16  Auth in Enterprise

Imagine you’re suddenly responsible for managing access to the services and data in an enterprise. You’ve got dozens of people joining, leaving, or changing roles each week, and there are dozens or hundreds of different systems they might need to access. And complying with the principle of least privilege means you don’t want to just give everyone access to everything. Managing who’s allowed to do what could be a major headache.

One thing you almost certainly don’t want is individual people who aren’t admins deciding how to secure individual systems. Instead, you want to centralize the process of letting people log in to the services they need, called auth, inside the IT/Admin group.

If you work in an enterprise, you’ll almost certainly have to work with the organization’s corporate auth to login to your data science workbench and make use of data sources. Additionally, if you’re advocating for a data science environment at your organization, you’ll probably be given IT/Admin requirements related to auth. This chapter is designed to help you understand how IT/Admins think about auth and the technologies they have at their disposal to make it work.


This chapter is designed to help you understand the basic terminology around auth. If you’re curious, there’s more detail on the technical operation of each of these technologies in Appendix A.

16.1 A gentle introduction to auth

Imagining yourself as an enterprise IT/Admin, you’ve got dozens or hundreds of different services that require auth – email, databases, servers, social media accounts, HR systems, and more. Let’s imagine each of those services as a room in a building.

Your job is to give everyone access to the rooms they need and only the rooms they need.

First, you need a way to ascertain and validate the identity of anyone who’s trying to enter a room in the building. And for that, you’ll need to issue and verify credentials. The most common computer credential is a username and password, but there are other kinds of credentials including biometrics like fingerprints and facial identification, multi-factor codes, push notifications on your phone, and ID cards. The process of verifying credentials is called authentication (authn).

But in an enterprise context, just knowing that someone has valid credentials is insufficient. Remember, not every person in an enterprise gets to access every system or every feature of every system. So you’ll also need a way to check their permissions, which is the binary choice of whether they’re allowed to access the service. The permissions checking process is called authorization (authz). The combination of authn and authz comprise auth.

Authentication -- someone proving who they are with an ID card. Authorization -- someone asking if they can come in and a list being consulted.

Many organizations start out simply with auth. They just add services one at a time and allow each service to use it’s own built-in functionality to issue service-specific usernames and passwords to users. This would be similar to posting a guard at the door to each room who works out a unique passphrase with each user.

A user logging into 3 different services with 3 different usernames and passwords.

This quickly becomes a mess for everyone. It’s bad for users because they need to either keep many credentials straight or reuse them over and over, which is insecure. And as an IT/Admin, adding, removing, or changing permissions is a pain, because the permissions are managed individually with each system.

16.2 Centralizing user management with LDAP/AD

In the mid-1990s, an open protocol called LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, pronounced ell-dapp) became popular. LDAP allows services to collect usernames and passwords from users and use them to query the central LDAP database. The LDAP server sends back information on their user, including their username and groups, which the service can use to authorize the user. Microsoft implemented LDAP as a piece of software called Active Directory (AD) that became so synonymous with LDAP that the technology is often just called LDAP/AD.

Switching to LDAP/AD is like changing the process in our building so the guard will radio in the credentials from the user and you’ll radio back if those credentials are valid. This is a big improvement. Having only one set of credentials makes life easier for users. We know now that all the rooms are using a similar level of security and if credential are compromised, it’s easy to swap them out.

A user logging into different services with the same username and password with an LDAP/AD server in the back.

LDAP/AD provides a straightforward way to create Linux users with a home directory, so it’s often used in data science workbench contexts that have that requirement.

LDAP/AD predates the rise of the cloud and SaaS services, and is considered a legacy technology. In particular, LDAP/AD can’t be used to centrally manage authorization. With LDAP/AD who can do what still has to be managed with each service.

Additionally, LDAP/AD requires the service request and pass along the user credentials which is a potential security risk and usually means that it’s not possible to incorporate now-common requirements like multi-factor authentication (MFA). These days, many organizations are getting rid of their LDAP/AD implementations and are adopting a smoother user and admin experience with cloud-friendly technologies.


It’s worth noting that LDAP/AD actually isn’t an auth technology at all. It’s a type of database that happens to be particularly well-suited to managing users in an organization. So even as many organizations are switching to more modern systems, they may just be wrappers around user data stored in an existing LDAP/AD system.

16.3 The rise of Single Sign On (SSO)

Single Sign On (SSO) is when you login once at the start of your workday to a standalone identity provider and then are granted access to every service you need when you go there. These days, SSO is almost always done through a standalone identity provider like Okta, Onelogin, Ping, or Microsoft Entra ID.1

Advantages of SSO includes central management of authorization at the identity provider and making it easier to implement more sophisticated forms of credentialling like MFA, because they only need to be implemented by the identity provider. For many organizations, especially enterprise ones, SSO is a requirement for any new service.


The term SSO is somewhat ill-defined. It usually means the experience described here, but sometimes it just means the centralized user and credential management in an LDAP/AD system. It’s important to follow up when an IT/Admin says SSO is a requirement.

SSO is analogous to having users exchange their credentials for a building access pass at the central security office. Each room has a machine to send a request to the central security office, where the room can be remotely unlocked if it’s ok.

A user getting an SSO token, which they use to login to each service.

SSO is a description of a user and admin experience, usually accomplised by one of two technologies – SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) or OAuth (Open Identity Connect/OAuth2.0).2 From the user perspective, using SAML and OAuth are very similar. Your organization’s IT/Admins are likely to use OAuth to work with external SaaS services and may have a slight preference for SAML for services inside your organization’s firewall.

