Identity patterns: decoupling username and UID

2006-02-16 19:00:00 -0500

Sean O’Neill from Sun points out some very valid reasons against using email addresses as unique identifiers within identity systems. I agree with him on all points, except for one:

So the recommendation still remains to utilize a numeric value or alpha/numeric value for UID and put up with user’s complaints they are not easy to remember.

Even within highly secure environments user perceptions can be very important. Customer facing applications, high-volume ordering systems, business partner extranets, and even large scale identity deployments within the enterprise are all faced with the challenges of balancing good data practices with user experience. There is no doubt that changing unique identifiers is a Bad Thing™, largely because they are used to map between different systems. However, playing the devils advocate, exposing poorly chosen UIDs to end-users can cause a wide range of problems including increased help-desk traffic, reduced usage of shared credential management services, and even the creation of duplicate user registrations.

Luckily, there is a middle ground made possible by separating the concept of the Username from that of the unique identifier (although they will remain interconnected entities at some level). First, at provisioning time, each Identity must be assigned a globally unique, persistent unique identifier. This is by no means a new concept, and it is often referred to as a GUID, so we’ll use that term here as well. In a properly implemented system this GUID will never change over the life of an identity. Next, each identity should be assigned, by some means, a friendly, easy to remember Username for the purpose of authentication.

The key to success with this relatively simple approach lies not within the separation of identifiers, but in how they are used. Basically, applications, databases, services or resources that reference the identity should always use the GUID. Period. The only entity in the entire universe that should ever reference the Username is the human authenticating to the system. After credential validation, the authentication system can simply map the GUID to provide a unique identifier to other resources.

Consider how this works in practice. Lets say you have an central authentication system using a popular web access management platform. Each user has an identity record in the central service. Each user also has access to one or more applications that have been integrated with the central service. Each of these applications has its own database back-end, auditing functions, and other services that require a UID. As Sean points out, when the Username is the UID, the entire identity system is fragile – a name change, typo, or marriage can break the mapping between the authentication service and the applications.

Now reconsider this situation when the Username and UID are separate. Jane Doe logs into her applications with the Username jdoe. Then the authentication service maps that back to her GUID, 09103510 (or whatever…), and passes that value back to the application she’s using. Now all of databases, services, transactions, historical audit logs, etc. are all tied to GUID. If Jane marries
John Tailor, none of the backend systems change. She can log in tomorrow with jtailor and her applications won’t even realize a difference. This same model extends nicely into more flexible systems too, as people could just as easily select their own usernames.

By decoupling the Username from the UID, an identity system can enjoy the benefits of strict unique identifier assignment along side complete flexibility in username assignment. Best of all it can be implemented with most (although not all) common authentication technologies like JAAS, Web plug-in style access management systems, PAM, SAML, LDAP, etc., with assignment driven by your choice of provisioning tools. While its not appropriate for every scenario, its definitely worth examining as an option while establishing standards for identifier assignment.

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