August 13, 2018: Date this post was first published, on the Front-End Web and Mobile Blog. We updated the CloudFormation template, provided additional clarification on implementation steps, and revised to account for the new Amazon Cognito UI.
User authentication and authorization can be challenging when you’re building web and mobile apps. The challenges include handling user data and passwords, token-based authentication, federating identities from external identity providers (IdPs), managing fine-grained permissions, scalability, and more.
In this blog post, we will show you how to federate identities from Windows Server Active Directory to authenticate users into your web app by using AWS services. The main AWS service that we’ll use for this purpose is Amazon Cognito.
With Amazon Cognito user pools, you can add user sign-up and sign-in to your mobile and web apps by using a secure and scalable user directory. In addition, you can federate users from a SAML IdP with Amazon Cognito user pools, map these users to a user directory, and get standard authentication tokens from a user pool after the user authenticates with a SAML IdP.
This post explains how to integrate Amazon Cognito user pools with Microsoft Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) to obtain JSON web tokens (JWTs) in your web app—which in turn can be used for downstream authentication. To demonstrate the complete authentication flow, we’ve created a simple REST API that’s built on Amazon API Gateway. The REST API retrieves data from an Amazon DynamoDB table with the help of an AWS Lambda function. We’ll use the JWT tokens that are vended from user pools to authenticate to the REST API, which is hosted on API Gateway.
A benefit of using Amazon Cognito user pools to federate users from a SAML provider is that a user pool supports SAML 2.0 post-binding endpoints. This helps eliminate the need for client-side parsing of the SAML assertion response, and the user pool directly receives the SAML response from your IdP through a user agent.
As part of the SAML federation feature, the user pool acts as a service provider on behalf of your application. The user pool becomes a single point of identity management for your application, and your application doesn’t need to integrate with multiple SAML IdPs.
Figure 1 shows the authentication flow that we present throughout this blog post.
As shown in the figure, the authentication flow involves the following steps:
- The app starts the sign-up and sign-in process by directing the user to the Cognito user pools hosted web UI. For a mobile app, you can use a web view to show the hosted web UI. For this post, you will use a web app that is hosted on Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) fronted by Amazon CloudFront.
- The Amazon Cognito user pool determines the appropriate IdP based on your configuration. For AD FS, the IdP is determined by the metadata file or metadata endpoint URL from your SAML IdP. For example, if you use AD FS, the metadata URL looks like the following: https://
- The user is redirected to the IdP—in this case, Active Directory.
- The IdP authenticates the user if necessary. If the IdP recognizes that the user has an active session, then the IdP skips the authentication to provide a single sign-on experience.
- The IdP sends the SAML assertion to Amazon Cognito.
- The user’s profile is created in the user pool.
- After verifying the SAML assertion and collecting the user attributes (claims) from the assertion, Amazon Cognito returns OIDC tokens (ID, access, and refresh tokens) to the app for the user who is now signed in.
- The app then makes a GET request to API Gateway, passing along the JWT token for authorization. If authorized, the request is forwarded to Lambda for data retrieval from DynamoDB.
Installation and configuration walkthrough
To build the authentication flow that we described in the previous section, complete the following steps.
- Step 1: Install Active Directory and AD FS
- Step 2: Create an Amazon Cognito user pool
- Step 3: Configure Active Directory and AD FS
- Step 4: Complete the Amazon Cognito configuration
- Step 5: Deploy and configure the web app
Step 1: Install Active Directory and AD FS
You will need to set up Active Directory and AD FS. For instructions on how to install both with an AWS CloudFormation template, see Enabling Federation to AWS Using Windows Active Directory, ADFS, and SAML 2.0. To complete the walkthrough in this blog post, you will need to have a working Active Directory service and AD FS service, and a user created within Active Directory. For this walkthrough, we created a user named bob with an email address of firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step 2: Create an Amazon Cognito user pool
- Sign in to the Amazon Cognito console and do one of the following:
- If you have an existing user pool, in the left navigation pane, choose User pools and then choose Create user pool to create a new user pool for this walkthrough.
