Sunday, March 8, 2009

Dave Kearns Suggests "World Wide Directory Service"

In his most recent column, Dave Kearns comments on IGF and how it could be used with virtual directories to form a world wide directory service.

This is a very interesting thought, but Mark Wilcox and I agree, a universal directory service operated or controlled by a single vendor isn't the right way to solve federated provisioning. For one thing, LDAP isn't the only requirement. Today's techniques for exchanging identity information involve many methods, and many modes (browser-based and backend-based). Any solution has to handle multiple identity protocols and should have no central point of control or storage. The implementation should not be owned by one vendor, it should be open, available for anyone to adopt and use. Rather than anything that approaches vendor lock-in, the solution has to be adjustable - preferably on-the-fly. The solution should be configurable and policy driven so that multiple technologies and providers can be used.

The need to link separate identity repositories around the world reminds me of the early days of enterprise networks. We used to talk about Ethernet networks, Token Ring, or even AppleTalk networks. These were standalone networks that tended to be isolated and self-sufficient with no concept of outside connectivity. Connections between networks were rare and expensive to implement. In part because the media (type of wire) for the network meant new protocols to handle communication. The TCP/IP "stack" came along and abstracted issues of network media and inter-network routing into layers. Everything changed. The Internet itself was born.

Applications today are at a similar crossroads. If they use identity services, the services are isolated to a single enterprise directory service. The problem? We as humans cross organization boundaries all the time. Applications are unable to expoit the power of the "Internet" when it comes to identity services. In the same way as TCP/IP solved media and inter-network challenges, applications need some way to handle the different protocols used in different enterprise networks. Most importantly, if we start networking identity information, applications and the enterprises that use them need a way to be able to respect privacy and ensure that the information being transferred is appropriate and secure.

What is needed is a multi-protocol identity networking "stack" that developers and service providers can use to interconnect systems. Instead of solving media and networking issues, this stack needs to solve identity mapping, routing, and protocol conversion. While IGF was originally specified for Identity Goverance, it turns out Dave Kearns is right, the IGF specifications may be an important part of the solution. More on that next time...

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