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Giving back to open source: Everybody wins

Many of our products depend on reusable open source software, and we also publish our own work as open source. What’s even cooler is when we’re able to contribute to an open source product from another organization. oauth2_proxy (formerly google_auth_proxy) is a program from Bitly (written in the Go programming language) that enables a web service to provide authentication via OAuth2 provider accounts, without the need to build authentication code directly into the service. This was a perfect fit for the needs of the internal 18F Hub, which is a Jekyll-generated site containing no authentication logic of its own.

Because the General Services Administration (GSA) is a Google Apps for Government customer, and because we serve the Hub using the Nginx web server, it was straightforward to configure Nginx and the oauth2_proxy to provide authentication for 18F team members (and other guests within the GSA) with no changes required to the Hub code.

The basic structure is to create a server block as the public-facing internal Hub server that uses the proxy_pass directive to forward requests to the oauth2_proxy, listening on localhost:4180. The oauth2_proxy, in turn, is configured to redirect authenticated requests to a server on localhost:8080, configured as another Nginx server block, that just serves the pre-generated Jekyll site:

server {
    listen 443 ssl spdy;
    server_name hub.18f.gov;
    include ssl/star.18f.gov.conf;

    location /logo.png {
        alias /home/ubuntu/18f-hub/_site/assets/images/logo-18f-oauth.png;
    }

    location / {
        proxy_pass http://127.0.0.1:4180/;
        proxy_set_header Host $host;
        proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;
        proxy_set_header X-Scheme $scheme;
        proxy_connect_timeout 1;
        proxy_send_timeout 30;
        proxy_read_timeout 30;
    }
}

server {
    listen 127.0.0.1:8080;
    server_name hub.18f.gov;
    port_in_redirect off;
    error_page 404 /404/index.html;

    location / {
        ssi on;
        root /home/ubuntu/hub/_site;
        index index.html api.json;
        default_type text/html;
        set $authenticated_user $http_x_forwarded_email;
        set $access_token $http_x_forwarded_access_token;
    }
}

This worked really well for 18F, but there was a problem. Not all government agencies use Google Apps, and we wanted to be able to permit guests from other agencies access to our internal Hub or set up their own. The idea was to use 18F’s own MyUSA product as an OAuth2 authentication provider instead. However, since the Hub didn’t contain any authentication code of its own, the question was how to implement the switch to MyUSA.

Thanks to the fact that Bitly chose to make its oauth2_proxy open source, I was able to inspect the code, learn how it worked, fork my own copy, and produce a prototype that used MyUSA as the OAuth2 provider. Then, I engaged the oauth2_proxy maintainer, Jehiah Czebotar, to get feedback and solicit approval to incorporate an OAuth2 provider generalization into the main bitly/oauth2_proxy repository. With that generalization interface in place, Jehiah also permitted me to add the MyUSA provider to the main repository, potentially enabling any oauth2_proxy user to use MyUSA for authentication. Also, the new generalized provider support also paid dividends for others beyond 18F and Bitly, as another developer built upon the new interface to add LinkedIn as an OAuth2 provider, and Jehiah added GitHub as a provider.

While this was a big step forward for 18F’s involvement in the open source community, and for MyUSA in particular, the collaboration didn’t stop there. We wanted the Hub to be able to integrate with other MyUSA-authenticated services serving JSON API endpoints; to do that, we needed access to the MyUSA access token, which the oauth2_proxy initially discarded. I added access token pass-through to the oauth2_proxy to enable this integration (and clean it up later).

Since then, I’ve contributed a host of other changes to the main oauth2_proxy repository, both to solve minor issues (sign-in page redirection, email address case sensitivity) and to implement handy new features (automatic refresh of the auth cookie, watching the authenticated emails file for updates, blocking crawlers with robots.txt). I’ve also figured out how to configure the oauth2_proxy to provide single-sign on across multiple hosts.

The lessons here are twofold. For one, it’s possible to use oauth2_proxy, Nginx, and Jekyll to produce a highly functional, fully-authenticated web application without the need for complex frameworks, databases, or other moving parts requiring vigilant maintenance. While the Hub has a ways to go, our team has had a great deal of success finding and sharing information with it, particularly when it comes to onboarding new team members; and it’s incurred very, very low running costs. The new authenticated API integration feature promises to make the Hub and its application model even more powerful, despite the fact that it remains a statically generated Jekyll site at its core. (Fellow 18F team member Dave Cole actually advocated for this model three years ago.)

As for the second lesson, it’s often difficult to achieve this degree of transparency, collaboration, reuse, and contribution in the same organization, let alone between a government agency and a private company. However, thanks to a commitment to open source development on behalf of both 18F and Bitly, our team members can work together to develop features that benefit not just our two organizations, but many others who may be able to apply (and adapt!) the oauth2_proxy to their needs.

By continuing to explore new ways to develop and deploy applications and reuse infrastructure as fully-invested members of the open source community, 18F aims to demonstrate to the rest of government, and those it serves, that such methods are safe and productive and ultimately improve the way government works.

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