time has been a meeting with lawyers and lawyers meeting with lawyers and so on. The shocked looks from the general audience didn’t quite drown out the few nodding heads that clearly knew exactly what I meant. It shouldn’t surprise me that technology outstrips policy and that technologists don’t see the policy lagging behind until it’s too late, but somehow it always does.

Of course, technology is still my preoccupation so I was equally into the technology of policy that seemed to pervade EIC10. XACML was everywhere. Or maybe it only seemed that way because I attended so many of Felix Gaehtgens‘s sessions. However, there were a few stark contrasts that struck me. First, there were no fewer than 5 vendors on the floor offering XACML based or compliant solutions for externalized authorization. Despite that, I didn’t see one keynote mention it, nor customer story talk about having that be built into their architecture. Even the big vendors, when directly questioned about it, immediately submersed it into an acronym soup of SAML, claims, and other federated related stuff. It seems like many are now using “federated” interchangeably with “externalized”, which is sensible on some level but seems to lose some of the important distinctions between the two (e.g. trust is explicit with federation and implicit with externalization). By far my favorite externalized authorization moment was in a panel titled “How to make your Software Security Architecture Future-Proof” when Felix asked Kim Cameron, who had just made his interstellar announcement, the following: “if the application has to have internal logic to handle claims, then the authorization has not been externalized, right?” Kim made no real answer. But I think Felix said what a lot of people were thinking. Claims are the bees knees, but WIF still embeds all the authorization logic right in the application itself.

This will be the last on the conference. It was a real blast and I got to meet some of the folks who have haunted my mind via twitter for a long time in person. Good stuff.

#eic10 part 1, 2010 an interstellar odyssey -or- the directory monolith

No one knows how to make a big proclamation in the identity world like Kim Cameron. His keynote at #eic10, the Kuppinger Cole European Identity Conference for 2010, was no disappointment. Kim reviewed his ideas for the “Federated Interscaler Directory”, which was often misquoted as saying “Interstellar”. The basic idea was to “extend” the current ubiquitous Active Directory platform to hold a more flexible framework for relationship expression, policy enforcement and other elements that directories of today are missing. While adding all that, this new directory platform should also scale, in the sense that it could administer millions of identities, as well as support advanced features like federation, token translation and other things that are clearly becoming part of next gen identity.

On it’s surface, that all sounds nice. But it also sounds dangerous to me. One other theme at #eic10 throughout many talks, and something Kim even said during his, was that we shouldn’t want identity systems to be monolithic (he said so in reference to the ability to federate with other IdP’s outside the directory itself). But the system Kim described and the picture he used to illustrate it looked pretty monolithic to me. A lot of what he described is possible today already with a loose federation of platforms from many vendors and open source projects. You can enforce all the policy you need with a XACML authorization engine and properly tooled interfaces and proxies for applications and providers. You can manipulate schemas and the objects they serve up as needed with virtual directories. If Microsoft were to make AD into one big solution for all that, then the biggest differentiator would be having its monolithic status versus the loose coupling of many other components. I tend to be a fan of loose couplings, but I’ll keep the jury out until I see more from Kim.

One thing that I really liked was Kim’s call for everyone to work together on a common identity schema. It’s not the first time he’s done so. At PDC he made a great presentation that described the same idea in much greater detail [link to the PPTX Powerpoint file from PDC]. A project of this kind, if well done, could solve many, many interoperability and operational challenges in the identity world. So much time is spent now negotiating, either in research or in calls at run time, to figure out what attributes and properties of an identity are available. If there were a completely standard schema and a means to publish it easily, then that goes away.

I’ll have more thoughts from the conference later.  For now I’m going to put on my space suit and leave the Microsoft ship and hope Kim hasn’t locked the bay doors when I get back.

#TEC2010 thoughts

Last week was #TEC2010. It was my second year at the event, and I was again stunned by the unique vibe it has. Since TEC is focused on education for the folks in the trenches of managing directories, the crowd is markedly different from many other events I attend. There were some senior management types around, mostly owing to the Microsoft centered nature of the event and their shops being very heavily Microsoft focused. The vast majority were people who architect, deploy and maintain directories, though. And it was far from just Microsoft directories. I heard every type of directory mentioned by the folks in the crowds, from RACF to Novell.

One of the main highlights for me was Conrad Bayer‘s keynote about Active Directory and the future of identity services at Microsoft. It was very refreshing to hear someone from the top of the technology food chain at Microsoft saying a lot of things that have been true for a while. Conrad directly acknowledged the breakdown in the concept of using structured hierarchy to represent the relationships between identities and organizations in today’s world. He also gave a nod to the difficulties there are with peer-to-peer federation approaches, though he said ease of use should mitigate that, which I do not agree with. He also pointed out the competitive advantage Microsoft sees in RMS when compared to other identity vendors. I found that odd, but very interesting. Lastly he called out that most clients he speaks with thinks that identity is one of the last things they would move to the cloud, which is something I hear a lot as well.

The other session I enjoyed very much was Brian Puhl‘s. Brian is from Microsoft’s own MSIT division and is in charge of identity services. As he put it, his job is “dog fooding” – using what Microsoft makes for Microsoft’s benefit. Likely the most notable thing about the entire presentation and discussion that followed to me was that the word authorization was in the title and never once did the term XACML make its way into the chatter. At points I got the feeling there was some very complicated mental gymnastics going on to avoid the idea that policy expression needs a platform and protocol. At one point Brian said point-blank “my hosting provider needs to give me a mechanism to express the complexity and facets of my required policies”. I almost coughed out “XACML”, but held it back. Two observation Brian made that struck me as totally true were that trust (and policy) often boils down to contracts and that key management is every bit as important and encryption itself. These are two lessons that only someone who has had to wrestle with lawyers or exotic devices’ key renewal protocols would be able to offer.

