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According to a recent survey conducted by Sun Microsystems on its Web site, the average IT or business professional juggles 15 or more user names and passwords for work and personal business. Managing all this disparate information can lead to an enormous identity crisis for individuals and the organizations with which they interact.

The issue of identity resonates across the work and home front as people use multiple identities several times each day--whether it's a key card to enter a building, a sign-on to access e-mail and their intranet at work, or a user name and password to complete a transaction on one's favorite online shopping site.

In the business world, network identity refers to the electronic connections a company has with its employees, customers, partners and suppliers. In a perfect world, employees would have one sign-on to securely access all the electronic applications they need at work. Partners and vendors would have seamless, secure exchanges of information with businesses. And every electronic customer interaction would leverage a customer's profile information, such as providing customized product and service menus as well as mining data for potential future transactions. In this perfect world, the customers would have control of their profile information, deciding whom to share their information with, and how much of their information to share.

While it's easy to envision that perfect world, businesses today are far from achieving such a nirvana of simplicity. It is inherently difficult to manage the multitude of identities for all personnel, customers, partners and/or vendors. This fact poses a major hurdle for businesses seeking to take advantage of the promises of e-business and ultimately leads to security and privacy issues. Network identity is the cornerstone of the next generation of service-centric business applications. Businesses will spend millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours creating systems and procedures to better manage and leverage network identities.

Companies not already on the path to building out an enterprise identity infrastructure need to take the steps to do so now. Consolidating the identities of all the users in an existing enterprise can produce significant cost and productivity savings while making for a simpler user experience. This means providing employees with fewer identifiers, fewer passwords and fewer places to search for information.

Managing network identity is also about controlling access to networks while simplifying the system administrators' management tasks. Within the next year or two, most companies will expand their identity infrastructures from being enterprise-centric (within the firewall) to going outside their corporate firewall to accommodate customers and partners. This will require a scalable infrastructure that can support millions of accounts. The sooner companies implement a robust network identity solution, the sooner they'll be able to take advantage of identity administration cost and time savings.

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