Introducing Border Patrol, service authentication at the border

02 June 2014

As Lookout has grown over the years our server infrastructure has continued to evolve. Migrating from one application service to many presents a number of design and implementation challenges. This post touches on one of those challenges: cross-service session composition and the tool we developed to solve it, Border Patrol.

Growing pains

Historically, Lookout had used both Ruby and Rails; the original Lookout Mobile Security application back-end was built as a single Ruby on Rails application. It was a massive, sprawling application that did everything: served the JavaScript-based Lookout front-end applications, handled billing, housed asynchronous worker jobs, managed the various databases, held all metadata for backed up devices, was the interface for all devices communicating with Lookout and on and on and on.

As we set out building the Mobile Threat Network and began to make the transition from a monolithic Rails application to a service-oriented architecture, we quickly determined that the monorail application couldn’t own authentication for all services, too. We needed to fundamentally change the way we handled authentication.

Crawl before you walk

Since Lookout only ever had one service, we’d never had to think about service-to-service authentication. That changed as we dipped our big toe into the ocean of SOA and realized we would need to be a new foundation service that we named Keymaster.

Keymaster hands out short-lived authentication tokens to services and devices, allowing them to make authenticated calls to other services. It’s like Kerberos for RESTful API calls.

Keymaster is a whole other blog post, but there’s one important point to cover here: Keymaster tokens are issued by a specific service for another specific service. E.g.: The LocationService gets a token to talk to the PushService to initiate a device locate.

This is great for back-end services communicating with other back-end services. But when you’re dealing with Javascript front-end applications that might need to speak to or pull in data from multiple services, Keymaster tokens broke down. To make this work we’d have to do one of the following:

  1. The monorail would have to proxy requests to other services or
  2. We’d need to implement Keymaster token signing and encryption in JavaScript
  3. Have the JavaScript applications use the same APIs that devices did to request tokens from Keymaster.

None of these were attractive options. The first meant adding more code to the sprawl. The second meant implementing/relying on JavaScript cryptographic libraries. O, that way madness lies; let me shun that.

The third option meant potentially complex token management code shared across multiple web front-ends. Doable with a solid library, but really more complexity than we wanted to push onto our front-end. This was certainly the least offensive of the three options, but then I attended a talk that gave me another idea.

Dangerously good ideas

At Ricon West 2012 I saw a talk by Dana Contreras of Twitter on how they decomposed their monorail into services (Rebuilding a Bird in Flight (video)). In that talk she briefly mentions how Twitter has pushed their authentication to their proxy layer. This idea resonated with me and felt like the correct missing solution to our token management problem.

Lookout was gearing up to launch Lookout for Business (L4B), which had an entirely new stack separate from the monorail. Since the monorail still owned functionality like device Lock/Locate/Wipe, the L4B stack would need to make calls into the monorail to trigger those actions.

This seemed like the perfect use case to build a system like the one Dana had mentioned at Ricon. Lookout already had a service that generated authentication tokens for devices. We had a variety of other services using those tokens for authentication via an HTTP Header on RESTful API calls. All we needed was a service to sit between the web browser and back-end services that would manage the service-specific tokens internally and speak HTTP session cookies to the Javascript running in the browser.

Meet Border Patrol

Border Patrol is an nginx module implemented in Lua that performs authentication at the edge of the network. Border Patrol is basically a big session store whose values are the Keymaster tokens for the upstream services a browser wants to speak to.

Here’s an example:

  1. A client requests a protected resource from a service.
  2. Border Patrol determines there is not a valid session for this request, and simply let’s the request pass through
  3. The upstream service redirects the user to it’s own hosted login page.
  4. The user fills out their credentials and submits the form. This POSTs to Border Patrol who validates the credentials via Keymaster and returns one or more service tokens
  5. Border Patrol creates a session id and returns it to the client via an HTTP cookie: this session id informs Border Patrol how to retrieve the service tokens
  6. Subsequent requests from the browser present their session id via the cookie, and Border Patrol injects the appropriate service token into the request headers
Flow of
requests in Border Patrol
Series of requests made in Border Patrol

Currently, Border Patrol relies on memcached for its session store. Additionally, we lean on Keymaster to do the actual user authentication and token generation. However, any auth-token system could be used. Which leads me to…

Future Direction

The current Lua implementation is messy since the nginx Lua modules don’t allow for creation of directives. because of that, we’ve been forced to implement subrequest spaghetti inside of the nginx module itself. One thought here is to move to native-c nginx extensions which would allow us to add or extend existing nginx directives, making configuration simpler.

But given the direction we’re taking Border Patrol, we might need to do more than that. We’re already in the process of moving ownership of login and account management to a Rails service called Checkpoint. This lets us build services that never have to care about login or password management.

Furthermore, with the complexity of nginx, the fact that we don’t actually use most of it, the features we want to add over the year, and the performance requirements inherent in fronting of every request made into, we’re currently thinking about dropping nginx as the engine and moving to a JVM-based platform. This would allow us to build rate limiting, load shedding, session storage, and request routing components as services, if we so desired, relying heavily on evented IO.

Lookout is pleased to announce that we’re open-sourcing Border Patrol. If you’d like to know more, further details can be found in the project’s public GitHub repository.

Credit where credit is due

Border Patrol was conceived of by me, started by R. Tyler Croy, and has been worked on by both of us and a variety of people at Lookout, all of whom should be given credit for this blog post, where the service is today, and where it’s going. Those people are Dirk Koehler, Nathan Smith, William Kimeria, and Christopher Chong.

- Rob Wygand