Windows Communication Foundation: The Security Model

Windows Communication Foundation: The Security Model

n today’s world, if you cannot communicate securely using technology you may as well not communicate at all. There are countless ways that information can be taken and misused by others to the detriment of you and your business. For these reasons, Windows Communication Foundation has security at its heart, and offers many options for securing your communications to ensure that they reach their destination intact and untouched.

Discussions of security include many terms, so for the sake of clarity I want to introduce them quickly here, and map them to the real-world scenario of a person entering a country at a border crossing.

  • Credentials are difficult-to-forge proofs of identity. In the border-crossing scenario, the obvious credential is a passport; when entering a country you show a passport as a document that is difficult to forge, recognized as a valid credential and in your possession.
  • Authentication is the process of challenging an entity to prove identity. Presentation of credentials is sometimes, but not always enough. Passport authentication typically takes place when border agents ‘swipe’ the passport through the system as a check on its validity. It also relies on a visual inspection by border agents, comparing the passport photograph with the person in front of them. Other methods of authentication may include retinal scans, fingerprinting or palming.
  • Authorization is the process of allowing the entity to perform certain actions, denying those actions to others. In our scenario, this is analogous to the visa that allows entry at the border point. Some visas allow only a 30-day stay and no employment, some allow several years’ stay and employment for a stated employer, some allow full citizens rights in the target country. At the point of entry you are usually challenged as to your reason for entry, and this is authorized against your visa. In addition, after entry, when you try to do a specific task, such as find a job, you are required to show proof that you are authorized to do so.

In addition to these three primary terms, there are a couple of additional communications terms that need to be clarified up front: Message Integrity and Message Confidentiality.

  • Message Integrity is the prevention of message tampering. When a message travels from party A to party B, the message sent should be the same as the message delivered. In olden times, important messages were written on paper and sealed in an envelope using wax, upon which an identifiable impression was made using a signet ring or other seal. Upon receipt, party B would inspect the envelope, and if the wax was broken, or a different (fake) signet ring or seal was used, they would know that the message had been tampered with and couldn’t be trusted. Nowadays as messages travel as electrons across a wire far more foolproof methodology is needed.
  • Message Confidentiality prevents message contents from being visible to anyone but the intended recipient. As an example, in World War 2, many allied messages were encoded using Native American languages and transported securely from A to B. Messages intercepted by the enemy were useless to them, because they lacked Native American speakers who could translate for them.

Now, while all this is fascinating, it’s time to see what you can do with the Windows Communication Foundation so that your communiqu?s can be secured, have message integrity and confidentiality and use Authentication and Authorization schemes.

If you haven’t done so already, now would be a good time to take a look at DevX’s WCF primer, where you can get up and started with WCF.

Before you start, you should be aware that WCF is still in its beta cycle, and as such, it isn’t particularly easy to get installed and running correctly. In addition, many resources you will find on the Internet (including some of them on MSDN) refer to earlier builds, so they’re out of date with respect to the current model and that can lead to great confusion when you’re trying to build services. In particular the web.config schema supports drastically different tags than most of those you’ll find out on the net. (For example, many documentation and article pages use the tag within web.config to configure WS-Security, but that tag is now deprecated?you should use the tag instead. In addition to this, many of the child elements of the former tag have changed drastically.

Installing WCF
I have found that the best way to get up and running with WCF is to create a development system using one of the following procedures, depending on whether you have the DVD’s from Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference (PDC).

Setup Using PDC DVDs
Follow this procedure only if you’re installing from the PDC DVDs.

  1. You need Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista 5219 (Do not use Windows Vista Beta1!) Start with Disc 4 – WinFx CTP installation. This installs the WinFX runtime including WPF, WCF, and .NET Framework 2.0
  2. Move to Disc 2 – Visual Studio (Beta 2!!!). Note that there is an error with the set up?so you should copy the folder to your HD. You should also install the MSDN help, but you can install that directly from the disc.
  3. Move to Disc 5 (confused yet? You should be). This disc contains the Windows WinFX SDK in the windows SDK folder, and it installs the WinFX SDK but not the samples. It does copy the samples though, which you’ll find in a .zip file called You’ll see more about this later.
  4. Now, go back to Disc 4 and install the VS Extensions for WinFx. This installs Project Templates and Item Templates for Visual Studio.

