Yossi Dahan [BizTalk]


Friday, June 12, 2009

Geneva Framework and Url case sensitivity- solved?

I’ve blogged before (somewhat briefly, for a change) about my surprise when I learnt that URLs are [largely theoretically, in my view] case sensitive and the problem that this causes for a Geneva Framework based passive STS implementation.

In that post I mentioned  a solution suggested by Peter Korn at the time – setting the path of the cookie to the domain root (‘/’) instead of the application path (including virtual directories), as, unlike the rest of the path, the domain name in a URL is not case sensitive, this works well, and I though it was “case closed”; until recently, when I’ve realised this solution has a very significant drawback - as the cookie, containing the authorisation token from the STS, is stored at the root of the domain, it will be served to every application under that domain, which is taking single-sign-on slightly too far :-)

Following this approach it is not possible allow access to one application and deny it from another (on the same domain) other than through claims processing in the applications themselves, which is a less secure approach from an architecture perspective); clearly not a good solution then…

So – I needed to go back to storing the cookie in the correct path, which would ensure that the STS is re-visited when trying to access a second application (even in the same domain), which – in turn – would mean that the user’s permissions are re-evaluated, before a second, application-specific, token is provided; with that - came back the problem of the URLs being case sensitive.

Thankfully, we’re now on the TAP program for the Geneva Framework, and we’re getting great support by the guys at Redmond (can’t thank them enough!), and after bringing up this issue in a discussion, Shiung Yong suggested another approach to solving this - overriding the GetReturnUrlFromResponse method in the WSFAM.

(Side track: The more I work with the Geneva Framework the more impressed I am with the extensibility options it provides, sure – it’s hard to figure those out on your own if you don’t know about them, and yeah – the resulting solution is often somewhat fragmented, with bits of code in several places, but that’s not much different from many other solutions in this space I suspect – you can see this with many WCF implementations – on the upside, however, if you’re willing to put the sweat, you can do pretty much everything (but yes – the continuum moves from adding a couple lines of code to re-writing the framework :-) )

To understand why and how Shiung’s solution works, consider the following scenario, describing the problem (and here’s where my description is bound to get somewhat confusing) -

Out of the box, the flow of circular redirects, when the URL in the browser is entered in the “wrong” casing, is as follows -

  1. The user types in the RP’s URL, let’s say - all in uppercase, into the browser
  2. As the http request to the RP does not contain an authentication token at this point, the FAM at the RP redirects it to the STS, providing the RP’s ‘realm’ to the STS (the ‘realm’ is configured at the RP and is intended to provide a unique URI to the STS, which it can use to identify the RP, and, for example, be used to load the relevant configuration such as which certificates to use when creating the token); the original URI the user had typed in is also provided through the query string (the ru property in wctx); optionally, and crucially, the RP may also provide the wreply query string parameter, based on its configuration; it is expected that the STS will forward the request, after authentication the user, to this address (but this is not mandated), this will become a key point shortly.
  3. Still at the STS the user authenticates (generally using a login screen), and the STS redirects the request, with a ‘sign in response’ message containing an authentication token back to the RP; as mentioned before it is expected that this would be the address provided by the wreply (and this would be the default behaviour provided by the framework, but this can be easily overridden in the STS’ implementation); for this example, lets assume that the configured value, echoed in the wreply property is set to be in lowercase (remember – the user typed in the URL in the browser in uppercase).
  4. The redirect request contains the set-cookie instructions with the token from the STS and so the browser would set the required cookies in the address the STS redirected to - the lowercase address.
  5. In the step that would follow, the FAM does its sign-in ‘magic’, which concludes by redirecting the request to the URL set in the STS’ response message through the ru field in the query string - this is the URL the user typed into the browser initially, kept by the RP and then the STS - which is all uppercase
  6. At this point, FAM is called again for the new request, attempting to extract the authentication cookie, but as the cookie was stored on the URL the STS redirected to – which was lowercase - and the browser is now using the URL the user typed initially – which is all uppercase - the cookie is not served by the browser, and thus not found in the server code, and the user is being redirected back to the STS as if this was the first call;
  7. As the request arrives to the STS with the uppercase url again, the above would happen again and again in an endless cycle.

