Getting Started with OpenSSO

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Written and tested with OpenAM Snapshot 9—the Single Sign-On (SSO) tool for securing your web applications in a fast and easy way

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History of OpenSSO

Back in early 2000, Sun Microsystems Inc. started the Directory Server Access Management Edition project to develop a product that would solve the web Single Sign-On (SSO) problems. The initial scope was to just provide authentication and authorization as part of the SSO using a proprietary protocol. Over the years it evolved to become a lightweight pure Java application providing a comprehensive set of security features to protect the enterprise resources. After undergoing a lot of changes in terms of product name, features, among other things, it ended up with OpenSSO. As part of Sun Microsystems software business strategy, they have open sourced most of their commercial enterprise software products including Sun Java Enterprise System (JES), Java SDK, and Communication suite of products. OpenSSO is the term coined by the Sun’s access management product team as part of their strategy to open source Sun Java System Access Manager, Sun Java System SAML v2 Plugin for Federation Services, and Sun Java System Federation Manager. OpenSSO is an integrated product that includes the features of both Access and Federation manager products. The goal was to amalgamate the access, federation, and web services features. This goal was achieved when Sun released the OpenSSO Enterprise 8.0 that received strong market traction and analysts coverage. Sun’s OpenSSO product made it to the leadership quadrant in 2008 in the Access Management category which was published by the Gartner Analyst group.

As part of the open source initiative, a lot of code re-factoring and feature alignments occurred that changed the product’s outlook. It removed all the native dependencies that were required to build and deploy earlier. OpenSSO became the pure Java web application that enabled the customers and open source community to take advantage of the automatic deployment by just dropping the web archive on any Java servlet container to deploy it. The build and check-in processes were highly simplified which attracted the open source community to contribute to the code and quality of the product.

OpenSSO had a very flexible release model wherein new features or bug fixes could easily be implemented in the customer environment by picking up the nightly, express, or enterprise build. OpenSSO Enterprise 8.0 was a major release by Sun that was built from the open source branch. After this release, there were two other express releases. Those were very feature-rich and introduced Secure Token Service (STS) and OAuth functionality. Express build 9 was not released in the binary form by Oracle but the source code has been made available to the open source community. You can download the OpenAM express build, built using the express build 9 branch from the Forgerock site.

As part of the acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc. by Oracle Corporation that happened back in early 2010, the release and support models have been changed for OpenSSO. If you are interested in obtaining a support contract for the enterprise version of the product, you should call up the Oracle support team or the product management team. Oracle continues its support for the OpenSSO enterprise’s existing customers. For the OpenSSO open source version (also known as OpenAM) you can approach the Forgerock team to obtain support.

OpenSSO vs. OpenAM

OpenSSO was the only open source product in the access management segment that had production level quality. Over eight thousands test cases were executed on twelve different Java servlet containers. OpenSSO is supported by a vibrant community that includes engineers, architects, and solution developers. If you have any questions, just send a mail to, and you are likely get the answer to what you want to know.

Recently Forgerock ( undertook an initiative to keep the community and product strong. They periodically fix the bugs in the open source branch. Their version of OpenSSO is called OpenAM, but the code base is the same as OpenSSO. There may be incompatibilities in future if OpenAM code base deviates a lot from the OpenSSO express build 9 code base. Note that the Oracle Open SSO Enterprise 8.0 update releases are based on the OpenSSO Enterprise release 8.0 code base, whereas the open source version OpenAM is continuing its development from the express build 9 code base.

OpenSSO—an overview

OpenSSO is a freely available feature-rich access management product; it can be downloaded from It integrates authentication and authorization services, SSO, and open standards-based federation protocols to provide SSO among disparate business domains, entitlement services, and web services security. Overall, customers will be able to build a comprehensive solution for protecting their network resources by preventing unauthorized access to web services, applications, web content, and securing identity data.

OpenSSO offers a complete solution for securing both web applications and web services. You can enforce a comprehensive security policy for web applications and services across the enterprise, rather than relying on developers to come up with ad hoc ways to secure services as they develop them. OpenSSO is a pure Java application that makes it easy to deploy on any operating system platform or container as it supports a broad range of operating systems and servlet containers.

OpenSSO services

All the services provided by the OpenSSO are exposed over HTTP protocol. The clients access them using appropriate interfaces. OpenSSO exposes a rich library of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and Service Provider Interfaces (SPIs) using which, customers can achieve the desired functionality. These services developed for OpenSSO generally contain both a server component and a client component. The server component is a simple Java servlet developed to receive XML requests and return XML responses. The opensso.war web application encompasses all the services and associated configuration items that are required to deliver the OpenSSO functionality. The client component is provided as Java API, and in some cases, C API. This allows remote applications and other OpenSSO services to communicate with and consume the particular functionality.

Each core service uses its own framework to retrieve customer and service data and to provide it to other OpenSSO services. The OpenSSO framework integrates all of these service frameworks to form a layer that is accessible to all product components and plugins as shown in the following diagram:

Getting Started with OpenSSO

There are certain core services that are not covered due to the scope of this article. Just to make you aware of the breadth of features provided by the OpenSSO, in the next few sections, some of the prominent features that are not covered will be briefly introduced.

Federation services

Typically, in the web access management the Single Sign-On happens in the same company, within the same Domain Name Service (DNS) domain. Most of the time this will work for small companies or in B2C type scenarios, whereas in a B2B scenario use of a DNS domain-based SSO will not work as the cookie will not be forwarded to the other DNS domains. Besides, there are privacy and security concerns to perform SSO across multiple businesses using this approach. So how do we solve these kinds of problems where customers want to seamlessly sign on to services even though the services are provided by a third party?

Federation is the solution. So, what is federation? Federation is a process that establishes a standards-based method for sharing and managing identity data and establishing a Single Sign-On across security domains and organizations. It allows an organization to offer a variety of external services to trusted business partners, as well as corporate services to internal departments and divisions. Forming trust relationships across security domains allows an organization to integrate applications offered by different departments or divisions within the enterprise, as well as engage in relationships with co-operating business partners that offer complementary services. Towards the federation or solving SSO across multiple domains, multiple industry standards, such as those developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and the Liberty Alliance Project), are supported. OpenSSO provides an open and extensible framework for identity federation and associated web services that resolves the problems of identity-enabling web services, web service discovery and invocation, security, and privacy. Federation services are built on the following standards:

  • Liberty Alliance Project Identity Federation Framework (Liberty ID-FF) 1.1 and 1.2
  • OASIS Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) 1.0 and 1.1
  • OASIS Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) 2.0
  • WS-Federation (Passive Requestor Profile) SAML 2.0 is becoming the de facto standard for the federation

SAML 2.0 is becoming the de facto standard for the federation SSO as many of the vendors and service providers support SAML 2.0 protocol. For instance Google Apps and Salesforce support SAML 2.0 as their choice of protocol for SSO.


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