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Claims-Based Identity Overview and Concepts

Last modified: March 18, 2010

Applies to: SharePoint Foundation 2010

When you build claims-aware applications, the user presents an identity to your application as a set of claims. One claim could be the user’s name, another might be an e-mail address. The idea here is that an external identity system is configured to give your application all the information it needs about the user with each request, along with cryptographic assurance that the identity data received by your application comes from a trusted source.

Under this model, single sign-on is much easier to achieve, and your application is no longer responsible for the following:

  • Authenticating users

  • Storing user accounts and passwords

  • Calling to enterprise directories to look up user identity details

  • Integrating with identity systems from other platforms or companies

Under this model, your application makes identity-related decisions based on claims supplied by the user. This could be anything from simple application personalization with the user’s first name, to authorizing the user to access higher value features and resources in your application.

The following sections and next few topics introduce terminology and concepts to help you understand the claims-based identity architecture.

Identity

Identity is a set of attributes that describe a user, or some other entity, in a system that you want to secure.

Claim

Think of a claim as a piece of identity information (for example, name, e-mail address, age, or membership in the Sales role). The more claims your application receives, the more you know about your user. These are called "claims" rather than "attributes," as is commonly used in describing enterprise directories, because of the delivery method. In this model, your application does not look up user attributes in a directory. Instead, the user delivers claims to your application, and your application examines them. Each claim is made by an issuer, and you trust the claim only as much as you trust the issuer. For example, you trust a claim made by your company's domain controller more than you trust a claim made by the user.

Security Token

The user delivers a set of claims to your application with a request. In a Web service, these claims are carried in the security header of the SOAP envelope. In a browser-based Web application, the claims arrive through an HTTP POST from the user's browser, and may later be cached in a cookie if a session is desired. Regardless of how these claims arrive, they must be serialized and this is where security tokens come in. A security token is a serialized set of claims that is digitally signed by the issuing authority. The signature is important: it gives you assurance that the user did not just make up claims and send them to you. In low-security situations where cryptography is not necessary or desired, you can use unsigned tokens, but that scenario is not described in this topic.

One of the core features in Windows Identity Foundation (WIF) is the ability to create and read security tokens. WIF and the Microsoft .NET Framework handle all of the cryptographic work, and present your application with a set of claims that it can read.

Security Token Service (STS)

A security token service (STS) is the plumbing that builds, signs, and issues security tokens according to the interoperable protocols discussed in the "Standards" section of this topic. There is a lot of work that goes into implementing these protocols, but WIF does all of this work for you, making it feasible for someone who is not a protocols expert to get an STS up and running with very little effort.

WIF makes it easier to build your own STS. It is up to you to figure out how to implement the logic, or rules, that enforce it (often referred to as security policy).

Issuing Authority

There are many different types of issuing authorities, from domain controllers that issue Kerberos tickets, to certificate authorities that issue X.509 certificates. The specific type of authority discussed in this topic issues security tokens that contain claims. This issuing authority is a Web application or Web service that issues security tokens. It must be able to issue the proper claims given the target relying party and the user making the request, and might be responsible for interacting with user stores to look up claims and authenticate users.

Whatever issuing authority you choose, it plays a central role in your identity solution. When you factor authentication out of your application by relying on claims, you are passing responsibility to that authority and asking it to authenticate users on your behalf.

Relying Party

When you build an application that relies on claims, you are building a relying party application. Synonyms for an relying party include "claims-aware application" and "claims-based application". Web applications and Web services can both be relying parties.

A relying party application consumes tokens issued by a STS and extracts claims from tokens to use them for identity related tasks. The STS supports two types of relying party application: ASP.NET Web applications, and Windows Communication Foundation (WCF) Web services.

Standards

To make all of this interoperable, several WS-* standards are used in the previous scenario. Policy is retrieved by using WS-MetadataExchange, and the policy itself is structured according to the WS-Policy specification. The STS exposes endpoints that implement the WS-Trust specification, which describes how to request and receive security tokens. Most STSs today issue tokens formatted with Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML). SAML is an industry-recognized XML vocabulary that can be used to represent claims in an interoperable way. Or, in a multi-platform situation, this enables you to communicate with an STS on an entirely different platform and achieve single sign-on across all of your applications, regardless of platform.

Browser-Based Applications

Smart clients are not the only ones who can use the claims-based identity model. Browser-based applications (also referred to as passive clients) can also use it. The following scenario describes how this works.

First, the user points a browser at a claims-aware Web application (the relying party application). The Web application redirects the browser to the STS so that the user can be authenticated. The STS is hosted in a simple Web application that reads the incoming request, authenticates the user by using standard HTTP mechanisms, and then creates a SAML token and replies with a piece of ECMAScript (JavaScript, JScript) code that causes the browser to initiate an HTTP POST that sends the SAML token back to the relying party. The body of this POST contains the claims that the relying party requested. At this point, it is common for the relying party to package the claims into a cookie so that the user does not have to be redirected for each request.

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