Securing web services

This post discusses first the most important aspects to consider regarding security, and then, how these aspects are implemented with web services.

Security Aspects

Sending and receiving plain text messages through unsecured networks can lead to attacks performed by an attacker who potentially can intercept these messages and modify them for malicious purposes.

By using some security mechanisms, the sensitive data can be protected against threats such as eavesdropping or data tampering.

Usually, the following security aspects are considered for any application:

  • Authentication: Is the process of identifying the user, and making sure that the user is who he says he is.
  • Authorization: Defines the rights and permissions of users.
  • Message Integrity: Guarantees that a message has not been changed in transit.
  • Message Confidentiality: Encrypts a message so that unauthorized entities cannot view its content.
  • Non-Repudiation: Guarantees that the sender of a message cannot later deny having sent the message and that the recipient cannot deny having received it.

Transport security vs. Message layer security

This is worth mentioning since the difference between these two modes to assure security between two endpoints is not generally known.

Transport security

Transport security represents an approach where the underlying transport or application servers are used to handle security features. When the message leaves the transport, it is no longer secure. For example, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is a common transport layer approach that is used to provide encryption.

This approach does not support multiple intermediates, if a message needs to go through multiple endpoints to reach its destination, each intermediate point must forward the message over a new SSL connection (the original message from the client is not protected on each intermediary).

 

Message security

Message layer security represents an approach where all the information related to security is encapsulated in the message. Securing the message using this approach instead of using transport security has several advantages that include:

 

  • Increased flexibility: Parts of the message, instead of the entire message, can be encrypted or signed. This means that intermediaries can view parts of the message that are intended for them.
  • Support for multiple transports: The secured messages can be sent over many different transports, such as Simple Mail Transfer (SMTP), HTTP, Message Queues, without having to rely on the protocol for security. The message is still secure after taking it out from the underlying transport.

Web Services

The web services by themselves do not provide the quality of service required by many business applications these days. (e.g. transactions, security, and reliability).

Due to that reason, different vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Sun and others have coordinated their efforts to improve that quality of service, and as result of this work, they developed the WS-* protocols.

WS-* is the name for a set of protocols that extend the normal web service functionality modifying the SOAP messages (They work at message level).

For the moment, these are some of the available protocols that can be used to provide a better quality of service:

 

  • WS-Security: Describes enhancements to SOAP messaging to provide message integrity, message confidentiality, and single message authentication. The specified mechanisms can be used to accommodate a wide variety of security models and encryption technologies.
  • WS-Addressing: Provides transport-neutral mechanisms to address web services and messages. Specifically, this specification defines XML elements to identify web services endpoints and to secure end-to-end endpoint identification in messages. In other words, it enables message transmission in a transport-neutral manner. Therefore, HTTP is no longer required as unique transport for web services, and other kinds of transports can be used, such as SMTP, TCP, and even MSMQ.
  • MTOM: Provides a mechanism for optimizing the transmission and/or wire format of a SOAP message when file attachments need to be included.
  • WS-ReliableMessaging:  Describes a protocol that allows messages to be delivered reliably between distributed applications in the presence of software components, system, or network failures. This protocol can be implemented using different network transport technologies.
  • WS-Transaction: Provides a mechanism to establish short-lived distributed transactions between applications that have all-or-nothing semantics.

Microsoft already implemented WS-Security, WS-Addressing and MTOM in the Microsoft WSE framework, but it is planning to implement all of them in WCF (Windows Communication Foundation). WCF is a messaging framework to build distributed application that will be available in a couple of months.

 

Below, a summary about the advantages of using web services.

 

Advantages

  • It is highly interoperable. Almost all the application vendors support basic web services and the WS-* specifications as well.
  • It works in a transport-neutral manner, any transport can be used.
  • It is based on XML and other open standards. The application does not need to provide a custom mechanism to parse or transport the messages.
  • They can provide message authentication, integrity and confidentiality.

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