Switching Normandy to use OIDC

Posted on 2016-05-03 in
  • mozilla
  • , and
  • normandy

Recently Normandy switched from authenticating users ourselves with boring username and passwords to using Mozilla's OIDC SSO to authenticate users more securely.

Normandy is a web service that holds a lot of influence over Firefox. Because of this, we have had a list of security features we've been working through. One of the big items on this list was to not store passwords, and do authentication of users ourselves.

We chose to use OIDC for this, primarily because it is the new hotness as far as authenticating Mozillians. It can use many sources of authentication, including Mozilla's LDAP servers, the canonical source of employee user data. This is exactly what we want to use for Normandy.


Normandy is a Django app, so we initially explored doing the integration with OIDC directly in the app. The idea would be to use an existing OIDC library to authenticate users with the Mozilla OIDC SSO, and correlate that to the existing users of the system via email address.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to get any of the libraries to work for us. The major problems we ran into were incompatibilities with something in our stack (Python 3.6 or OIDC specifically) or the implementation being too complex.

Instead we chose an easier process. Normandy is fronted by Nginx, which does some work with caching and logging. Our operations team has an Nginx access-proxy integration that works with our Nginx frontend. It passes authentication details to our app via the HTTP header Remote-User. This solution was much easier to implement: essentially we flipped a flag in Puppet, and we started getting authentication headers.

Changes to Django

Of course, sending the headers isn't enough. We also have to configure the app to read those headers and act accordingly. We did this with Django's RemoteUserBackend. This works by adding a middleware that annotates all requests with information about the authentication header, and an authentication backend that reads that information to sign a user in or out. If a user is authenticated via the Remote-User header, but does not exist in the database, the backend automatically creates the user and signs them in.

The default settings worked well for us. The only modification we needed was to tie it into our logging and settings systems. A simplified version of the changes is to add RemoteUserMiddleware to the MIDDLEWARE setting, and adding RemoteUserBackend to AUTHENTICATION_BACKENDS. You can see the full changes in this pull request.

Changes to Nginx

To implement the Nginx part of this, we modified the configuration to perform authentication via OIDC with Mozilla's SSO. That was implemented with lua-resty-openidc.

When an HTTP request comes in to Nginx with a url covered by OIDC authentication, Nginx checks if the request has cookies that already authenticate it via OIDC. If it does not, Nginx redirects the request to Mozilla's SSO to perform authentication, which then redirects the user back to Nginx with authentication tokens to log the user in. Nginx validates these tokens, and then proxies the request to Normandy with the Remote-User header to set.

Importantly, Nginx also strips any value of Remote-User that external users try to use. This way we don't allow users to sign in as any user simply by passing a HTTP header. That would be bad.


The OIDC claim information identifies a user by email address and that's what gets passed to Normandy in the Remote-User header. The RemoteUserBackend authenticates users by matching that header to the username field of Django User models. Normandy has very few users, and all of them are Mozilla employees, so we know they all have LDAP emails. We wrote a migration to copy our users email addresses from to User.username to accommodate this.

Here is a slightly abbreviated version of the migration:

from django.conf import settings
from django.db import migrations

def email_to_username(apps, schema_editor):
    Copy emails to usernames for all users.
    User = apps.get_model('auth', 'User')
    for user in User.objects.all():
            user.username =

def remove_email_from_username(apps, schema_editor):
    Copy emails to usernames for all users.
    User = apps.get_model('auth', 'User')
    for user in User.objects.all():
        if '@' in user.username:
            user.username = user.username.split('@')[0]

class Migration(migrations.Migration):

    dependencies = [

    operations = [
        migrations.RunPython(email_to_username, remove_email_from_username),


All or Nothing

One of the major challenges in this system is that the rules for whether a user needs to be authenticated are not are necessarily very simple. Nginx can't really implement application level logic to decide if a user needs authenticated or not.

Before this system, we would allow certain views to be accessed by both authenticated users and anonymous users. We then used Django's permission models to decide if a user was allowed to do what they were trying to do. For example, the Normandy recipe listing page would allow an anonymous user to see the list of recipes, and an authenticated user to create a new recipe if they were in the correct group.

This isn't something we could do with Nginx. We could protect certain part of the site by URL, and it had to be all or nothing: Either a user was authenticated on that portion of the site, or the authentication header would never be passed, and all users would be anonymous. This turned out to be a minor annoyance for us, but I could imagine it being a huge problem for other sites.

We have two kinds of servers. One is read-only, and the other is read-write. The read-write version is only accessible over VPN, and only by Mozilla employees. It was easy to simply make the entire read-write server require authentication. Mixing authentication on one server would be challenging, because you'd have to carefully design your URL structure to separate authenticated and unauthenticted parts of the site.

Non-Browser Usage

The authentication flow outlined above relies heavily on having a web browser and a human around. We haven't figured out how to authenticate non-human users, such as shell scripts that use curl to automate requests to the API to make repetitive changes.

This is a minor use case that for now we've simply dropped. Some day in the future we may re-visit it and try to figure out a better work flow for these kind of changes.

Overall, the migration to using Auth0 has gone well, and we didn't have any major problems deploying it. We had to give up some control over authentication of users, but in exchange we have very easy user management and better security.