Securing HTTP-based APIs With Signatures

CloudSecurityI work at EMC on a platform on top of which SaaS solutions can be built.

This platform has a RESTful HTTP-based API, just like a growing number of other applications.

With development frameworks like JAX-RS, it’s relatively easy to build such APIs.

It is not, however, easy to build them right.

Issues With Building HTTP-based APIs

The problem isn’t so much in getting the functionality out there. We know how to develop software and the available REST/HTTP frameworks and libraries make it easy to expose the functionality.

That’s only half the story, however. There are many more -ilities to consider.

rest-easyThe REST architectural style addresses some of those, like scalability and evolvability.

Many HTTP-based APIs today claim to be RESTful, but in fact are not. This means that they are not reaping all of the benefits that REST can bring.

I’ll be talking more about how to help developers meet all the constraints of the REST architectural style in future posts.

Today I want to focus on another non-functional aspect of APIs: security.

Security of HTTP-based APIs

In security, we care about the CIA-triad: Confidentiality, Integrity, and availability.

Availability of web services is not dramatically different from that of web applications, which is relatively well understood. We have our clusters, load balancers, and what not, and usually we are in good shape.

Confidentiality and integrity, on the other hand, both require proper authentication, and here matters get more interesting.

Authentication of HTTP-based APIs

authenticationFor authentication in an HTTP world, it makes sense to look at HTTP Authentication.

This RFC describes Basic and Digest authentication. Both have their weaknesses, which is why you see many APIs use alternatives.

Luckily, these alternatives can use the same basic machinery defined in the RFC. This machinery includes status code 401 Unauthorized, and the WWW-Authenticate, Authentication-Info, and Authorization headers. Note that the Authorization header is unfortunately misnamed, since it’s used for authentication, not authorization.

The final piece of the puzzle is the custom authentication scheme. For example, Amazon S3 authentication uses the AWS custom scheme.

Authentication of HTTP-based APIs Using Signatures

The AWS scheme relies on signatures. Other services, like EMC Atmos, use the same approach.

It is therefore good to see that a new IETF draft has been proposed to standardize the use of signatures in HTTP-based APIs.

Standardization enables the construction of frameworks and libraries, which will drive down the cost of implementing authentication and will make it easier to build more secure APIs.

What do you think?

what-do-you-thinkIf you’re in the HTTP API building and/or consuming business –and who isn’t these days– then please go ahead and read the draft and provide feedback.

I’m also interested in your experiences with building or consuming secure HTTP APIs. Please leave a comment on this post.

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