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Current File(s): conf/authn/*, views/login.vm, conf/c14n/*

Format: Native Spring

Legacy V2 File(s): conf/handler.xml, login.jsp, others


The files in conf/authn/ collectively configure authentication both generally and the specific mechanisms that are built-in to the software. You will likely only ever look at a few of them, depending on which login methods you want to use. Authentication is heavily based on Spring Web Flow; selection of the mechanisms to invoke and each individual mechanism are implemented as "subflows" that run inside of the web flows that service requests.

Authentication subflows are the equivalent of V2 LoginHandler plugins and make use of SWF's support for presentation views and state transitions instead of the servlet-based design in V2. However, because of SWF's handling of URLs, there are cases in which use of a subflow exclusively is problematic, and so a defined External method for branching out to a servlet design is also provided.

Comprehensive support for complex mechanism selection criteria has been implemented; assuming prior configuration, all of the SAML 2 operators (exact, minimum, maximum, better) for requesting authentication context types are now supported.

While fully decoupled from the authentication layer, session management is obviously related. Most session management configuration is automatic, and the properties that can override the defaults are documented below. It's possible to fully disable the session mechanism and turn off SSO globally with a single property. Note that unlike V2, the default session mechanism in V3 is a client-side storage option using an encrypted cookie. This mechanism depends on the configuration of a secret key, which is typically handled automatically during installation or upgrade.

Authentication configuration is divided into general and mechanism-specific parts. Separate topics exist for each mechanism included with the software and certain other subtopics.

General Configuration

The authn/general-authn.xml file is where all supported login flows are described to the system. They can be enabled and disabled with a property, so even when defined they can be globally activated or deactivated without editing this file.

The file contains a Spring list bean named shibboleth.AvailableAuthenticationFlows. Each mechanism for authentication is called an authentication flow, and each flow has a descriptor inside this list. Descriptors are of a specific class, and include a number of properties that influence whether a mechanism can be used for specific requests.

The id property of each descriptor is not arbitrary. It MUST be prefixed by "authn/" and it corresponds to a web flow definition. The predefined beans correspond to built-in flows. Creating a new flow involves not only describing the flow in this list, but ensuring the id matches a flow definition created inside flows/authn/. Specifically, creating the custom login flow "authn/foo" requires that the flow definition file be named flows/authn/foo/foo-flow.xml.

Even if a flow is defined to the system, it is not necessarily available for use at runtime. The overall list of enabled flows is controlled using the idp.authn.flows property that expresses the flows to enable. In addition, a list of flow IDs (minus the "authn/" prefix) can be configured per-profile, per-relying-party using the authenticationFlows property on a profile configuration bean. Any flow not enabled will be ignored.

relying-party.xml example enabling a login flow for a specific profile
<bean parent="SAML2.SSO" p:authenticationFlows="#{{'RemoteUser'}}" />

The parent bean for all flows is defined in a system file and looks like this:

Parent bean for Authentication Flow Descriptors
    <bean id="shibboleth.AuthenticationFlow" abstract="true"
        <property name="supportedPrincipals">
                <bean parent="shibboleth.SAML2AuthnContextClassRef"
                    c:classRef="urn:oasis:names:tc:SAML:2.0:ac:classes:PasswordProtectedTransport" />
                <bean parent="shibboleth.SAML2AuthnContextClassRef"
                    c:classRef="urn:oasis:names:tc:SAML:2.0:ac:classes:Password" />
                <bean parent="shibboleth.SAML1AuthenticationMethod"
                    c:method="urn:oasis:names:tc:SAML:1.0:am:password" />

The comments in general-authn.xml and the system bean above describe some of the defaults, and illustrate how to define a non-password-based mechanism (IPAddress or X509), which requires overriding the supportedPrincipals property to prevent misuse. This property is used to associate a flow with any number of custom objects that represent, in the specific case of SAML, SAML 1 AuthenticationMethod or SAML 2 AuthnContextClassRef or AuthnContextDeclRef constants. These are URI constants that represent different kinds of authentication. They can also be used to represent more advanced concepts such as identity proofing and auditing requirements which go beyond just technology choices.

To associate these constants with a flow, beans are used that inherit from one of the following built-in beans:

  • shibboleth.SAML2AuthnContextClassRef
  • shibboleth.SAML2AuthnContextDeclRef
  • shibboleth.SAML1AuthenticationMethod

Note that if you associate more than one such constant/bean with a flow, the IdP will ordinarily pick one at random to use as a SAML "result" when it builds an assertion, assuming the SP didn't request a specific one. If you need to guarantee that a particular one will be used as a default, you can assign "weights" to them in a map bean that's defined in the general-authn.xml file named shibboleth.AuthenticationPrincipalWeightMap.

As a caution, if you add a custom flow or make use of one of the technology-independent flows in a way that is not password-based, don't forget to override the supportedPrincipals property, or you will create problems for any SPs that are attempting to request stronger authentication methods. It's very easy to accidentally "lie" to the world by misconfiguring the IdP, because the software can't read your mind to understand your intentions, and it only knows what you tell it. A complete explanation of how the selection process works is here.

