Chapter 6. Security

In this chapter, security means allowing people to see what you want them to see and preventing them from seeing what you don't want them to see. Additionally, there are the issues of what measures you need to take on your server in order to restrict access via non-Web means. This chapter illustrates the precautions you need to take to protect your server from malicious access and modification of your web site.

The most common questions ask how to protect documents and restrict access. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the subject and the nature of the web architecture, these questions tend to also have the most complex answers or often no convenient answers at all.

Normal security nomenclature and methodology separate the process of applying access controls into two discrete steps; in the case of the Web, they may be thought of as the server asking itself these questions:

  • Are you really who you claim to be?

  • Are you allowed to be here?

These steps are called authentication and authorization, respectively. Here's a real-world example: a flight attendant checks your photo identification (authentication) and your ticket (authorization) before permitting you to board an airplane.

Authentication can be broken down into what might be called weak and strong. Weak authentication is based on the correctness of credentials that the end user supplies (which therefore may have been stolen from the real owner hence the name "weak"), whereas strong authentication is based on attributes of the request over which the end user has little or no control, and it cannot change from request to request such as the IP address of his system.

Although checking authentication and authorization are clearly separate activities, their application gets a bit blurred in the context of the Apache web server modules. Even though the main difference between the many security modules is how they store the credentials (in a file, a database, an LDAP directory, etc.), they nevertheless have to provide the code to retrieve the credentials from the store, validate those supplied by the client, and check to see if the authenticated user is authorized to access the resource. In other words, there's a lot of functionality duplicated from module to module, and although there are frequently similarities between their behavior and directives, the lack of shared code means that sometimes they're not quite as similar as you'd hope. This overloading of functionality has been somewhat addressed in the next version of the web server after 2.0 (still in development at the time of this writing).

In addition to the matter of requiring a password to access certain content from the web server, there is the larger issue of securing your server from attacks. As with any software, Apache has, at various times in its history, been susceptible to conditions that would allow an attacker to gain inappropriate control of the hosting server. For example, they may have been able to access, or modify, files that the site administrator had not intended to give access to, or they may have been able to execute commands on the target server. Thus, it is important that you know what measures need to be taken to ensure that your server is not susceptible to these attacks.

The most important measure that you can take is to keep apprised of new releases, and read the CHANGES file to determine if the new version fixes a security hole to which you may be subject. Running the latest version of the Apache server is usually a good measure in the fight against security vulnerabilities.

Recipes in this chapter show you how to implement some of the frequently requested password scenarios, as well as giving you the tools necessary to protect your server from external attacks.

Authentication and Authorization

When checking for access to restricted documents, there are actually two different operations involved: checking to see who you are and checking to see if you're allowed to see the document.

The first part, checking to see who you are, is called authentication. The web server doesn't know who you are, so you need to provide some proof of your identity, such as a username and matching password. When the server successfully compares these bits of information (called credentials) with those in its databases, the server will proceed, but if you're not in the list, or the information doesn't match, the server will turn you away with an error status.

Once you have convinced the server you are who you say you are, it will look at the list of people allowed to access the document and see if you're on it; this is called authorization. If you are on the list, access proceed normally; otherwise, the server returns an error status and denies access.

The two different operations do not differentiate in the errors they return; it is always a 401 (unauthorized) code, even if the failure was in authentication. This is to prevent would-be attackers from being able to tell when they have valid credentials.




Apache Cookbook
Apache Cookbook: Solutions and Examples for Apache Administrators
ISBN: 0596529945
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 215

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