Single Sign On: Okta vs AWS

Locked Web App (Red)

Single Sign-On (SSO) is an authentication method that allows users to log in to multiple applications and websites using only one set of credentials. Conceptually, this sounds simple, but as you might expect, it is difficult and expensive to implement correctly.

Developing a secure user identity and access management system without exposing your application to vulnerabilities requires a lot of effort and development time. At their most basic, authentication solutions must store at least a user name and a password hash. But it is rarely that simple.

For email verification, you will require an email address, and two-factor authentication requires a mobile number. Even if you have developed a secure authentication system, you are holding personally identifiable information (PII), so the system might have to be compliant with GDPR or similar local laws. A robust SSO solution might also require integrations with third-party applications like Active Directory, JIRA, Office 365, or Salesforce through the use of SAML 2.0.

Enter Third-party Authentication Providers

Just as cloud infrastructure platforms (AWS, Azure, GCP) allow businesses to focus on building apps, third-party authentication providers serve as reliable outside solutions for SSO. A good provider will handle all the compliance requirements, integrations, and security concerns that make building SSO in-house so risky.

AWS SSO and Okta SSO are two well-known third-party single sign-on providers that both have a strong reputation in the industry. Both are secure, scalable authentication systems, and each company has the expertise and resources to keep your data safe. Assuming that you are looking to use one of these solutions, how can you choose between them?

Comparing Okta SSO and AWS SSO

In this article, we will compare Okta SSO and AWS SSO. We will look at each service and compare their available integrations, internal dashboards, security features, and developer experience. Ultimately, both products are great options, but the subtle differences might matter depending on your use case.

At their core, both Okta SSO and AWS SSO provide the ability to authenticate users into multiple services with a single login system. This minimizes the risk associated with shared accounts and users neglecting to use strong passwords for some platforms. Both platforms also give your IT department an audit log of which users accessed which services when.

Since many of the core features are the same, we will look at what makes each service unique.

Integrations

Okta has built more than 7,000 pre-built integrations, connecting to over 1,400 SAML and OpenID Connect servies. This means that almost any enterprise business tool you use is likely to be supported by Okta, and you can add your own custom integrations when necessary.

Okta panel

AWS SSO, on the other hand, is primarily focused on authenticating users of AWS-based applications and services. While they support integrations with over 300 common business software tools, you get the most out of AWS SSO when interacting with applications built on Amazon Web Services.

Using AWS SSO, you can grant your users and groups permissions to AWS resources in all your accounts using their email address and name. The process is fast and secure as it limits access to the resources each user should have. Then, users can find and access all of their assigned SAML accounts in one place by signing into their user portal with existing corporate credentials.

AWS SSO applications

Sym integrates with both Okta SSO and AWS SSO. Our workflow automation platform can help engineers automate security policies and ensure users get just-in-time access to the resources they need. The advantage with Sym is that you can have users sign in once and then give them granular access to individual servers, networks, or services for a specified period of time.

Dashboards, Logging, and Insights

Both AWS SSO and Okta SSO provide tools for managing and monitoring usage. Okta Insights provides a single portal to view, manage, and secure all user access. It includes pre-built reporting to help you get a deeper understanding of how your end users are using your apps and where you might have security risks. It can even automatically identify and block malicious login attempts.

The AWS SSO dashboard is a little more utilitarian, but it does give you the ability to manage your users and their access rights. AWS SSO also pipes all account activity into CloudTrail where you can track, search, or audit access logs to mitigate unauthorized access attempts or see which services might have been accessed in the case of a breach.

AWS SSO accounts

Compliance and Security

Both Okta and AWS have expertise with enterprise customers in a variety of industries, so we can safely assume they handle most, if not all, the security and compliance requirements you have. Both enforce HTTPS across the board, support HIPAA, PCI, and other common compliance programs, and encrypt data at rest and in transit.

