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Introducing Layer 7’s OAuth Toolkit

“If your tools don’t work for you, get rid of them,” is a simple creed I learned from my father in the workshop. Over the years, I have found it is just as relevant when applied to software, where virtual tools abound, but with often-dubious value.

OAuth is an emerging technology that has lately been in need of useful tools, and to fill this gap we are introducing an OAuth toolkit into Layer 7’s SecureSpan and CloudSpan Gateways.  OAuth isn’t exactly new to Layer 7; we have actually done a number of OAuth implementations with our customers over the last two years. But what we’ve discovered is that there is a lot of incompatibility between different OAuth implementations, and this is discouraging many organizations from making better use of this technology. Our goal with the toolkit was to provide a collection of intelligently parameterized components that developers can mix-and-match to reduce the friction between different implementations. And thanks to the generalization that characterize the emerging OAuth 2.0 specification, this toolkit helps to extend OAuth into interesting new use cases beyond the basic three-legged scenario of version one.

I have to admit that I was suspicious of OAuth when it first appeared a few years ago. So much effort had gone into the formal specification of SAML, from core definition to interop profiles, that I didn’t see the need for OAuth’s one use case solution and had little faith in the rigor of such a grass roots approach. But in time, OAuth won me over; it fits well with the browser-centric, simple-is-better approach of the modern Internet. The mapping to more generalized, token server-style interactions in the new version of the spec appeals to the architect in me, and the opening up of the security token payload indicates a desire to play well with existing infrastructure, which is a basic enterprise requirement.

However, adding extensibility to OAuth will also bring about this technology’s greatest challenge. The 1.0a specification benefitted enormously from laser focus on a use case so narrow that it was a wonder it gained the mindshare that it did. OAuth in 2011 has no such advantage—generalization being great for architects but hell for standards committees and vendors. It will be interesting to see how well the OAuth community satisfies the oftentimes-conflicting agendas of simple, standard, and interoperable.

Here at Layer 7 we predict a bright future for OAuth. We also think it’s very useful today, which is why we introduced a toolkit instead of a one-size-fits-one approach. We see our customers using OAuth in concert with their existing investments in Identity and Access Management (IAM) products, such as IBM’s Tivoli Access Manager  (TAM) or Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD). We see it being used to transport SAML tokens that require sophisticated interpretation to render entitlement decisions. Taking a cue from OAuth itself, the point of our toolkit is to simplify both implementation and integration. And the toolkit’s parameterization helps to insulate the application from specification change.

I’ll be at the Gartner/Burton Catalyst show this week in San Diego where we’ll be demonstrating the toolkit. I hope you can drop by and talk about how it might help you.


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More Stories By Scott Morrison

K. Scott Morrison is the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Architect at Layer 7 Technologies, where he is leading a team developing the next generation of security infrastructure for cloud computing and SOA. An architect and developer of highly scalable, enterprise systems for over 20 years, Scott has extensive experience across industry sectors as diverse as health, travel and transportation, and financial services. He has been a Director of Architecture and Technology at Infowave Software, a leading maker of wireless security and acceleration software for mobile devices, and was a senior architect at IBM. Before shifting to the private sector, Scott was with the world-renowned medical research program of the University of British Columbia, studying neurodegenerative disorders using medical imaging technology.

Scott is a dynamic, entertaining and highly sought-after speaker. His quotes appear regularly in the media, from the New York Times, to the Huffington Post and the Register. Scott has published over 50 book chapters, magazine articles, and papers in medical, physics, and engineering journals. His work has been acknowledged in the New England Journal of Medicine, and he has published in journals as diverse as the IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science, the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow, and Neurology. He is the co-author of the graduate text Cloud Computing, Principles, Systems and Applications published by Springer, and is on the editorial board of Springer’s new Journal of Cloud Computing Advances, Systems and Applications (JoCCASA). He co-authored both Java Web Services Unleashed and Professional JMS. Scott is an editor of the WS-I Basic Security Profile (BSP), and is co-author of the original WS-Federation specification. He is a recent co-author of the Cloud Security Alliance’s Security Guidance for Critical Areas of Focus in Cloud Computing, and an author of that organization’s Top Threats to Cloud Computing research. Scott was recently a featured speaker for the Privacy Commission of Canada’s public consultation into the privacy implications of cloud computing. He has even lent his expertise to the film and television industry, consulting on a number of features including the X-Files. Scott’s current interests are in cloud computing, Web services security, enterprise architecture and secure mobile computing—and of course, his wife and two great kids.

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