Confused? hopefully not too much…but to summarise - out of the box, if the two (the URL configured as the reply to address in the RP, or any other URL the STS uses to redirect back to the RP)  and the URL typed into the browser by the user) are not [case-sensitive] identical, the cookie will be set, but subsequently not found when attempted to be read and thus authentication at the RP would continuously fail.

In comes Shiung’s solution -

As long as there’s a convention in the implementation as to the correct form of the URLs (or if drowning in more configuration is acceptable) the FAM could be extended to over come this -

Step 5 above mentions the FAM has some ‘magic’ authentication work with a redirect in the end; the built in implementation uses the ru field to obtain the address to redirect to, but there’s a good extension point there in the form of the GetUrlFromResponse method of the FAM which is called to obtain the url; by overriding this function you can provide whatever logic you wish to control the URL the FAM would redirect the request to after authenticating the request.

Lets say we can agree (as we have) that all reply to addresses will always be configured in lowercase (whilst we can’t control user behaviour, we can control our own configuration), with that agreed we can override the GetUrlFromResponse to always convert the ru value to lowercase before returning it to the bulit in functionality – here’s my version of the method, as suggested by Shiung -

   public class CaseInsensitiveFAM : Microsoft.IdentityModel.Web.WSFederationAuthenticationModule
        protected override string GetReturnUrlFromResponse(System.Web.HttpRequest request)
            string returnUrl = base.GetReturnUrlFromResponse(request);
            return returnUrl.ToLower();

(it is important, of course, to remember to configure the RP to use your custom FAM and not the build-in one -

        <!--<add name="WSFederationAuthenticationModule"
Microsoft.IdentityModel, Version=, Culture=neutral,

<add name="CaseInsensitiveFAM" type="CaseInsensitiveFAM, Utilities"/>


What had just happened?

  1. By convention, we ensured the RP provided a lowercase reply to address to the STS.

  2. The STS uses this (lowercase) address to forward the request containing the authentication token, and this is where the cookies will be set.

  3. The FAM uses GetUrlFromResponse to retrieve the URL to redirect to, my customised version ensures this would always be lowercase, aligned with the RP configuration

  4. The browser is redirected, again to the lowercase address, this time to receive the cookies set in step 2 which means the request is now authenticated and the user is let in; no more circular redirects!

Of course I’ve implemented a hardcoded rule (always lowercase), but you could use configuration, investigate the http request message or any other logic you’d like…

Some issues remain with that approach (that I can think of) -

If, at this point, the user goes and types the URL in a different casing, as the cookie already exists and the FAM code will not execute again, the user will get redirected to the STS for authentication, but that’s fair enough – I don’t know of any user that would do that in real life..and the result (requiring re-authenticaiton) is quite acceptable

The other thing is that this solution would break should an application be case sensitive (for query string parameters, for example), but we don’t have that problem, and it could be handled by more sophisticated code in the custom FAM, so that’s ok as well.


I suspect this is not the clearest post I’ve ever published (but, unfortunately, probably not the worst), so I can only hope someone will manage to make sense of it and find it useful; I’m pretty sure I’ll need it for future reference; there’s no chance I’m remembering all of this!

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  • Hi Yossi,
    Thanks for your article on this issue. Definitely helped explain the continous redirect issue I'm having. Question: How do you specify "Reply To" address to the STS? I'm following your example to dynamically setting the realm dynamically by overriding the FAM's OnRedrectingToIdentityProvider.

    Thanks again,

    By Blogger Unknown, at 29/10/2009, 16:31  

  • Forget Yossi ... I figured it out and it works!! Thanks for the articles!!

    Cheers, Mark

    By Blogger Unknown, at 29/10/2009, 19:19  

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