- If you don’t have an existing user pool, you will see a landing page. Keep the dropdown list as default and choose Create user pool.
- In the Configure sign-in experience section, for Cognito user pool sign-in options, select Email, and then choose Next.
- In the Configure security requirements section, under Multi-factor authentication, select No MFA, leave the other fields as default, and then choose Next.
- In the Configure sign-up experience section, under Attribute verification and user account confirmation, deselect Allow Cognito to automatically send messages to verify and confirm, and choose Next.
- In the Configure message delivery section, under Email, select Send email with Cognito, leave the other fields as default, and then choose Next.
- In the Integrate your app section, enter a user pool name, select Use the Cognito Hosted UI, and create a domain name using a Cognito domain.
- In the Initial app client section as shown in Figure 2, for App client name, enter SAML-IdP; and for Allowed callback URLs, enter https://localhost. Then choose Next.
- In the Review and create section, review all settings, and then scroll to the bottom of the page and choose Create user pool.
Step 3: Configure Active Directory and AD FS
Now that you’ve created an Amazon Cognito user pool, you need to set up Amazon Cognito as a relying party in the SAML identity provider (in this case, AD FS). After you configure AD FS, you will return to Amazon Cognito to complete the final configurations for the application to work.
- Connect to the Windows Server instance where you installed AD FS as an administrator through the remote desktop protocol (RDP).
- Open the AD FS 2.0 console.
- To make sure that the user you created in Step 1 has an email address, in the user property window for your user, choose General. Figure 3 shows our user named bob in Active Directory with an email address of email@example.com.
- Determine the Uniform Resource Name (URN) for the Amazon Cognito user pool. The form of the URN is urn:amazon:cognito:sp:
. You can find the user pool ID in the General settings tab.
- Configure AD FS as follows to work with the Amazon Cognito user pool:
- Go to Trust Relationships > Relying Party Trusts > Add relying party trusts. This will start a wizard.
- Select Enter data about the relying party manually.
- Enter a display name for the relying party configuration.
- On the next screen, do not configure a certificate.
- Enable support for the SAML 2.0 single sign-on service URL.
- Add the Amazon Cognito user pool URN as the relying party trust identifier.
- Configure the SAML POST binding. The SAML 2.0 post-binding endpoint (also known as the assertion consumer URL) for the Amazon Cognito user pool is https://
.auth.< .amazoncognito.com/saml2/idpresponse. You configured this as the domain name in Step 2.6.
- Select Permit all users to access this relying party.
- Choose Finish.
- Navigate to Trust Relationships > Relying Party Trusts. You should see that the URN of Amazon Cognito is configured as the relying party, as shown in Figure 4:
In a SAML federation, the IdP can pass various attributes about the user, the authentication method, or other points of context to the service provider (in this case, Amazon Cognito) in the form of SAML attributes. In AD FS, claim rules are used to assemble these required attributes using a combination of Active Directory lookups, simple transformations, and regular expression-based custom rules. In this example, you will configure two claim rules: Name ID and E-Mail.
- The Edit Claim Rules window should already be open. If it isn’t, select your relying party trust from the Trust Relationships > Relying Party Trusts screen, and then, in the Actions tab on the right side, choose Edit Claim Rules.
- On the Configure Claim Rule page, enter the following values for each configuration element, and then choose OK.
- Claim rule name: Name ID
- Incoming claim type: Windows account name
- Outgoing claim type: Name ID
- Outgoing name ID format: Persistent identifier
- Repeat the preceding steps for the E-mail claim:
- Claim rule name: Email
- Attribute Directory: Active Directory
- LDAP Attributes: Email Addresses
- Outgoing Claim Type: Email Address
- Before leaving the AD FS configuration, download the metadata file for the AD FS. The metadata URL for AD FS looks like the following: https://
/FederationMetadata/2007-06/FederationMetadata.xmlM. The metadata file describes the endpoint of your SAML IdP (the AD FS service) to the service provider (Amazon Cognito).
Step 4: Complete the Amazon Cognito configuration
- Sign in to the Amazon Cognito console.
