Solution Brief

Guide: Choosing Open-Source IAM for Higher Education

The higher education landscape

Higher education is no longer limited to a university or college room, a whiteboard, or a lecturer. Today, students from every corner of the world can pursue degrees at Ivy League universities through e-learning. The World Wide Web has combined student and university networks and the modern classroom has become an e-education center.

With this e-education model, a student can join multiple universities around the world and complete his or her education without spending extra on travel and accommodation. This e-model has made the education industry a bit complex and challenging. However, on-campus education is still prevalent and university administration must manage students that are on and away from campus. Digital content, collaborative tools, and online file-sharing and management solutions are now common in many educational institutes. These tools and solutions have brought on other additional identity and access management challenges that need to be addressed in the higher education sector.

Challenges in the higher education industry

Increasing numbers of identities to manage

Maintenance is the most significant and expensive challenge in the educational industry. Each semester, higher education IT departments must deal with thousands of new users being on-boarded and off-boarded at once. This is a cyclical exercise, which each university and college must perform, and places a large strain on limited, in-house IT facilities to maintain the data of every student, their transcripts, and other vital information. If this process is manual, the cost and time incurred would be significantly high. Similarly, information regarding faculty and other organizations connected to the university should be maintained and secured as well. Those data could be in multiple databases and in silos that need to be integrated and easily accessed.

Data duplication and resource allocation redundancies

There is a possibility a student can register in the same university for two qualifications (e.g., a degree and an MSc). This could lead to duplicate information, which, in turn, creates excess resource allocation. A student may also access resources in other universities. This means that universities should maintain information for each student, which leads to redundancies.

Provision and de-provisioning

During the onboarding process, students will need access to multiple systems and applications, such as the student portal, online library, assessment centers, etc. These should be cohesive and provide provisioning capabilities for students to easily manage their own accounts and profiles. Students and faculty may also have multiple roles within the university system. E.g., students who could be part-time faculty and enrolled in postgraduate programs. The access they have to resources should be easily managed.

Limitations in legacy and homegrown systems

Universities rely heavily on legacy or homegrown systems for all administrative work. Typically, legacy IAM systems are expensive to maintain and are costly to fix or enhance. Homegrown solutions, created and maintained by one or two key employees with custom scripts, are nearly impossible to update owing to a steep learning curve. With changes in staff, educational institutes need to find resources to figure out the right code for necessary updates. Legacy systems also don’t allow for innovation and are unable to keep up with modern requirements.

Increased use of tech in the classroom

Classrooms have also evolved from traditional settings to digital, where online portals have digital content and assignment submissions are done online. Students are required to share files online and be more collaborative with their work, increasing the need for digital tools. Higher education institutions should now provide easy access to online and collaborative resources from day one.

Limited resources and budgets

Budgets and financial resources are not ample in higher education. While there is a need for better systems, budget limitations do not always allow sophisticated systems.

Regulation compliance

Privacy and regulation compliance affects universities just as it does other verticals. GDPR, CCPA, HITECH, and PCI DSS are some of the regulations that focus on user consent and privacy.

Managing multiple communities and data security

Data breaches and other security threats, such as increasingly complex cyberattacks, are driving institutions to implement stronger authentication methods. There could also be cases of external professors and other parties that need access to university systems every now and then. While there are core community members (e.g., faculty, students, and staff), there are also "students" taking non-credit online courses who may be on a different continent. The higher education institute should know what a person's relationship is and assign permissions appropriately. Not maintaining high privacy standards could harm a university’s reputation.

To overcome these daunting challenges, open-source identity and access management has emerged with various capabilities to address each of them.

How identity and access management overcomes these challenges

Identity and access management is the process that securely controls access to resources. Having a better identity and access management solution can solve almost all the challenges described above. Taking one step further, treating these use cases as customer IAM requirements (CIAM) addresses these challenges more effectively as it refers to the digital experience of end-users.

CIAM Forrester Wave Report

Secure and high usability access to applications and systems with strong and adaptive authentication

A typical IAM solution must authenticate a user using his or her username and password and manage user details and privileges securely. This will help to manage students and staff details in a centralized location and provide a seamless login experience. External communities can also be managed in a single location by giving them separate roles and permissions.

