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Morepath Security

In this post I'd like to discuss the security infrastructure of the Morepath web framework. I hope that I can showcase some of the interesting features of Morepath security, generate a bit of feedback for me, and also serve as the start of documentation on this topic. Finally, it's also useful for me to get an overview of where gaps in my implementation still exist.

What it should do

So what do I mean by "security"? I mean infrastructure in the Morepath web framework that helps you make sure that the web resources published by your application are only accessible by those people who are allowed to by your application. If you're not allowed you'll get a HTTP error.

Right now that error is HTTP Unauthorized (401) but I think I'll shortly change it to make it HTTP Forbidden (403), and make HTTP Unauthorized optional when HTTP Basic Authentication is in use. But I need to add a bit of infrastructure to make that possible first.

What does this look like in practice?

First we need to make sure that the application has an identity policy: a system that takes the HTTP request and established a claimed identity for it. For basic authentication for instance it will extract the username and password. The claimed identity can be accessed by looking at the identity attribute on the request object.

This is how you install an identity policy into a Morepath app:

from morepath.security import BasicAuthIdentityPolicy

@app.identity_policy()
def get_identity_policy():
    return BasicAuthIdentityPolicy()

Let's say we want two permissions in our application, view and edit. We define those as plain Python classes:

class ViewPermission(object):
    pass

class EditPermission(object):
    pass

Since they're classes they could even inherit from each other and form some kind of permission hierarchy, but we'll keep things simple here.

Now we can protect views with those permissions. Let's say we have a Document model that we can view and edit:

@app.html(model=Document, permission=ViewPermission)
def document_view(request, model):
    return "<p>The title is: %s</p>" % model.title

@app.html(model=Document, permission=EditPermission)
def document_edit(request, model):
    return "some kind of edit form"

This says that we only want to allow access to document_view if the identity has ViewPermission on the Document model, and only allow access to document_edit if the identity has EditPermission on the Document model.

But how do we establish permissions for models at all? We can do this with the permission directive. Let's give absolutely everybody view permission:

@app.permission(model=Document, permission=ViewPermission)
def document_view_permission(identity, model, permission)
    return True

We can implement any permission policy we like. Let's say a user has EditPermission on Document if it's in a list allowed_users on that document:

@app.permission(model=Document, permission=EditPermission)
def document_edit_permission(identity, model, permission):
    return identity.userid in model.allowed_users

Morepath Super Powers Go!

What if we don't want to have to define permissions on a per-model basis? In our application, we may have a generic way to check for the edit permission. We can easily do it with Morepath, as it knows about inheritance:

@app.permission(model=object, permission=EditPermission)
def has_edit_permission(identity, model, permission):
    return has_generic_edit_permission(identity, model)

This permission function is registered for model object, so will be valid for all models in our application. We can of course still make exceptions for particular models:

@app.permission(model=SpecialModel, permission=EditPermission)
def special_model_edit_permission(identity, model, permission):
    return exceptional_edit_permission_check(identity, model)

Variation is not only on model, but can also on permission or identity. For instance, we can register a permission policy for when the user has not logged in yet, i.e. has no claimed identity:

@app.permission(model=object, permission=EditPermission, identity=None)
def has_edit_permission_not_logged_in(identity, model, permission):
    return False

This permission check works in addition to the ones we specified above. In short you can be as generic or specific as you like.

Login forms

We've tackled a lot, but not yet how a user actually logs in to establish an identity in the first place. We need a view that gets triggered when the user logs in, for instance by submitting a login form. I'll sketch out some code here to give you an idea:

import morepath

@app.root()
class Root(object):
    pass

@app.html(model=Root, name='login')
def login_attempt(request, model):
    username = request.form['username']
    password = request.form['password']
    # check whether user has password, using password hash and database
    if not user_has_password(username, password):
        return "Sorry, login failed"
    # okay, user is known, so modify response remembering that user
    @request.after
    def remember_security(response):
        # create identity object
        identity = morepath.Identity(username)
        # modifies response, setting identity
        morepath.remember(response, request, identity)
   # redirect to original page after successful login attempt
   return morepath.redirect(request.form['came_from'])

This would work well for session, cookie or ticket-based authentication: after the identity is established once it is remembered on the response object, so that it is automatically sent with each new request.