As I write this in 2023, there’s a major shift underway from legacy systems like LDAP/AD to cloud-friendly SSO systems and enhanced security they enable. In particular, the use of non-password credentials like biometrics and passphrases and the use of OAuth to do sophisticated authorization management inside enterprises are relatively uncommon now, but are likely to be standard practices within a few years.

16.4 Managing permissions

Irrespective of the technology used, your organization is going to have policies about how they manage permissions that you’ll need to incorporate or adopt.


There are meaningful differences in how LDAP, SAML, and OAuth communicate to services about permissions. That’s a level of detail beyond this chapter. More in Appendix A if you’re interested.

If your organization has a policy you’re going to need to be able to enforce inside the data science environment, it’s most likely a Role Based Access Control (RBAC) policy. In RBAC, permissions are assigned to an abstraction called a role. Users and groups are then given roles depending on their needs.

For example, there might be a manager role that should have access to certain permissions in the HR software. This role would be applied to anyone in the data-science-manager group as well as the data-engineering-manager group.

There are a few issues with RBAC. Most importantly, if there are lots of idiosyncratic permissions, it’s often easier to create tons and tons of special roles rather than figure out how to harmonize them into a system.

Many organizations haven’t reached the complexity of adopting RBAC. They often use simple Access Control Lists (ACLs) of who’s allowed to access each service.3 ACLs have the advantage of being conceptually simple, but with a lot of services or a lot of users, it can be a pain to maintain individual lists for each service.

Some organizations are going more granular techniques than RBAC or ACLs and are adopting Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC). In ABAC, permissions are granted based on an interaction of different attributes and a rules engine.

For example, you can imagine three distinct attributes a user could have: data-science, data-engineer, and manager. You could create a rules engine that provides access to different resources based on the combinations of these attributes.

Relative to RBAC, ABAC is a more powerful system that allows for more granular permissions, but it’s a much bigger lift to initially configure. You’ve already encountered an ABAC system in the AWS IAM system. If you tried to configure anything in IAM, you were probably completely befuddled. You can thank the power and complexity of ABAC.

16.5 Connecting to data sources

Whether you’re working directly on a data science workbench or deploying a project to a hosting platform, you’re almost certainly connecting to a database, storage bucket, or data API along the way.

It used to be the case that most data sources had simple username and password auth, so you could authenticate by just passing those credentials along to the data source, preferably via environment variables (see Chapter 3). This is still the easiest way to connect to data sources.

But that doesn’t work if your data source is expecting a secure SSO token rather than a username and password.

The good news is that connecting data sources to SSO makes them more secure than directly passing a username and password to a database. The bad news is that it’s still early in the adoption of these technologies, and your ability to acquire and use an SSO token may be limited.

In some cases, you can manually acquire an SSO token. In that case, you can simply do it at the outset of your script and use the token. This is a relatively rare case.

But most times, the IT/Admin wants you to have the experience of logging in and automatically having access to your data systems. This situation is sometimes termed passthrough auth. This is a great user experience and is highly secure, because there are never any credentials in the data science environment, just the exchange of one cryptographically secure token for another.

The user logs into the data science platform with an SSO token and then can automatically access the data source with the proper token.

The downside is that this isn’t easy to accomplish. Data science platforms have to implement this kind of token exchange on a service-by-service basis for every type of data source you might want to access.


One thing you definitely can’t do, though it seems like a great idea at first, is just use the SAML or OAuth token that got you into the data science environment to authenticate to the data source.

For most types of SSO, the token that gets you access to an individual service isn’t your overall building access pass and the service doesn’t get access to the building access pass for security reasons. That means “passthrough” is a complete misnomer for how this works and it’s actually a much more complicated token exchange.

One technology people use for this purpose is an old, but very secure, technology called Kerberos. There are a variety of different ways to configure Kerberos, but the upshot is that you get Kerberos Ticket available to you to attach to database calls.

However, there are a few issues with this setup. First, Kerberos exclusively works inside a private network, so you can’t use it to authenticate to a cloud database. Second, it basically is only used to connect to databases and only some types of databases support Kerberos authentication. Third, using Kerberos generally requires you to actually login to the underlying server. This generally isn’t a problem in the Workbench environment, but can be a pain if you’re trying to use Kerberos with deployed content.

OAuth is quickly becoming an industry standard on this front, but it’s not fully implemented in a number of places. I expect this will be a solved problem within the next few years, but for right now you’ll need to talk to your IT/Admin team about whether you can use a username and password to connect to the data source or whether you’ll have to cross your fingers that there’s an integration that exists so you can seamlessly use your SSO token to access a data source.

16.6 Comprehension Questions

  1. What is the difference between authentication and authorization?
  2. What are some different ways to manage permissions? What are the advantages and drawbacks of each?
  3. What is some advantages of token-based auth? Why are most organizations adopting it? Are there any drawbacks?
  4. For each of the following, is it a username + password method or a token method? PAM, LDAP, Kerberos, SAML, ODIC/OAuth

  1. Until recently, Microsoft Entra ID was called Azure Active Directory, which confusingly was for SSO, not Active Directory. That’s probably why they changed the name.↩︎

  2. There is a technology called Kerberos that some organizations use to accomplish SSO with LDAP/AD. This is rare.↩︎

  3. Standard Linux permissions (POSIX permissons) that were discussed in Chapter 9 are basically a special case of ACLs. ACLs allow setting individual-level permissions for any number of users and groups, as opposed to the one owner, one group, and everyone else permissions set for POSIX.

    Linux distros now have support for ACLs on top of the standard POSIX permissions.↩︎