Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Technology Bubble

Here is a Silicon Valley music video by the Richter Scales, a must watch for all those web geeks out there, who are inspired by the success of MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, Digg, Flickr, Del.icio.us ..... blah blah. Hope you will enjoy it

(Links Updated On 29th December 2007)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Engineering Secure Web Apps in ASP.NET 2.0

Security is one of the critical components in the engineering of any web application but unfortunately it isn’t handled in an equally critical way. With an ever increasing popularity of providing access to information over the web at a mouse-click, security concerns are increasing with a similar pace.

Below I have jolted down the list of some of the major security related items (you can call them ASP.NET security best practices, security checklist or the tips and tricks for engineering secure web applications in ASP.NET) which one must keep in mind, while engineering an ASP.NET Web application in which “SECURITY IS A CONCERN”.

My approach is not to provide you the complete end to end solution to each of the concern, but to highlight and provide pointers to the different approaches to cater each of these security items in the check list.

User Authentication

  • You can use the built-in authentication mechanisms (Forms, Windows and Passport) or Custom Authentication (Session Based; storing some user specific value in user’s session at the time of authentication so as to validate the user for subsequent requests by the same user, Using Hidden Fields; the traditional way but un secure way of maintaining authenticated user information etc).
  • You can use the built-in login controls provided in ASP.NET 2.0. Additionally in order to have a granular control over the User Authentication process refer to the Membership and Role Management API. In case you want the Login Controls / Management API to work with your custom database, you can write your own Membership and Role Provider.
  • In case you need to implement the “remember me on this computer” feature, use cookies with “One Time Password” design pattern.

Encrypt sections of the configuration file having confidential information

  • Whenever you need to put any confidential information in the configuration file like the database user name / password, don’t leave that information in plain text in the configuration file, rather encrypt it using the built-in “aspnet_regiis” utility with the command line option “-pe”. The aspnet_regiis.exe is located at :\WINDOWS\Microsoft.NET\Framework\v2.0.50727.
  • Once a section of the web.config file is encrypted then contents of that section aren’t human readable whenever that file is opened in some text editor, however when you access the configuration information through ASP.NET (the .NET 2.0 framework) it knows how to decrypt the contents and provide actual contents to the application.
  • You can use the Management API in order to programmatically encrypt the sections of your Web.Config file. The Management API added in ASP.NET 2.0 is very rich and provides you access to the complete configuration of the application and ability to modify the configuration file on the fly.

One-way encrypt the user passwords before storing in database

  • Never store user passwords in the database, in plain text. Store them in Encrypted format using any one way encryption algorithm like MD5, best is to encrypt (MD5) the user passwords at the client side using JavaScript and then at the server store it in the database.
  • Later on when the user wants to log in, encrypt the user entered password using the same encryption algorithm and then match it with the password in the database.
  • In case the user has forgotten his password, provide user an interface to set a new password after performing necessary validations. You can send a link to set new password for that user at his email address.

Use database user having limited rights

  • Create a user in the database that has limited rights (INSERT, UPDATE, SELECT and may be DELETE from specific tables) only those tables of the database that needs to be accessed by your web application, and use that user to access the database from within your application.

Show custom error pages with user friendly error messages

  • Never show the built in error page, telling the complete error detail for debugging the error to your end user. That discloses a lot of information that’s not intended for an end user.
  • You should better show custom error pages to the user with user friendly error messages while Logging the actual error occurred for the application developers to re-produce / debug and eventually resolve that error.
  • Always handle any of the unhandled exception in the Application_OnError event, use the Server.GetLastError() to get the detailed information about the error that occurred, while showing the user a custom error page and logging the actual error.

Check the Request’s Referrer Property

  • Check that the request has actually originated from your own website (from an intended page). Not checking so can lead to un precedent attacks

Handle SQL Injection Attacks

  • If you are using stored procedures, then you will be using SQL Parameters to send the user input to it and get the results. In that case your application isn’t prone to SQL Injections. However using the Stored Procudures or not in your web application is another debate, lets not get into that and focus on handling SQL Injections.
  • The problem comes when you are using inline queries and concatenates the user input with in the SQL Query. A well tailored user input by a hacker can break your security checks as well as can possibly drop the tables in your database etc. by using the single quotes and comment signs with in the user input. So concatenating the user input’s as is in inline SQL Queries can be fatal for your web application.
  • Use SQL Parameters even with “inline queries”, they automatically cater for the SQL Injection attacks.

Handle Cross Site Scripting Attacks

  • ASP.NET default behavior doesn’t allow the user to enter tags “” and shows an error page if such input is entered in a form field.
  • Some application may need to allow the user to enter information in tags, but this will result in potential security leaks, that’ named Cross Site Scripting. A user can write the <script&rt; tag, which can be possibly rendered to another user browsing the site. That script tag will be executed in the context of that second user, and that intelligently tailored script tag can possibly access the second user cookies etc and moreover can possibly submit a malicious request with the second user credentials using XML Http Request / AJAX etc.
  • Use the Microsoft’s AntiXSS Library to handle cross site scripting attacks.

Handle Dictionary Attacks – Captcha

  • Hackers can attack your website authentication system and submit automated login requests to crack the passwords of authenticated users of your protected website. You should check that your Login form / Authentication system isn’t attacked by this, by ensuring that it’s accessed by humans (asking the user to enter the characters shown on a bit distorted but human readable image). For more information on Dictionary Attacks point to Wikipedia

Denial of Service Attacks

  • The last resort for any hacker of your website is the denial of service attacks. You should track the activity for each of the user and should limit the repeated requests sent by the same IP to a decent number.
  • You can use the ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit – No Robot Control to help you out in this, but it should be used with caution as stated on the above website.

