Recap of European Identity & Cloud Conference 2013

The 2013 edition of the European Identity & Cloud Conference just finished. As always KuppingerCole Analysts has created a great industry conference and I am glad I was part of it this year. To relive the conference you can search for the tag #EIC13 on Twitter.

KuppingerCole manages each time to get all the Identity thought leaders together which makes the conference so valuable. You know you’ll be participating in some of the best conversations on Identity and Cloud related topics when people like Dave Kearns, Doc Searls, Paul Madsen, Kim Cameron, Craig Burton … are present. It’s a clear sign that KuppingerCole has grown into the international source for Identity related topics if you know that some of these thought leaders are employed by KuppingerCole themselves.

Throughout the conference a few topics kept popping up making them the ‘hot topics’ of 2013. These topics represent what you should keep in mind when dealing with Identity in the coming years:

XACML and SAML are ‘too complicated’

It seems that after the announced death of XACML everyone felt liberated and dared to talk. Many people find XAMCL too complicated. Soon SAML joined the club of ‘too complicated’. The source of the complexity was identified as XML, SOAP and satellite standards like WS-Security.

There is a reason protocols like OAuth, which stays far away from XML and family, have so rapidly gained so much followers. REST and JSON have become ‘sine qua none’ for Internet standards.

There is an ongoing effort for a REST/JSON profile for XACML. It’s not finished, let alone adopted, so we will have to wait and see what it gives.

That reminds me of a quote from Craig Burton during the conference:

Once a developer is bitten by the bug of simplicity, it’s hard to stop him.

It sheds some light on the (huge) success of OAuth and other Web 2.0 API’s. It also looks like a developer cannot be easily bitten by the bug of complexity. Developers must see serious rewards before they are willing to jump into complexity.

OAuth 2.0 has become the de-facto standard

Everyone declared OAuth 2.0, and it’s cousin OpenID Connect, to be the de facto Internet standard for federated authentication.

Why? Because it’s simple, even a mediocre developer who hasn’t seen anything but bad PHP is capable of using it. Try to achieve that with SAML. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s not without problems. OAuth uses Bearer tokens that are not well understood by everyone which leads to some often seen security issues in the use of OAuth. On the other hand, given the complexity of SAML, do we really think everyone would use it as it should be used, avoiding security issues? Yes, indeed …

API Economy

A lot of talk about the ‘API Economy’. There are literally thousands and thousands of publicly available APIs (named “Open APIs”) and magnitudes more of hidden APIs (named “Dark APIs”) on the web. It has become so big and pervasive that it has become an ecosystem of its own.

New products and cloud services are being created around this phenomena. It’s not just about exposing a REST/JSON interface to your date. You need a whole infrastructure: throttling services, authentication, authorization, perhaps even an app store.

It’s also clear that developers once more become an important group. There is nu use to an Open API if nobody can or is willing to use it. Companies that depend on the use of their Open API suddenly see a whole new type of customer: developers. Having a good Developer API Portal is a key success factor.

Context for AuthN and AuthZ

Manye keynote and presentations referred to the need for authn and authz to become ‘contextual’. It was not entirely sure what was meant with that, nobody could give a clear picture. No idea what kind of technology or new standards it will require. But it was all agreed this was what we should be going to 😉

Obviously, the more information we can take into account when performing authn or authz, the better the result will be. Authz decisions that take present and past into account and not just whatever is directly related to the request, can produce a much more precise answer. In theory that is …

The problem with this is that computers are notoriously bad at anything that is not rule based. Once you move up the chain and starting including the context, next the past (heuristics) and ending at principles, computers are giving up pretty fast.

Of course, nothing keeps you from defining more rules that take contextual factors into account. But I would hardly call that ‘contextual’ authz. That’s just plain RuBAC with more PIPs available. It only becomes interesting if the authz engine is smart in itself and can decide, without hard wiring the logic in rules, which elements of the context are relevant and which aren’t. But as I said, computers are absolutely not good at that. They’ll look at us in despair and beg for rules, rules they can easily execute, millions at a time if needed.

The last day there was a presentation on RiskBAC or Risk Based Access Control. This is situated in the same domain of contextual authz. It’s something that would solve a lot but I would be surprised to see it anytime soon.

