While trying to figure out how to implement a single-sign-on (SSO) system for a custom with OpenID, I has a minor insight when I realized that OpenID is not a SSO server. Its actual purpose is slightly different.

About Single Sign-On

Suppose you have two web servers, one for Secrets and one for Mysteries. Each has facilities that require users to log in. For marketing reasons, you want users to view the two sites as a coherent whole: they should not have to log in twice, once for each site. Whichever server the user happens to visit first will redirect them to the login page, and once they have logged in, both sites will treat them as logged in. What do you need in order to implement this?

Simplest Case: Shared Host

Things are easiest if your sites are on the same server, for example, you could have

http://example.com/secrets/
http://example.com/mysteries/

Both sites use the same user database (more about this later), and store the user name in a cookie encoded and encrypted in the same way. In ASP.NET you add clauses to Web.config that specify the machine key and the cookie name, and ensure that each site is configured with the same values.

Now all you have to do is configure the two sites so that the login cookie includes the attribute path=/. This ensures that the cookie is included with all requests on the server example.com.

There is no actual requirement that the same physical machine be used to serve both sites: using a load-balancer or a reverse proxy, you can arrange for requests in the http://example.com/ URL space to be delegated to different application servers.

Simple Case: Shared Domain

If the different servers must be geographically dispersed then sharing a hostname may prove impractical. They can instead share a domain:

http://secrets.example.com/
http://mysteries.example.com/

In this case it is still possible to share a login cookie: you set its domain attribute to .example.com and it will be included in all requests to hosts in that domain.

The only wrinkle is that ASP.NET 1.1 does not directly support specifying the domain of the login cookie. You can work around this by changing your logjn.aspx so that, instead of calling LogInAndRedirect, it creates the cookie explicitly and then does the redirect. ASP.NET 2.0 can be configured from Web.config.

The main trick here is that you cannot deploy (or test) this scheme on an intranet if your intranet host names do not have domains. This can cause some customers to believe it cannot be made to work.

Complicated Case: Single-Sign-On Server

If it is necessary to give the various servers domain names that do not have a common ancestor, then a single cookie cannot be shared between them. Suppose you have the following two URLs:

http://secrets.com/
http://mysteries.com/

There is no way to set a cookie that is included in requests to both these domains.

In this case we need a third server, the SSO server, whose purpose is to keep track of who is logged in. When you visit a page on secrets.com, if its cookie is not set, it consults the SSO server to find if the user is already logged in, in which case it silently creates the cookie and carries on as if they had already been logged in.

Shared User Database

Integration

In the above description I have glossed over an important step of the process: the part of the login page that determines whether a request to log in is valid or not. While the Secrets and Mysteries sites probably do something similar (e.g., looking up a user record in the database and comparing the password offered with the one in the database), if the applications were developed separately, the details of how they work will differ. Also, if they assume user records are mixed in with their other database tables, they will have their own separate user databases.

It follows that when we start the process of integrating the two applications, one step will be disentangling the user database for authentication from any other databases they use, and tweaking them to use the same database layout.

There is also the possibility that the authentication database will have new entries added. Unless there is some back-channel that also adds entries to the application database, the applications will need to be able to add new entries on-the-fly. If there is a registration process, then they will have to be changed so it is now triggered by the arrival of an authenticated user for whom there is no user record.

Pluggable Authentication

Suppose the web application is a product, meaning that it will be deployed by a variety of customers on their own servers. Many of them may already have a users database (such as LDAP or Active Directory), and it would be tedious and error-prone to try to copy them to our user database. Instead we want to use their existing authentication scheme directly.

In ASP.NET the most straightforward way to do this, assuming some programming expertise is available, is to supply a login page with a customizable method for checking a user’s credentials. Since this is the only place that needs to ‘know’ about the style of authentication, the changes are fairly self-contained. The downside is that updates to the application software will clobber the changes.

One way to address this problem, at the cost of some additional complexity, is to have the login page call methods on a strategy object (also called a ‘driver’) that encapsulates the knowledge about authentication. In .NET, the strategy object implements an interface called something like IUserAuthenticator, and is instantiated using a type name that is obtained from Web.config. If custom authentication schemes are deployed as assemblies distinct from those for the application itself, they will not be clobbered when performing upgrades.

This assumes all your web sites are ASP.NET sites. With a mixture of programming platforms, things could get more complicated, since you would need to write fresh strategy objects in each language. At this point you start wondering about having some sort of language-neutral RPC to do the authentication.

Where OpenID Fits In

OpenID servers do not correspond to the single-sign-on server mentioned above. The crucial difference is that, if both the secrets and the mysteries web sites supported OpenID, you would still be asked to sign in with OpenID once for each site visited. All OpenID would take away is the requirement to enter your password each time.

No, what OpenID corresponds to is pluggable authentication and a shared user database. The difference is that, rather than writing a new .NET object (or the equivalent for your platform’s programming language), you instead add OpenID support to the authentication server. If you have to do it from scratch, this is naturally a fair bit more work. On the other hand, some authentication servers might already support OpenID (because it is a standard). OpenID support is also more valuable:

  • adding OpenID support to authentication servers might benefit other applications in addition to our own (as more applications become OpenID consumers);

  • OpenID providers can be on a different site from the application servers, which may allow us to host the application for the customer, while leaving the authentication servers on their network;

  • OpenID allows for multiple authentication servers to be used together, which is useful if we are combining formerly disjoint user groups (after a company merger, say).

In extreme cases it may be necessary to have both OpenID and SSO servers. In most cases, shared cookies + OpenID will suffice.

Author
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Published
13 August
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