Turning the login procedure for IBM Connections on its head

In the latter part of last year I was involved in installing IBM Connections at a customer site for initially 20.000 users and then, if all went well, for the full 70.000 users. The challenges in evangelizing the solution and getting people to use it is for another blog post but the project is interesting from other perspectives as well.

Firstly they wanted to change the layout of IBM Connections and add their own colors etc. which wasn’t a biggie. Next they wanted to change certain core words within IBM Connections. In Danish the word for “Communities” is “Fællesskaber” but they wanted it to be “Grupper”. Changing that throughout IBM Connections was a hazzle and we have to migrate these changes by hand when we upgrade to version 3 but it was possible which is the good story here. The last one was the biggest requirement and the the requirement it took the most work to satisfy. They wanted to turn the entire login process for IBM Connections on its head.

So what do I mean by that?

By default IBM Connections works by you importing all valid users into the Profiles database using TDI or a handcrafted tool and then hooking Websphere Application Server up to LDAP. They didn’t want that and the users actually didn’t exist in a LDAP directory but instead in another (Domino based) member database.

They had a number of requirements:

  1. IBM Connections should work with their existing single-sign-on (SSO) solution which supported a number of different login methods incl. two-factor and digital certificates.
  2. Before being granted access to IBM Connections the user should accept an End User License Agreement (EULA) and if not the user should be denied access to IBM Connections.
  3. Users wasn’t allowed to be available in IBM Connections before opting in to using it by accepting the EULA i.e. they didn’t want users in the Profiles database before they had accepted the EULA.

The access procedure they wanted may be illustrated as below.

(click the image to a larger version)

So what does an IBM Business Partner do? Say “Sorry that isn’t possible” and “That’s really not the way that IBM Connections work”? Well of course not because it was and is possible due to IBM Connections being built on top of Websphere Application Server which is an open and highly extensible platform.

The key piece to the puzzle is a piece of technology called a Trust Association Interceptor – or TAI for short – and is a way to change the way Websphere handles authentication and how Websphere normally integrates with reverse proxies such as WebSEAL.

A TAI is a Java class written to a specification (interface) from IBM and very easy to write. The functionality may of course be complex but the way you integrate with Websphere Application server isn’t. Once the TAI was written and installed into Websphere Application Server the customer now has an access procedure like this:

  1. User tries to access IBM Connections.
  2. If the user isn’t logged in using the 3rd party SSO solution the user is sent to the login screen (1 in the diagram above).
  3. If the user is logged in (and tokens are still valid) an EULA check is performed to verify that the latest EULA has been agreed to.
  4. If not the user is sent to the EULA system (2 in the diagram above) to accept the EULA instructing the EULA system to return the user to IBM Connections afterwards.
  5. If the user did accept the latest EULA we check to see if the user is available in IBM Connections.
  6. If the user isn’t in Profiles yet the user is sent to the Populator system (3 in the diagram above) that handles collecting using information and populating Profiles. Once completed the user is returned to Websphere Application Server.
  7. If the user is in Profiles already the user is granted access to IBM Connections (bottom on the diagram).

It sounds complex but it’s done in less than 500 lines of code incl. comments and documentation. That isn’t too bad is it? What’s really cool is that it allows for some very exciting ways to integrated IBM Connections into existing environments.

I’ll post more about TAI’s over the next few days about how you write them and more about the technical underpinnings. Stay tuned.