What is a System for Cross-domain Identity Management (SCIM)?
The System for Cross-domain Identity Management (SCIM) is an open standard developed as a solution to synchronize user information between multiple applications. In this article, we’ll cover what SCIM is, why it’s important, and what advantages it can bring to your organization.
With the increase in the migration of enterprise data from on-premise hardware to cloud-based services, a need has emerged for a system or standard to manage the confidentiality and security of user data.
What is SCIM?
SCIM stands for System for Cross-domain Identity Management. SCIM is a standardized specification designed to manage user identity across multiple cloud-based applications and services cheaply, easily, and quickly. It also facilitates interoperability, scalability, and security in managing and moving enterprise data.
You should know how to deploy SCIM to securely automate identity provisioning between your company’s cloud applications and identity providers and your enterprise SaaS applications.
In this article, you’ll learn all about SCIM specifications, security benefits, standards, and why you need identity provisioning.
Why choose SCIM?
SCIM was created to enable automation in identity provisioning between systems. It specifies an open standard for creating, maintaining, and removing identities in multiple applications without the associated complexities involved in manual user management operations in different systems.
SCIM 2.0 is the latest improvement on the open standard, providing more features than its predecessor, SCIM 1.1. The current SCIM protocol defines the application-level endpoint, the HTTP methods allowed, the standard payload schema, and responses that you can implement in your web applications to exchange identity information.
Imagine you work in DevOps for a growing software company that’s in the process of hiring ten new employees. During onboarding, each of the new hires needs access to ten different web applications and services your company uses. Traditionally, this has meant that someone has to create up to one hundred application-specific accounts across your web products to enable each new employee to have access to those applications.
Already, you can tell this would be a lot of tedious manual work, as you’d need to update the unique connections with each application and maintain these individual connectors on an ongoing basis. This is exactly where SCIM helps you out.
With SCIM set up for all your web applications that support it, you only need to create ten accounts with your identity provider, which should also support the SCIM specification. Your identity provider automatically communicates the new user identities to all the connected cloud services with SCIM API calls. This is a very common use case for deploying SCIM.
SCIM is also useful when you need to update employee or group information within your organization — for example, if an employee changes their name, or changes roles within the same department and now needs access to different tools. Sometimes, there might even be a change in name for a business unit (or group) within the company. A SCIM provider helps you automatically and seamlessly migrate these changes across the several systems and cloud applications used in your organization.
When it comes to managing resource access for your users or devices within your network, SCIM is extremely useful for updating your access list by allowing you to automatically sync your user information from common identity providers with access management tools like Tailscale.
Managing this process for one person can be simple, but it becomes incredibly complex and unnecessarily time-consuming when managing it for hundreds or thousands of people. Even employing more DevOps engineers to take care of these only consumes more human resources, increases cost, reduces speed, and increases the chances for errors to occur. These errors can also be disruptive for management and constitute enormous security risks due to the potential for broken authentication and unsanctioned access to company cloud environments.
Using SCIM REST API calls, the SCIM provider will let you automate the creation, retrieval, updating, and deletion of your enterprise data, basically facilitating identity provisioning and management using specification suites based on common schemas, such as a user schema, group schema, and an extension model. This common schema and other specifications in the SCIM protocol suite make it simple to develop and integrate it into your existing system of authentication and authorization.
Why you should consider deploying a SCIM
There are a number of reasons why your organization should look to adopt a SCIM.
Without a standardized protocol like SCIM, your users might have to log in separately to each application every time it’s needed by their workflow, which can increase the opportunities for attack vectors to access your system.
Another security risk occurs at the end of the lifecycle of an employee in your organization. When an employee leaves your company, they’ll retain access to their accounts in your cloud applications until you manually revoke their access on each platform.
By using SCIM, you automate operations, thereby reducing the risk of errors that would inevitably crop up with human intervention, such as broken authentication, unsanctioned access, or forgetting to disable permissions to some data or services.