For HTTP basic authentication this form-based authentication approach wouldn't work, of course. We'd instead need to issue a HTTP Unauthorized response, causing the browser to ask the user for a username/password combination, which it would then send along for each subsequent request. The remember operation is a no-op for basic auth.

Note: Currently this is in fact broken code as I haven't enabled the implicit generic function implementation lookup yet for Morepath implementations. It's an easy fix as I have the infrastructure for it in Reg, but I need to add it to my todo list.

Theory: Identity/permits

Security in Morepath has two parts:

  • establish someone's claimed identity.
  • use that claimed identity to see whether access to a Morepath view is permitted.

This looks very much like, but isn't quite, a separation between authentication and authorization. There are subtle differences.

Establishing identity only establishes a claimed identity and does not verify (with, say, a database), that this identity is in fact still recognized by the system (the user may be removed), or that this identity is even as it is claimed.

In the case of some identity policies and some applications this is in fact enough: if someone manages to claim an identity, then it is the identity, without the need to access a database. This is for instance the case with cryptographic ticket based authentication systems such as the one implemented by mod_auth_tkt. If someone comes along with the right encrypted auth tkt cookie, we know that's the identity we gave to this user earlier when they first logged in. No database verification check is needed.

Then there's the next step: to see whether a claimed identity is permitted to access a view on a model. This can be seen as the authorization step, and will normally have to access some kind of database to do so. It may however do something in addition when accessing the database: verify that the claimed identity is still valid. This is done in this step because it can sometimes be established whether someone has access and whether the claimed identity is valid by a single database query.

What have these changes accomplished? We've made sure that establishing a claimed identity can be done without touching a database; only checking whether that identity is permitted something has to touch a database, possibly only once.

I'm grateful to Chris McDonough, creator of the Pyramid web framework, who wrote a very useful postmortem on Pyramid's design and what he'd do differently if he could change things. That was extremely useful when I come up with Morepath's security system, so thanks again, Chris! Also inspirational was my long familiarity with Zope's security system, and I hope to have distilled some of it down to the minimum. Of course anything I got wrong is my own fault.

Identity Verification?

I think the case of Morepath it would in fact be easy to let users specify an app-specific verify function, which will be called with the identity and can use the database to establish whether an identity is claimed. This would be easy to integrate into Morepath, and doesn't require the miniframeworks that Chris bother him in his postmortem. It could look like this (for something like basic auth):

@app.function(generic.verify, object)
def verify_identity(identity):
     return validate_password(identity.userid, identity.password)

I could add a bit of sugar for this in the form of a directive:

@app.verify()
def verify_identity(identity):
     return validate_password(identity.userid, identity.password)

The default verify would just return True, so it would still work for identity policies and applications that have no need for identity verification. Identification verification would not be part of identity policy, but part of Morepath's security infrastructure, as it would be entirely application specific.

More identity policies

Right now Morepath implements only a single identity policy, and that's BasicAuthIdentityPolicy for HTTP basic auth. I hope I will get time in the future to port some of the more interesting functionality from Pyramid's authentication module; the AuthTktAuthenticationPolicy looks interesting in particular. These could then be made available in a Morepath extension module. If you are interested in helping this porting activity I'd be thrilled though -- get in touch with me, please!

Conclusion

I'm pretty pleased with the flexibility of the Morepath security system: you can be fine-grained or generic when you need to. It's all built on top of the Morepath foundations of directive-based configuration and Reg generic functions, and it fits.

The identity system should be able to cope well with any kind of authentication system you can throw at it, allowing you to write generic code and swapping in a different one with ease. The only oddball is the perennial exception of HTTP Basic Auth, but at least Morepath can deal with it.

There may seem to be many concepts involved at first, but I think in fact they've been kept down to an amount that you can still keep in your head after you get used to it.

I hope to get feedback on this, and I also hope people will play with it, so we can smoothen out any kinks quickly. Please let me know what you think! Join the #morepath IRC channel on freenode!

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