tales of single sign on

SSO sounds like some sort of distress call. For a time I’m sure a few at BHF probably thought it was. A recent project to develop a single sign on (SSO) approach took quite some time and had it’s up’s and a large number of down’s. But the new BHF community is a testament to collaborative working to overcome issues, it’s also a testament to the value SSO brings.

It all started as a seedling of an idea in 2009 when it became clear to me that a toolbox made up of many different technology platforms was the ideal situation if only we could integrate the user journeys and the data behind the scenes. Why did I think this?

  • Avoiding over reliance on a single partner or platform.
  • Using the best tool for the job (by the time I left BHF we had; Magento for the shop, Drupal for the community and Alterian WCMS for the main site plus many other supporting tools).
  • Cost efficiencies of using out of the box functionality that might exist in one platform but not another.
  • Streamlining user journeys across sites – lessening confusion and drop off.

The first opportunity to use SSO was with Vielife who provided a lifestyle check tool. We implemented a SOAP based one-way sign-in to allow people to take the lifestyle check without having to re-type all their personal details. It took about 10 – 15 working days effort to put in place as Vielife had already built SSO connectivity into their platform – so we only had to create the Alterian WCMS end. It all worked very nicely!

Around a year later we decided to implement a Drupal platform for the new BHF community, with the plan that we would use this as an opportunity to build a standard two-way SSO layer to our technical architecture. This layer being the key to delivering on the ideal multi-platform approach in the future.

Following investigation by the two delivery partners (Sift and Positive Technology) and BHF IT it was decided to use SAML this time around. The core reason for this was the wider compatibility offered that would allow for future integrations (eg Magento). It was a challenging project for many reasons; multiple agencies, open source vs proprietary platforms, differing understanding of requirements, internal team changes and more. But we all learnt a lot along the way and came out with something that is beautifully simple as a product.

Would I do it again? Yes, and whenever I run a tender exercise in future I’ll always ask about examples of the platform in use with SSO (plus API‘s and Web Services) even if I don’t intend to make use of these at first.

I’ve only heard of one other UK charity making use of two-way SSO in their digital work. So if you have any SSO tales please do leave a comment – I’m sure there’s more I could learn!

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