Don’t forget, the first thing computers do with anything we throw at them, is turning it into numbers. Numbers they can add and compare. So risks will be turned into numbers using rules we gave to computers and we all know what happens if we, humans, forgot to include a rule.

Graph Stores for identities

People got all excited by Graph Stores for identity management. Spurred by the interest in NoSQL and Windows Azure Active Directory Graph, people saw it as a much better way to store identities.

I can only applaud the refocus on relations when dealing with identity. It’s what I have been saying for almost 10 years now: Identities are the manifestations of relationship between two parties. I had some interesting conversations with people at the conference about this and it gave me some new ideas. I plan to pour some of those into a couple of blog articles. Keep on eye on this site.

The graph stores themselves are a rather new topic for me so I can’t give more details or opinions. I suggest you hop over to that Windows Azure URL and give it a read. Don’t forget that ForgeRock  already had a REST/JSON API on top of their directory and IDM components.

Life Management Platforms

Finally there was an entire separate track on Life Management Platforms. It took me a while to understanding what it was all about. Once I found out it was related to the VRM project of Doc Searls, it became more clear.

Since this recap is almost getting longer than the actual conference, I’ll hand the stage to Martin Kuppinger and let him explain Life Management Platforms.

That was the 2013 edition of the European Identity & Cloud Conference for me. It was a great time and even though I haven’t even gotten home yet, I already intend to be there as well next year.


Conceptual, Logical and Physical

In his article “ArchiMate from a data modelling perspectiveBas van Gils from BiZZdesign talks about the difference between conceptual, logical and physical levels of abstraction. This distinction is very often used in (enterprise) IT architecture but is often also poorly understood, defined or applied.

Bas refers to the TOGAF/IAF definitions:

TOGAF seems to follow the interpretation close to Capgemini’s IAF where conceptual is about “what”, logical is about “how” and physical is about “with what”. In that case, conceptual/logical appears to map on the architecture level, whereas physical seems to map on the design/ implementation level. All three are somewhat in line but in practice we still see people mix-and-match between abstraction levels.

I am not a fan of the above. It is one of those definitions that tries to explain a concept by using specific words in the hope to evoke a shared emotion. Needless to say, this type of definition is at the heart of many open ended and often very emotional online discussions.

Conceptual, logical and physical are most often related to the idealization – realization spectrum of abstraction. This spectrum abstracts ‘things’ by removing elements relating to the realization of the ‘thing’. Opposite, the spectrum elaborates ‘things’ by adding elements related to a specific realization. You can say that a conceptual model contains less elements related to a realization compared to a logical model. You can also say that a physical model contains more elements related to a realization when compared to a logical model.

In other words, conceptual, logical and physical are relative to each other. They don’t point to a specific abstraction. For that you need to specify more information on exactly what kind of elements of realizations you want to abstract away at each level of abstraction.

The most commonly used reference model for using these three levels is as follows:

  • Conceptual. All elements related to an implementation with an Information System are abstracted away.
  • Logical. A realization with an Information System is not abstracted away anymore. All elements related to a technical implementation of this Information System are abstracted away.
  • Physical. A technical realization is assumed and not abstracted away anymore.

That is the only way to define the levels conceptual, logical and physical: define what type of realization-related elements are abstracted away at each level. You can never assume everyone uses the same reference model. You either pick an existing one (e.g. Zachman Framework) or define your own.

Saying that conceptual is “what”, logical is “how” and physical is “with what” is confusing to say the least. Especially if you know that in the Zachman Framework “how” and “what” are even orthogonal to “conceptual” and “logical”.

At first it is not easy to define a conceptual model without referring to an Information System. For instance any referral to lists, reports or querying assumes an Information System and is in fact already at the logical model.

A misunderstanding I often hear is that people assume that conceptual means (a lot) less detail compared to logical. That’s not true. A conceptual model can consist of as many models and pages of text as a logical model. In reality, conceptual models are often more limited but I only have to point to the many failed IT projects due to too little detail at the conceptual model. It’s just wrong.


Smart Meters … but not so secure

In this article Martin Kuppinger from KuppingerCole Analysts discusses a security leak in a device used for controlling heating systems.

It’s shocking but I am not surprised. IT history is riddled with cases of devices, protocols and standards that required solid security but failed. Mostly they failed because people thought they didn’t need experts to build in security. Probably the most common failure in IT security: thinking you don’t need experts.

