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Webauthn is a small, modular authentication provider framework written to support several Python-based, RESTful web services written by our organization. It allows deployment-time configuration of several alternative identity and attribute provider modules to establish client security context for web requests by talking to a local or remote provider.


Build Status

Webauthn is research software, but its core features have proven stable enough to use in several production science projects.

Using Webauthn

Webauthn is a server software library meant to be integrated into a web service written in Python and using the web.py web framework.

  1. Install the webauthn software and prerequisites.
  2. Create a customized local JSON configuration file.
  3. Perform deployment steps to configure database schemas, enable web services, etc.
  4. Establish client identities and attribute bindings in the relevant providers.
  5. Use the webauthn REST API
  • Check session status
  • Establish session via login sequence
  • Extend session expiration time
  • Delete session
  1. Use a web service API that consumes webauthn security context
  • Service is aware of client's context (identity and attributes)
  • Service MAY refuse access to anonymous clients who lack security context
  • Service MAY apply fine-grained authorization decisions based on resource-level policies


As root, run these convenience Makefile targets for development and test:

make preinstall_centos
make install
make deploy

The preinstall_centos target may work on several Linux distributions including CentOS 7 and recent Fedora. It is not a frequently tested build method as most production environments choose to manage prerequisites more explicitly and so the webauthn install target does not attempt to solve those prerequisites itself.

If you wish to modify the service configuration, edit the ~webauthn/webauthn2_config.json (see samples/ folder in source tree for examples. Then, repeat the make deploy step so that the database can be fully configured.

Help and Contact

Please direct questions and comments to the project issue tracker at GitHub.

Deployment Scenarios

Currently, we support a few use case scenarios using different combinations of webauthn provider modules. Additional legacy provider modules exist in the codebase but are not seeing regular use nor testing.

Standalone Database Providers

Mostly for development and testing purposes, a complete set of local providers can be deployed:

  1. Cookie-based session identifiers
  2. Local database session state provider
  3. Local database user identity provider with salted and hashed password storage
  • Basic HTML FORM submission for login
  1. Local attribute provider

In this mode, a local administration command-line interface utility can be used to manage the user and attribute provider content to create client accounts and bind their security attributes. This scenario is used in our continuous integration test suites to perform system tests involving authenticated web clients.

The pertinent webauthn data for the JSON configuration file would be:

  "sessionids_provider": "webcookie", 
  "sessionstates_provider": "database", 
  "clients_provider": "database", 
  "attributes_provider": "database", 
  "web_cookie_name": "webauthn", 
  "web_cookie_path": "/", 
  "web_cookie_secure": true, 

  "database_schema": "webauthn2", 
  "database_type": "postgres", 
  "database_dsn": "dbname=webauthn", 
  "database_max_retries": 5

Globus Providers

For collaborative projects, an integration with Globus Online can be deployed:

  1. Cookie-based session identifiers
  2. Oauth2 variant local database session state provider
  3. Globus identity provider
  • Various OAuth workflows to establish client identity
  1. Globus groups provider
  • Custom Globus workflows to establish client group memberships as attributes

2016 Globus Providers

The new Globus identity establishment workflow is OpenID Connect compliant, and a generic OpenID Connect provider is under development to use this feature natively. Once integration has been validated, this alternate configuration will be documented here.

Support for the new Globus Groups service will also be documented here once available.

Pure OpenID Connect Providers

For experimentation, an integration with OpenID Connect identity providers such as Google can be deployed:

  1. Cookie-based session identifiers
  2. Oauth2 variant local database session state provider
  3. Oauth2 identity provider using OpenID Connect workflow
  4. No group/attribute provider.

This is somewhat limiting as a configuration as the web service must express all access policies in terms of individual client identities rather than using group or role-based abstractions.

The pertinent webauthn data for the JSON configuration file would be:

  "sessionids_provider": "webcookie", 
  "sessionstates_provider": "oauth2", 
  "clients_provider": "oauth2", 
  "preauth_provider": "oauth2", 
  "attributes_provider": null, 
  "web_cookie_name": "webauthn", 
  "web_cookie_path": "/", 
  "web_cookie_secure": true, 
  "setheader": false,

  "database_schema": "webauthn2_oauth2", 
  "database_type": "postgres", 
  "database_dsn": "dbname=webauthn", 
  "database_max_retries": 5, 

  "oauth2_nonce_hard_timeout" : 3600,
  "oauth2_discovery_uri": "https://accounts.google.com/.well-known/openid-configuration",
  "oauth2_redirect_relative_uri": "/authn/session",
  "oauth2_client_secret_file": "/usr/local/etc/oauth2/client_secret_google.json",
  "oauth2_scope": "openid email profile",
  "oauth2_provider_sets_token_nonce": false

TODO: validate whether this information is still accurate.


Webauthn contains its own REST service endpoint, so http://www.example.com/authn/session might be the URL to a webauthn session resource if deployed on your www.example.com server.

The API described below is assuming cookie-based session tracking as in the security provider scenarios previously described.

Session Status Check

The GET operation is used to check the status of the existing session.