Personalized user experiences through connected identities with single sign-on and social logins (federation) for students and faculty members - alleviating silos.

An IAM solution should integrate with multiple applications with different protocols, which can help connect student and staff portals and resource management systems through single sign-on. This enables easy access to applications, as a user would not have to re-authenticate to each application. This will also result in protecting data from being exposed. All data will be exposed only after authenticating from the identity provider in the IAM solution due to the centralized architecture.

Managing consent and complying with regulations

Due to regional legal regulations, an administration system should adhere to regulations such as the GDPR and CCPA. An IAM solution should power these regulations due to its centralized architecture of user management. It has to obtain the consent of users before providing access to resources or applications. E.g., WSO2 Identity is fully GDPR compliant and consent management can be done easily from the UI.

Support multiple protocols for SSO and federation along with different database types

Having a simple UI in an IAM solution helps all levels of managers to manage all identities linked to the IAM server easily. In an IAM Solution, social authentication, federated authentication and advance mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication, are highly recommended to secure from phishing attacks that can happen during a typical authentication flow. The ability to dynamically change authentication steps also adds extra security.

Providing standard-based IAM capabilities such as OAuth, SAML, OIDC, WS-Federation, and eIDAS.

An IAM solution should support standard protocols for single sign-on and federation. Hence, applications that support different protocols can be integrated into one platform with a single logout facility. For example, WSO2 Identity Server is an open-source IAM solution that supports a number of standard protocols, such as OAuth, OIDC, SAML, and UMA WS-Federation.

Easily manage student and faculty profiles with identity provisioning

An IAM solution should be able to federate a user to any external identity provider and create a copy of that particular user to its IAM system after authentication. E.g., WSO2 Identity Server supports more than 50+ federated authenticators and multiple outbound and inbound provisioning connectors. The Standard SCIM protocol is used commonly for inbound provisioning flows and most of the outbound provisioning flows as well.

Easy integration with all user stores (AD, LDAP, JDBC) systems and applications

An IAM solution is a platform to integrate multiple user stores and third-party applications. Different user stores can be interconnected together to log into applications from one platform. E.g., all popular user stores, such as AD, LDAP, and JDBC, can be plugged into WSO2 Identity Server using a simple configuration.

Meeting these requirements with a legacy or homegrown system will be costly and time-consuming, as it often requires custom coding, professional service hours for configuration, and crude workarounds. We believe an open-source IAM solution provides the most suitable approach to address these tasks in the least expensive manner.

WSO2 Identity Server easily and speedily enables the above features to implement a centralized student management system within a short timeline.

Why you should consider open-source IAM for higher education

Open-source identity and access management is a great option for higher education institutes that look for well-rounded and robust IAM solutions. Typically, lower costs for ownership and licensing are key reasons for consideration; however, the following reasons are also equally important. Read our white paper to learn more about the benefits of open source IAM and migration options.

Highly extensible

In general, an IAM solution is built on top of an identity framework that can plug different identities and manage centrally. Hence, an IAM solution has a number of extension points for user stores, federation, authentication, inbound provisioning, and outbound provisioning. When the IAM is open source, based on the requirement, custom components can be implemented, plugged to the central IAM solution and used without any proprietary issues.

Speedy innovation

IAM is a fast-growing domain with increasing new protocols and definitions. Open-source collaborations help these faster-growing technologies to move forward with community interactions. E.g., WSO2 Identity Server is fully open source, and anybody can collaborate to its deployments in public GIT repositories. This collaboration drives new feature implementations and the community contributes to frequent bug fixes.


Developers and IT teams have the ability to download this open-source product and test the code as opposed to closed soured IAM. They are able to check and scan the code so they know what they are working with. Open-source IAM also keeps them free from vendor lock-in, giving the possibility to integrate with any other system or migrate if the need arises.

