Welcome!

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

How to Implement Basic Authentication with ColdFusion
The first time a Web browser requests a page that's protected by Basic authentication, the Web server needs a way to tell it that it should stop and ask the user for login information. It does this by sending a response to the initial request with the status code 401 ("Access Denied"). In this response, it also sends information about what types of authentication it's willing to accept (this is the "WWW-Authenticate" header). In this article, we're only discussing Basic Authentication, but other more complex (and more secure) methods exist such as Digest authentication and Microsoft's proprietary NTLM authentication. Along with the 401 response the server also sends a user-friendly (or at least user-readable) explanation of why access is being denied.

When the browser gets the 401 response, before showing the user the "Access Denied" message, it prompts for a user name and password. If the user provides credentials, the browser repeats the request and includes the user name and password in an "Authorization" request header. If the credentials are sufficient, the server then sends the requested page with a 200 ("OK") status code. If the credentials aren't acceptable to the server, it simply sends back the same 401 response, which makes the browser prompt the user again. If the user declines to provide credentials (by clicking a "Cancel" button on the password prompt, for example), or fails to provide acceptable credentials a certain number of times (usually three, although it's up to the Web browser to decide), the browser stops prompting the user and shows the user the "Access Denied" message provided by the server.

Listing 1 shows the code needed to implement Basic Authentication. This code should be included at the top of any page that needs to be protected by authentication (an Application.cfm file is a good place, for example).

The first lines use the built-in ColdFusion function GetHttpRequestData() to retrieve complete information on the request headers sent by the client and ensure that our session-level user variable is initialized. Then the code checks to see if the client has provided the "Authorization" header that contains the login and password. The "Authorization" header consists of two parts separated by a single space: first, the authentication scheme (in this case "Basic"); and second, the user name and password separated by a colon and Base64-encoded to protect them from character set issues during transmission. The user name and password are decoded using the ToBinary() and ToString() functions, and the application verifies that they're correct (obviously this part will vary from application to application). If the user hasn't been logged in either by providing incorrect credentials or by not providing any at all, the response code is set to 401 and the "WWW-Authenticate" response header is added. Finally, a user-friendly "Access Denied" message is added to the response and execution is stopped so the server sends only the "Access Denied" message back to the client.

Even if the user has cookies disabled, so the user's session doesn't persist from request to request, the user won't be prompted again for a login and password. However, in this case, you won't be able to store any other data in the session scope without resorting to passing session identifiers as URL parameters.

Since the browser is getting accurate response codes throughout the transaction, there's no need to write code to redirect the user after a successful login. This is an additional benefit of using Basic authentication and means that your application fully supports deep linking and bookmarking without any extra code.

The Authentication Realm
There's one additional piece of information that the server sends in the "WWW-Authenticate" header: the authentication realm. The realm is defined as a string that uniquely identifies the set of resources on the server that all use the same user account source. The browser assumes that if it has prompted the user for a login and password for a resource on a given server, it can reuse the same credentials for another resource in the same realm on the same server.

Although the specification for Basic authentication discourages the use of the realm for any purpose other than matching it for equality against other realm values, in practice the realm actually has another important function. When most browsers prompt the user for login credentials, they show the realm as a description of the application the user is logging in to. So it's a good idea to set the realm in your authentication code to a brief description of your application (this description would replace the string "MyApplication" in Listing 1).

Caching of Credentials: The End of Session Expiration
When a browser gets a 401 ("Access Denied") message in response to a request for a given resource, it checks to see if the realm specified in the "WWW-Authenticate" header matches any realms it has already authenticated against on the current server for the current browser session. If it finds credentials that have been accepted for that realm, it retries the request using those credentials (prompting the user for credentials only if the cached credentials are rejected by the server). The browser also assumes that resources in subdirectories below the resources for which it has already been prompted to authenticate will be part of the same realm and preemptively sends the cached credentials the first time it requests these resources. These two facts contribute to one of the biggest advantages of Basic authentication: the end of session expiration messages.

Examine Listing 1 again and consider what happens if the user has been previously authenticated but has been inactive enough that the session expired. On the next request, a new session is initiated by the ColdFusion server and SESSION.loggedInUserName is set to an empty string. If the browser has previously requested the page, it will have preemptively sent the login credentials; if not, it will check its cache and see that it already has credentials for the specified realm and it will repeat the request, providing the cached credentials. In either case, the user has been automatically logged back into the application without being prompted! This provides a much smoother and less confusing experience for the user.

