A short announcement to mark the release of the first stable OpenID provider for Drupal. Started by James Walker around 4 years ago, I have since then got commit access and taken care of the module for the last 2 years. And while it was not an easy task, with the help of the community, this module was able to mature to a fully featured, flexible and standard implementation during that time. One has to wonder however, is it too late for OpenID?


A bit of history

Drupal was one of the pioneers in OpenID support. Back in 2006 when the protocol was still in its infancy (less than a year old!), Drupal was adding OpenID support to its 4.7 release through a contrib module and two years later, the Drupal 6.0 release was sporting OpenID in core, although not without significant interoperability issues. Still, we could say that rapid adoption by such a popular CMS as Drupal really boosted OpenID's adoption. At about the same time, Yahoo, Sourceforge, Myspace, Microsoft and Google would all join the OpenID bandwagon.

On the OpenID "provider" side of things, things were not so great however. Back when I started experimenting with this, it wasn't actually that easy to host your own OpenID provider, to allow your users to login to other OpenID-enabled sites. While there are a lot of different libraries to provide OpenID support in your application there was not (and still isn't) any software that gives you an OpenID provider and is dedicated to that. No official reference implementation either, other than the code from the one of the founding companies of OpenID, JanRain. There was an OpenID provider module in Drupal, but there was no official release done until a two beta releases in 2010.

Koumbit's community involvement

It is about that time I started getting involved in the project. Koumbit needed an easy way for our workers to log into multiple sites without too much trouble, so I started looking at OpenID provider implementations. The lack of dedicated software somehow made the Drupal implementation a natural fit, and I started experimenting with the module, filing bugs and reviewing patches, as there were a lot of interoperability and design issues with the provider. After a while, walkah was kind enough to give me full access to the project and I started doing regular releases (every few months), culminating in today's official 1.0 release for both Drupal 6 and Drupal 7, which I am very proud and happy about.

While I am here, I want to send many thanks to the people behind the Drupal 7 port: paranojik, mikecar, xamanu and testing from neizod. A lot of issues were also patched, reviewed and tested by numerous contributors that are unfortunately difficult to track down other than reading the commit log.

So we at Koumbit have been running our own OpenID provider for a good while now, and it has the key advantage of being connected to our LDAP directory (with the D6 LDAP integration module so it is, in a sense, a central point for authentication at Koumbit. Very often people don't clearly understand what their LDAP password does, and I can easily remind them "it's the OpenID thing", or "try your password in the OpenID site" if they think they have forgotten it. So much goes on in the web browser these days that it makes everything much easier.

The problem with Drupal's OpenID provider

However, it is kind of embarrassing that it took so long. More than 6 years after the OpenID protocol was written, we have a stable OpenID provider. Now, this may be because I am overly conservative about stable releases, but I don't think so: the OpenID provider module had, for a long time, serious interoperability issues with OpenID sites. There was also a clear lack of features on the OpenID provider, a gap that various third party modules, now documented on the OpenID provider homepage are now trying to fill.

There is also serious security issues with the protocol itself. The complexity and lack of clarity of the OpenID specification have rendered my work quite difficult at time, as the protocol has significant ambiguities and no clear reference implementation. OpenID is unfortunately renowned to be vulnerable to phishing and while Koumbit's use of the HTTPS protocol alleviates some of those issues (especially the redirect session hijack), tools like sslstrip can bypass those protections easily. The privacy aspect is also problematic, as the user is usually not free to choose which information from his or her profile is divulged to the site they are logging into.

Of course those issues may be overlooked if the security trade off is not worth it. In the case of Koumbit, we use OpenID on a lot of client sites, but usually nothing critical, and we train our users to pay attention to the HTTPS icon when login in their OpenID account.

Are there alternatives?

But unfortuantely, the reality is that there are not really any alternatives to OpenID out there. Mozilla's new BrowserID initiative (now rebranded Persona, boy those guys sure love rebranding..) is interesting, but actually has even more flaws than OpenID itself. Not only is it not resolving the phishing problem, it actually creates new problems, including my personal favorite, trusting server-side Javascript code, which OpenID is not using that much. I should also mention the Shibboleth module which has a surprising number of installs recorded on Drupal.org, but that depends on the much more complicated Shibboleth federation), for which there is no server implementation for Drupal, from what I understand. Oauth, on the other end, is even more widely used, and has server-side components like Oauth Login Provider and Services 3.x.

We could also simply give up and use our souls stored at Facebook, Google and Twitter for authentication everywhere. Maybe OpenID opened the door for those corporations to see that there is a real opportunity in leveraging user's profile to track their online activity. It is not something that OpenID was necessarily designed for but it's an idea that certainly permeates Facebook connect and "like" buttons or Twitter and Google online business strategies, where you are the product sold to advertisers.

I personally believe we should keep the struggle for distributed and standard identity mechanisms for the web that respect users' privacy. With Drupal's OpenID Provider, it is possible to create a secure, privacy-aware identity provider, although I still have to perform that damn security audit. Experiments with those third party modules should also be encouraged and I welcome any feedback on those modules.

While I do not plan to attend OpenID conferences or do significant development on the OpenID provider right now, I will certainly make sure Koumbit keeps its commitment to maintaining stewardship on the OpenID provider module in Drupal. I encourage people to try it out, submit issues and patches to make it even better.

Long life to OpenID!

PS: if people are interested in funding that security audit, I would be happy to perform this through my regular work at Koumbit.org, just file a request at services@koumbit.org.

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