Integrating Nginx and a Shibboleth SP with FastCGI

New location!

The canonical place for this documentation is now the nginx-http-shibboleth custom Nginx module GitHub repository. All updates will be reflected there, and as a result, this page has become severely outdated. Please contribute to that repository!

Original post


With changes in Nginx after version 1.5.4, the auth request module is now built in. This means the following instruction have changed, yet again.

tl;dr: You can have Nginx with Shibboleth. Rebuild Shibboleth with FastCGI support, and recompile Nginx with a custom module. You can now run the Shibboleth FastCGI authorizer and responder applications and successfully authenticate!


There’s a lot of posts around the web asking about integrating Shibboleth and Nginx, and so far as I can ascertain, the responses have been fairly empty and a resounding “NO”. Here’s what I’ve gathered so far.

Shibboleth supports Apache and IIS by default, but not Nginx. The closest one gets to support is via FastCGI, which Shibboleth does have but the default distribution needs to be rebuilt to support it. Nginx has support for FastCGI responders, but not for FastCGI authorizers. This is where things get interesting (and eventually change).

So, that said, Nginx does have support for sub-requests for allowing access, and the Auth Request gets very close in terms of providing the functionality we need for a FastCGI authorizer. However, that module only allow(ed) for the sub-request to respond with an allow or deny response. But, some minor changes I was able to make to my fork that Auth Request module allows the auth request to follow the specification.

Cautionary note

I should note that my custom Auth Request module for Nginx doesn’t presently feature support for sending the FastCGI authorizer the original request body, and likewise, doesn’t support sending the authorizer’s response body back to the client. For Shibboleth authorisation, however, these two are inconsequential as only HTTP redirections and HTTP headers (cookies) are used for authentication to succeed.

Contributions are welcome at the above repository. I’m currently looking to have my improvements merged back into the main plugin, too.

Install the Shibboleth SP with FastCGI support

Check out my post regarding Shibboleth and FastCGI. It will step you though either how to install or build the Shibboleth SP for your system and get the FastCGI applications up and running.

Once you’re done, make a note of the socket where the applications can be accessed. We’ll use this information next.

Nginx with FastCGI Authorizer support

The next step is sorting out Nginx with suitable support for FastCGI authorizers. As mentioned above, I was able to delve into Nginx and make my fork of that Auth Request module allows the auth request to follow the specification (see caveat above about request/response bodies).

  1. Compile Nginx with the custom Auth request module and the Headers More module

  2. Once you’ve successfully got Nginx compiled with my custom auth request module, then you’re ready to configure it all up.

  3. Configure one or more servers within your Nginx configuration like so. You’ll need the socket information for your FastCGI Shibboleth SP applications.

    The proxy_pass http://localhost:8080 can be replaced with whatever application or configuration should be receiving the Shibboleth attributes as headers. In my case, port 8080 is running Plone, a Python-based CMS, but you might anything (PHP, FastCGI, etc) here. Essentially, this is what would normally be the backend configured against AuthType shibboleth in Apache.

    server {
        listen 443 ssl;
        #FastCGI authorizer for Auth Request module
        location = /shibauthorizer {
            include fastcgi_params;
            fastcgi_pass unix:/opt/shibboleth/shibauthorizer.sock;
        #FastCGI responder for SSO
        location /Shibboleth.sso {
            include fastcgi_params;
            fastcgi_pass unix:/opt/shibboleth/shibresponder.sock;
        #Resources for the Shibboleth error pages. This can be customised.
        location /shibboleth-sp {
            alias /usr/share/shibboleth/;
        #A secured location.  Here all incoming requests query the
        #FastCGI authorizer.  Watch out for performance issues and spoofing.
        location /secure {
            more_clear_input_headers 'Variable-*' 'Shib-*' 'Remote-User' 'REMOTE_USER' 'Auth-Type' 'AUTH_TYPE';
            #Add your attributes here. They get introduced as headers
            #by the FastCGI authorizer so we must prevent spoofing.
            more_clear_input_headers 'displayName' 'mail' 'persistent-id';
            auth_request /shibauthorizer authorizer=on;
            proxy_pass http://localhost:8080;
        #A secured location, but only a specific sub-path causes Shibboleth
        location /secure2 {
            proxy_pass http://localhost:8080;
            location = /secure2/shibboleth {
                more_clear_input_headers 'Variable-*' 'Shib-*' 'Remote-User' 'REMOTE_USER' 'Auth-Type' 'AUTH_TYPE';
                #Add your attributes here. They get introduced as headers
                #by the FastCGI authorizer so we must prevent spoofing.
                more_clear_input_headers 'displayName' 'mail' 'persistent-id';
                auth_request /shibauthorizer authorizer=on;
                proxy_pass http://localhost:8080;

    An explanation about the above is provided in the comments. I should note that:

    • The first 3 locations are pure boilerplate for any host that requires Shibboleth authentication, so you can (and should!) put these into an include-able configuration file and reuse them.