Log user activity

  • This way you don’t only capture some very useful data about the user trends but this data can also help you detect any un-desired activity made by the user.
  • You can use the Enterprise Library Logging Application Block log the user activity. Microsoft Enterprise Library’s Logging Application Block has the feature to log in the database, so that you can later on query it and create reports on it to find not only any interesting patterns based on “User Pathology” but can also point out any un-desired user activity.

I hope this pretty much covers most of the security check list items. However, I will be adding more and more to it, to provide a to-date comprehensive guide for engineering secure web apps in ASP.NET 2.0

How To: “Getting Started with ASP.NET 2.0”

I have been asked a number of times, by students, fresh graduates and my office colleagues, on how to get started with ASP.NET 2.0? The people asking me this question have different exposures (some haven’t worked in the web domain at all, some have worked on static web pages, some have worked in classical ASP 3.0, some have worked in other server side scripting languages like JSP/PHP etc and some have worked in ASP.NET 1.1) but all of them have a Computer Science background, and now they are looking for the tips & trick and resources to get their hands on ASP.NET 2.0.

So, I decided to share “My Proposed Strategy of Learning ASP.NET 2.0” over here for people to look at and get started. Although the points listed below don’t apply to every one, and that varies, depending on a person’s level of exposure in engineering web applications.

My strategy is to start from the basics and finally conclude by providing pointers to resources for engineering more sophisticated applications in ASP.NET 2.0.

Know how of basics i.e. HTML, JavaScript and CSS
One thing a person must have an idea of, before directly starting to work on ASP.NET 2.0 is the basics and the fundamentals of developing any web page i.e. the person should have the idea of HTML, JavaScript as well as CSS. Without the basic knowledge of these three, it’s really not going to end up too far in engineering sophisticated web applications. One quick reference to get started on all these is http://www.w3schools.com/. Navigate to the relevant tutorials on the left panel to get a quick review of HTML, JavaScript and CSS.

Know how of Client-Server Interaction in Web Apps
Once you are done with the basics, you should have an idea of the interaction of the Client (web browser) and the web server (IIS etc) in any web based application.

The client sends a request to the server, server processes that request and finally sends the response back to the client. So, it’s a “request/response” based interaction between the web client and the web server.

Moreover this interaction between the client and the server is stateless. Cookies are used to maintain state at the client as well as the server between the successive requests made by a single client (wherever management of user state, between successive requests is required).

Know how of Implicit Objects in any Server Side Scripting Language
After that, a person should have an idea of what a server side scripting language is and the implicit objects available in that as well as the capability / role of each of those implicit objects. Those implicit objects include Request, Response, Server, Application and Session.

Development Environment
Once you are done with this much background knowledge, you should have the right development tools / IDE as well as the .NET 2.0 Framework (also comes packaged with IDE) installed on your machine. If you have Visual Studio 2005 available with you, that’s well and good as it will install the Framework, the IDE as well as the SQL Server 2005 Express through a single install package. Otherwise you can download and install the “Free Version” in the name of Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition (IDE for ASP.NET 2.0, contains the.NET Framework 2.0) and the SQL Server 2005 Express Edition (Backend Database Server). You can download them from for free from the Microsoft Website i.e. http://www.microsoft.com/express/2005/download/default.aspx

ASP.NET 2.0 Beginners / How Do I Video Tutorials
A picture is worth a thousand words and a guided video have a much more impact. So I recommend people to view web casts on ASP.NET 2.0 and related topics to have a better and quicker insight of it. The official ASP.NET website provides a very good pool of video tutorials on ASP.NET 2.0 which I strongly recommend people to download, watch and eventually apply. You can point to http://www.asp.net/learn/videos/#beginners for those video tutorials.

ASP.NET 2.0 Quickstart Samples
By now you must have been able to develop a good enough small sized web application in ASP.NET 2.0. However you still are in need to some samples / code examples and a quick description of each of the feature of ASP.NET 2.0. Here, the excellently tailored ASP.NET 2.0 Quickstarts serves the purpose. You can point to the official ASP.NET website http://quickstarts.asp.net/ for an online version of these code examples and related descriptions of each of the features of ASP.NET 2.0. The code samples in these Quickstarts are available both in C# and VB.NET depending on user preference.

Microsoft Patterns & Practices: Enterprise Library
People at Microsoft Patterns & Practices are working quite devotedly to provide you with Libraries and APIs needed for the development of your applications in .NET Framework. You can leverage from their very first initiative the Enterprise Library, which has evolved over the period of time and is much mature now. You can get the latest version 3.1 of it, which works with the .NET Framework 2.0 / 3.0 / 3.5 from http://www.codeplex.com/entlib

Microsoft Patterns & Practices: Software Factories
Still need some more pointers to engineer a more sophisticated web applications? Look for the Software Factories; another great initiative of Microsoft Patterns and Practices Team. Refer to the Web Client Software Factory on CodePlex for more details.

Strongly Recommended
The Data Access Application Block, Logging Application and Caching Application Block of the Enterprise Library are the ones which one must try. I can guarantee that you will find them really helpful in engineering your applications without bothering much about these common functionalities.

I also strongly recommend all those who want to have quick hands on, on ASP.NET 2.0 to locally install quick-starts on their own development machines (available under the Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 SDK in Visual Studio 2005 installer), and go through the topics and code samples whenever you are free. This will really help you in getting a broader idea of the capabilities of ASP.NET 2.0.