You will be redirected in 30 seconds or close now.

ColdFusion Authors: Yakov Fain, Jeremy Geelan, Maureen O'Gara, Nancy Y. Nee, Tad Anderson

Related Topics: ColdFusion

ColdFusion: Article

Implementing HTTP Basic Authentication

Route around many of the common limitations of traditional forms-based authentication

Most ColdFusion applications that require users to be authenticated follow the pattern laid out in the official ColdFusion documentation and in the ColdFusion MX Developer's Guide.

This HTML forms-based method is perfectly serviceable, but as applications become more complicated it's not uncommon to run across issues with session expiration and deep linking/bookmarking. This article describes an alternative method of implementing user authentication that's based on the mature and time-tested authentication scheme laid out in the original HTTP specification. Without making the application significantly more complex, it can route around many of the most common limitations of traditional forms-based authentication.

An Overview of Forms-Based Authentication
To start off, let's take a look at some typical ColdFusion code that uses forms-based authentication from the point-of-view of a Web browser. A typical application might have code in the Application.cfm file that looks something like this:

<cfif NOT IsDefined("SESSION.login")>
    <cfif NOT IsDefined("FORM.login")>
      <cfinclude template="loginForm.cfm">
      <!--- Process login information --->

Let's look at the series of requests and responses that occur between a Web browser (WB) and a server (S) when the user requests a page that's protected by this kind of authentication code:

WB: Please send me the page called /index.cfm.
S: OK, here's the page called /index.cfm. (The server sends a page containing a form with text fields for user name and password and a submit button.)
WB: (After the user fills in the form and clicks the submit button) Here's a POST to the page called /index.cfm.
S: OK, I processed the submission and here's the page called /index.cfm.

Notice how the server claimed the two pages it sent were both /index.cfm? That's an example of one problem with forms-based authentication: it misrepresents the resources identified by URLs. To illustrate another problem, take a look at what happens later, after the user takes a break from using the application and the session expires:

WB: Please send me the page called /administrator/addUser.cfm.
S: OK, here's the page called /administrator/addUser.cfm. (The server sends a page containing a form with text fields for user name and password and a submit button.)

Since the session expired, the server responded to the request by providing the login form again. Even if the form provides some information about why the user needs to log in again, the user may become confused, and at the very least is inconvenienced.

There are other ways to implement forms-based authentication (such as using <cflocation> to redirect the browser to the login form instead of using <cfinclude> to send it in place of the requested page), but the basic issues are the same:

  1. Forms-based authentication misrepresents the resource requested by the browser. Depending on the implementation, it claims the login form is the resource that was requested, or it sometimes claims that the resource requested is located somewhere else (that "somewhere else" being the location of the login form).
  2. It forces the user to understand technical issues like session expiration.
  3. Since it's dependent on session cookies, it's not easily scalable to cluster environments and doesn't work if the browser has cookies disabled.
  4. Since it's dependent on the end user to read the login form and understand that it's not the resource the user requested, it's not compatible with alternative user agents
More Detail: URLs and HTTP Status Codes
What's all this talk about "misrepresenting the resource," you say? It boils down to URLs and status codes.

Each time the browser requests a page, it specifies the exact resource (page) it's requesting. This resource is identified by the URL and a basic tenet of HTTP is that two requests for the same resource (assuming there's no form submission happening) should return exactly the same result (this is closely related to the property of HTTP requests called "idempotency," the principle that GET requests shouldn't change the state of the resource being requested). When the server sometimes sends a login form and sometimes sends the actual page, it's breaking this one-to-one correspondence between the URL and the resource.

Each time the server responds to a request, it sends a status code that very succinctly tells the Web browser the "gist" of its response. Most of the time (when it's serving ColdFusion pages at least), the server sends the status code 200 ("OK"), which means "this page I'm sending you is exactly what you asked for." If instead of executing the page the user requested, the server is sends a login form, it's lying to the browser when it says it found what the user asked for.

When the ColdFusion server processes a <cflocation> tag, it sends the status code 302 ("Found"), which means "the page you're looking for is temporarily located somewhere else and I'm sending you its location." If the address the server sends isn't actually the page the user requested, but a login form, it's lying again.

These distinctions may seem pedantic. But every Web browser since NCSA Mosaic has been raised speaking HTTP as its native language and there's a surprising amount of potential to be leveraged in modern browsers when you respect the true meaning of the terms in that language. And sometimes when you ignore the rules of HTTP you get burned - a notable example of this was when Google released a beta of its Web Accelerator and lots of developers who had ignored the principle of idempotency found that their Web sites were breaking.

