Sunday, July 24, 2016

Securing Oracle Application Express when using Oracle REST Data Services (ORDS)

If you are using Oracle REST Data Services as the "PL/SQL Gateway" for Oracle Application Express, ensure that your ORDS configuration includes the following line:

wwv_flow_epg_include_modules.authorize

It is important that you do this, and let me explain why.

Fundamentally, the APEX "engine" is really nothing more than a big PL/SQL program running inside the Oracle Database.  When a browser makes a request for a page in an APEX application, that request is mapped to a PL/SQL procedure which is running inside the database.  If you examine an APEX URL in your browser, you may see something like 'f?p=...', and this is invoking a PL/SQL procedure in the database named 'F' with a parameter named 'P'.

There are a number of procedures in the APEX engine which are intended to be invoked from a URL.  But there may be other procedures in your database, possibly owned by users other than the Application Express user, which are not intended to be called from a URL.  In some cases, these other procedures could leak information or introduce some other class of security issue.  There should be a simple list of procedures which are permitted to be invoked from a URL, and all others should be blocked.  This is known as a "whitelist", and fortunately, there is a native facility in APEX which defines this whitelist.  You just need to tell ORDS about this whitelist.

When you configure ORDS with the following entry in the configuration file:

wwv_flow_epg_include_modules.authorize

You are instructing ORDS to validate the PL/SQL procedure requested in the URL using the PL/SQL function wwv_flow_epg_include_modules.authorize.  This whitelist will contain all of the necessary entry points into the APEX engine, nothing more, nothing less.

If you rely upon functionality in your application which makes use of PL/SQL procedures not defined in this whitelist, this functionality will break when you specify the security.requestValidationFunction.  I often encounter customers who invoke PL/SQL procedures in their application schema to download files, but there are better (and more secure) ways to do this, which would not break when implementing this whitelist.

Like any change to infrastructure or configuration, you should thoroughly test your applications with this setting prior to introducing it into a production environment.  But if one or two things break because of this change, don't use that as an excuse to not implement this configuration change.  Identify the issues and correct them.  While there is a method in place to extend the whitelist, in practice, this should be seldom used.

If you're using ORDS as a mod_plsql replacement for your PL/SQL Web Toolkit application and not using APEX, then please avoid this configuration setting.  APEX typically won't be installed in your database, and the whitelist will be irrelevant for your application.

The function wwv_flow_epg_include_modules.authorize has been around for more than 10 years (our teammate Scott added it in 2005), and it has been a part of the embedded PL/SQL Gateway and mod_plsql default configuration for a long time.  And while it has been documented for use with ORDS, a reasonable person might ask why this isn't simply part of the default configuration of APEX & ORDS.  I did confirm with the ORDS team that this will be included in the default configuration when using the PL/SQL Gateway of ORDS, beginning in ORDS 3.0.7.

Monday, July 04, 2016

APEX session isolation across multiple browser tabs - Problem Solved (in APEX 5.1)

Since the genesis of Oracle Application Express, customers have asked for a way to open multiple browser tabs (or windows) of an APEX application and have the session state isolated between the respective tabs.  There is one and only one APEX session associated with a client, and because of this behavior in APEX, customers would find that the session state manipulated in one browser tab would collide with the session state of the other browser tab.

This has always been a vexing problem to solve for many years.  Back in 2007, I remember Carl Backstrom had spent countless hours researching for some handle or unique identifier to a browser window that we could correlate with a distinct browser session cookie, but he was never able to identify a feasible solution.  Customers have long asked for a solution, but all we were able to propose were rather cumbersome work arounds (ensure all items necessary for session state were posted with the page, or use the multiple DNS aliases "trick" for each tab).

In October 2015, our friends from BiLog arranged an informal meeting with a couple large enterprise customers from Croatia.  Goran, who was from one of the enterprise customers in the insurance industry, stated that the session management behavior of APEX presented a real problem for them.  Their typical scenario involved a sales representative who would meet with a customer in-person.  Because they wanted to offer insurance quotes or initiate insurance applications on multiple products, the sales representative would open up multiple tabs of their APEX application.  Of course, the session state across all of these tabs would collide and effectively corrupt the quoting process.  As Goran stated at the time, it became more and more difficult to justify the use of APEX because of this troublesome behavior.  I had no immediate answer, but I told him we would redouble our efforts and look at this problem again.

In February of this year, I had one of those lightbulb moments, and realized that we had been thinking about this problem the wrong way, and we needed to turn it inside out.  In APEX, there is always a single browser session cookie associated with an APEX session.  We were always trying to come up with a way to generate a new and differentiated browser session cookie every time a new tab was opened, and then associate this new browser session cookie with a new APEX session.  But the new approach was to simply keep the one and only one browser session cookie, and have this associated with multiple APEX sessions on the server.  I expressed my idea to the supremely intelligent Christian Neumueller of the APEX development team, and he went about with a masterful design and implementation of this feature.

In Application Express 5.1, we are introducing a new request to the APEX engine named APEX_CLONE_SESSION.  When requested from an existing APEX session, this will generate a new APEX session identifier and associate it with the existing browser session cookie.  Additionally, it will copy all of the session state values from the old session to the new session.  You, the developer, would have to provide a link for your end users to open up new browser tabs, and include APEX_CLONE_SESSION in the request of the URL.  So instead of your end users manually opening up a new tab from your APEX application, you would have to give them a prescribed way to open new tabs - could be a dynamic action or a button or a link.  The URL in the new tab should include APEX_CLONE_SESSION in the "Request" portion of the APEX URL.

An example URL would be:
f?p=&APP_ID.:&APP_PAGE_ID.:&APP_SESSION.:APEX_CLONE_SESSION

Because we were a bit paranoid about this feature until we could thoroughly vet the security of it, by default, this capability is turned off.  You can override this setting for a specific workspace by using the Administration API:

apex_instance_admin.set_workspace_parameter(
    p_workspace => 'JOELS_WORKSPACE',
    p_parameter => 'CLONE_SESSION_ENABLED',
    p_value     => 'Y');

or you can enable it for the entire instance using:
apex_instance_admin.set_parameter(
    p_parameter => 'CLONE_SESSION_ENABLED',
    p_value     => 'Y');

This feature is enabled instance-wide on the Application Express 5.1 Early Adopter site at https://apexea.oracle.com.  We would welcome your feedback about this feature.  And if you're reading this blog post after APEX 5.1 is generally available, please feel free to try it in your own APEX 5.1 (or later) instance or on https://apex.oracle.com.