- Select the Amazon Cognito user pool that you created earlier, navigate to Sign-in experience > Federated identity provider sign-in, and choose Add identity provider, as shown in Figure 5.
- Choose SAML as the identity provider.
- As shown in Figure 6, enter a name for your identity provider, choose Select file, and then upload the FederationMetadata.xml file that you downloaded at the end of Step 3.
- Provide the SAML attribute to map attributes between your SAML provider and your user pool as follows:
- For User pool attribute, select email.
- For SAML attribute, enter http://schemas.xmlsoap.org/ws/2005/05/identity/claims/emailaddress
These mappings map the claims from the SAML assertion from AD FS to the user pool attributes. You configured an E-mail claim in AD FS, so you need to map this with the appropriate attribute in the user pool.
- Choose Add identity provider.
Step 5: Deploy and configure a web app
To reduce the number of steps required for this walkthrough, we have provided a CloudFormation template that you can use to complete the deployment, which deploys the architecture shown in Figure 7:
This architecture is essentially the same as step 8 from the authentication flow diagram (Figure 1) earlier in this post. In Figure 7, we have added Amazon S3 and Amazon CloudFront to the diagram, which is where your static website is hosted. Complete the following steps for this walkthrough:
- Step 5.1: Create the AWS CloudFormation stack
- Step 5.2: Manually integrate Amazon Cognito user pools with API Gateway
- Step 5.3: Update the configuration for Amazon Cognito
- Step 5.4: Update the configuration for the client-side application and upload to Amazon S3
- Step 5.5: Insert a row into a DynamoDB table to help you test the application
Step 5.1: Create the AWS CloudFormation stack
Let’s deploy this infrastructure:
- Download the code repository, which includes the CloudFormation template named prerequisites.yaml and the sample code for a web app named DataManager.
- Navigate to the CloudFormation console in the Region where you deployed the user pool, and choose Create Stack.
- To upload the template to Amazon S3, choose Browse and select prerequisites.yaml in the folder where you downloaded it.
- Provide a Stack name and a unique Bucket name.
Note: S3 bucket names should not contain uppercase characters.
- Choose Next, and select I acknowledge that AWS CloudFormation might create IAM resources with custom names.
- Choose Create and then wait for the resources to be deployed.
Note: If the deployment fails with the error message API: s3:CreateBucket Access Denied, review the IAM permissions available for the IAM user or the role used and make sure that the s3:CreateBucket permission has been granted.
Step 5.2: Manually integrate the Amazon Cognito user pool with API Gateway
- Open the API Gateway console. You should see that an API named DataManager has been created by CloudFormation, as shown in Figure 8:
- Under APIs, choose DataManager, and then choose Authorizers.
- Choose Create new Authorizer, and then populate the relevant details:
- For Name, enter SamlAuthorizer (Make sure that the name of the user pool is the same as the one that you created).
- For Type, select Cognito.
- For Cognito user pool, enter Samlfederation.
- For Token source, enter Authorization.
With this configuration, you use the user pools authorizer to authenticate Get requests to your Rest API that’s hosted on API Gateway. In the dropdown for Cognito User Pool, add the user pool that you created in Step 2: Create an Amazon Cognito user pool. Choose Create.
- Navigate back to APIs > Resources, choose GET, and then choose Method Request.
- To add the authorizer that you just created, under Settings, in the Authorization dropdown, choose your authorizer. Remember to save the setting by choosing the small tick symbol on the right side. If you don’t see the Cognito authorizer, just wait for several minutes for updates from API Gateway.
Step 5.3: Update the configuration for Amazon Cognito
Now you need to update the Amazon Cognito configuration based on the CloudFront distribution that you deployed using the CloudFormation template in Step 5.1.
- Navigate to the CloudFormation console and locate the CloudFormation stack that was deployed. As shown in Figure 10, in the Outputs tab, copy the values for CloudfrontEndpoint and DataManagerApiInvokeUrl because you will need them later.
- Navigate to the Amazon Cognito console and go to your user pool. Choose the App integration tab, scroll to the bottom of the page, and for App client name, choose the App client that you added during user pool creation.