SCIM also ensures that employees are able to access company cloud-based applications through sanctioned routes only. By closing loopholes with SCIM, you reduce the avenues through which your enterprise data and operations would be threatened. In other words, you effectively reduce your threat surface area.
Carrying out the same repetitive tasks in different applications every few weeks can get extremely messy. First, different applications have different endpoints and data schemas from which they prefer to receive information. Also, as your organization scales, you’ll very likely adopt newer sets of cloud tools, and you’ll need to share your organizational identity information with them.
It’s quite easy to see how with every new line of code you write to manually integrate new services or employees, you can gradually increase the complexity to a level that’s unsustainable. In short, you’ll end up spending valuable time and energy on trying to keep all those connections organized. SCIM was created to provide a standard that helps you conserve your time and resources while providing structure for data exchange.
Being able to monitor user access activity in your applications is important for understanding app usage patterns and to trigger alarms when suspicious access is detected. Some tools allow you to identify who did what, when, and where in each application.
For example, Tailscale configuration audit logging allows you to access logs that show users who have made changes to your network configuration, for increased auditability. For these kinds of tools to work, user identity must be reliable; otherwise the risk of unauthorized access increases, and the absence of auditable configuration changes can encourage misuse.
Benefits of a SCIM
Below is a list of the key benefits you stand to gain from using SCIM:
- Reduce the strain on your IT admins and DevOps. The time and energy invested in manually updating identity across multiple platforms can be spent on more productive tasks.
- Automatic user provisioning from corporate identity and access management systems.
- Synchronize user information across multiple cloud applications so identity data in one service is available across all services.
- Scalability advantages for large and growing organizations by automating the Create, Read, Update, and Delete (CRUD) process and allowing user data and attributes to be carried across domains, thereby reducing the time it would take for you to create new user accounts for new cloud-based applications being deployed.
- Automate the CRUD process to help mitigate mistakes and data inconsistencies between identity ecosystems.
- Enhances and compliments single sign-on (SSO). SSO gives you more granular power over permissions given to your staff in web applications. It makes your life easier since each time an employee wants to sign in to any application, an updated user and/or group information is forwarded to the application. But new employees still have to manually create user accounts in each web application, even with SSO. With SCIM, new user accounts are automatically provisioned in each web application, and when an employee leaves the company, the accounts are automatically removed from the apps.
- Ensures developers and employees always have the right access, when they need it.
- Provides visibility and transparency into user activities and requirements, allowing you to notice anomalous user activity.
- Use attribute values to better articulate group permissions based on activities. For instance, you can create custom attributes that extend the existing group or user attributes. This means you can better configure permissions based on a combination of the different profile parameters available to you.
In this article, you learned that SCIM is a specification suite built on a preexisting user schema to automate and make it cheaper, faster, and easier to manage identity provisioning across your cloud application landscape. It makes life a whole lot easier by saving time and resources compared to manual identity management. You’ve also learned about the common use cases of SCIM and its benefits to IT admins and DevOps engineers.
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Tailscale integrates seamlessly and works with your existing identity provider. After integration, you can easily manage who accesses what resources by syncing your users and groups to Tailscale. You can quickly explore Tailscale now, as it can run on all major platforms. Download Tailscale and try it for free today.
By automating otherwise repetitive and error-prone manual processes such as managing employee access across platforms, SCIM increases your efficiency and augments your security posture. SCIM can also increase organizational transparency and reduce risk by making it simpler to monitor user activity in your applications and flag unusual behavior.
SCIM enhances and compliments single sign-on (SSO). SSO gives you granular power over permissions given to your staff in web applications. It makes your life easier since each time an employee wants to sign in to any application, an updated user and/or group information is forwarded to the application. But new employees still have to manually create user accounts in each web application, even with SSO. With SCIM, new user accounts are automatically provisioned in each web application, and if an employee leaves the company, that person’s accounts are automatically removed from the apps.