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Network Model

At some point, you're going to need to understand how your Subversion client communicates with its server. Subversion's networking layer is abstracted, meaning that Subversion clients exhibit the same general behaviors no matter what sort of server they are operating against. Whether speaking the HTTP protocol (http://) with the Apache HTTP Server or speaking the custom Subversion protocol (svn://) with svnserve, the basic network model is the same. In this section, we'll explain the basics of that network model, including how Subversion manages authentication and authorization matters.

Requests and Responses

The Subversion client spends most of its time managing working copies. When it needs information from a remote repository, however, it makes a network request, and the server responds with an appropriate answer. The details of the network protocol are hidden from the user—the client attempts to access a URL, and depending on the URL scheme, a particular protocol is used to contact the server (see the section called “Addressing the Repository”).

[Tip] Tip

Run svn --version to see which URL schemes and protocols the client knows how to use.

When the server process receives a client request, it often demands that the client identify itself. It issues an authentication challenge to the client, and the client responds by providing credentials back to the server. Once authentication is complete, the server responds with the original information that the client asked for. Notice that this system is different from systems such as CVS, where the client preemptively offers credentials (logs in) to the server before ever making a request. In Subversion, the server pulls credentials by challenging the client at the appropriate moment, rather than the client pushing them. This makes certain operations more elegant. For example, if a server is configured to allow anyone in the world to read a repository, the server will never issue an authentication challenge when a client attempts to svn checkout.

If the particular network requests issued by the client result in a new revision being created in the repository (e.g., svn commit), Subversion uses the authenticated username associated with those requests as the author of the revision. That is, the authenticated user's name is stored as the value of the svn:author property on the new revision (see the section called “Subversion's Reserved Properties”). If the client was not authenticated (i.e., if the server never issued an authentication challenge), the revision's svn:author property is empty.

Client Credentials

Many Subversion servers are configured to require authentication. Sometimes anonymous read operations are allowed, while write operations must be authenticated. In other cases, reads and writes alike require authentication. Subversion's different server options understand different authentication protocols, but from the user's point of view, authentication typically boils down to usernames and passwords. Subversion clients offer several different ways to retrieve and store a user's authentication credentials, from interactive prompting for usernames and passwords to encrypted and non-encrypted on-disk data caches.

The security-conscious reader will suspect immediately that there is reason for concern here. Caching passwords on disk? That's terrible! You should never do that! Don't worry—it's not as bad as it sounds. The following sections discuss the various types of credential caches that Subversion uses, when it uses them, and how to disable that functionality in whole or in part.

Caching credentials

Subversion offers a remedy for the annoyance caused when users are forced to type their usernames and passwords over and over again. By default, whenever the command-line client successfully responds to a server's authentication challenge, credentials are cached on disk and keyed on a combination of the server's hostname, port, and authentication realm. This cache will then be automatically consulted in the future, avoiding the need for the user to re-type his or her authentication credentials. If seemingly suitable credentials are not present in the cache, or if the cached credentials ultimately fail to authenticate, the client will, by default, fall back to prompting the user for the necessary information.

The Subversion developers recognize that on-disk caches of authentication credentials can be a security risk. To offset this, Subversion works with available mechanisms provided by the operating system and environment to try to minimize the risk of leaking this information.

  • On Windows, the Subversion client stores passwords in the %APPDATA%/Subversion/auth/ directory. On Windows 2000 and later, the standard Windows cryptography services are used to encrypt the password on disk. Because the encryption key is managed by Windows and is tied to the user's own login credentials, only the user can decrypt the cached password. (Note that if the user's Windows account password is reset by an administrator, all of the cached passwords become undecipherable. The Subversion client will behave as though they don't exist, prompting for passwords when required.)

  • Similarly, on Mac OS X, the Subversion client stores all repository passwords in the login keyring (managed by the Keychain service), which is protected by the user's account password. User preference settings can impose additional policies, such as requiring that the user's account password be entered each time the Subversion password is used.

  • For other Unix-like operating systems, no single standard keychain service exists. However, the Subversion client knows how to store passwords securely using the GNOME Keyring, KDE Wallet, and GnuPG Agent services. Also, before storing unencrypted passwords in the ~/.subversion/auth/ caching area, the Subversion client will ask the user for permission to do so. Note that the auth/ caching area is still permission-protected so that only the user (owner) can read data from it, not the world at large. The operating system's own file permissions protect the passwords from other non-administrative users on the same system, provided they have no direct physical access to the storage media of the home directory, or backups thereof.

