Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Federated AUTH is less than half the battle

Federated web authentication, as provided by Shibboleth, OpenID, Pubcookie, Cambridge's Ucam WebAuth (a.k.a. Raven), etc., is less than half the battle of adapting an application to work in a federated environment. Much the harder part involves the related issues of authorisation and account provision.

Most existing applications assume that they have some sort of account for every users who can authenticate, not least because traditionally they need somewhere to store user names and passwords. In the federated authentication world this won't always be true, since lots of people will be able to authenticate that the application has never heard of.

Approaches to dealing with this include:

Require an account to exist locally before a user can authenticate

If handled manually, this can impose an administrative overhead which will only be manageable for a small user base. Alternativly accounts could be provisioned automatically, but only if the expected set of users can be identified in advance. It is often hard to adapt existing software to not fail badly when presented with an authenticated user who doesn't have an account.

Users may have to tell administrators how their identity provider will identify them and this could be a problem - in Shib's case it is currently unlikely that users will know their eduPersonPrincipleName (even if it is available), and they can't predict their eduPersonTargetedID. An authenticated 'Application' page that captures available attributes might be a way around this.

Automatically provision an account when a user first authenticates

Doing this entirely automatically assumes that information is available about the user, and so assumes either Shib-like attribute provision or access to additional data in something like an LDAP directory. It also assumes that enough information is available to create accounts - some existing applications positively require things like forename and surname which is problematic if these are not available. Alternativly or additionally, users can be prompted for additional information, though obviously this is less reliable and implementing such prompting can be difficult.

However it is also necessary to decide who will get such accounts, since it's unlikely that you will actually want to provision an account for everyone who can successfully authenticate, especially if such accounts come with some basic privileges. So some sort of rule engine will be needed to define who does and doesn't get an account, and perhaps what default privileges they get. This will have to be driven by Shib-like attributes or information from directories. For obvious (I hope) reasons, such decisions probably can't be taken based on information supplied by the users themselves.

Dynamically log users in without creating accounts for them

In some applications it's possible for a user to appear 'logged-in' without having a corresponding user account. One example I happen to know about s Plone using the WebServerAuth product. This simplifies things somewhat, though you still need to address the question of who gets what access by default. You probably need some way to manually grant additional access to a limited number of people where the people and the access that they need can't be established based on attribute or directory data - for them, some sort of local account bound to their federated identity will probably still be needed.

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