Basic Authentication to the Rescue
All the way back at the dawn of the Web (May 1996, to be specific), when Tim Berners-Lee codified the rules of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.0), he and his co-authors considered the problem of how to secure resources on the Web and their answer to the problem has come to be known as HTTP Basic Authentication. With Basic authentication, the initial dialogue between Web browser and server looks more like this:

WB: Please send me the page called /index.cfm.
S: Sorry, that page is part of an application called "MyApplication." You can't see that page without providing a user name and password. Here's a page to tell the user why he can't see the page he asked for.
WB: (Prompts the user for a user name and password.) Please send me the page called /index.cfm - and here are the user's credentials to access that page.
S: OK, I processed the credentials and here's the page called /index.cfm.

Doesn't that look like a much more productive exchange than when the server was telling all sorts of lies about the resources it was sending to the browser? In fact it is more productive and here are a few reasons why:

  1. HTTP status codes and URLs are used exactly as they were intended.
  2. Once the browser knows the user's credentials for the application, it can continue to provide them when needed without prompting the user again (more on this below). Depending on your application, this might mean the end of session expiration!
  3. It's not dependent on keeping login credentials in the session scope, so it even works when browsers have cookies disabled. (Your application may still need to use session-scope variables for other purposes.)
  4. It allows alternative clients (such as command-line and automated user agents) to access your application, unlocking the potential for new and exciting uses of the data in your application.
Web Server-Integrated Basic Authentication
Basic authentication doesn't have to be implemented in application code. All the most common Web servers (including Apache and Microsoft's Internet Information Server) allow the administrator to protect resources with Basic authentication by setting some configuration parameters. In some cases, this may be sufficient, but if you want to validate the user login information against an existing user database (the one built into your application, for example), you'll almost certainly find it easier to keep the authentication code integrated with the rest of your application.

More Stories By Patrick Correia

Patrick Correia is a Web developer for Clough Harbour & Associates LLP, an east coast multi-disciplined engineering firm. A Certified Advanced ColdFusion MX Developer based in Albany, New York, he has spent the last five years developing ColdFusion-based business process improvement solutions for the firm's numerous municipal and private clients.

Comments (1) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.

Most Recent Comments
MikeR 06/08/06 11:43:56 PM EDT

Interesting article but it failed to mention the huge flaw with basic auth.

Basic authentication can't be used for most real-world sites because:
(1) There is now way for the user to log out short of closing all browser windows.
and (2) There is no practical way for the site to logout or timeout a user.

