Programming WCF Services : Security - Identity Management, Overall Policy, Scenario-Driven Approach

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1. Identity Management

Identity management is the security aspect that deals with which security identity the client sends to the service and, in turn, what the service can do with the client’s identity. Not only that, but when designing a service, you need to decide in advance which identity the service will execute under. The service can execute under its own identity; it can impersonate the client’s identity (when applicable); or it can use a mixture of identities, alternating in a single operation between its own identity, the client’s identity, or even a third identity altogether. Selecting the correct identity has drastic implications for the application’s scalability and administration cost. In WCF, when enabled, the security identity flows down the call chain, and each service can find out who its caller is, regardless of the identity of the service.

2. Overall Policy

To the traditional commonplace security aspects of authentication, authorization, transfer security, and identity management, I would like to add one that is less technical and conventional, but to me just as important: what is your business’s approach, or even your personal approach, to security? That is, what is your security policy? I believe that in the vast majority of cases, applications simply cannot afford not to be secured. And while security carries with it performance and throughput penalties, these should be of no concern. Simply put, it costs to live. Paying the security penalty is an unavoidable part of designing and administering modern connected applications. Gone are the days when developers could afford not to care about security and deploy applications that relied on the ambient security of the target environment, such as physical security provided by employee access cards or firewalls.

Since most developers cannot afford to become full-time security experts (nor should they), the approach I advocate for overall security policy is simple: crank security all the way up until someone complains. If the resulting application performance and throughput are still adequate with the maximum security level, leave it at that level. Only if the resulting performance is inadequate should you engage in detailed threat analysis to find out what you can trade in security in exchange for performance. In my experience, you will rarely need to actually go this route; most developers should never need to compromise security this way.

The security strategies described in this chapter follow my overall security policy. WCF’s overall approach to security is very much aligned with my own, and I will explicitly point out the few places it is not (and how to rectify it). With the noticeable exception of the BasicHttpBinding, WCF is secured by default, and even the BasicHttpBinding can easily be secured. All other WCF bindings by default authenticate all callers to the service and rely on transfer security.

3. Scenario-Driven Approach

Security is by far the most intricate area of WCF. The following list shows the elements that govern security in every WCF operation call:

  • Service contract

  • Operation contract

  • Fault contract

  • Service behavior

  • Operation behavior

  • Host configuration

  • Method configuration and code

  • Client-side behavior

  • Proxy configuration

  • Binding configuration

Each of the items in the list may have a dozen or more security-related properties. Obviously, there are an overwhelming number of possible combinations and permutations. In addition, not all combinations are allowed or supported, and not all allowed combinations make sense or are consistent; for example, while technically possible, it does not make sense to use a certificate for client credentials in a homogeneous Windows intranet, much as it makes little sense to use Windows accounts in an Internet application. The solution I chose for this book is to focus on a few key scenarios (and slight variations of them) that address the security needs of the majority of applications today.

The scenarios are:

  • Intranet application

  • Internet application

  • Business-to-business application

  • Anonymous application

  • No security

I will demonstrate how to make each of these scenarios consistent and secure. In each scenario I will discuss how to support the security aspects of transfer security, authentication, authorization, and identity management. If you need an additional scenario, you can follow my analysis approach to derive the required security aspects and settings.

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