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Connection Strings and Configuration Files

Embedding connection strings in your application's code can lead to security vulnerabilities and maintenance problems. Unencrypted connection strings compiled into an application's source code can be viewed using the Ildasm.exe (MSIL Disassembler) tool. Moreover, if the connection string ever changes, your application must be recompiled. For these reasons, we recommend storing connection strings in an application configuration file.

Application configuration files contain settings that are specific to a particular application. For example, an ASP.NET application can have one or more web.config files, and a Windows application can have an optional app.config file. Configuration files share common elements, although the name and location of a configuration file vary depending on the application's host.

Connection strings can be stored as key/value pairs in the connectionStrings section of the configuration element of an application configuration file. Child elements include add, clear, and remove.

The following configuration file fragment demonstrates the schema and syntax for storing a connection string. The name attribute is a name that you provide to uniquely identify a connection string so that it can be retrieved at run time. The providerName is the invariant name of the .NET Framework data provider, which is registered in the machine.config file.

<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>
  <configuration>
    <connectionStrings>
      <clear />
      <add name="Name" 
       providerName="System.Data.ProviderName" 
       connectionString="Valid Connection String;" />
    </connectionStrings>
  </configuration>
NoteNote

You can save part of a connection string in a configuration file and use the DbConnectionStringBuilder class to complete it at run time. This is useful in scenarios where you do not know elements of the connection string ahead of time, or when you do not want to save sensitive information in a configuration file. For more information, see Connection String Builders.

External configuration files are separate files that contain a fragment of a configuration file consisting of a single section. The external configuration file is then referenced by the main configuration file. Storing the connectionStrings section in a physically separate file is useful in situations where connection strings may be edited after the application is deployed. For example, the standard ASP.NET behavior is to restart an application domain when configuration files are modified, which results in state information being lost. However, modifying an external configuration file does not cause an application restart. External configuration files are not limited to ASP.NET; they can also be used by Windows applications. In addition, file access security and permissions can be used to restrict access to external configuration files. Working with external configuration files at run time is transparent, and requires no special coding.

To store connection strings in an external configuration file, create a separate file that contains only the connectionStrings section. Do not include any additional elements, sections, or attributes. This example shows the syntax for an external configuration file.

  <connectionStrings>
    <add name="Name" 
     providerName="System.Data.ProviderName" 
     connectionString="Valid Connection String;" />
  </connectionStrings>

In the main application configuration file, you use the configSource attribute to specify the fully qualified name and location of the external file. This example refers to an external configuration file named connections.config.

<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>
<configuration>
    <connectionStrings configSource="connections.config"/>
</configuration>

The .NET Framework 2.0 introduced new classes in the System.Configuration namespace to simplify retrieving connection strings from configuration files at run time. You can programmatically retrieve a connection string by name or by provider name.

Note Note

The machine.config file also contains a connectionStrings section, which contains connection strings used by Visual Studio. When retrieving connection strings by provider name from the app.config file in a Windows application, the connection strings in machine.config get loaded first, and then the entries from app.config. Adding clear immediately after the connectionStrings element removes all inherited references from the data structure in memory, so that only the connection strings defined in the local app.config file are considered.

Starting with the .NET Framework 2.0, ConfigurationManager is used when working with configuration files on the local computer, replacing the deprecated ConfigurationSettings. WebConfigurationManager is used to work with ASP.NET configuration files. It is designed to work with configuration files on a Web server, and allows programmatic access to configuration file sections such as system.web.

Note Note

Accessing configuration files at run time requires granting permissions to the caller; the required permissions depend on the type of application, configuration file, and location. For more information, see Using the Configuration Classes and WebConfigurationManager for ASP.NET applications, and ConfigurationManager for Windows applications.

You can use the ConnectionStringSettingsCollection to retrieve connection strings from application configuration files. It contains a collection of ConnectionStringSettings objects, each of which represents a single entry in the connectionStrings section. Its properties map to connection string attributes, allowing you to retrieve a connection string by specifying the name or the provider name.

Property

Description

Name

The name of the connection string. Maps to the name attribute.

ProviderName

The fully qualified provider name. Maps to the providerName attribute.

ConnectionString

The connection string. Maps to the connectionString attribute.

This example iterates through the ConnectionStringSettings collection and displays the Name, ProviderName, and ConnectionString properties in the console window.

