Single Sign-On scenarios with Federation

Before reading this post, if you know the basic concepts and ideas behind the implementation of an STS with WCF, go ahead and jump to the next paragraph. Otherwise, I recommend you to read the following post Implementing a Secure Token Service with WCF first.

Informal definition of Federation

The image above illustrates a very simple view of a federation scenario. In the first block, we have a realm or security domain. A realm is a trust boundary that that can expand across several networks and it is basically composed by client applications, an STS and a collection of services (they essentially provide the business value to the client applications). A group of connected realms  conform a federation scenario (The trust boundary is around the STSs, each STS trust each other).

You can read this article for a more formal definition of Federation,

Key Interchange Process

1. The client sends the RST message to the STS

As part of the initial negotiation of the token with the STS through the RST/RRST (Request Security Token / Response Request Security Token) messages, the client application also negotiates with the STS a cryptographic key that will be used later to secure the communication with the final service.

This key can be symmetric or asymmetric, and the client application will decide which kind of type it wants in the initial RST message.

This can be done in WCF by configuration:


  <binding name="ServiceBinding">

  <security mode="Message">

    <message issuedTokenType="" issuedKeyType="SymmetricKey">

If the STS only supports one type of key (Symmetric or Asymmetric), that is another story, the client should know that beforehand. The STS can assume a default key type and always return that type or in the worst case, return an exception message.

After generating the right key, the STS wraps it in an encrypted key token ( using the public X509 key of the destination service (This is determined by the AppliesTo element in the RST message), and adds the encrypted token in the issued SAML token (This token is signed by the private X509 private key of the STS).

The plain key is also added in the RRST message so the client application can get it from there (This assumes that the communication with the STS is also secure).

2. The client receives the RRST message and creates the request message for the final service

The client application receives the RRST message, and afterwards, it extracts the SAML token and the generated key. Finally, it adds the SAML token to the request message for the final service and secures the channel (Encrypts the request) using the plain key received from the STS.

3. The service receives the request message from the client

The service on the other side, receives the encrypted message and the SAML token. After that, it unwraps the encrypted key token included in the SAML token with its X509 private key. This key is used later to decrypts the request message sent by the client application.

Share a SAML token between several services

Ok, everything looks ok so far, the problems start here :).  If you go back to the step 1, the STS will wrap the key into the SAML token using a public key of a X509 certificate. Does this means that a SAML token will only be useful for the service that possess the corresponding private key ?. In other words, is the SAML token only valid for one service ?. Ok, the answer will depend on a specific factor, is the private X509 key shared among all the services ?. If the answer is YES, the SAML token will be reusable for any of those services.

Now, is that a correct approach for implementing Single Sign-On ?. From my point of view, it is not, it just a security hole in the system. If one SAML token gets compromised by an attacker, this person will also get access to any service that share the same key. On other hand, if we have one key per service, if the SAML token gets compromised, only the service associated with that token is compromised. Clear enough, isn't it ? Single Sign-On here does not mean "Get a token once, use it everywhere ...". It means, "use always the same set of credentials against the STS to get the correponding token".

Single Sign-On in Federation

In this section I will try to describe with my words what "Single Sign-On" means in a federation scenario. If we have a client application that wants to consume a service in another security realm, do we need to have another set of credentials to log into that realm and consume the service ?. The answer is "NO", if a trust relationship exists between the Realms where the client application and the services are located, an automatic negotiation of credentials can happen on behalf of the client application between the STSs, and therefore the Single-Sign On is archived.

If the STS in the second realm trusts the first realm, it can accepts SAML tokens from the first STS (Since the SAML token is signed, it can verify the origin with a X509 public key) and transform them to tokens valid for the second realm. This is how federation works behind stage, the trust relationship is delegated to the STSs.

Of course, I do not have the last word and any feedback is always welcome :).

1 Comment

  • Hi,

    I looked on all these great articles regarding saml and wcf.

    but I am looking to implement SSO for multiple websites(not services), using SAML. in that case, STS will remain there as it is. But Web application will replace Webservice and Client both.

    Do you know anything about this, if so, Please let me know....


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