Saturday, October 1, 2011

Decomposing Identity Management Approval Workflows

One of the hallmarks of a poorly conceived identity management solution is a large number of workflows, particularly approval workflows. In one extreme case with which I'm familiar, a large financial services company has a Sun Identity Manager implementation that contains hundreds of individual approval workflows—one workflow for every entitlement, application or role that a user can request. They have a team of IDM engineers whose function is to build new workflows every time a new application needs to be integrated with the identity system. In most cases, this task involves cutting and pasting the XML from other similar workflows and then hardwiring them with application-specific metadata that is provided by a business analyst. Needless to say, this company eventually reached a point where the identity management system began to experience crippling performance issues.

When designing self-service request/approval workflows, it is important not to think in terms of individual applications but in terms of assets and generic approval patterns. An asset can be anything that might be requested; an application, entitlement, role or even an out-of-band asset such as a laptop or cellphone. Each asset, in turn, is logically mapped to an approval pattern. Even in the largest, most complex organizations, the number of approval patterns tends to be extremely small; in most cases no more than five to ten. In fact, one tends to find that most approval patterns are variations of the following:

  • Manager-Only Approval
  • Asynchronous Multi-Level Approval (all approvers must complete in order)
  • Synchronous Partial Approval ('x' of 'y' approvers must complete)
  • Synchronous Full Approval (all approvers must complete in any order)
When one decomposes the major functionality of any approval workflow into its constituent parts, it becomes much easier to visualize:
Figure 1: Decomposition of an IDM Approval Workflow (Click for full-size version)
Let's examine the three major processes illustrated above.
Request Process: This handles an asset request from an end user or an approved designate. Optionally, this process may include generation of a request form, which collects additional, asset-specific information from the requester that is required to support the request (for example, a business case for requesting the asset). 
Approval Process: Once the request has been submitted, an approval workflow is invoked. An asset-to-pattern mapping determines the particular approval pattern to invoke. Optionally, approvers may be required to complete an approval form, in which they will enter additional information that is necessary to provision the asset. 
Execution Process: After all requisite approvals have been completed, the asset needs to be provisioned. This can be done automatically using a provisioning connector, or by generating a ticket to a human provisioner.
All three processes require metadata about the asset. Depending on the capabilities of the identity management system, metadata can be stored in the system itself, or even externalized in an RDBMS system or LDAP directory. Among other elements, metadata may include the fields to render on asset-specific request/approval forms, email templates, escalation settings, delinquency timeouts, instructions for the execution process on what to do when all approvals have been completed, and of course the type of approval workflow pattern to invoke.

This approach allows for the design of highly generic, dynamic and reusable workflow templates, which in turn facilitates the rapid integration of new assets for self-service access requests. The loosely-coupled nature of a pattern-based workflow architecture is also consistent with the governance-based implementation strategy I've described in previous posts, which is based on decoupling automated provisioning from account discovery and asset definition. Using metadata to drive execution of a provisioning action should in most cases allow administrators to "flick a switch" simply by updating the metadata itself once they are ready to turn on automated provisioning for a particular asset.

Of course, the obvious question is what does it take from a technical perspective to build an asset integration framework like this. Obviously, the specific implementation depends very much on your unique business requirements and the capabilities of the identity management system you are using, which is why I've attempted to keep this overview product-agnostic. With that said, this approach is certainly compatible with solutions such as OIM, SIM/Oracle Waveset, Novell IdM, SailPoint IdentityIQ and Quest One Identity Manager.

All of which also raises another advantage of pattern-based workflows. If at any point in the future, you plan to migrate to another identity solution, it is much easier to migrate a tiny handful of workflows than it is to migrate several thousand.


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