Common myths debunked for open-source IAM

Open-source IAM is a heavily misunderstood segment in the IAM market, in that technical vulnerabilities, IP, and inadequate support are often highlighted as drawbacks. However, these are mere myths that require debunking so that open-source IAM can be pushed for wider adoption for growth in enterprises[1].

Common Myth #1: Less secure than proprietary IAM solutions

From the inception of the open-source concept, this has been a consistent myth. More than in any other software component, security is crucial for an IAM solution as it is the security gateway. But, in reality, the responsibilities lie in the security practices followed in the software development lifecycle (SDLC) and not the software distribution model. WSO2 Identity Server follows security practices based on SDLC to ensure the product meets relevant security measures, including timely incident handling and community engagement in security concerns.

Common Myth # 2: Behind the trends

A key reason why open-source IAM thrives is simply that it speeds up innovation.

WSO2 Identity Server in fact has been named an innovation leader in KuppingerCole’s CIAM report and an overall leader for Identity API platforms. Furthermore, open source does not prevent you from contributing improvements and features; this means that products such as WSO2 Identity Server promote continuous innovation. Refer to our public roadmap to see what’s in store for the next two years.

Common Myth #3 : Not scalable or robust

Scalability and robustness are key factors when selecting software components, especially those for end user-specific solutions such as in higher education. Most of the leading open-source IAM solutions are scalable and robust enough to handle millions of user needs. WSO2 Identity Server manages 100+ million user identities globally and 90% of deployments are CIAM solutions — higher education is one of the leading verticals.

Common myth # 4: Integration hassle

Higher education institutes should be able to integrate with multiple applications and systems, from social IdPs to providing federation to students and other users. Another myth concerning OS IAM is that it is developed with limited industry requirements in mind and integration capabilities are minimum. WSO2 Identity Server is based on open standards and open-source principles and comes with seamless, easy to use integration capabilities that help connect applications, user stores, directories and identity management systems. The connector store alone has over 40 connectors for identity integration. The extensible architecture allows implementing connectors to integrate with non-open standard-based (proprietary/custom) external systems.

Common myth # 5: Lack of professional support and maintenance

Most open-source IAM solutions provide high-quality professional support. WSO2 provides a subscription that gives you direct access to world-class experts fluent in the WSO2 platform as well as enterprise architecture. This includes 24x7x365 expert incident-level WSO2 Support with aggressive response and resolution times. You can find more benefits here. If you are using Ellucian’s Ethos Identity, WSO2 offers a premium subscription for this too, as Ethos Identity is built on the top of WSO2 Identity Server.

As for maintenance, WSO2 offers WSO2 Updates, which provides continuous access to product improvements bug fixes, security updates, and performance enhancements. Also, WSO2 also offers multiple deployment options, installation options, managed cloud options, and more.

If you want to take a closer look at more open-source myths clear up any misconceptions, we suggest you read this post.

In summary, WSO2 Identity Server comes under the Apache 2.0 license, which is an acknowledged business-friendly license, and has no additional cost for extensions. Universities such as Australian Catholic University and Brigham Young University use WSO2’s open-source Identity Server for their higher education solutions and requirements.

A checklist to consider when choosing an open-source IAM solution

Provides authentication mechanisms with high usability such as adaptive authentication

Meets budgetary requirements and offers options accordingly

Supports open standards and protocols, such as SAML2, OAuth2, and OIDC

Integrates and enables bridging with heterogeneous IDPs, technologies, and systems

Helps integrate apps in an identity ecosystem

Accommodates cloud vs. on-premises deployments or interconnectivity

Supports large-scale deployments

Enables freedom from platform and vendor lock-in implications

Utilizes a governance model of open-source business friendliness: Apache 2.0

Allows ease of extension and customization

Provides commercial support: Low-cost trials and PoCs


Considering all the challenges in the higher education space, it is important to choose an IAM solution that gives flexibility and freedom, while ensuring that faculty and students receive an optimum user experience.

WSO2 Identity Server is a fully open-source IAM solution that comprises the required capabilities to solve the above-described challenges and drawbacks. Get in touch with us if you’re looking for an open-source IAM solution, or if you’re an Ethos Identity user looking to make the most out of your solution.