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Deal boosts Liberty Alliance

France Telecom's new single-sign-on system will be the biggest yet to use the alliance's identity management spec.

IBM has won a contract to create a single-sign-on network for France Telecom's 50 million cellular phone users, in a deal that will create the biggest system yet based on the Liberty Alliance's identity management specification.

The Liberty Alliance is a consortium of more than 150 organizations devoted to creating specifications that allow people to sign on to multiple networks by entering user information--such as name and password--only once.

Big Blue is not a member of the Liberty Alliance, but the deal, announced Thursday, shows that the organization's specification is gaining ground among e-commerce providers, as France Telecom required that Big Blue comply with the group's latest specification.

"Our customers have been asking for Liberty federated identity," said Venkat Raghavan, manager of security products for IBM's Tivoli software group. "They wanted a common way for users to access the services."

The system will allow users of France Telecom's Orange cellular network to sign on to the system using either a mobile phone or a personal computer. With a single ID, the subscriber can then access services offered by France Telecom and its partners. The service also allows users to automatically retrieve passwords in a secure manner.

"We continuously look for more efficient ways to secure systems and administer users effectively, and identity federation is the next frontier," said Jean-Paul Maury, vice president for France Telecom. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

E-commerce providers and large corporations have focused on identity management--the former for customers, the latter for employees--as a means to cut costs and make services easier to manage. By centralizing data, identity management make administering access rights and managing personal information easier. Part of the Liberty Alliance's mission is to create standards that allow one company's services to use another company's identity management system.

Microsoft, which has standardized on a Web services-based framework for identity management, has not committed to supporting the Liberty Alliance specification in its products. IBM worked with Microsoft to develop the Web Services framework. But Microsoft retreated somewhat from pushing identity services after it failed to attract a significant number of companies to its Passport Web identity infrastructure.

The Liberty Alliance counts the France Telecom deal as a big step forward for its framework.

"Obviously, one of the key things here is that customers are demanding that providers not only support Liberty but go through the compliance tests," said Simon Nicholson, chair of the alliance's business and marketing group.

Nicholson, who is the manager of strategic industry initiatives for Sun Microsystems, said that phones will increasingly be the data access point that people use to get services, making single-sign-on systems even more important, since logging into a network with a phone is much slower than using a PC's keyboard.

Applications that France Telecom hopes that it or its partners will supply include instant messaging, location-based services, games, online banking and e-mail.