Standards Corner: OAuth WG Client Registration Problem

Phil Hunt is an active member of multiple industry standards groups and committees (see brief bio at the end of the post) and has spearheaded discussions, creation and ratifications of  industry standards including the Kantara Identity Governance Framework, among others. Being an active voice in the industry standards development world, we have invited him to share his discussions, thoughts, news & updates, and discuss use cases, implementation success stories (and even failures) around industry standards on this monthly column.

Author: Phil Hunt

This afternoon, the OAuth Working Group will meet at IETF88 in Vancouver to discuss some important topics important to the maturation of OAuth. One of them is the OAuth client registration problem.

OAuth (RFC6749) was initially developed with a simple deployment model where there is only monopoly or singleton cloud instance of a web API (e.g. there is one Facebook, one Google, on LinkedIn, and so on). When the API publisher and API deployer are the same monolithic entity, it easy for developers to contact the provider and register their app to obtain a client_id and credential.

But what happens when the API is for an open source project where there may be 1000s of deployed copies of the API (e.g. such as wordpress). In these cases, the authors of the API are not the people running the API. In these scenarios, how does the developer obtain a client_id?

An example of an "open deployed" API is OpenID Connect. Connect defines an OAuth protected resource API that can provide personal information about an authenticated user -- in effect creating a potentially common API for potential identity providers like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, or Oracle. In Oracle's case, Fusion applications will soon have RESTful APIs that are deployed in many different ways in many different environments. How will developers write apps that can work against an openly deployed API with whom the developer can have no prior relationship?

At present, the OAuth Working Group has two proposals two consider:

Dynamic Registration

Dynamic Registration was originally developed for OpenID Connect and UMA. It defines a RESTful API in which a prospective client application with no client_id creates a new client registration record with a service provider and is issued a client_id and credential along with a registration token that can be used to update registration over time.

As proof of success, the OIDC community has done substantial implementation of this spec and feels committed to its use. Why not approve?

Well, the answer is that some of us had some concerns, namely:
  1. Recognizing instances of software - dynamic registration treats all clients as unique. It has no defined way to recognize that multiple copies of the same client are being registered other then assuming if the registration parameters are similar it might be the same client.
  2. Versioning and Policy Approval of open APIs and clients - many service providers have to worry about change management. They expect to have approval cycles that approve versions of server and client software for use in their environment. In some cases approval might be wide open, but in many cases, approval might be down to the specific class of software and version.
  3. Registration updates - when does a client actually need to update its registration? Shouldn't it be never? Is there some characteristic of deployed code that would cause it to change?
  4. Options lead to complexity - because each client is treated as unique, it becomes unclear how the clients and servers will agree on what credentials forms are acceptable and what OAuth features are allowed and disallowed. Yet the reality is, developers will write their application to work in a limited number of ways. They can't implement all the permutations and combinations that potential service providers might choose.
  5. Stateful registration - if the primary motivation for registration is to obtain a client_id and credential, why can't this be done in a stateless fashion using assertions?
  6. Denial of service - With so much stateful registration and the need for multiple tokens to be issued, will this not lead to a denial of service attack / risk of resource depletion? At the very least, because of the information gathered, it would difficult for service providers to clean up "failed" registrations and determine active from inactive or false clients.
  7. There has yet to be much wide-scale "production" use of dynamic registration other than in small closed communities.

Client Association

A second proposal, Client Association, has been put forward by Tony Nadalin of Microsoft and myself. We took at look at existing use patterns to come up with a new proposal. At the Berlin meeting, we considered how WS-STS systems work. More recently, I took a review of how mobile messaging clients work. I looked at how Apple, Google, and Microsoft each handle registration with APNS, GCM, and WNS, and a similar pattern emerges. This pattern is to use an existing credential (mutual TLS auth), or client bearer assertion and swap for a device specific bearer assertion.

In the client association proposal, the developer's registration with the API publisher is handled by having the developer register with an API publisher (as opposed to the party deploying the API) and obtaining a software "statement". Or, if there is no "publisher" that can sign a statement, the developer may include their own self-asserted software statement.

A software statement is a special type of assertion that serves to lock application registration profile information in a signed assertion. The statement is included with the client application and can then be used by the client to swap for an instance specific client assertion as defined by section 4.2 of the OAuth Assertion draft and profiled in the Client Association draft. The software statement provides a way for service provider to recognize and configure policy to approve classes of software clients, and simplifies the actual registration to a simple assertion swap. Because the registration is an assertion swap, registration is no longer "stateful" - meaning the service provider does not need to store any information to support the client (unless it wants to).

Has this been implemented yet? Not directly. We've only delivered draft 00 as an alternate way of solving the problem using well-known patterns whose security characteristics and scale characteristics are well understood.

Dynamic Take II

At roughly the same time that Client Association and Software Statement were published, the authors of Dynamic Registration published a "split" version of the Dynamic Registration (draft-richer-oauth-dyn-reg-core and draft-richer-oauth-dyn-reg-management). While some of the concerns above are addressed, some differences remain. Registration is now a simple POST request. However it defines a new method for issuing client tokens where as Client Association uses RFC6749's existing extension point. The concern here is whether future client access token formats would be addressed properly. Finally, Dyn-reg-core does not yet support software statements.

Conclusion

The WG has some interesting discussion to bring this back to a single set of specifications. Dynamic Registration has significant implementation, but Client Association could be a much improved way to simplify implementation of the overall OpenID Connect specification and improve adoption. In fairness, the existing editors have already come a long way. Yet there are those with significant investment in the current draft. There are many that have expressed they don't care. They just want a standard. There is lots of pressure on the working group to reach consensus quickly.

And that folks is how the sausage is made.

Note: John Bradley and Justin Richer recently published draft-bradley-stateless-oauth-client-00 which on first look are getting closer. Some of the details seem less well defined, but the same could be said of client-assoc and software-statement. I hope we can merge these specs this week.

About the Writer:

Phil Hunt joined Oracle as part of the November 2005 acquisition of OctetString Inc. where he headed software development for what is now Oracle Virtual Directory. Since joining Oracle, Phil works as CMTS in the Identity Standards group at Oracle where he developed the Kantara Identity Governance Framework and provided significant input to JSR 351. Phil participates in several standards development organizations such as IETF and OASIS working on federation, authorization (OAuth), and provisioning (SCIM) standards.  Phil blogs at www.independentid.com and a Twitter handle of @independentid.

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