Reality check on Microsoft/Sun claims about single sign-on

This morning I learned that Microsoft and Sun had a public event where the CEOs reported on a year of working together. This is a follow-up to Greg Papadopoulos’ report on the progress of the “technical collaboration”. In that post, Greg told us about the amazing technical outcomes of the work between the two companies and, being very familiar with the specs he was referring to, I couldn’t help but point out that the result of the “technical collaboration” he was talking about looked a lot like Sun rubber-stamping a bunch of Microsoft specifications without much input from Sun engineers.

So when I heard this morning that the two companies were coming out publicly with the result of their work, I thought it would be fair for me to update my blog and include this information.

Plus, reading the press release and Greg’s Q&A session, it sounded pretty impressive and it would have been bad faith from my part to not acknowledge that indeed Greg actually had something to brag about, it just wasn’t yet public at the time. In effect, it sounded like they had found a way to make the Liberty Alliance specs and WS-Federation interoperate with one another.

From Greg’s Q&A: “In a nutshell, we resolved and aligned what Microsoft was trying to accomplish with Passport and the WS-Federation with what we’ve been doing with the Liberty Alliance. So, we’ve agreed upon a way to enable single sign-on to the Internet (whether through a .NET service or a Java Enterprise System service), and federate across those platforms based on service-level agreements and/or identity agreements between those services. That’s a major milestone.”

Yes Greg, it would have been. Except this is not what is delivered. The two specs that are supposed to support these claims are Web SSO MEX and Web SSO Interop Profile. Which are 14 and 9 pages long respectively. Now I know better than to equate length of a spec with value, but when you cut the boilerplate content out of these 14 and 9 pages, there is very little left for delivering on ambitious claims such as those Greg makes.

The reason is that these specs in no way provide interop between a system built using Liberty Alliance and a system built using WS-Federation. All they do is to allow each system to find out what spec the other uses.

One way to think about it is that we have an English speaker and a Korean speaker in the same room and they are not able to talk. What the two new specs do is put a lapel pin with a British flag on the english speakers and a lapel pin with a Korean flag on the korean speaker. Yes, this helps a bit. At least now the Korean speaker will know what the weird language that the other guy is speaking is and he can go to school and learn it. But just finding out what language the other guy speaks is a far cry from actually being able to communicate with him.

Even with these specs, a system based on Liberty Alliance and one based on WS-Federation are still incompatible and you cannot single sign-on from one to the other. Or rather, you can only if your client implements both. This is said explicitly in the Web SSO Interop Profile spec (look for the first line of page 5): “A compliant identity provider implementation MUST support both protocol suites”. Well, this isn’t interop, it’s duplication. Otherwise I could claim I have solved the problem of interoperability between English and Korean just by asking everyone to learn both languages. Not very convincing…

But of course Microsoft and Sun knew that they could get away with that in the press. For example, CNet wrote “The Web Single Sign-On Metadata Exchange Protocol and Web Single Sign-On Interoperability Profile will bridge Web identity management systems based on the Liberty and Web services specifications, the companies said”. As the Columbia Journalism Review keeps pointing out, real journalists don’t just report what people say, they check if it’s true. And in this case, it simply isn’t.

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