Jul 27, 2023

The Limitations of Google SSO and how to Overcome them

The Limitations of Google SSO and how to Overcome them

Table of contents

In the digital age, securing and managing user identities is more important than ever. Businesses around the world are turning to comprehensive identity and access management (IAM) systems to effectively manage user access to their resources. Google single sign-on (SSO) is a common authentication method; it provides users with one-click access to a range of applications. However, for an organization seeking a complete IAM solution, Google SSO may fall short in critical ways.

There’s no one-size-fits-all IAM solution. When you’re choosing one, you should base your decision on your organization’s specific needs and challenges. This article focuses on providing information to organizations that hope to use Google SSO to manage access across their entire SaaS stack — an increasingly relevant scenario, given that organizations on average use 130 SaaS applications.

When you’re trying to implement Google SSO as a fully functional identity provider (IdP), there are four major limitations you’ll run into:

  • The absence of proper RBAC, or role management: Although Google Groups can be used to create, assign, and manage roles, IT admins find the experience to be subpar.

  • Challenges with provisioning: Automatically provisioning and de-provisioning users during onboarding and offboarding, respectively, is a major time-saver for IT admins; it also aids in reaching compliance and governance objectives. SCIM and/or SAML is possible with Google SSO, albeit with limited support for provisioning.

  • Limited automation opportunities: As organizations grow, the opportunities and need for automation grow as well — for instance, automatic group assignment based on an employee’s HRIS information, or alerts when a former employee is discovered to still have access within your SaaS stack. Reducing tickets and streamlining access requests are just one reason that IT admins look to IAM solutions with automation capabilities.

  • Missing governance features: To be ISO 27001 and SOC 2 compliant, you can either manually document access requests, access approvals, access reviews, and so one, or automate all of the tasks and their corresponding evidence creations with IGA-focused software.

By the end of this post, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of these limitations and learn about potential strategies to circumvent them without necessarily moving away from Google SSO. Note that this is not a comprehensive list of limitations; rather, it’s a selection of the challenges that are most likely to affect your organization.

The Absence of Proper RBAC, or Role Management

A significant limitation of Google SSO is its lack of Role-Based Access Control (RBAC). RBAC is a method of restricting system access to authorized users. In the IAM context, RBAC allows IT administrators to define roles — like project manager, frontend developer, or sales executive — that then translate to certain access rights and permissions across your entire SaaS stack. RBAC is, of course, just one method of access control — some alternatives are ABAC and PBAC, each of which offers its own unique advantages; however, RBAC is the most commonly used.

Without a comprehensive RBAC feature, managing user access can become a daunting task, particularly for larger organizations. Imagine, for example, a situation where an employee’s role within the company changes, or one where a department requires additional access to a specific application. Manual access assignment may lead to security risks, such as permission sprawl, unauthorized access, or exposing sensitive data to inappropriate users.

So although it is possible to define roles within Google Groups, translating them into permissions for a given SaaS app lacks simplicity and standardization. For instance, configuring SCIM or SAML for AWS requires different mappings than Datadog. Note that although the screenshots below appear to showcase two different scenarios (mapping a role in AWS while mapping user attributes in Datadog), this is because AWS roles are defined as user attributes within Google.

Challenges with Provisioning

Google SSO supports the SCIM and SAML protocols, however setting it up can be tedious and time consuming.

As seen in the graphic below, the overall instructions follow the same methodology of getting the API access token, setting up auto-provisioning, displaying auto-provisioning, and so on.

However, upon expanding each section, you’ll see that the actual implementation steps differ.

To be clear, this is not a fault of Google SSO but rather a limitation of SCIM and SAML. Other IdPs offer ways around this limitation, for instance by utilizing SCIM schemas and schema discovery. Beyond this, fully fledged IdPs often remove another major limitation: a lack of clarity about whether accounts are disabled or deactivated. Ensuring that accounts are disabled (removed as a paid user), as opposed to only deactivated (blocked SSO login), is crucial when managing the cost of SaaS access and session timeouts.

Limited Automation Opportunities

Google SSO, however, has a few limits to what can be automated. While it does support just-in-time provisioning, where a user’s account is created and appropriate access rights are assigned precisely when needed. You’ll find a lack of support for the use of webhooks to trigger actions based on events or native HRIS integrations.

In IAM solutions, automation can bring a host of benefits, such as reducing manual workloads, increasing efficiency, and reducing the potential for human errors or oversights. This could include automating the assignment of user groups based on HRIS information about a user’s team, along with a variety of other changes that can trigger actions throughout your entire SaaS stack.

Automation of routine, repetitive tasks is becoming a norm in the modern business environment. This includes access management, where automated systems can improve efficiency, reduce errors, and enhance security.

