Tag Archives: ws-federation

Nailing Down the Definition of “Entitlement Management”

Ian Yip’s take on access management versus entitlement management can be partially summed up with this equation:

Entitlement management is simply fine-grained authorisation + XACML

I have four problems with this.

First, definitions that include a protocol are worrisome as they can overly restrict the definition. For example, if I defined federation as authentication via SAML, people would quickly point out that authentication via WS-Fed was just as viable as a definition. So in terms of an industry conversation, we need to make sure that our terms are not too narrow.

Second, I fear that this definition is a reflection of products in the market today and not a statement on what “entitlement management” is meant to do.  Yes, most of today’s products can use XACML. Yes, they facilitate authorization decisions based on a wider context. But who’s to say that these products, and the market as a whole, have reached their final state? Along these lines, I wonder if externalized authorization stores are a required part of an “entitlement management” solution?

Third, there is something missing from the definition – the policy enforcement point. A fine-grained authorization engine provides a policy decision point, but that still leaves the need for an enforcement point. This holds true whether an application has externalized its authorization decisions or not.

Finally, I have a problem with the phrase “entitlement management” (just ask my co-workers). As I have blogged about before, Kevin and I have been in the midst of a large research project focusing on role management. One of the things we have learned from this project is that enterprises do not use the phrase “entitlement management” the same way we do.

A bit of history – three or so years ago Burton Group, at a Catalyst, introduced the phrase “entitlement management” to include the run-time authorization decision process that most of the industry referred to as “fine-grained authorization.” At the time, this seemed about right. Flash forward to this year and our latest research and we have learned that our definition was too narrow.

The enterprises that we talked to use “entitlement management” to mean:
·      The gathering of entitlements from target systems (for example, collecting all the AD groups or TopSecret resource codes)
·      Reviewing these entitlements to see if they are still valid
·      Reviewing the assignment of these entitlements to individuals to see if the assignments are appropriate
·      Removing and cleaning up excessive or outdated entitlements
More often than not, we found that our customers used “entitlement management” as a precursor to access certification processes.

Using a single term (“entitlement management”) to span both the run-time authorization decisions as well as the necessary legwork of gathering, interpreting, and cleansing entitlements can lead to confusion. The way enterprise customers currently use “entitlement management” works well to describe how legwork is vital to the success of other identity projects.  (I’ll be working on a report this quarter that delves deeper into this.)

I am all for a broader conversation on fine-grained authZ versus entitlement management. And as Ian Yip has pointed out on twitter, identity blog conversations have dropped off a bit and I’d love to stoke the fire a bit.  But we can’t have meaningful conversations without shared definitions. So what’s your take? What do you mean when you say “fine-grained authorization” and “entitlement management?”

(Cross-posted from Burton Group’s Identity blog.)