Of course, for the truly paranoid, none of these mechanisms meets the test of perfection. So for those folks willing to sacrifice convenience for the ultimate in security, Subversion provides various ways of disabling its credentials caching system altogether.

Disabling password caching

When you perform a Subversion operation that requires you to authenticate, by default Subversion tries to cache your authentication credentials on disk in encrypted form. On some systems, Subversion may be unable to encrypt your authentication data. In those situations, Subversion will ask whether you want to cache your credentials to disk in plaintext:

$ svn checkout
ATTENTION!  Your password for authentication realm:

   <> Subversion Repository

can only be stored to disk unencrypted!  You are advised to configure
your system so that Subversion can store passwords encrypted, if
possible.  See the documentation for details.

You can avoid future appearances of this warning by setting the value
of the 'store-plaintext-passwords' option to either 'yes' or 'no' in
Store password unencrypted (yes/no)? 

If you want the convenience of not having to continually reenter your password for future operations, you can answer yes to this prompt. If you're concerned about caching your Subversion passwords in plaintext and do not want to be asked about it again and again, you can disable caching of plaintext passwords either permanently, or on a server-by-server basis.

[Warning] Warning

When considering how to use Subversion's password caching system, you'll want to consult any governing policies that are in place for your client computer—many companies have strict rules about the ways that their employees' authentication credentials should be stored.

To permanently disable caching of passwords in plaintext, add the line store-plaintext-passwords = no to the [global] section in the servers configuration file on the local machine. To disable plaintext password caching for a particular server, use the same setting in the appropriate group section in the servers configuration file. (See the section called “Runtime Configuration Options” in Chapter 7, Customizing Your Subversion Experience for details.)

To disable password caching entirely for any single Subversion command-line operation, pass the --no-auth-cache option to that command line. To permanently disable caching entirely, add the line store-passwords = no to your local machine's Subversion configuration file.

Removing cached credentials

Sometimes users will want to remove specific credentials from the disk cache. To do this, you need to navigate into the auth/ area and manually delete the appropriate cache file. Credentials are cached in individual files; if you look inside each file, you will see keys and values. The svn:realmstring key describes the particular server realm that the file is associated with:

$ ls ~/.subversion/auth/svn.simple/

$ cat ~/.subversion/auth/svn.simple/5671adf2865e267db74f09ba6f872c28

K 8
V 3
K 8
V 4
K 15
V 45
<> Joe's repository

Once you have located the proper cache file, just delete it.

Command-line authentication

All Subversion command-line operations accept the --username and --password options, which allow you to specify your username and password, respectively, so that Subversion isn't forced to prompt you for that information. This is especially handy if you need to invoke Subversion from a script and cannot rely on Subversion being able to locate valid cached credentials for you. These options are also helpful when Subversion has already cached authentication credentials for you, but you know they aren't the ones you want it to use. Perhaps several system users share a login to the system, but each have distinct Subversion identities. You can omit the --password option from this pair if you wish Subversion to use only the provided username, but still prompt you for that username's password.

Authentication wrap-up

One last word about svn's authentication behavior, specifically regarding the --username and --password options. Many client subcommands accept these options, but it is important to understand that using these options does not automatically send credentials to the server. As discussed earlier, the server pulls credentials from the client when it deems necessary; the client cannot push them at will. If a username and/or password are passed as options, they will be presented to the server only if the server requests them. These options are typically used to authenticate as a different user than Subversion would have chosen by default (such as your system login name) or when trying to avoid interactive prompting (such as when calling svn from a script).

[Note] Note

A common mistake is to misconfigure a server so that it never issues an authentication challenge. When users pass --username and --password options to the client, they're surprised to see that they're never used; that is, new revisions still appear to have been committed anonymously!

Here is a final summary that describes how a Subversion client behaves when it receives an authentication challenge.

  1. First, the client checks whether the user specified any credentials as command-line options (--username and/or --password). If so, the client will try to use those credentials to authenticate against the server.

  2. If no command-line credentials were provided, or the provided ones were invalid, the client looks up the server's hostname, port, and realm in the runtime configuration's auth/ area, to see whether appropriate credentials are cached there. If so, it attempts to use those credentials to authenticate.

  3. Finally, if the previous mechanisms failed to successfully authenticate the user against the server, the client resorts to interactively prompting the user for valid credentials (unless instructed not to do so via the --non-interactive option or its client-specific equivalents).

If the client successfully authenticates by any of these methods, it will attempt to cache the credentials on disk (unless the user has disabled this behavior, as mentioned earlier).