Setup Without PDC DVDs
Follow this procedure only if you’re not installing from the PDC DVDs.

  1. You need Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista 5219 (Do not use Windows Vista Beta1!)
  2. Start by downloading the WinFx CTP installation, which installs the WinFX runtime including WPF, WCF, and .NET Framework 2.0
  3. Next, get Visual Studio (Beta 2) or Visual Basic Express (Beta 2), or VC# Express (Beta 2). It supposedly doesn’t matter which you use, just make sure you’re using a Beta 2 version. I recommend Visual Studio, as that is what I used, and I cannot vouch for the others.
  4. Next, you need to install the Windows WinFX SDK, which installs the WinFX SDK itself, but not the samples. It does copy the samples though, which you’ll find in a .zip file called You’ll see more about this later.
  5. Finally, install the VS Extensions for WinFx, which installs the Project Templates and Item Templates for Visual Studio.

After you’ve followed the appropriate procedure above you should be good to go in building and running WCF services. There’s just one more thing that you may encounter?sometimes ASP.NET doesn’t recognize WCF correctly, and your services won’t run. If this happens, you should remove XWS, remove ASPNET, and then reinstall IIS, add ASPNET, and add XWS, in that sequence. So, first issue the following commands from a DOS prompt to remove XWS and ASPNET

   XWS_REG --ua   ASPNET_REGIIS --ua

Then reinstall IIS from the Add/Remove programs control panel (remove it, then install it again), and issue these commands from a DOS prompt to add ASPNET and XWS:

   ASPNET_REGIIS --i   XWS_REG --r --v

Finally, if you get an authentication error when trying to debug your WCF applications from Visual Studio.NET, you’ll need to configure them for Integrated Windows Authentication. To do this, open the IIS manager, find the virtual directory corresponding to the service, right click it, and select Properties. In the ensuing dialog, select the directory security tab, and click the Edit button in the ‘Anonymous access and authentication control’ frame. In the next dialog, select ‘Integrated Windows Authentication’ at the bottom, click OK to close, and click OK again to close the previous dialog. You should now be good to go.

Programming Security
Developing secure applications in WCF is pretty straightforward. There are lots of methods by which you can secure an application, but this article concentrates on the WS-Security methodologies. In the WCF primer you built a simple service that provides temperature conversion from Farenheit to Centigrade and vice-versa. In this article, you’ll see how simple it is to adjust that example to handle authorization and authentication credentials.

When building services for security, the key is in how you configure the web.config file at the service level. You configure security in the node, which is probably best demonstrated by an example. To configure your service to handle WSSecurity with Windows Authentication, you would have a bindings node defined like this:


Using that configuration applies the “Message” security to the binding called Binding1, using the message credential type “Windows.” Therefore the user’s Windows ID is passed to the service where it may be parsed to apply specific permissions. Within the service, you can use the CurrentPrincipal entity to retrieve details about the caller. For example, if you simply want the caller’s name you could use code like this:

   String strName =       Thread.CurrentPrincipal.Identity.Name;

Although configuring security in a configuration file rather than in code may seem dangerous, it makes switching to different authentication schemes very straightforward under WCF. For example, if you wanted to use a certificate-based authentication scheme instead, you would first need a set of certificates. You can create these using the certmgr.exe utility in the following fashion from a DOS prompt or in a batch file:

To delete existing client certificates:

   certmgr -del -r CurrentUser -s My -c -n %CLIENT_NAME%   certmgr -del -r CurrentUser -s TrustedPeople -c -n       %SERVER_NAME%