    • The /shibboleth-sp location is purely there to help your default install. If you customise your error pages, feel free to change or delete this location.

    • Take note of the more_clear_input_headers calls. As the Shibboleth authorizer will inject headers into the request before passing the request onto the final upstream endpoint, you must use these directives to protect from spoofing. You should expand the second call to this directive when you have more incoming attributes from the Shibboleth authorizer. Or else beware…

    • The /secure location will ask the FastCGI authorizer for attributes for every request that comes in. This may or may not be what you want. Keep in mind this means that each request will have Shibboleth attributes dropped into the request for sending onto backend services, and this will happen every time. Did I mention for every request?

    • The /secure2 location only asks the FastCGI authorizer for auth on a (very) specific sub-path. Only upon the user hitting this specific URL will the authentication process be triggered. This is a smarter authentication technique to avoid extra overhead — set the upstream for the specific sub-path to be somewhere an application session is created, and have that application session capture the Shibboleth attributes.

      Notice how the rest of the application doesn’t refer to the authorizer. This means the application can be used anonymously, too. Alternatively, you can configure the requireSession option to be fa

    • Adding the auth_request line into a location isn’t all you need to do to get the FastCGI authorizer to recognise your path as Shibboleth protected. You need to follow the instructions below and take care.

  4. Save the configuration and follow the next section. You’re almost done.

Configuring Shibboleth to recognise secured paths

Typically, within Apache, you can tell Shibboleth which paths to secure by using something like:

<Location /secure>
    ShibRequestSetting authType shibboleth
    ShibRequestSetting requireSession false

However, the FastCGI authorizer for Shibboleth operates without such directives and thus path protection needs to be configured like it would be for IIS, using the <RequestMapper> configuration. The same options are accepted within this section of the shibboleth2.xml configuration file, it’s just that you need to know where to put them. So let’s do that.

  1. Configure your shibboleth2.xml file like so. Find the RequestMapper element and replace it with something like the following:

    <RequestMapper type="XML">
            <Host name=""
                <Path name="/secure" />
                <Path name="/secure2/shibboleth" />

    Some notes:

    • The Shibboleth FastCGI authorizer needs to see authType and requireSession configured for the resultant path. If they are not present, then the authorizer will ignore the path it is passed and the user will not be prompted for authentication (and you will tear your hair out because no logging takes place!).

    • <Path> names are case sensitive here. You have hereby been warned! — although this shouldn’t be too surprising to you hopefully.

    • You can use other configuration items like <HostRegex> and <PathRegex> and <AccessControl> to configure what happens to requests. Check out the documentation below - there’s lots to learn.

    • An interesting aspect here is that configuration is inherited downwards in the XML tree. So, you could configure something like the authType on a <Host> and have it apply to all paths beneath it.

      You don’t need to do this, though. You may put all the configuration attributes onto the <Path> element, or even move them up to higher levels in the tree if you want to reduce duplication.

    • Nested <Path> elements will see their path segments being greedy. So putting a path with name="shibboleth" within a path with name="secure" really translates to a path with name="secure/shibboleth". Whatever takes your fancy here.

  2. Once you’re done, then restart the Shibboleth daemon, ensure that you restart the Shibboleth FastCGI applications, and hard restart Nginx just to make sure it finds those sockets:

    service shibd restart
    supervisorctl restart shibauthorizer shibresponder
    service nginx restart

    Assuming, of course, that you’re using Supervisor to run your applications. You should. It’s easy to work with and fun.

  3. Try loading up your Shibboleth protected URL. If all goes well, then you should get a complete authentication cycle. If not, check carefully through everything above.

Take a look at and for more information.


In order to stop yourself from tearing your hair out (very important to me as I’m male), remember these things:

  • The Shibboleth authorizer requires a <Path> to be correctly configured with authType and requireSession for auth to take place. If you don’t (or you do and forget to restart shibd), then the authorizer will blindly return a 200 OK status response, which equates to blindly allowing access.
  • No logs will get issued anywhere by the way for anything related to the FastCGI applications (standard shibd logging does apply, however) so if you’re testing for why the redirect cycle doesn’t start, try killing your FastCGI authorizer and make sure you see a 502 error come back. If you still get a 200, then your auth_request configuration in Nginx is probably wrong and the authorizer isn’t being contacted.
  • When in doubt, hard restart the entire stack, and use something like curl to avoid browser caching.

Ahh, I feel calmer already.


Phew. That was an effort, wasn’t it. Please feel for me as I’ve had to type all this up. Feel free to help out with this documentation (my blog is open source) or else feel free to shout links about it far and wide.

If you’re skilled in the ways of Nginx, or else would (could) like to learn, I’d like to improve on the work I’ve done with the auth request module. If you’re keen on saying thank you, your help participating on this would be greatly appreciated.

So that’s it. Shibboleth and Nginx using the FastCGI Authorizer and Responder specifications. It works and can be done.

Look ma, no Apache!

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