Washing Client Certs in ColdFusion with SOAP – Part 2

In part 1 I introduced you to basic SOAP consumption in ColdFusion. Let’s see where things go from there.

The task at hand was to integrate our system with a third-party site. I authenticate users locally, request a token from the third-party site that allows the user to access said site, and then redirect the user to that site with the token passed on the URL.

But how does the third-party site know to trust my requests and not the requests from other people? After all you don’t want people forging requests to access the third-party site as some other user. The solution for this third-party site is client certificates. A client certificate is either issued by the third-party site or you provide your public certificate to the third-party site and the third-party’s site is configured to trust the certificate. SOAP requests are then made over SSL using this certificate to confirm your identity and to encrypt the channel.

Starting with ColdFusion 8 CFHTTP accepts two parameters to afford the use of client certs, clientCert and clientCertPassword. The clientCert parameter points to a PKCS12 formatted file containing your public and private keys and, possibly, the certificate chain from the root certificate authority (such as VeriSign or Thawte) down to whoever issued your client certificate. The clientCertPassword parameter contains the password with which the PKCS12 file is encrypted.

A note to ColdFusion developers:
The PKCS12 must be encrypted with a password! For whatever reason (I believe a limitation in the underlying java.security.KeyStore object) your cert must have a password. This is never explicitly stated in the ColdFusion 8 documentation.

I obtained my client certificate and set out to start writing code to talk with this third-party.

The first problem I encountered was I would not be able to use the CreateObject() method covered in part 1. The reason being that there was no way to provide my client certificate to the object. So it’s back to the CFHTTP method.

The second problem I encountered had nothing to do with ColdFusion and everything to do with the documentation provided by the third-party. Turns out the header for the SOAP request changed considerably during development. I had been given some early development documents that did not reflect the current header structure. Once I realized the problem and obtained the current documentation I was able to correctly construct my SOAP request’s envelope header and…

I got another error.

But this time it wasn’t a normal SOAP request error. The CFHTTP object’s filecontent value contained nothing more than “Connection failure”. But the HTTP status code was 200, which indicates a successful request. Previous SOAP request errors would return a 403 status code. This was odd.

In searching the Adobe forums and the internet in general I found sparse comments about possible problems with CFHTTP handling SSLv3 sessions, although there wasn’t any sort of official comment or response to the few reports of this problem. I loaded up the developer edition of ColdFusion 9 on my own computer to see if perhaps this problem had been resolved with the latest copy of ColdFusion. It had not.

To confirm this as a problem with ColdFusion and not my client cert, or my SOAP request, I installed Apache and PHP locally and ran the equivalent PHP code. The PHP code worked perfectly. I started trying to do as much comparison between the two platforms as I could. I event went so far as to run a packet capture on the PHP and CF requests (pointing them at a dummy, local page that wasn’t encrypted so I could see the requests) and compared them to make sure everything was the same, which they were.

Eventually I found a post online that mentioned CFHTTP wasn’t up to the job, but a third-party custom tag written in C++ did work just fine. That custom tag is CFX_HTTP5. I downloaded a demo copy and installed it locally. How CFX_HTTP5 handles client certs is different from CFHTTP. Rather than simply pointing the tag at the client cert, I had to install the client cert into the Windows certificate store and then point the tag at the store. There is a bit of work involved with it, although nothing too difficult and it’s all covered in the CFX_HTTP5 documentation.

Once I had the tag and the certificate imported into the local Windows certificate store, I rewrote the CFHTTP call using CFX_HTTP5 and it worked! The SOAP envelope was the same, the headers were the same, the only difference between the two was the logic underlying the tags.

Something is broken with CFHTTP and it can’t be used to do some operations using client certificates. But at least there is an alternative.

However I didn’t like the alternative.

First, it’s a Windows-only solution. We’re out of luck if we’re running ColdFusion on a Linux machine.

Secondly, the client cert must be stored in a place that the ColdFusion process has permissions to access, and it is accessed without needing to know the client cert password. The result is that any person with permission to create CFM scripts that are executed under this process could authenticate against this third-party web site. In a shared hosting environment this can create a serious security issue. The only solution is to separate the process, but that probably means a separate server and a new OS license and hardware costs. If that option isn’t available you have some problems. You might register the CFX with a name that contains random characters and hope none of the users in the shared environment know how to enumerate registered custom tags. I’m not sure if that is possible, but I’m willing to bet it is.

Long story short, I don’t like the CFX_HTTP5 solution.

So, in Part 3, I go back to the drawing board.

3 thoughts on “Washing Client Certs in ColdFusion with SOAP – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Washing Client Certs in ColdFusion with SOAP – Part 3 – The Forgettable Mister Ruthsarian
  2. Pingback: Washing Client Certs in ColdFusion with SOAP – Part 1 « The Forgettable Mister Ruthsarian
  3. Hi,

    I’ve just read your “Washing Client Certs in ColdFusion with SOAP” article and it seems to have the potential to solve all my prob’s with using a client authority certificate to connect to a web service.

    I think I understand your thought process and coding but I’m obviously missing something along the way.

    Would you/could you provide some help and guidance?



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