To delete existing server certificates:

   certmgr -del -r LocalMachine -s My -c -n %SERVER_NAME%   certmgr -del -r LocalMachine -s TrustedPeople -c -n       %CLIENT_NAME%   

To create new client certificates:

   makecert.exe -sr CurrentUser -ss MY -a sha1 -n       CN=%CLIENT_NAME% -sky exchange --pe      certmgr.exe -add -r CurrentUser -s My -c -n       %CLIENT_NAME% -r LocalMachine -s TrustedPeople      makecert.exe -sr LocalMachine -ss MY -a sha1 -n       CN=%SERVER_NAME% -sky exchange --pe   

To copy server certificates to a client’s CurrentUser store and set privileges:

   certmgr.exe -add -r LocalMachine -s My -c -n       %SERVER_NAME% -r CurrentUser -s TrustedPeople      for /F "delims=" %%i in       ('"%WINFXSDK%inFindPrivateKey.exe"       My LocalMachine -n CN^=%SERVER_NAME%   -a')       do             set PRIVATE_KEY_FILE=%%i         set WP_ACCOUNT=NT AUTHORITYNETWORK SERVICE           (ver | findstr "5.1") &&          Set WP_ACCOUNT=%COMPUTERNAME%ASPNET         echo Y|cacls.exe "%PRIVATE_KEY_FILE%" /E /G           "%WP_ACCOUNT%":R      iisreset

The preceding commands may seem like a bit of a mouthful, but you’ll soon get used to them. As I mentioned earlier, the install copies, but does not install the samples; but if you unzip the file that comes with the WinFX SDK you’ll find lots of samples showing how to use WCF. When a sample uses certificates, you’ll find a batch file already present that executes all these commands for you. For example, check out the sample in the BasicBindingWSProfileWSSecurityCertificate subdirectory).

Configuring Security Certifactes
After you have a certificate, you can use it to authenticate yourself to the service. To set the service up to handle the certificate, configure the endpoint in web.config as follows:


This probably looks familiar?and it should, because it’s almost identical to the way that you set up the configuration for Windows authentication earlier. All you have to do is change the message client credential type to ‘Certificate’.

To recap?each service is configured with a service description in web.config that specifies the endpoint and the behavior. The endpoint specifies the binding. The binding specifies the security type. The knee bone is connected to the thigh bone, etc.

Finally, you need to set up the binding behavior to inform the service of the certificate and how to handle it. To do that, you configure the behavior (pointed to by the service configuration) to recognize the certificate. You would do it something like this:


As you can see, the preceding behavior is set up with service credentials configured to use a service certificate.

On the server side, pulling information out of the security context is a little different. Because this is certificate-based, you don’t use the Windows Principal object?you use the ServiceSecurityContext object instead (found in the System.ServiceModel namespace, the core of WCF) like this:

   String strName = ServiceSecurityContext.Current.      PrimaryIdentity.ToString();

Setting up your client to pass certificates to the server is also pretty straightforward. You simply generate the proxy using the svcutil tool (see the WCF primer article for more details) and consume the proxy within your client code.

Security is at the heart of the Windows Communication Foundation, which has been designed carefully to allow you to build security into your applications as unobtrusively as possible. As demonstrated in this article, you were able to build a service/client pair for Windows-based and Certificate-based WSSecurity without changing your code in any great way?the changes were all configuration driven. This is the heart of WCF; it lets you concentrate on building business logic, and then empower it for secure, reliable, and transactable connectivity in as easy a way as possible.

At this point, getting WCS up and running with a development environment is difficult, but that will improve over time. By carefully following the installation procedures and sequences described in this article, you should be able to get up and running quickly (it took me several days to set up my first system, but after working out the kinks and following the installation procedures, I got it down to a couple of hours). The best resource to work from (other than this article!) is to unzip the file that gets installed with the WinFX SDK. I recommend that you use those samples as a reference for configuring security in your WCF applications, as there are many examples, each having a configuration for each type of security methodology. Above all, have fun!


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