Note Note

System.Configuration.dll is not included in all project types, and you may need to set a reference to it in order to use the configuration classes. The name and location of a particular application configuration file varies by the type of application and the hosting process.

using System.Configuration;

class Program
{
    static void Main()
    {
        GetConnectionStrings();
        Console.ReadLine();
    }

    static void GetConnectionStrings()
    {
        ConnectionStringSettingsCollection settings =
            ConfigurationManager.ConnectionStrings;

        if (settings != null)
        {
            foreach(ConnectionStringSettings cs in settings)
            {
                Console.WriteLine(cs.Name);
                Console.WriteLine(cs.ProviderName);
                Console.WriteLine(cs.ConnectionString);
            }
        }
    }
}

This example demonstrates how to retrieve a connection string from a configuration file by specifying its name. The code creates a ConnectionStringSettings object, matching the supplied input parameter to the ConnectionStrings name. If no matching name is found, the function returns null (Nothing in Visual Basic).

// Retrieves a connection string by name. 
// Returns null if the name is not found. 
static string GetConnectionStringByName(string name)
{
    // Assume failure. 
    string returnValue = null;

    // Look for the name in the connectionStrings section.
    ConnectionStringSettings settings =
        ConfigurationManager.ConnectionStrings[name];

    // If found, return the connection string. 
    if (settings != null)
        returnValue = settings.ConnectionString;

    return returnValue;
}

This example demonstrates how to retrieve a connection string by specifying the provider-invariant name in the format System.Data.ProviderName. The code iterates through the ConnectionStringSettingsCollection and returns the connection string for the first ProviderName found. If the provider name is not found, the function returns null (Nothing in Visual Basic).

// Retrieve a connection string by specifying the providerName. 
// Assumes one connection string per provider in the config file. 
static string GetConnectionStringByProvider(string providerName)
{
    // Return null on failure. 
    string returnValue = null;

    // Get the collection of connection strings.
    ConnectionStringSettingsCollection settings =
        ConfigurationManager.ConnectionStrings;

    // Walk through the collection and return the first  
    // connection string matching the providerName. 
    if (settings != null)
    {
        foreach (ConnectionStringSettings cs in settings)
        {
            if (cs.ProviderName == providerName)
                returnValue = cs.ConnectionString;
            break;
        }
    }
    return returnValue;
}

ASP.NET 2.0 introduced a new feature, called protected configuration, that enables you to encrypt sensitive information in a configuration file. Although primarily designed for ASP.NET, protected configuration can also be used to encrypt configuration file sections in Windows applications. For a detailed description of the protected configuration capabilities, see Encrypting Configuration Information Using Protected Configuration.

The following configuration file fragment shows the connectionStrings section after it has been encrypted. The configProtectionProvider specifies the protected configuration provider used to encrypt and decrypt the connection strings. The EncryptedData section contains the cipher text.

<connectionStrings configProtectionProvider="DataProtectionConfigurationProvider">
  <EncryptedData>
    <CipherData>
      <CipherValue>AQAAANCMnd8BFdERjHoAwE/Cl+sBAAAAH2... </CipherValue>
    </CipherData>
  </EncryptedData>
</connectionStrings>

When the encrypted connection string is retrieved at run time, the .NET Framework uses the specified provider to decrypt the CipherValue and make it available to your application. You do not need to write any additional code to manage the decryption process.

Protected configuration providers are registered in the configProtectedData section of the machine.config file on the local computer, as shown in the following fragment, which shows the two protected configuration providers supplied with the .NET Framework. The values shown here have been truncated for readability.

<configProtectedData defaultProvider="RsaProtectedConfigurationProvider">
  <providers>
    <add name="RsaProtectedConfigurationProvider" 
      type="System.Configuration.RsaProtectedConfigurationProvider, ... />
    <add name="DataProtectionConfigurationProvider" 
      type="System.Configuration.DpapiProtectedConfigurationProvider, ... />
  </providers>
</configProtectedData>

You can configure additional protected configuration providers by adding them to the machine.config file. You can also create your own protected configuration provider by inheriting from the ProtectedConfigurationProvider abstract base class. The following table describes the two configuration files included with the .NET Framework.