- On the page for your App client, in the Hosted UI section, choose Edit, and then do the following:
- For both the Allowed callback URLs and Allowed sign-out URLs, enter the CloudFront endpoint.
- For OAuth grant types, select Implicit grant.
- For OpenID Connect scopes, select Email and OpenID.
The Amazon Cognito hosted UI provides an OAuth 2.0 compliant authorization server. It includes the default implementation of end user flows, such as registration and authentication. Because the application interacts with Amazon Cognito through an OAuth 2.0 implicit flow, which requires a redirect, the website needs to use HTTPS.
Note: In a production scenario, instead of implicit flow, an authorization code grant is the preferred method in the OAuth 2.0 framework because it’s more secure.
To have an HTTPS endpoint for the Amazon S3 static website, you can use the CloudFront distribution that was deployed by the CloudFormation template in Step 5.1.
When one of your users successfully logs in to the Active Directory infrastructure, the user is automatically redirected to the callback URL. In this case, this is a CloudFront distribution URL with an Amazon Cognito ID token, access token, and refresh token.
Step 5.4: Update the configuration for your client-side application, and upload it to Amazon S3
Navigate to the code that you previously cloned in Step 5.1, and perform the following steps:
- With a file manager, navigate to the folder where the cloned content is located. Open the DataManager directory.
- Open the js folder. Using a text editor, open the config.js file.
- From the Amazon Cognito console, copy the client app application ID as the value of the userPoolClientId property. You can find the application ID in the App clients menu of the Amazon Cognito console.
- Change the value of the Region property to the Region that you are using (for example, us-east-2)
- While you are still in the Amazon Cognito console, open the Domain name page, and copy the custom prefix into the value for the authDomainPrefix property.
- Open the CloudFormation console and choose the stack that was created in Step 5.1. With the stack selected, open the Outputs tab.
- Copy the value of the CloudfrontEndpoint output variable to the redirect_uri property.
- Copy the value of the DataManagerApiInvokeUrl output variable to the invokeUri property.
- Copy the files to the S3 bucket that hosts the static website. To upload the files, use the AWS Command Line Interface (AWS CLI) or the Amazon S3 console.
Step 5.5: Insert a row into the DynamoDB table to help test your application
The CloudFormation template that you used in Step 5.1 created a DynamoDB table that you can use to test your application. Now you need to add a row to the table (as shown in the Items returned section of Figure 12), so that you can get some results when you test your application. To add a row, in the left menu, choose Tables > Update settings to find the table, and then choose Actions > Create item.
The Lambda function that retrieves data from the ADFSSecretData DynamoDB table only retrieves data from rows where the email matches the one used to log in to Active Directory. To achieve this, you pass the event.requestContext.authorizer.claims.email.object within the Lambda function. This object contains the email that you used to log in to Active Directory.
Now you’re ready to test the application.
- Open the CloudFront URL in your browser and choose Enter. This should immediately take you to the web app landing page. From there, you’re automatically redirected to the Amazon Cognito hosted UI. You should see a screen similar to the following that says Sign in with your corporate ID:
- After you choose your SAML provider, you are redirected to your AD FS infrastructure that shows a login screen similar to the following:
Note: If there’s an error, make sure that there’s a mapping in the host file for your AD FS server, with the appropriate hostname or public IP address of the EC2 instance where the AD FS infrastructure is hosted
On the login screen, for Username, enter the user’s email address (in our example, that’s Bob’s email address), and for Password, enter the password that you defined in Active Directory, as shown in Figure 14. If the login is successful, you’re redirected back to the web app with a valid ID and access tokens.
- Choose Refresh to see the data that you stored in DynamoDB.
In this walkthrough, you federated users from AD FS, and successfully authenticated those users to our REST API that’s hosted on API Gateway.
The SAML federation feature in Amazon Cognito helps you set up and integrate your apps with multiple SAML IdPs. By using the SAML federation capabilities of Amazon Cognito, your apps don’t need to handle the type of SAML IdP that they are interacting with. Amazon Cognito takes care of it on behalf of your application.
This article was originally written by Adrian Hall, who was an AWS Solutions Architect when he wrote it.
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