GET /authn/session HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com
Accept: application/json
Cookie: webauthn=SESSION_ID_GOES_HERE

A successful response will include a JSON representation of the current session status:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Length: 180
Content-Type: application/json

{"attributes": [{"id": "group1", "display_name": "group1"}, {"id": "testuser", "display_name": "testuser"}], "seconds_remaining": 1792, "since": "2016-02-02 17:23:42.260959-08:00", "expires": "2016-02-02 17:53:42.260959-08:00", "client": {"id": "testuser", "display_name": "testuser"}}

The exact content of user identity or group attribute objects depends on the configured providers.

Typical error responses:

  • 404 Not Found: indicates that there is not a current session for this client.

Session Extension

Normally, webauthn is integrated into a web service and the client session is extended automatically whenever that other web service is accessed by a client with an active session credential. Session expiration is thus based on an expiration time being exceeded with a lack of protocol activity. In some cases, a client may be busy with user interaction or other client-side processes and need to extend the session without performing other web service operations.

The PUT operation is used to simulate other web service interactions and cause extension of the session expiration time.

PUT /authn/session HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com
Accept: application/json
Cookie: webauthn=SESSION_ID_GOES_HERE

A successful response will include a JSON representation of the current session status following the adjustment of the expiration time:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Length: 180
Content-Type: application/json

{"attributes": [{"id": "group1", "display_name": "group1"}, {"id": "testuser", "display_name": "testuser"}], "seconds_remaining": 1799, "since": "2016-02-02 17:23:42.260959-08:00", "expires": "2016-02-02 18:05:44.533946-08:00", "client": {"id": "testuser", "display_name": "testuser"}}

Typical error responses:

  • 404 Not Found: indicates that there is not a current session for this client.

Session Termination

The DELETE operation is used to logout or terminate the webauthn session.

DELETE /authn/session HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com
Cookie: webauthn=SESSION_ID_GOES_HERE

A successful response will be empty:

HTTP/1.1 204 No Content

Typical error responses:

  • 404 Not Found: indicates that there is not a current session for this client.

Termination/Establishment Loops

In certain configurations and environments, the session termination operation may be futile or confusing:

  1. The DELETE method destroys the session state in webauthn.
  2. An AJAX application or other request attempts service access without security context.
  3. The AJAX application or service redirects the client to the session establishment workflow.
  4. When using Globus Auth or other OpenID Connect providers, the user may automatically login without further user interaction.
  • The user is still authenticated with the external Globus or OpenID Connect identity provider, e.g. via cookies that are not controlled by webauthn.
  • The user has previously selected a choice in the identity provider to remember their decision to grant access to the webauthn-enabled web server.
  1. The user is again faced with an active session after having requested logout.

In deployments where aggressive or automatic login is enabled, the AJAX application or web UI may need to track logout decisions via additional cookies to break this loop, or perhaps hide the logout option or otherwise advise the user that logout may be unreliable.

Session Establishment

The workflow for session establishment depends on the provider module configuration.

Standalone Database Provider Workflow

The POST method is used to submit a username and password and create a session in a single round-trip:

POST /authn/session HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com
Content-Type: application/x-www-urlencoded


A successful response has 201 Created status, a Set-Cookie response header, and a content type and body which SHOULD otherwise be ignored as it MAY change in future code revisions:

HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Set-Cookie: webauthn=NEW_SESSION_ID_GOES_HERE; Path=/; secure
Location: /authn/session/NEW_SESSION_ID_GOES_HERE
Content-Type: text/uri-list


Typical error responses:

  • 409 Conflict: An existing session was found, e.g. by Cookie in the request.
  • 401 Unauthorized: The client is still unauthenticated, whether due to invalid username or password.

Note: the response status Unauthorized is an unfortunate misnomer required by the HTTP standards, meaning that the client identity is unknown and therefore the requested operation could not be performed.

OpenID Connect and Similar Workflow

When using the various OAuth2 OpenID Connect workflows, there is a more complex interaction and it is assumed that this is happening in an interactive web user agent aka a web browser:

  1. Get preauthentication instructions from the service.
  2. Send the user agent to an identity provider URL specific to this login attempt.
  3. Do provider-specific workflow to authenticate the user with the identity provider.
  4. Do provider-specific workflow to authorize the service to use the client identity.
  5. Redirect the user agent to a webauthn callback URL to complete the login.
  6. Redirect the user agent to an application-specific page with active session.
Get preauthentication instructions

The GET operation is used to start the workflow:

GET /authn/preauth HTTP/1.1
Host: www.example.com

A successful response sets initial cookies and contains a JSON representation of the instructions:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Set-Cookie: oauth2_auth_nonce=NONCE_GOES_HERE; Path=/; secure
Content-Type: application/json
Content-Length: 255

{"authentication_type": "oauth2", "cookie": "oauth2_auth_nonce", "redirect_url": "https://www.globus.org/OAuth?state=STATE_VALUE_GOES_HERE&redirect_uri=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.example.com%2Fauthn%2Fsession&response_type=code&client_id=exampleclient"}

TODO: document the rest of the workflow that should follow based on these instructions.


Webauthn is made available as open source under the Apache License, Version 2.0. Please see the LICENSE file for more information.

About Us

Webauthn is developed in the Informatics group at the USC Information Sciences Institute.