Awesome authentication solution
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ASP.NET has a built-in Forms Authentication system to issue and validate cookies to authenticated users. While having the authentication system in the framework makes a lot of things easier for developers, there is one major issue that may occur when running an application on multiple servers in a load-balanced environment: the authentication algorithm might change as a result of a patch to the framework, and since patches may not be applied to all servers running the same application atomically, cookies issued by one server might be deemed invalid by the other, causing weird authentication issues and requiring the user to login again.

To mitigate that, we created an extensible authentication system, that can readily replace ASP.NET forms authentication, and can be easily adapted to support features like revocable cookies.

How to Use

It's easy to use this authentication solution. You simply need to add a reference to AppHarbor.Web.Security assembly (and bin-deploy it) and make these changes to your root Web.config file:

In <system.webServer> section, add the following to the <modules> element:

<add name="AppHarbor.Web.Security.CookieAuthenticationModule" 
     type="AppHarbor.Web.Security.CookieAuthenticationModule, AppHarbor.Web.Security"
     preCondition="integratedMode" />

(if you are using IIS6 or Cassini, you need to add:

<add name="AppHarbor.Web.Security.CookieAuthenticationModule" 
     type="AppHarbor.Web.Security.CookieAuthenticationModule, AppHarbor.Web.Security" />

in <httpModules> section under <system.web>. You can safely add both if you want to. It won't hurt. This is useful when you are testing in Cassini and deploying on IIS on AppHarbor.) Also, make sure mode="None" attribute is set on your <authentication> tag (under <system.web>).

You also need to add the encryption keys you want to use under <appSettings>. There is a console application provided in the repository, named KeyGenerator, that will automatically generate keys for you and print out configuration keys that you can copy and paste directly.

It is not a good idea to use online services to generate encryption keys. You should also avoid using the keys used to protect the cookie for other purposes.

In code, you need to add a using directive:

using AppHarbor.Web.Security;

and instead of using FormsAuthentication class (and its SetAuthCookie and SignOut methods), you should use an instance of CookieAuthenticator class:

IAuthenticator authenticator = new CookieAuthenticator(); // or grab one from your IoC container
authenticator.SetCookie(userName, rememberMe);

How It Works

The underlying architecture is quite similar to the way the built-in forms authentication works: an HTTP module intercepts the AuthenticateRequest event of the application, and retrieves and validates the authentication cookie. Based on the information in the cookie, the HTTP module creates a new Identity object and sets the User property of the current HttpContext appropriately.

It does not support the cookieless authentication functionality that the built-in forms authentication provides.

In order to provide revocable session functionality, you need to keep track of the GUID assigned to each AuthenticationCookie issued. You can then modify the AuthenticationCookie.IsExpired method to return true if the session GUID is revoked in the database.


To protect the cookie from tampering, we use Rijndael (AES) algorithm to encrypt the cookie data, and then sign the encrypted data with HMAC-SHA256. This Encrypt-then-Sign scheme is recommended by well-known cryptographers, Mihir Bellare and Chanathip Namprempre, in their paper Authenticated Encryption: Relations among notions and analysis of the generic composition paradigm. Given secure underlying encryption and signing algorithms, this scheme is deemed secure and is not known to be vulnerable to Padding Oracle Attacks, like the one ASP.NET v4.0 forms authentication sufferred from recently.

The other advantage of this solution relative to the ASP.NET's built-in offering is that ASP.NET reuses the same set of keys that it uses for forms authentication in other places like ViewState encryption with varying levels of criticality. Our solution lets you use a unique set of keys just for authentication.

You can change the default encryption and validation algorithms by modifying the appropriate properties in the ConfigFileAuthenticationConfiguration class.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does it only work on AppHarbor?

No, you can use it in any ASP.NET application.