Who remembers WEP or even S/MIME, PKCS#7, MOSS, PEM, PGP and even XML?

The last link shows how simple sign & encrypt is not a fail safe solution:

Simple Sign & Encrypt, by itself, is not very secure. Cryptographers know this well, but application programmers and standards authors still tend to put too much trust in simple Sign-and-Encrypt.

The moral of the story is: unless you really are an IT security expert, never ever design security solutions yourself. Stick to well known solutions, preferably in tested and proven libraries or products. Even then, I strongly encourage you to consult an expert, it’s just too easy to naively apply the, otherwise good, solution in the wrong way.


Better Architecture For Electronic Invoices


As an independent consultant I operate from my own one-man company. That means I am participating in the world of invoicing. In the last couple of years I have seen a steady rise in electronic invoices. Before electronic invoices I received all my invoices in my letter box and believe me, compared to electronic invoices, that was easy and cheap. In short, I don’t like electronic invoices.

The most important downside is that they don’t arrive in my letter box. Most providers of electronic invoices offer me a portal where I can login and download the invoice. Of course, every single one of these portals has its own registration system, its own credentials and its own password polices. Needless to say, it’s very cumbersome to fetch invoices. Most of the time I end up ‘logging in’ through the ‘password forgotten’ use case. I don’t even bother to change the generated password since next time I’ll be logging in through the ‘password forgotten’ use case anyway.

After taking the first hurdle, logging in to the website, I am greeted by the second one: user interface and functionality. Some look nice, some look like a website that would have been great in 1994 but not so anymore in 2013. Tastes differ so I’ll assume it’s me. But in terms of functionality, some of these portals seem to make it a sport to provide the worst possible user experience in finding and downloading invoices.

They also differ greatly in what kind of functionality they offer. There are portals that offer me an online archive (although there is no mention whatsoever about any long term guarantees of the archive existence). Others encourage me to download the invoice as soon as possible since they only offer access for a limited amount of time. Hint: since not all of them offer archive functionality and since I can’t afford to have an archive of invoices scattered all over the internet (with varying service level agreements), I can’t make use of those archives anyway. Whatever functionality they offer, in my world they are just temporary inboxes: I download the invoices and archive them locally as soon as I can after which I forget about the copy on the portal.

All sources of electronic invoices notify me through email when a new invoice is available through the portal. One source even is so kind as to include a direct download link in the email. Convenient as it may seem (and it really is) it’s also a security risk: the direct download link does not require any form of authentication. It acts like a ‘bearer token’ with a long life span, a token that is transmitted in clear text as part of the email and can be intercepted.

Current Architecture

All this is the consequence of one-sided view on the problem by publishers of electronic invoices. If you look at the challenge of issuing invoices from the point of view of a company, the architecture below is an obvious solution. Invoices are generated internally in a digital format, they are distributed using a portal and the company can even track which invoices have been accessed and which haven’t.

Electronic Invoices - 1

If you take the point of view of a customer and assume the same architecture as above, the picture looks different and a lot less shiny. We see that a customer is faced with dozens of point-to-point access paths to invoices, all of which are implemented differently and act differently.

Electronic Invoices - 2

Better Architecture?

As an architect I feel this can be done better, a lot better in fact. In my proposal for an architecture, there are four roles involved in getting electronic invoices from a publisher to a customer: (1) Customer, (2) Collector, (3) Distributor and (4) Publisher.

Electronic Invoices - 3

The primary function of a Collector is to collect all invoices for specific consumers and make them available to those consumers. The role of the Distributor is to collect invoices from publishers and route them to the correct Collector so they end up at the correct consumer. The main goal of the Collector and Distributor is to cater for their respective customers: Customers and Publishers. That is a significant difference from the current architecture: both stakeholders (Consumers and Publishers) have a party who will act in their best interest as catering them is their reason for existence. In the current architecture no party exists which will do their best to cater the Customer. Of course, Publishers may say they do when they offer their portals but reality is that it’s not their primary reason for existence and the above mentioned problems prove that they only go so far in providing services for the customer.

In my specific case, I could opt for a Collector service that prints and mails the invoices to me while at the same time keeping an electronic archive for me.

In Belgium you have a few services that seem to be offering services related to the Collector role: ZoomIt and Unified Post. If you look at their websites and service offerings it becomes obvious their primary focus is on the publisher of invoices and not the customer.