Friday, October 28, 2011

Is SPML Really Dead?

Over the past year or two, there has been an intense debate in the IAM community about the future viability of SPML. This began with a blog post by Burton Group's Mark Diodati in February 2010, in which he offered a bearish perspective on the poorly adopted provisioning standard.

I agree with many of the points Mark raised. Yes, SPML is too complex in its current incarnation. In trying to offer a broad range of functionality and account for every conceivable provisioning scenario, it often ends up accomplishing quite the opposite. Accordingly, SPML implementations tend to be extremely product specific, which defeats the entire purpose of a common standard in the first place. He is also correct that SPML implementations often cause performance issues due to the burden they place on connectors, although I would argue that this is less attributable to the standard itself than to how SPML has been implemented by provisioning vendors. And I completely agree with his assertion that enhancing the standard with a common inetorgperson-like user schema such as "SPMLPerson" would not only promote greater convergence with SAML, but would lead to increased adoption in the enterprise.

With that said, SPML works extremely well when implementations avoid connector-heavy and product-specific customizations (I'll come back to that shortly). In my opinion, the lack of SPML adoption isn't just because the standard itself is deficient, but because nobody has quite figured out the best way to implement SPML interfaces.

The most common use case I've encountered for SPML is when a customer wants to integrate their own proprietary UI with a commercial provisioning system. For instance, one of my customers has a sophisticated, AJAX-enabled access request portal built in .NET. It provides all the workflow functionality that one would expect to find in a commercial provisioning system, but was designed simply to manage requests and approvals rather than to automate provisioning. The customer had acquired Sun Identity Manager for provisioning automation, but didn't want to replace their elaborate, business friendly .NET interface with SIM's antiquated UI (and who can blame them?) In this particular instance, SPML was the obvious solution. The .NET application was modified to simply fire off SPML requests to SIM on the backend, thus automating provisioning actions while protecting end users from any visible impact.

In scenarios such as this, where a homegrown access request portal needs to integrate with a provisioning system, SPML works like a charm. But let's face it, this scenario doesn't require SPML specifically. In the use case I just described, Sun Identity Manager could have exposed any old SOAP or REST interface, and the integration would have been exactly the same, providing that the interface exposed the requisite methods.

The true value of a standard such as SPML is realized when providing interoperability with enterprise or cloud applications, and this is where SPML has unequivocally failed to deliver.

Which brings us back to the problem with SPML implementations. Because the standard is so broad and, unlike SAML, fails to define even a minimal schema for user profiles---much less offer a reference implementation---identity vendors have tended to implement variations of SPML that are product specific and are tightly coupled with the connector layer and underlying data stores. The result is that most SPML implementations are ugly and XML-heavy, which in turn can lead to performance issues when performing large numbers of provisioning transactions.

I have yet to see an SaaS application that supports inbound SPML messages in a way that could be called "standard". Likewise, I have yet to see a user provisioning solution that supports SPML in a non-proprietary fashion. As a result, provisioning solutions for cloud applications still depend heavily on individual connectors that all implement different product APIs, which is to say that SaaS applications are currently treated no differently from any other kind of application.

So the question remains, is SPML really dead? Well, in its current incarnation, it's hard to argue that it was ever really alive to begin with. SPML 2.0 is now five years old, and the OASIS Provisioning Services Technical Committee hasn't convened since 2008. But the critical need for interoperable provisioning is now greater than ever, particularly considering the explosive adoption of cloud applications in recent years. The fact that most identity management RFPs include a requirement for SPML confirms that standards-based integration remains a critical priority for organizations. Even as IAM maturation drives us away from traditional user-centric IAM towards more business-centric models, identity management projects still spend far too much time focusing on provisioning, and specifically on the nuances of proprietary connector architectures; this is another argument for a widely adopted provisioning standard that abstracts the complexity of underlying systems and data stores.

If SPML is to survive, then it will have to be reincarnated without any consideration to backwards compatibility. For that to happen, a major player in the identity space (I'm talking about the likes of Oracle, CA or IBM here) needs to step up, take leadership and create some momentum for a new standard.

In the meantime, there are several proposals out there to compensate for the lack of momentum surrounding SPML and the critical needs that it was intended to address. Jim McGovern, never a shrinking violet, has a wish list for what he would expect to see from SPML 3.0, if it ever happens. In 2009, the visionary Nishant Kaushik proposed using OAuth to support federated provisioning needs. The SimpleCloud (SCIM) initiative----which enjoys participation from various cloud providers such as Google, Salesforce as well as identity vendors such as UnboundID and SailPoint----appears to have embraced this concept and taken it to another level. For my money, SCIM is the most promising candidate for a new provisioning standard. Seemingly inspired by the LDAP standard, SCIM also leverages SAML, OAuth 2.0 bearer tokens, OpenID and JWT, while favoring a REST API over less efficient SOAP.

In summary, I tend to agree with Mark Diodati that SPML in its current form is obsolete, but the need for an interoperability standard is now greater than ever. Two lingering questions remain. Will SCIM be the standard we've been waiting for, and what is the value proposition that will compel vendors to embrace it?

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