Provider

Description

RSAProtectedConfigurationProvider

Uses the RSA encryption algorithm to encrypt and decrypt data. The RSA algorithm can be used for both public key encryption and digital signatures. It is also known as "public key" or asymmetrical encryption because it employs two different keys. You can use the ASP.NET IIS Registration Tool (Aspnet_regiis.exe) to encrypt sections in a Web.config file and manage the encryption keys. ASP.NET decrypts the configuration file when it processes the file. The identity of the ASP.NET application must have read access to the encryption key that is used to encrypt and decrypt the encrypted sections.

DPAPIProtectedConfigurationProvider

Uses the Windows Data Protection API (DPAPI) to encrypt configuration sections. It uses the Windows built-in cryptographic services and can be configured for either machine-specific or user-account-specific protection. Machine-specific protection is useful for multiple applications on the same server that need to share information. User-account-specific protection can be used with services that run with a specific user identity, such as a shared hosting environment. Each application runs under a separate identity which restricts access to resources such as files and databases.

Both providers offer strong encryption of data. However, if you are planning to use the same encrypted configuration file on multiple servers, such as a Web farm, only the RsaProtectedConfigurationProvider enables you to export the encryption keys used to encrypt the data and import them on another server. For more information, see Importing and Exporting Protected Configuration RSA Key Containers.

The System.Configuration namespace provides classes to work with configuration settings programmatically. The ConfigurationManager class provides access to machine, application, and user configuration files. If you are creating an ASP.NET application, you can use the WebConfigurationManager class, which provides the same functionality while also allowing you to access settings that are unique to ASP.NET applications, such as those found in <system.web>.

NoteNote

The System.Security.Cryptography namespace contains classes that provide additional options for encrypting and decrypting data. Use these classes if you require cryptographic services that are not available using protected configuration. Some of these classes are wrappers for the unmanaged Microsoft CryptoAPI, while others are purely managed implementations. For more information, see Cryptographic Services.

This example demonstrates how to toggle encrypting the connectionStrings section in an app.config file for a Windows application. In this example, the procedure takes the name of the application as an argument, for example, "MyApplication.exe". The app.config file will then be encrypted and copied to the folder that contains the executable under the name of "MyApplication.exe.config".

NoteNote

The connection string can only be decrypted on the computer on which it was encrypted.

The code uses the OpenExeConfiguration method to open the app.config file for editing, and the GetSection method returns the connectionStrings section. The code then checks the IsProtected property, calling the ProtectSection to encrypt the section if it is not encrypted. The UnProtectSection method is invoked to decrypt the section. The Save method completes the operation and saves the changes.

NoteNote

You must set a reference to System.Configuration.dll in your project for the code to run.

static void ToggleConfigEncryption(string exeConfigName)
{
    // Takes the executable file name without the 
    // .config extension. 
    try
    {
        // Open the configuration file and retrieve  
        // the connectionStrings section.
        Configuration config = ConfigurationManager.
            OpenExeConfiguration(exeConfigName);

        ConnectionStringsSection section =
            config.GetSection("connectionStrings")
            as ConnectionStringsSection;

        if (section.SectionInformation.IsProtected)
        {
            // Remove encryption.
            section.SectionInformation.UnprotectSection();
        }
        else
        {
            // Encrypt the section.
            section.SectionInformation.ProtectSection(
                "DataProtectionConfigurationProvider");
        }
        // Save the current configuration.
        config.Save();

        Console.WriteLine("Protected={0}",
            section.SectionInformation.IsProtected);
    }
    catch (Exception ex)
    {
        Console.WriteLine(ex.Message);
    }
}

This example uses the OpenWebConfiguration method of the WebConfigurationManager. Note that in this case you can supply the relative path to the Web.config file by using a tilde. The code requires a reference to the System.Web.Configuration class.

static void ToggleWebEncrypt()
{
    // Open the Web.config file.
    Configuration config = WebConfigurationManager.
        OpenWebConfiguration("~");

    // Get the connectionStrings section.
    ConnectionStringsSection section =
        config.GetSection("connectionStrings")
        as ConnectionStringsSection;

    // Toggle encryption. 
    if (section.SectionInformation.IsProtected)
    {
        section.SectionInformation.UnprotectSection();
    }
    else
    {
        section.SectionInformation.ProtectSection(
            "DataProtectionConfigurationProvider");
    }

    // Save changes to the Web.config file.
    config.Save();
}

For more information securing ASP.NET applications, see ASP.NET Security and ASP.NET 2.0 Security Practices at a Glance on the ASP.NET Developer Center.

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