Introduction into the world of “Claims”( Windows Identity Foundation & Azure App fabric Access Control!)

Have you been working on a website or an application where you maintain a user database for people coming from different companies/domains ? Someone is responsible for maintaining the consistency of this database? Also you as an application developer are required to write code to check for authorization rights allowing/disallowing visitors to visit only authorized sections of your site?

All issues i’ve mentioned so far are pretty common in a multi-tenant type of an applications(like SAAS) which caters to multiple companies . Usually you would have each user of your app create a new username/password and store it in your app database..here are the disadvantages of such an approach

1. Your users have to remember ANOTHER set of username/passwords

2. You end up storing not just their username/passwords but also other details like their role, reporting manager etc etc which is btw already present on their corp net so you are basically duplicating information

3.You are responsible for maintaining the duplicate information…if the person got promoted to a manager , your database needs to be updated also

4. What if the person leaves the company? He still has a login into your application until it is manually removed!

Even if your user’s don’t really come from a domain or a company, aren’t there enough “Identity Providers” like Live, Google, OpenID out there?. Why do you need to “authenticate” these users?. Why not just ask an existing Identity provider to check out the user’s authenticity and let you know more about the user?Basically “Outsource” your “authentication” work  and focus on your core capability which is application logic..Sounds too good to be true?? Welcome to Claim based Architectures!!

Microsoft’s Windows Identity Foundation  provides a framework for building such “Claim based applications”.My next sequence of blogs will be an attempt to demystify the “Claims based Identity Model”.

If you are still reading this you are probably saying demystify WHAT???

So lets start with what claims based identity model means..

When you build claims-aware applications, the user presents her identity to your application as a set of claims  One claim could be the user’s name; another might be her email address. The idea here is that an external identity system is configured to give your application everything it needs to know about the user with each request she makes, along with cryptographic assurance that the identity data you receive comes from a trusted source.

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Under this model, single sign-on is much easier to achieve, and your application is no longer responsible
for:
 Authenticating users.
 Storing user accounts and passwords.
 Calling to enterprise directories to look up user identity details.
 Integrating with identity systems from other platforms or companies.
Under this model, your application makes identity-related decisions based on claims supplied by the
user. This could be anything from simple application personalization with the user’s first name, to
authorizing the user to access higher valued features and resources in your application.

Lets also define a few more key terms you would hear again and again..

Claims:- You can think of a claim as a bit of identity information, such as name, email address, age, membership in the sales role, and so on. The more claims your service receives, the more you’ll know about the user who is making the request. Claims are signed by an issuer, and you trust a set of claims only as much as you trust that issuer. Part of accepting a claim is verifying that it came from an issuer that you trust.There are steps as to how to establish a trust relationship between your application and an issuer. Will elaborate on those in another post..

Security Token:- A set of claims serialized and digitally signed by the issuer

This next one is confusing

Issuing Authority & Identity Provider

An issuing authority has two main features. The first and most obvious is that it issues security tokens. The second feature is the logic that determines which claims to issue. This is based on the user’s identity, the resource to which the request applies, and possibly other contextual data such as time of day.

Some authorities, such as Windows Live ID, know how to authenticate a user directly. Their job is to validate some credential from the user and issue a token with an identifier for the user’s account and possibly other identity attributes. These types of authorities are called identity providers

So basically not All Issuing Authorities are Identity Providers. Some of them just accept claims from Identity providers and convert them into claims acceptable by your application (Azure app fabric Access Control is such an example)..basically they don’t have authentication logic..just mapping logic.

Security Token Service(STS):- This is another confusing term as you will see people using Issuer and STS interchangeably.Basically A security token service (STS) is a technical term for the Web interface in an issuing authority that allows clients to request and receive a security token according to certain interoperable protocols

Relying Party:- When you build a service that relies on claims, technically you are building a relying party. Some synonyms that you may have heard are claims aware application, or claims-based application.

Pretty heavy definitions!!.. It took us some reading to finally find definitions that are easy to understand. Surprizingly the easiest definitions were not in “A Guide to Claims-based Identity” or “WindowsIdentityFoundationWhitepaperForDevelopers-RTW” but in “A Developer’s Guide to Access Control in Windows Azure platform AppFabric

If you have reached this line then you are definitely on your way to building the next gen identity aware apps…so look forward to our next set of blogs!!

Till then!

Cennest