Tag Archives: oauth

Why I Still Like OAuth

That sound of a door slamming last week was Eran Hammer storming out of the OAuth standardization process, declaring once and for all that the technology was dead, and that he would no longer be a part of it. Tantrums and controversy make great social media copy, so it didn’t take long before everyone seemed to be talking about this one. In some quarters, you’d hardly know the London Olympics had begun.

So what are we to really make of all this? Is OAuth dead, or at least on the road to Hell as Eran now famously put it? Certainly my inbox is full of emails from people asking me if they should stop building their security architecture around such a tainted specification.

I think Tim Bray, who has vast experience with the relative ups and downs of technology standardization, offered the best answer in his own blog:

It’s done. Stick a fork in it. Ship the RFCs.

Which is to say sometimes you just have to declare a reasonable victory and deal with the consequences later. OAuth isn’t perfect, nor is it easy; but it’s needed, and it’s needed now, so let’s all forget the personality politics and just get it done. And hopefully right across the street from me here in Vancouver, where the IETF is holding it’s meetings all this week, this is what will happen.

In the end, OAuth is something we all need, and this is why this specification remains important. The genius of OAuth is that it empowers people to perform delegated authorization on their own, without the involvement of a cabal of security admins. And this is something that is really quite profound.

In the past we’ve been shackled by the centralization of control around identity and entitlements (a fancy term which really just describes the set of actions your identity is allowed, such as writing to a particular file system). This has led to a status quo in nearly every organization that is maintained first because it is hard to do otherwise, but also because this equals power, which is something that is rarely surrender without a fight.

The problem is that centralized identity admin can never effectively scale, at least from an administrative perspective. With OAuth, we can finally scale authentication and authorization by leveraging the user population itself, and this is the one thing that stands a chance to shatter the monopoly on central Identity and Access Management (IAM). OAuth undermined the castle, and the real noise we are hearing isn’t infighting on the spec but the enterprise walls falling down.

Here is the important insight of OAuth 2.0: delegated authorization also solves that basic security sessioning problem of all apps running over stateless protocols like HTTP. Think about this for a minute. The basic web architecture provides for complete authentication on every transaction. This is dumb, so we have come up with all sorts of security context tracking mechanisms, using cookies, proprietary tokens, etc. The problem with many of these is that they don’t constrain entitlements at all; a cookie is as good as a password, because really it just linearly maps back to an original act of authentication.

OAuth formalizes this process but adds in the idea of constraint with informed user consent. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why OAuth matters. In OAuth you exchange a password (or other primary security token) for a time-bound access token with a limited set of capabilities to which you have explicitly agreed. In other words, the token expires fast and is good for one thing only. So you can pass it off to something else (like Twitter) and reduce your risk profile, or—and this is the key insight of OAuth 2.0—you can just use it yourself as a better security session tracker.

The problem with OAuth 2.0 is it’s surprisingly hard to get to this simple idea from the explosion of protocol in OAuth 1.0a. Both specs too quickly reduce to an exercise in swim lane diagram detail which ironically run counter to the current movement around simple and accessible that drives the modern web. And therein lies the rub. OAuth is more a victim of poor marketing than bad specsman-ship. I have yet to see a good, simple explanation of why, followed by how. (I don’t think OAuth 1.0 was well served by the valet key analogy, which distracts from too many important insights.) As it stands today, OAuth 2.0 makes Kerberos specs seem like grade school primer material.

It doesn’t have to be this way. OAuth is actually deceptively simple; it is the mechanics that remain potentially complex (particularly those of the classic 1.0a, three-legged scenario). But the same can be said of SSL/TLS, which we all use daily with few problems. What OAuth needs are a set of dead simple (but nonetheless solid) libraries on the client side, and equally simple and scalable support on the server. This is a tractable problem and it is coming. It also needs much better interpretation so that people can understand it fast.

Personally, I agree in part with Eran Hammer’s wish buried in the conclusion of his blog entry:

I’m hoping someone will take 2.0 and produce a 10 page profile that’s useful for the vast majority of web providers, ignoring the enterprise.

OAuth absolutely does need simple profiling for interop. But don’t ignore the enterprise. The enterprise really needs the profile too, because the enterprise badly needs OAuth.

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Introducing Layer 7’s OAuth Toolkit

“If your tools don’t work for you, get rid of them,” is a simple creed I learned from my father in the workshop. Over the years, I have found it is just as relevant when applied to software, where virtual tools abound, but with often-dubious value.

OAuth is an emerging technology that has lately been in need of useful tools, and to fill this gap we are introducing an OAuth toolkit into Layer 7’s SecureSpan and CloudSpan Gateways.  OAuth isn’t exactly new to Layer 7; we have actually done a number of OAuth implementations with our customers over the last two years. But what we’ve discovered is that there is a lot of incompatibility between different OAuth implementations, and this is discouraging many organizations from making better use of this technology. Our goal with the toolkit was to provide a collection of intelligently parameterized components that developers can mix-and-match to reduce the friction between different implementations. And thanks to the generalization that characterize the emerging OAuth 2.0 specification, this toolkit helps to extend OAuth into interesting new use cases beyond the basic three-legged scenario of version one.

I have to admit that I was suspicious of OAuth when it first appeared a few years ago. So much effort had gone into the formal specification of SAML, from core definition to interop profiles, that I didn’t see the need for OAuth’s one use case solution and had little faith in the rigor of such a grass roots approach. But in time, OAuth won me over; it fits well with the browser-centric, simple-is-better approach of the modern Internet. The mapping to more generalized, token server-style interactions in the new version of the spec appeals to the architect in me, and the opening up of the security token payload indicates a desire to play well with existing infrastructure, which is a basic enterprise requirement.

However, adding extensibility to OAuth will also bring about this technology’s greatest challenge. The 1.0a specification benefitted enormously from laser focus on a use case so narrow that it was a wonder it gained the mindshare that it did. OAuth in 2011 has no such advantage—generalization being great for architects but hell for standards committees and vendors. It will be interesting to see how well the OAuth community satisfies the oftentimes-conflicting agendas of simple, standard, and interoperable.

Here at Layer 7 we predict a bright future for OAuth. We also think it’s very useful today, which is why we introduced a toolkit instead of a one-size-fits-one approach. We see our customers using OAuth in concert with their existing investments in Identity and Access Management (IAM) products, such as IBM’s Tivoli Access Manager  (TAM) or Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD). We see it being used to transport SAML tokens that require sophisticated interpretation to render entitlement decisions. Taking a cue from OAuth itself, the point of our toolkit is to simplify both implementation and integration. And the toolkit’s parameterization helps to insulate the application from specification change.

I’ll be at the Gartner/Burton Catalyst show this week in San Diego where we’ll be demonstrating the toolkit. I hope you can drop by and talk about how it might help you.