@ThingsExpo Stories
"MobiDev is a software development company and we do complex, custom software development for everybody from entrepreneurs to large enterprises," explained Alan Winters, U.S. Head of Business Development at MobiDev, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Coca-Cola’s Google powered digital signage system lays the groundwork for a more valuable connection between Coke and its customers. Digital signs pair software with high-resolution displays so that a message can be changed instantly based on what the operator wants to communicate or sell. In their Day 3 Keynote at 21st Cloud Expo, Greg Chambers, Global Group Director, Digital Innovation, Coca-Cola, and Vidya Nagarajan, a Senior Product Manager at Google, discussed how from store operations and ...
In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Carl J. Levine, Senior Technical Evangelist for NS1, will objectively discuss how DNS is used to solve Digital Transformation challenges in large SaaS applications, CDNs, AdTech platforms, and other demanding use cases. Carl J. Levine is the Senior Technical Evangelist for NS1. A veteran of the Internet Infrastructure space, he has over a decade of experience with startups, networking protocols and Internet infrastructure, combined with the unique ability to it...
"There's plenty of bandwidth out there but it's never in the right place. So what Cedexis does is uses data to work out the best pathways to get data from the origin to the person who wants to get it," explained Simon Jones, Evangelist and Head of Marketing at Cedexis, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
SYS-CON Events announced today that CrowdReviews.com has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 22nd International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 5–7, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. CrowdReviews.com is a transparent online platform for determining which products and services are the best based on the opinion of the crowd. The crowd consists of Internet users that have experienced products and services first-hand and have an interest in letting other potential buye...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Telecom Reseller has been named “Media Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 22nd International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 5-7, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. Telecom Reseller reports on Unified Communications, UCaaS, BPaaS for enterprise and SMBs. They report extensively on both customer premises based solutions such as IP-PBX as well as cloud based and hosted platforms.
WebRTC is great technology to build your own communication tools. It will be even more exciting experience it with advanced devices, such as a 360 Camera, 360 microphone, and a depth sensor camera. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Masashi Ganeko, a manager at INFOCOM Corporation, introduced two experimental projects from his team and what they learned from them. "Shotoku Tamago" uses the robot audition software HARK to track speakers in 360 video of a remote party. "Virtual Teleport" uses a multip...
Gemini is Yahoo’s native and search advertising platform. To ensure the quality of a complex distributed system that spans multiple products and components and across various desktop websites and mobile app and web experiences – both Yahoo owned and operated and third-party syndication (supply), with complex interaction with more than a billion users and numerous advertisers globally (demand) – it becomes imperative to automate a set of end-to-end tests 24x7 to detect bugs and regression. In th...
"Space Monkey by Vivent Smart Home is a product that is a distributed cloud-based edge storage network. Vivent Smart Home, our parent company, is a smart home provider that places a lot of hard drives across homes in North America," explained JT Olds, Director of Engineering, and Brandon Crowfeather, Product Manager, at Vivint Smart Home, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
"IBM is really all in on blockchain. We take a look at sort of the history of blockchain ledger technologies. It started out with bitcoin, Ethereum, and IBM evaluated these particular blockchain technologies and found they were anonymous and permissionless and that many companies were looking for permissioned blockchain," stated René Bostic, Technical VP of the IBM Cloud Unit in North America, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Conventi...
"Cloud Academy is an enterprise training platform for the cloud, specifically public clouds. We offer guided learning experiences on AWS, Azure, Google Cloud and all the surrounding methodologies and technologies that you need to know and your teams need to know in order to leverage the full benefits of the cloud," explained Alex Brower, VP of Marketing at Cloud Academy, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 21st Cloud Expo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clar...
It is of utmost importance for the future success of WebRTC to ensure that interoperability is operational between web browsers and any WebRTC-compliant client. To be guaranteed as operational and effective, interoperability must be tested extensively by establishing WebRTC data and media connections between different web browsers running on different devices and operating systems. In his session at WebRTC Summit at @ThingsExpo, Dr. Alex Gouaillard, CEO and Founder of CoSMo Software, presented ...
A strange thing is happening along the way to the Internet of Things, namely far too many devices to work with and manage. It has become clear that we'll need much higher efficiency user experiences that can allow us to more easily and scalably work with the thousands of devices that will soon be in each of our lives. Enter the conversational interface revolution, combining bots we can literally talk with, gesture to, and even direct with our thoughts, with embedded artificial intelligence, whic...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Evatronix will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Evatronix SA offers comprehensive solutions in the design and implementation of electronic systems, in CAD / CAM deployment, and also is a designer and manufacturer of advanced 3D scanners for professional applications.
Leading companies, from the Global Fortune 500 to the smallest companies, are adopting hybrid cloud as the path to business advantage. Hybrid cloud depends on cloud services and on-premises infrastructure working in unison. Successful implementations require new levels of data mobility, enabled by an automated and seamless flow across on-premises and cloud resources. In his general session at 21st Cloud Expo, Greg Tevis, an IBM Storage Software Technical Strategist and Customer Solution Architec...
To get the most out of their data, successful companies are not focusing on queries and data lakes, they are actively integrating analytics into their operations with a data-first application development approach. Real-time adjustments to improve revenues, reduce costs, or mitigate risk rely on applications that minimize latency on a variety of data sources. In his session at @BigDataExpo, Jack Norris, Senior Vice President, Data and Applications at MapR Technologies, reviewed best practices to ...
An increasing number of companies are creating products that combine data with analytical capabilities. Running interactive queries on Big Data requires complex architectures to store and query data effectively, typically involving data streams, an choosing efficient file format/database and multiple independent systems that are tied together through custom-engineered pipelines. In his session at @BigDataExpo at @ThingsExpo, Tomer Levi, a senior software engineer at Intel’s Advanced Analytics gr...
When talking IoT we often focus on the devices, the sensors, the hardware itself. The new smart appliances, the new smart or self-driving cars (which are amalgamations of many ‘things’). When we are looking at the world of IoT, we should take a step back, look at the big picture. What value are these devices providing? IoT is not about the devices, it’s about the data consumed and generated. The devices are tools, mechanisms, conduits. In his session at Internet of Things at Cloud Expo | DXWor...
Everything run by electricity will eventually be connected to the Internet. Get ahead of the Internet of Things revolution. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Akvelon expert and IoT industry leader Sergey Grebnov provided an educational dive into the world of managing your home, workplace and all the devices they contain with the power of machine-based AI and intelligent Bot services for a completely streamlined experience.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Synametrics Technologies will exhibit at SYS-CON's 22nd International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 5-7, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. Synametrics Technologies is a privately held company based in Plainsboro, New Jersey that has been providing solutions for the developer community since 1997. Based on the success of its initial product offerings such as WinSQL, Xeams, SynaMan and Syncrify, Synametrics continues to create and hone inn...