Missing Governance Features

While Google does provide an audit trail for its own suite of products, such as Google Workspace, the audit capabilities for third-party applications integrated through Google SSO can be less extensive and might require additional setup and configuration. Audit trails, which record who has accessed what resources and when they accessed them, are instrumental in identifying potential security breaches and irregularities. They also play a significant role in meeting regulatory requirements and streamlining investigations. For instance, knowing who has accessed a specific page in Notion or who modified a particular resource in AWS can expedite the process of determining who leaked company information or altered firewall rules.

Moreover, Google SSO doesn’t natively support key governance processes like access reviews, recurring evaluations of user accounts and their permissions — a valuable feature often found in comprehensive IGA solutions.

Finally, while Google SSO does aid in the security process, it does not provide out-of-the-box support for important compliance standards like ISO 27001 or SOC 2. This lack of native support could impact organizations that operate in industries where these certifications are important and could have implications for their compliance efforts.

Therefore, organizations might need to consider integrating Google SSO with a more comprehensive IAM or IGA solution to extend its basic functionality, and to get the robust governance capabilities required for proper security and compliance management.

Why Google SSO Can Still Be the Right Choice

Before exploring potential solutions, let’s pause and consider why Google SSO, despite its limitations, still offers value. Acknowledging a tool’s strengths is just as important as understanding its weaknesses.

Google SSO offers a seamless user experience with its one-click access to Google suite of applications, making it a favorite among businesses that are heavily reliant on these tools. And its simple setup and integration with various applications, backed by Google’s robust infrastructure, make it a dependable choice for many IT admins.

Despite its limitations, Google SSO’s simplicity, reliability, and widespread support make it appealing to many businesses. Therefore, the question isn’t whether to entirely abandon Google SSO, but rather, how to build on its strengths and mitigate its limitations to better cater to our unique needs.

Enhancing Google SSO with Integration Accounts

Google SSO’s limitations don’t have to be a deal-breaker. Consider a tool like AccessOwl, designed to enhance Google SSO’s strengths and mitigate its limitations. AccessOwl is not meant to replace Google SSO, but rather to improve it. Let’s delve into how it does this.

The Power of Integration Accounts

AccessOwl uses integration accounts rather than relying solely on traditional SAML and/or SCIM APIs. An integration account utilizes a service account along with a mix of RPA and private APIs, to allow for smoother intercommunication and data exchange between different software applications. In this post, you’ve learned that Google SSO does provide some authorization capabilities — like SCIM and/or SAML and role management — however, you’ve also gained an understanding of why many IT admins find it lacking.

That being said, the real power of using Google for access is in terms of authentication, not authorization. Setting up Google Workspace is a solid foundation for identity management, providing you with reliable and well-supported authentication to say, “Yes, this person is who they say they are.” With integration accounts, you add a layer of authorization on top of that, to say, “Yes, this person is who they say they are, and they are a developer, so they should receive write access to Datadog and Read access to repo X in GitHub,” and so on.

In other words, integration accounts can turn Google Workspace SSO into a fully functional IdP. Also, AccessOwl can be incrementally implemented, slotting into your existing setup with minimal disruption. This phased approach can be beneficial, as it allows room for adaptation and adjustment.

The Value of This Approach

The advantage of using a tool like AccessOwl is that it allows you to retain the user familiarity and wide support of Google SSO, while automated user provisioning and more effective role management lighten your IT team’s load.

From your employees’ perspective, they are still using Google SSO. There’s no new interface to learn, which can mean a smoother transition and less resistance to the new process. Plus, streamlined workflows could mean quicker access to necessary resources for your employees — particularly new hires — and remove the need for a separate ticketing system (IT admins rejoice!), as access requests, access approvals, and any other workflows are all integrated into Slack.

It’s all about striking a balance between the simplicity and familiarity of Google SSO and the robust, more complete IAM solutions that your organization might need. That’s exactly what this approach provides: a manageable way to navigate the limitations of Google SSO and create a more efficient and secure access management experience.

What You’ve Learned

Over the course of this post, you’ve navigated the world of IAM, focusing on Google SSO and its limitations. You’ve learned that while Google SSO is a widely used auth solution, it does have its shortcomings. These limitations, specifically its lack of role-based access control, its user provisioning challenges, its lack of automation, and its inadequate governance features, can create additional burdens and security risks in managing user access.

However, you’ve also discovered that it’s not always about seeking an entirely new solution; rather, it’s frequently about finding ways to enhance existing systems and processes. In the world of technology, the goal isn’t always about replacing — sometimes it’s about improving and integrating. We can often find creative and effective ways to address the limitations of the tools and systems we already use.

Most importantly, you’ve learned to apply a critical eye to any technology solution. You’ve seen that even widely accepted solutions like Google SSO might have limitations that need to be addressed. In other words, it’s crucial to assess whether those limitations matter for your use case and whether there are ways to mitigate them without disrupting your established systems.

In the end, a tailored approach, balancing the strengths of different tools and their compatibility with your unique requirements, often leads to the most effective solutions.