Getting Shibboleth SSO attributes securely to your application

Accounts and user data are a matter of trust. Single sign-on (SSO) can improve the user experience (UX), convenience and security especially if you are offering several web applications often used by the same user. If you do not want to force your users to big vendors offering SSO like google or facebook or do not trust them you can implement SSO for your offerings with open-source software (OSS) like shibboleth. With shibboleth it may be even feasible to join an existing federation like SWITCH, DFN or InCommon thus enabling logins for thousands of users without creating new accounts and login data.

If you are implementing you SSO with shibboleth you usually have to enable your web applications to deal with shibboleth attributes. Shibboleth attributes are information about the authenticated user provided by the SSO infrastructure, e.g. the apache web server and mod_shib in conjunction with associated identity providers (IDP). In general there are two options for access of these attributes:

  1. HTTP request headers
  2. Request environment variables (not to confuse with system environment variables!)

Using request headers should be avoided as it is less secure and prone to spoofing. Access to the request environment depends on the framework your web application is using.

Shibboleth attributes in Java Servlet-based apps

In Java Servlet-based applications like Grails or Java EE access to the shibboleth attributes is really easy as they are provided as request attributes. So simply calling request.getAttribute("AJP_eppn") will provide you the value of the eppn (“EduPrincipalPersonName”) attribute set by shibboleth if a user is authenticated and the attribute is made available. There are 2 caveats though:

  1. Request attributes are prefixed by default with AJP_ if you are using mod_proxy_ajp to connect apache with your servlet container.
  2. Shibboleth attributes are not contained in request.getAttributeNames()! You have to directly access them knowing their name.

Shibboleth attributes in WSGI-based apps

If you are using a WSGI-compatible python web framework for your application you can get the shibboleth attributes from the wsgi.environ dictionary that is part of the request. In CherryPy for example you can use the following code to obtain the eppn:

eppn = cherrypy.request.wsgi_environ['eppn']

I did not find the name of the WSGI environment dictionary clearly documented in my efforts to make shibboleth work with my CherryPy application but after that everything was a bliss.


Accessing shibboleth attributes in a safe manner is straightforward in web environments like Java servlets and Python WSGI applications. Nevertheless, you have to know the above aspects regarding naming and visibility or you will be puzzled by the behaviour of the shibboleth service provider.

Making CherryPy Application WSGI compatible

When choosing a micro web framework evolving it to fit your needs is key. As CherryPy is one of our choices I want to show you how to evolve it in terms of web server. Of course you can use the embedded CherryPy web server in development and for small sites. It is fast enough for many use cases and supports important features like SSL so you may come a long way just using it. There are several reasons to put your CherryPy behind a tried and trusted native web server like Apache or nginx:

  • Consistent production environment using different application servers (e.g. for Java and Python) using a powerful and uniform frontend
  • Many options and possibilites using Apache modules
  • Well known and understood environment for administrators
  • Separation of web-facing http server concerns and your web application
  • Improved performance and security

Making CherryPy a WSGI-compatible

The good news is that CherryPy application objects are already a WSGI-compliant application. So creating a like the following will enable integration with mod_wsgi of Apache:

def application(environ, start_response):
    cherrypy.tree.mount(MyApp(), script_name=None, config=None)
    return cherrypy.tree(environ, start_response)

Integrating with Apache’s mod_wsgi

It is quite easy to integrate a Python WSGI application with apache using mod_wsgi. If the module is present you just need to add some directives telling Apache where to mount the wsgi application defined by your script:

WSGIScriptAlias /my_app /path/to/
# May be required to allow your web app using libraries installed on the system
<Directory /usr/lib/python2.7/site-packages/ >
    Order deny,allow
    Allow from all
    Require all granted

After you have such a setup working properly you can consult the mod_wsgi documentation on how to improve in regards to threading, script reloading etc.

Configuring the WSGI-app

Many web applications need some form of configuration. Your application should not make assumptions on its install location or some directory structure. Generally speaking, an application should never assume that it can use relative path names for accessing the filesystem. Also access to operating system environment variables is dangerous because the application may run in different contexts. But we can specify WSGI-environment variables in the web servers’ configuration. An easy and safe way is to provide the configuration directory and other values using WSGI-environment variables that we can specify in the mod_wsgi configuration:

WSGIScriptAlias /my_app /path/to/
SetEnv configuration_dir /etc/my_shiny_web_app

We can access the wsgi-environment in python like so:

def application(environ, start_response):
    configdir = environ['configuration_dir']
    cherrypy.config.update(os.path.join(configdir, 'global.conf'))

    cherrypy.tree.mount(MyApp(), config=os.path.join(configdir, 'my_app.conf'))
    return cherrypy.tree(environ, start_response)

Note: Because your web app can be mounted to other locations than “/” on the the web server your application should not hard-code absolute links and the like. They all will be dead if your app is mounted at a different location.