About Authorization and Policy Decisions

AM provides access management, which consists of:

  • Authentication: determining who is trying to access a resource

  • Authorization: determining whether to grant or deny access to the resource

Whether access is granted depends on what the policies about access are, who is trying to gain access, and perhaps some other conditions; such as whether the access itself needs to happen over a secure channel or what time of day it is.

AM relies on policies to reach authorization decisions, such as whether to grant or to deny access to a resource or grant or deny OAuth 2.0 scopes.

Related Information: Dynamic OAuth 2.0 Authorization

Protecting Resources

When you configure policy sets to protect resources, AM acts as the policy decision point (PDP), whereas AM web and Java agents act as policy enforcement points (PEP). In other words, an agent or other PEP takes responsibility only for enforcing a policy decision rendered by AM. When you configured applications and their policies in AM, you used AM as a policy administration point (PAP).

Concretely speaking, when a PEP requests a policy decision from AM, it specifies the target resource(s), the policy set (default: iPlanetAMWebAgentService), and information about the subject and the environment. AM as the PDP retrieves policies within the specified policy set that apply to the target resource(s). AM then evaluates those policies to make a decision based on the conditions matching those of the subject and environment. When multiple policies apply for a particular resource, the default logic for combining decisions is that the first evaluation resulting in a decision to deny access takes precedence over all other evaluations. AM only allows access if all applicable policies evaluate to a decision to allow access.

AM communicates the policy decision to the PEP. The concrete decision, applying policy for a subject under the specified conditions, is called an entitlement.

The entitlement indicates the resource(s) it applies to, the actions permitted and denied for each resource, and optionally, response attributes and advice.

Shows the relationship between realms, policies, and policy sets.
Figure 1. Protecting Pages or Applications

When AM denies a request due to a failed condition, AM can send advice to the PEP, and the PEP can then take remedial action. For instance, suppose a user comes to a website after authenticating with an email address and password, which is configured as authentication level 0. Had the user authenticated using a one-time password, the user would have had authentication level 1 in their session. Yet, because they have authentication level 0, they currently cannot access the desired page, as the policy governing access requires authentication level 1. AM sends advice, prompting the PEP to have the user re-authenticate using a one-time password, gaining authentication level 1, and thus having AM grant access to the protected page.

Reaching Policy Decisions

AM has to match policies to resources to take policy decisions. For a policy to match, the resource has to match one of the resource patterns defined in the policy. The user making the request has to match a subject. Furthermore, at least one condition for each condition type has to be satisfied.

If more than one policy matches, AM has to reconcile differences. When multiple policies match, the order in which AM uses them to make a policy decision is not deterministic. However, a deny decision overrides an allow decision and so, by default, once AM reaches a deny decision, it stops checking further policies. If you want AM to continue checking despite the deny, navigate to Configure > Global Services, select Policy Configuration, and then enable Continue Evaluation on Deny Decision.

Example

Consider the case where AM protects a user profile web page. An AM web agent installed in the web server intercepts client requests to enforce policy. The policy says that only authenticated users can access the page to view and to update their profiles.

When a user browses to the profile page, the AM agent intercepts the request. The web agent notices that the request is to access a protected resource, but the request is coming from a user who has not yet logged in and consequently has no authorization to visit the page. The web agent therefore redirects the user’s browser to AM to authenticate.

AM receives the redirected user, serving a login page that collects the user’s email and password. With the email and password credentials, AM authenticates the user, and creates a session for the user. AM then redirects the user to the web agent, which gets the policy decision from AM for the page to access, and grants access to the page.

While the user has a valid session with AM, the user can go away to another page in the browser, come back to the profile page, and gain access without having to enter their email and password again.

Notice how AM and the web agent handle the access in the example. The website developer can offer a profile page, but the website developer never has to manage login, or handle who can access a page. As AM administrator, you can change authentication and authorization independently of updates to the website. You might need to agree with website developers on how AM identifies users, so web developers can identify users by their own names when they log in. By using AM and web or Java agents for authentication and authorization, your organization no longer needs to update web applications when you want to add external access to your Intranet for roaming users, open some of your sites to partners, only let managers access certain pages of your HR website, or allow users already logged in to their desktops to visit protected sites without having to type their credentials again.