One of the biggest risks when using third-party single sign-on is a faulty implementation. Okta mitigates some of this risk by implementing application-level encryption which protects sensitive data even in the event of a partial compromise. Attackers cannot decrypt users’ data if they only get one or two of the three necessary pieces of data:

  • Master Key
  • Keystore
  • The user’s app context

Okta secured

AWS SSO also has advantages from a security perspective. As the product runs on Amazon’s infrastructure, and because it is optimized for their services, AWS SSO makes integrating with Amazon-hosted applications easier and less error-prone.

Finally, security for both SSO solutions can be enhanced by leveraging security workflows from Sym. This allows you to give reduced just-in-time access to developers who need to interface with sensitive infrastructure and services.

Identity Management

It is commonly believed that single sign-on and identity management are inexorably linked, but in modern enterprise architectures this is not necessarily the case. You can use Active Directory for your identity management and AWS SSO or Okta SSO for your sign-on service.

Of course, you do not have to use an external identity management tool. Again, Okta and AWS SSO are similar in that both have a bundled identity store that many will use by default. You can even mix-and-match AWS SSO and Okta by using AWS SSO for authentication and Okta’s identity provider for user management. This allows your users in Okta an easier way to get access to Amazon services.

“By centrally managing users and groups in AWS SSO, AWS admins will have full visibility of who has access to what in every AWS account and when those permissions were assigned. This helps your audit and compliance teams meet your internal and regulatory compliance requirements.” - James Fang, Okta

Developer Experience

Last but certainly not least is developer experience. Because your development teams will likely integrate their applications into your SSO provider, you want one that has great documentation, ease of use, and SDKs available for your languages and frameworks.

Woman with Laptop

Okta has a robust administrator documentation, developer documentation, and a frequently updated developer blog. AWS also has documentation for users, developers, and administrators, but because AWS provides so many services, it takes a while to get comfortable with the format. If you are already experienced and comfortable with AWS, you will appreciate the consistent formatting. However, if your cloud of choice is another provider, Okta’s docs may be easier to dive into for the first time.

Both tools have CLI integrations, but for different use cases. Okta’s CLI is a standalone command line tool that allows developers to create, configure, and modify an entire SSO application on Okta. AWS SSO must be configured through the web interface or API, but then it can be set up as an access point for the AWS CLI. This allows developers who are interacting with AWS resources over the command line to use their SSO credentials instead of API keys.

Finally, both tools have SDKs available for developers in a wide range of languages. Amazon’s SDKs are bundled together and listed in the Tools to Build on AWS page. Here you will find links to libraries in JavaScript, Python, PHP, .NET, Ruby, Java, Go, Node.js, and C++ as well as several web and mobile frameworks. Of course, each SDK also has its own documentation site which is generally kept up-to-date with the latest changes to the AWS SSO API docs.

Okta also provides SDKs for many major languages and a few frameworks, but has slightly fewer options overall. C++, Ruby, Ionic, and Flutter are notably absent from the options list, but Okta offers a REST API that can be accessed from virtually any web connected application.

The difference in developer experience between Okta SSO and AWS SSO is largely preferential. If you are already comfortable in the AWS ecosystem, you will have no problem picking up the documentation and may already use the requisite SDKs. Okta may have fewer officially supported SDKs today, but their documentation might be slightly easier for non-AWS administrators to catch onto.

Conclusion

As you have seen in this comparison, there are good reasons for using both Okta SSO and AWS SSO.

While Okta may have more integrations and slightly cleaner documentation, AWS SSO is optimized for applications using Amazon’s hosting services. As the biggest web host in the world, that makes AWS SSO a pretty compelling option.

Fortunately, it is not necessarily an “either-or” choice. Since Okta can be used as the identity provider for AWS SSO, you can use Okta for managing single sign-on with external services and use AWS SSO for internal applications and AWS services.

Finally, you can give your team secure, limited access to either AWS SSO or Okta SSO by using Sym. A security workflow automation platform, Sym connects the technologies you already use to automate your security policies, making shared workflows quicker and your engineers’ lives easier.

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