What is SAML? How does SAML work?

In the realm of digital security, Single Sign-On (SSO) is a game-changer, streamlining user authentication processes across various online platforms. At the heart of SSO lies SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) authentication, an XML-based open standard for securely transmitting identity data between identity providers and service providers. In this article, we’ll dive into the world of SAML authentication, understand its significance, and explore how to effortlessly set up SAML connections using Auth0.

What is SAML Authentication?

Before delving into the technicalities, let’s paint a scenario to illustrate why SAML is crucial. Imagine you join a new company, let’s call it “Wizova.” As an employee, you need access to various services, from Salesforce to Jira. With SAML authentication in place, you can seamlessly log into these services without repeatedly entering your credentials. SAML, or Security Assertion Markup Language, facilitates this magic.

SAML operates on the principle of a trusted relationship between two parties: the Identity Provider (IDP) and the Service Provider (SP). The IDP authenticates the user and securely passes their identity and authorization details to the SP. The SP, in turn, trusts the IDP’s authentication and authorizes the user’s access to requested resources.

In our Wizova example, Auth0 serves as the IDP, and Salesforce is the SP. When a Wizova employee clicks the Salesforce icon on the dashboard, Salesforce recognizes the desire for SAML-based login and initiates a SAML request to Auth0. Auth0 verifies the user’s session, responds with a SAML assertion, and if everything aligns, Salesforce grants access.

Benefits of SAML Authentication

Understanding the advantages of SAML is essential:

  1. Improved User Experience: SAML streamlines authentication, requiring users to log in only once to access multiple service providers. This enhances user convenience and eliminates the need to remember numerous passwords.
  2. Enhanced Security: SAML centralizes authentication with a trusted identity provider, ensuring that user credentials are sent only to the IDP. This minimizes security risks associated with credential sharing.
  3. Reduced Operational Costs: Service providers no longer need to maintain and synchronize user account information across various services. The IDP takes on this responsibility, reducing administrative overhead.

How SAML Authentication Works

SAML-based single sign-on authentication typically involves two main parties: the Service Provider and the Identity Provider. The process flow typically includes trust establishment and an authentication flow:

  • User Initiates Login: The user attempts to log into a service (SP).
  • SAML Request Generation: The SP generates a SAML request.
  • User Redirection: The user’s browser is redirected to a Single Sign-On (SSO) URL provided by the IDP.
  • User Authentication: The IDP authenticates the user, either with a username, password, or other methods. If the user is already authenticated, this step may be skipped.
  • SAML Response Generation: After successful authentication, the IDP generates a SAML response.
  • Response Sent to Browser: The browser receives the SAML response and sends it to the SP.
  • Verification at SP: The SP verifies the SAML response. If successful, the user is logged in and granted access to resources.

SAML Request and Response Details

SAML requests and responses contain critical information:

  • ID: A unique identifier for the request or response.
  • Issue Instant: A timestamp indicating when the request or response was generated.
  • Assertion Consumer Service URL: The SAML URL on the SP where the IDP sends the authentication token.
  • Issuer: The unique identifier of the service provider.
  • InResponseTo: The ID of the SAML request associated with the response.
  • Recipient: The unique identifier of the service provider.

Configuring SAML Authentication Using Auth0

To set up SAML authentication using Auth0, follow these steps:

  1. Log into your Auth0 account and navigate to “Applications” and “SSO Integrations.”
  2. Create a new SSO Integration, such as Zendesk.
  3. Configure the SAML settings with the provided SAML SSO URL, certificate fingerprint, and remote logout URL.
  4. Ensure the “return_to” parameter in the remote logout URL is set as an allowed logout URL in the advanced settings of your tenant.
  5. On Zendesk, configure team member and end-user authentication to use Auth0 as the external authentication provider.
  6. Log out of Zendesk and experience the seamless SAML-based login.

Additional SAML Use Cases

Auth0 offers versatile SAML configurations, including:

  • Configuring Auth0 as a service provider in a SAML federation.
  • Setting up SAML SSO integrations with various applications like Google Apps, Datadog, Cisco WebEx, and more.
  • Configuring Auth0 to work with other identity providers such as OneLogin, Salesforce, or SiteMinder.
  • Utilizing Auth0 as both the identity provider and service provider for SSO.


SAML authentication is a robust framework for achieving secure single sign-on across multiple platforms. Understanding its mechanics, benefits, and the ease of configuration with tools like Auth0 empowers organizations to enhance security, user experiences, and operational efficiency. With SAML, the future of authentication is seamless and secure.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through SAML authentication. If you have any questions or require further guidance, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Your feedback is invaluable as we explore the ever-evolving world of digital security and authentication.

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