Keep in mind that this may have some affect on your application architecture. If you're using the session scope only to cache information that's already stored in a database somewhere, your application can probably be converted to Basic authentication with no issues. However, if you store temporary data in the session scope (such as shopping cart information), you may have to consider a different approach since the user may have multiple ColdFusion sessions over the course of what they consider a single session of interacting with the Web application. Just remember that a user session might be initialized on any page of your application.

Limitations of Basic Authentication
Basic authentication isn't without its limitations. First and foremost, it's important to realize that the user name and password is transmitted from the browser to the Web server in unencrypted clear text. (The Base64 encoding isn't a security measure - it's designed to be easily reversible.) If you consider the data in your application to be sensitive, you should definitely use an additional security layer such as SSL to protect the transmission of the user name and password (as well as the data). That being said, this lack of encryption is a limitation that's common to both forms-based and Basic authentication.

The other significant limitation of Basic authentication, and the only major drawback to using it over forms-based authentication, is that it provides much less opportunity for context around the login and password. A forms-based solution can show information around the login box explaining the format of the login and, in the case of password errors, can provide detailed information about what went wrong. Additionally, the login prompt can be customized to match the look-and-feel of the rest of the application. When implementing HTTP Basic authentication, you should provide an entry page that isn't authenticated that provides this information so the user is prepared to enter the appropriate login and password information.

Conclusion
Basic authentication provides an alternative to traditional forms-based authentication methods. By sticking closely to the HTTP specification, this method leverages features built in to the Web browser to prevent confusing session expiration problems and the need to code around other limitations in non-standard forms-based authentication methods.

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
DX World EXPO, LLC, a Lighthouse Point, Florida-based startup trade show producer and the creator of "DXWorldEXPO® - Digital Transformation Conference & Expo" has announced its executive management team. The team is headed by Levent Selamoglu, who has been named CEO. "Now is the time for a truly global DX event, to bring together the leading minds from the technology world in a conversation about Digital Transformation," he said in making the announcement.
"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.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Conference Guru has been named “Media Sponsor” of the 22nd International Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 5-7, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. A valuable conference experience generates new contacts, sales leads, potential strategic partners and potential investors; helps gather competitive intelligence and even provides inspiration for new products and services. Conference Guru works with conference organizers to pass great deals to gre...
The Internet of Things will challenge the status quo of how IT and development organizations operate. Or will it? Certainly the fog layer of IoT requires special insights about data ontology, security and transactional integrity. But the developmental challenges are the same: People, Process and Platform. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Craig Sproule, CEO of Metavine, demonstrated how to move beyond today's coding paradigm and shared the must-have mindsets for removing complexity from the develop...
In his Opening Keynote at 21st Cloud Expo, John Considine, General Manager of IBM Cloud Infrastructure, led attendees through the exciting evolution of the cloud. He looked at this major disruption from the perspective of technology, business models, and what this means for enterprises of all sizes. John Considine is General Manager of Cloud Infrastructure Services at IBM. In that role he is responsible for leading IBM’s public cloud infrastructure including strategy, development, and offering m...
"Evatronix provides design services to companies that need to integrate the IoT technology in their products but they don't necessarily have the expertise, knowledge and design team to do so," explained Adam Morawiec, VP of Business Development at Evatronix, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
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 ...
Widespread fragmentation is stalling the growth of the IIoT and making it difficult for partners to work together. The number of software platforms, apps, hardware and connectivity standards is creating paralysis among businesses that are afraid of being locked into a solution. EdgeX Foundry is unifying the community around a common IoT edge framework and an ecosystem of interoperable components.
Large industrial manufacturing organizations are adopting the agile principles of cloud software companies. The industrial manufacturing development process has not scaled over time. Now that design CAD teams are geographically distributed, centralizing their work is key. With large multi-gigabyte projects, outdated tools have stifled industrial team agility, time-to-market milestones, and impacted P&L stakeholders.
"Akvelon is a software development company and we also provide consultancy services to folks who are looking to scale or accelerate their engineering roadmaps," explained Jeremiah Mothersell, Marketing Manager at Akvelon, 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.
"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...
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...
22nd International Cloud Expo, taking place June 5-7, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and co-located with the 1st DXWorld Expo will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud ...
"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...
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...
"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 ...
"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.