Login Flows

Login flows provided with the software are listed below:

Post-Login Canonicalization

As described, after a successful login takes place, the IdP needs to be able to establish an "official" username to represent the subject throughout the system in order to disambiguate subjects from each other. Chiefly this is needed so that the IdP can detect when the identity of the subject has changed/switched, usually because of the use of shared computers. It also allows you to build an AttributeResolverConfiguration that can count on the form of the subject's name when looking up entries in directories or databases, essentially offloading some of the complexity that would otherwise end up in the attribute lookup logic.

This particular use of subject canonicalization is referred to as post-login c14n and the input is an instance of a Java Subject, which is a fairly open-ended object that can contain any number of custom Principal objects and collections of public and/or private credentials.

With the built-in login flows, the Subject is typically fairly simple and often contains a UsernamePrincipal that carries a username set by the login flow, often something entered by a user. In the simple case, the "right" canonicalized value may just be that name, and nothing needs to be configured, it will simply happen automatically. In less simple cases, you may need to configure a more advanced c14n subflow to do your bidding, or create one of your own design.

The post-login c14n flows provided with the software are listed below:

The first two are enabled by default, while the third requires additional configuration to operate sensibly.

Advanced Features

"Initial Authentication"

Initial authentication refers to login flows to run when no pre-existing session exists, and that run regardless of standard preferences, configuration, or what the SP requests. This typically will be a password-based flow that might be upgraded later to a multi-factor result depending on who the subject is and what the request looks like. In all respects, the result of an initial flow is the same as any other result and is preserved in a new session created for the subject, and if the request later determines that the initial flow is good enough to satisfy the request, then the user won't see any further challenges.

To enable initial authentication, set the idp.authn.flows.initial property in a similar fashion to the idp.authn.flows property to select the flow(s) to run. If a session already exists, this setting will have no impact on the request. For obvious reasons, don't combine this feature with disabling the session mechanism.

Attribute Lookup

You can set the idp.authn.resolveAttribute property to the name of an attribute to lookup using the AttributeResolverConfiguration. This only occurs if a pre-existing session identifies the subject to look up attributes for. The values of the attribute to resolve will be used to filter the login flows to allow by comparing the values against the names of the supportedPrincipals attached to the flow definition.

Beginning with V3.2, by default and if the idp.authn.filterActiveResultsByAttribute property is true, the values are also applied to filter the active authentication results to potentially reuse for SSO.

You can, if necessary, provide a comma-delimited list of attribute names to resolve in the property, but the first attribute in the list is the one used to filter flows and results.

Extending the Serialization of Results3.3

When deploying custom authentication flows, you may need to teach the IdP how to store the results your flows create. The system comes with support built-in for storing results produced by LDAP and some of the other custom Principal types used by the IdP for its own use, and as of V3.3 it's possible to extend this set more easily. If you need to preserve custom Principal types the IdP doesn't know about, you will need to create a plugin that implements the PrincipalSerializer interface, and register it with the system by defining a new bean in conf/authn/general-authn.xml that merges your custom plugin definition into the list of default serializers:

Registering a Custom PrincipalSerializer
<!-- Define anywhere in general-authn.xml -->
<bean id="shibboleth.PrincipalSerializers" parent="shibboleth.DefaultPrincipalSerializers">
	<property name="sourceList">
		<list merge="true">
			<bean class="org.example.MyPrincipalSerializer" />

Prior to V3.3, the beans were not laid out correctly to accomodate this in the system files. If you need to make use of this feature sooner, the simplest fix is to apply the patch in r8107 in subversion, which modifies a system file to provide the necessary parent bean.



Beans defined for general authentication configuration follow:

Bean ID
shibboleth.AvailableAuthenticationFlowsList<AuthenticationFlowDescriptor>List of descriptors enumerating the supported authentication flows that can be used
shibboleth.AuthenticationPrincipalWeightMap3.1Map<Principal,Integer>Map of weights to assign to particular custom Principal objects so that flows can pick an appropriate default Principal to associate with their result (see comment in file for more detail)
shibboleth.AuthenticationFlowAuthenticationFlowDescriptorParent bean for defining new flow descriptors
shibboleth.SAML2AuthnContextClassRefAuthnContextClassRefPrincipalParent bean for attaching SAML 2.0 AuthnContextClassRef constants to flows
shibboleth.SAML2AuthnContextDeclRefAuthnContextDeclRefPrincipalParent bean for attaching SAML 2.0 AuthnContextDeclRef constants to flows
shibboleth.SAML1AuthenticationMethodAuthenticationMethodPrincipalParent bean for attaching SAML 1.1 AuthenticationMethod constants to flows


Default list of principal serializer plugins needed to support storage of authentication results
shibboleth.DefaultPrincipalSymbolics3.3Map<String,Integer>Default mappings that shrink authentication result data by storing commonly seen strings as numbers