By far, the best part of the conference was speaking to the hundreds of fellow attendees – and this year I was thankfully just an attendee so I had no booth duty to distract from the fun. I had conversations with the world’s largest banks, small law firms, government affiliated agencies who remained nameless and everything in between. Every one of them had backlogs of issues they were looking to get ideas on, and the peer level advice flying around was worth it’s weight in platinum. If only there was a good way to bottle that – that would be something we could all use.

SAML vs LDAP to the death?

April 8, 2010 3 comments

…with tag team partners STS for SAML and the VDS (Virtual Directory Server) for LDAP?

So I’ve taken Jackson‘s advice and have been reading Microsoft’s “Guide to Claims-Based Identity and Access Control”. While most of it has been things I’ve heard before, the formulation of the ideas the way Microsoft wants to present them to their favorite audience, developers, is very interesting.

The thing that caught my eye and inspired a whole lot of conversation, lightbulbs for me and this post was a quote very early on:

“ADFS has a rule engine that makes it easy to extract LDAP attributes from the user’s record in Active Directory and its cousin, Lightweight Directory Services. ADFS also allows you to add rules that include arbitrary SQL statements so that you can extract user data out of your own custom SQL database. You can extend ADFS to add other stores. This is useful because, in many companies, a user’s identity is often fragmented. ADFS hides this fragmentation. Your claims-based applications won’t break if you decide to move data around between stores.” (from page 6)

Described like this, the STS sounds a heck of a lot like a VDS. So I asked many of the Quest big brains what they thought of the quote and what the quote made me think. I was quickly told that this was silly since the models for an STS and VDS are so different. Some of their points were:

  • STS is a push model where users show up at the applications with claims ready and VDS is a pull model where the application needs to go get the information
  • The VDS approach is about applications using data from multiple sources without modifying the application while the ADFS + WIF approach is about teaching the application to consume claims natively by modifying it
  • The STS and SAML approaches wraps the claims, the identity data, into the authentication operation while the VDS approach simply exposes a service for the application to use through the applications operations.

Somewhere in the midst of this discussion, a big gear clicked into place. I saw something I bet many, many have seen before – but it was new to me. Microsoft and Oracle were really going head to head in identity for applications. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe that Microsoft and Oracle would compete. But that does seem to be what’s happening. You see, the VDS had always been in this spot on my mental whiteboard between the applications and the multiple sources of identity data as an abstraction layer. The STS was somewhere on that mental whiteboard, but it wasn’t there. Now I’d been clearly shown that it could be moved in front of the VDS, or even be moved to replace the VDS. Of course, much depends on the use cases. The STS can’t really do everything the VDS does and vice versa. But I think it’s fair to say that Oracle is betting on people like me who see with an application architect’s eye and try to make the current generation of revenue generating applications do their work better and faster. Microsoft is betting on it’s excellent developer community and credibility to propel the next generation of all applications into a claims based, STS dependent world.

That battle would seem to pit SAML and LDAP against each other, each with one of the largest tech giants in it’s corner. In reality, I doubt it will be anything so dramatic. But before this conversation, I didn’t even see the potential for that battle. It’s amazing how many latent hostilities to some approaches seem clear to me now. I don’t even think some of the people who were hostile realized why. But there are deep mechanisms at work in the respective communities involved that are forming opinions that will likely solidify into “Linux vs Windows Server” style opinion wars soon enough. Here I thought all this good will about interoperability in identity could last forever. Silly me.

Microsoft & Sentillion – Federation vs. ESSO?

December 10, 2009 Leave a comment

Many are talking about a surprising move by Microsoft, buying Sentillion. The press release doesn’t say it all, that’s for sure. My esteemed colleague, Mr. Shaw, asks some very interesting questions. I think some of the answers are right there in the discussions. More of the tweets I’ve seen so far (as of 2:30pm EST on 12/10/2009) use terms like Microsoft buys a “Healthcare Software” company. And, as @jacksonshaw points out, the acquisition was driven from the haelthcare division at Microsoft. It is entirely possible that the FIM team found out exactly when we did. I doubt this because I’ve always seen Microsoft as being a bit better at internal communications than most vendors their size, but things like that are very common in very large companies.

Also very common in larger firms are duplicate offerings across different business units. And so maybe having more than one provisioning offering is not going to be as painful as it may seem at first blush. After all, how many forms of HR application does Oracle sell right now? And that’s a core piece of corporate plumbing, not just an IT infrastructure component.

I’ve never seen Sentillion outside the healthcare niche, though I’m sure they are to some degree. They always posed the biggest threat when context management (in the CCOW sense) was a big part of the requirements. Most of these healthcare RFPs I’ve seen have been more about context than SSO. So it seems to make sense to me that the healthcare folks at Microsoft would want this in their bag as a way to capture more of their clients’ attention and budget.

My bet is that this is going to stay very healthcare focused – simply due to resources required for transition. Focus is a struggle during any transition. Adding another business unit (IDA) into the mix would be asking for trouble.

And, to finally arrive at the point in the title, the WIF focus has all been on federation. There is a definite tension between ESSO and federation. If you have the problems handled with ESSO, why spend the money and time on getting applications federation ready? So there is likely some tension there that will need some thinking through before making any attempt to glue these offerings together. Though I’d like to be a fly on the wall when someone asks Microsoft if they would support a WIF federation approach or an ESSO approach for a mid sized company if both reps with Sentillion and WIF in their bags are in the same room. That would be a fun few moments of silence…

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