The SWITCH identity federation – a look beyond its borders

The SWITCH identity federation was conceived almost two decades ago. The SWITCHaai service, implementing its concepts, has been in operation for over a decade. Today, the SWITCH edu-ID service is in its initial stages to become its successor, and it is still following the same model: to stay the identity federation of the Swiss academic community. That is reason enough to address those two rather fundamental questions:

  1. Are national identity federations still the right approach to satisfy the needs of the academic community – a community with increasing international collaboration?
  2. Will emerging e-ID services, or services like SwissID, eventually replace the SWITCH identity federation?

Both question the remits of the current solution: national and academic. But they differ in perspective: while the first is questioning the national remit, the second is questioning the academic-only context.

National federations for international collaboration?

In almost all developed nations, there exists an organisation similar to what SWITCH is to Switzerland: a National Research and Education Networking organisation, or for short: an NREN. For a long time, all those NRENs have operated a data network within their borders to establish data links between their customer universities. And a long time ago, they decided to set up an entity to deal with the international links between their national networks: the association GÉANT. It does therefore not come as a surprise, that the NRENs decided to adopt the very same model and to again task GÉANT when it came to linking those national academic identity federations. The result is at the same time the answer to the first question above: the service eduGAIN of GÉANT is “interfederating” the national academic identity federations and is making them appear as one “super-federation” to users and services. This approach was reconfirmed in each planning cycle of GÉANT since then. Interfederation is not only the answer to share resources across borders, it is at the same time making it easier to address the international academic community as a whole for commercial services (e.g. publishing houses).

National e-IDs instead of academic-only identities?

So far, so good. But could eventually the emerging e-IDs become a disruptive spoilsport to this academic inter-federation? To answer this question, let’s first look at important elements of national identity federations:

  • They define common technical standards (attribute schemas with semantics, technical interfaces etc.)
  • They define the governance framework, including rules to onboard new services and organisations, incident processes etc.
  • Prioritising further development work in line with the main customers and important projects

Many of those tasks are relatively straight-forward to implement in a given trust environment and in a given context. But they become quite complex when generalised outside of a given context and without existing trust environment.

But e-IDs can nevertheless become quite useful in academic identity federations. A strength of emerging e-IDs are their ties with governmental identity registers. This could indeed come quite handy when onboarding new individuals into our federation. Furthermore, its services could solve regulatory requirements when accessing very sensitive data (e.g. health-related data).

The answer to the second question is therefore: We expect emerging e-IDs not to replace our federations, but to offer interesting support services.

SWITCH is periodically in contact with SwissSign to keep us informed about new developments of its SwissID and to explore potential collaboration and partnering synergies and benefits.

Other emerging federations?

We are, as explained above, not expecting the e-ID (SwissID in Switzerland) to make identity federations redundant and to absorb them. This leads us directly to this bonus question: Are there other existing or emerging identity federations out there of interest to us?

And yes, there is an emerging one of great interest: the project FIDES of is tasked to establish the Swiss school federation (see here in French and German. Both federation share many individuals (e.g. the students of the universities of teacher education) and a large subset of the population of the school federation will enter our academic federation later on as students. Furthermore, there are services relevant to both federations (e.g. library resources).

This is reason enough for SWITCH to also stay in contact with and to seek appropriate collaboration opportunities.


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