Identity Provider Versus Authorization Server
October 2nd, 2021

Ongoing technological advancements make it possible for businesses to digitize their operations through the use of applications, websites, and other digital systems. These systems help companies manage digital identities and control user access to critical data within their departments. For these tasks to be performed effectively, however, companies need tools that offer role-based access control and provide system administrators with the ability to regulate access to systems and networks.

Some of the tools systems require to perform access-control tasks include an identity provider and an authorization server. 

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Identity Provider Explained

An identity provider (IDP) is a system tool that develops, maintains, and manages identity data for principals and offers authentication services to relying applications within a federation or distributed network. One of the main services offered by an identity provider is user authentication.

Relying party applications are commonly referred to as federated because they consume federated identities. Most relying applications, including web applications, outsource the user authentication step to reliable identity providers. 

An identity provider allows you to use a single sign-on (SSO) to access various sites. A SSO helps improve usability by reducing password fatigue and offers improved security by minimizing the latent attack surface. An identity provider also facilitates connections between cloud computing resources and users to minimize the need for reauthenticate, especially when the users are on mobile and roaming applications. 

Common Types of Identity Providers

There are several types of identity providers available to networks.

IndieAuth Identity Provider

This is an open-standard, distributed authentication protocol that leverages OAuth 2.0. It allows services to verify the identities of users represented by URLs and to provide tokens for accessing resources under the control of the users. With this tool, user identities, websites, and third-party authorization endpoints are linked to the preferred identity provider.

OpenID Provider

In domain models with OpenID Connect (OIDC), the identity provider is an extraordinary OAuth 2.0 authorization server. An OIDC is the identity layer that resides on OAuth and offers JSON-formatted identity indications to OIDC-relying parties through a RESTful HTTP Application Programming Interface (API). In other words, an OpenID provider is a Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) identity provider, or a set of profiles used for exchanging authentication and authorization data across security domains.

Authorization Server Explained

An authorization server is an engine used to issue OpenID Connect or OAuth 2.0 tokens and to apply access policies. Every authorization server has a distinct issuer Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) and a specific signing key for tokens to maintain the appropriate boundary between security domains.

An authorization server performs many functions, including SSO with Okta for different OpenID Connect applications. It also helps to secure APIs and offers user authorization to web services. OpenID Connect helps confirm users with a web application by using the ID token returned from the authorization server to determine if the user is genuine and to acquire profile information (e.g. username or location).

There are two main types of Okta authorization servers: the Org Authorization Server and the Custom Authorization Server. Okta Org has built-in authorization but can’t be customized in terms of audience, claims, policies, and scopes.

Comparing the Two

In summary, an identity provider is the software component that authenticates and issues a token representing a user or other entity, while an authorization server is the server software component that validates and provides tokens that represent a user or other entity.

For further reading, check out our other articles like What Is the Difference Between LDAP and Active Directory? and What Is a Privileged User Account.