User-supplied list of values to merge into shibboleth.DefaultPrincipalSerializers bean
shibboleth.PrincipalSymbolics3.3Map<String,Integer>User-supplied list of values to merge into shibboleth.DefaultPrincipalSymbolics bean
The following beans are used to configure comparison rules for custom Principals to support rules for login flow selection when requests specify particular methods, as described in AuthenticationFlowSelection.
Bean IDTypeFunction
shibboleth.AuthnComparisonRulesMap used as constructor argument to PrincipalEvalPredicateFactoryRegistryMap of comparison rules




Pair<Class<? extends Principal>, String>Pairs of custom Principal types and matching operators for all the SAML 1.1 and 2.0 principal and comparison types supported, used as keys for the shibboleth.AuthnComparisonRules map
PrincipalEvalPredicateFactoryTemplate beans for values of the shibboleth.AuthnComparisonRules map



PrincipalEvalPredicateFactoryBeans supplying matching rules for implementing SAML 2.0 "inexact" comparisons of AuthnContextClassRef or AuthnContextDeclRef constants
shibboleth.IgnoredContexts3.2Collection<String>A collection of SAML 2.0 AuthnContextClassRef or AuthnContextDeclRef values to ignore if found in an <AuthnRequest> message


Because there are a variety of different login methods, most of the actual configuration is in per-method Spring configuration files, but there are a few general properties used, and a larger set of properties that control the management of sessions, which are of course related to authentication.

Worthy of note, you can switch to server-side storage of user sessions (essentially similar to the V2 default) by setting the idp.session.StorageService property to shibboleth.StorageService, or an alternative defined by you.

The most important property to note, and the only one that MUST be set is the idp.authn.flows property. This is a regular expression that identifies the flows defined in general-authn.xml to enable. The expression applies only to the suffix of each flow ID (omitting the authn/ prefix), and the simplest way to express this is with a pipe (|) separated list of the flow names, e.g., flow1|flow2|flow3




Whether to enable the IdP's session tracking feature


Bean ID of StorageService


Bean name of a storage implementation/configuration to use for IdP sessions


Integer32Number of characters in IdP session identifiers


BooleantrueWhether to bind IdP sessions to IP addresses


DurationPT60MInactivity timeout policy for IdP sessions (must be non-zero)


Duration0Extra time after expiration before removing IdP sessions in case a logout is invoked


BooleanfalseWhether to hide storage failures from users during session cache reads/writes


BooleanfalseWhether to save a record of every SP accessed during an IdP session (requires a server-side session store)


BooleanfalseWhether to track SPs on the basis of the SAML subject ID used, for logout purposes (requires SP session tracking be on)


DurationPT2HDefault length of time to maintain record of an SP session (must be non-zero)


Regular Expression Expression that identifies the login flows to globally enable


Regular Expression Expression that identifies login flows used when no IdP session exists (see Advanced)


String Name of attribute (or a comma-sep'd list of names) to resolve before authentication (see Advanced)
idp.authn.filterActiveResultsByAttribute3.2BooleantrueWhether to apply the results of the attribute resolved by the previous property against active results as well as inactive flows (see Advanced)


DurationPT60MDefault amount of time to allow reuse prior authentication flows, measured since first usage


DurationPT30MDefault inactivity timeout to prevent reuse of prior authentication flows, measured since last usage



Whether to prioritize prior authentication results when an SP requests more than one possible matching method (V2 behavior was to favor them)



Whether to fail requests if a user identity after authentication doesn't match the identity in a pre-existing session.

V2 Compatibility

Authentication has been substantially redesigned to make customization easier and add more capability, but significant compatibility has been maintained when using JAAS (UsernamePassword) or container-based (RemoteUser) authenticaton.

The V2 handler.xml file that defined login handlers and authentication "methods" is no longer supported. Compatibiliy is provided only for specific aspects of integrating authentication with the local environment.

If the V2 UsernamePassword login handler was used, the V3 equivalent is the Password flow with the JAAS back-end; the same JAAS configuration can typically be used. By convention this configuration is placed in authn/jaas.config and the legacy-matching "ShibUserPassAuth" login configuration name is used (though this can be changed). The UI for password-based login is no longer strictly JSP-based as in V2, but is now a Web Flow view: this can use Velocity, JSP, or potentially other view technologies. The default login.vm view provided uses Velocity. Using an older login.jsp file will require some changes, although the V2 JSP taglibs for metadata-driven UI information should still work.

If the 2.x RemoteUser login handler was used, the V3 equivalent is the RemoteUser flow, and for compatibility this has been designed to use the same protected endpoint by default (/Authn/RemoteUser) as in V2. This allows for reuse of existing container authentication configuration.

So in short, activate flows with the idp.authn.flows property, transfer JAAS or web.xml and container configuration over, and you should have basic compatibility working, apart from the actual login UI for JAAS-based authentication.

In most cases, existing relying-party.xml defaultAuthenticationMethod settings will result in the expected login flows running, but in some cases you may need to alter the supportedPrincipals property of one or more flow descriptors in authn/general-authn.xml.

A distinction of note is that V2 did not properly separate the constants used for SAML 1.1 AuthenticationMethod from those used for SAML 2.0 AuthnContextClassRef. These tend to be different, at least for built-in values native to SAML, and the new defaults reflect this.




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