Microsoft KB Archive/158229

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Article ID: 158229

Article Last Modified on 11/21/2006


  • Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0
  • Microsoft Internet Information Services 5.0

This article was previously published under Q158229

We strongly recommend that all users upgrade to Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS) version 6.0 running on Microsoft Windows Server 2003. IIS 6.0 significantly increases Web infrastructure security. For more information about IIS security-related topics, visit the following Microsoft Web site:


When you write applications for Internet Information Server (IIS), you should be aware of the ramifications that security can play when your application is launched by Internet Information Server. When configuring IIS, many users make quick assumptions that will not resolve security issues in all circumstances. This article describes the details regarding security and IIS.


IIS provides three authentication schemes to control access to IIS resources: Anonymous, Basic, and Windows NT Challenge/Response. Each of these authentication schemes has a different impact on the security context of an application launched by IIS. This includes ISAPI extension agents, CGI applications, IDC scripts, and future scripting capabilities.

Anonymous Authentication

Setting Anonymous Authentication in IIS Manager means that IIS will not use any HTTP authentication mechanism to control access to resources on the machine. By default, when IIS is installed, it creates a user account called IUSR_<servername>, where <servername> is the name of the server on which IIS is running. This user account is added to the "Guests" group on the machine, which implies that its access to resources is limited. When an HTTP request is received by IIS with Anonymous authentication being used, IIS will impersonate the IUSR_<servername> account in order to execute any code or access any files that are involved in the request. This allows a level of security by limiting the accessibility to such things as system files by an unauthenticated user. IIS is able to impersonate the IUSR_<servername> account because the username and password credentials for this account are known by IIS.

You can change the account that is used for anonymous authentication in Internet Service Manager. You can also change the security privileges for the IUSR_<servername> account in Windows NT User Manager. Be aware that any changes will result in changes to every anonymous HTTP request that is serviced by IIS. Also note that if the anonymous account configured in Internet Manager does not have the "Log On Locally" right (not a right given to "Guest" accounts by default on domain controllers), then IIS will not be able to service any anonymous requests. The IIS installation specifically gives you the "Log On Locally" right to the IUSR_<servername> account.

Most resources, such as the IUSR_<servername> account, that allow Guests to access them, do so by allowing access to the special group "Everyone." You can set permissions on files and other resources specifically to allow or disallow the IUSR_<servername> account to access them, but most people end up managing access by controlling access to the groups "Everyone" or "Guests."

NOTE: Because you can configure IIS to use an anonymous account that is different than the IUSR_<servername> account set up by default, wherever this article refers to the IUSR_<servername> account, you should think of it as a placeholder for the account name configured as the Anonymous Logon account in Internet Manager.

Basic Authentication

Basic authentication is a scheme that causes the client to be prompted for a Username and Password that are then Base64-encoded and passed to IIS. IIS receives the username and password credentials and verifies them against the Windows NT-user database on the machine or the applicable domain controllers in any trusted Windows NT domains. If the credentials are valid, IIS will impersonate the specified user when allowing access to resources by IIS or any applications that the request is launching. Thus, the application that is being executed, whether it is an ISAPI extension a DLL, a CGI application, or a scripting mechanism, will be executed with the permissions of the corresponding user account passed by the Basic authentication.

Because Basic authentication provides the username and password credentials to IIS, access to items that require credential knowledge can successfully be performed when using Basic authentication. For example, if an ISAPI application mapped a drive letter across a network, then it would require knowledge of the current user's credentials. Because IIS is given the username and password credentials as part of Basic authentication, this task will succeed if the account specified has access to the network resource.

Windows NT Challenge/Response Authentication

Windows NT Challenge/Response authentication (often called NTLM authentication) is the most secure form of authenticating a user because the username and password are not sent across the wire. Rather, the Windows Security Provider interface is used to provide an encrypted challenge/response handshake mechanism that is functionally unbreakable. The Windows security provider interface allows IIS to validate and impersonate the user. Unlike Basic authentication, NTLM authentication does not prompt users for their user name and password by default. The current Windows user account on the client machine is used for the NTLM authentication. Then, if this fails, it will prompt the user for the username and password to be used. If NTLM authentication succeeds, the requested application or resource is executed in the context of the specified user.

Because of the one way encryption is used, NTLM authentication validates the user for IIS without providing knowledge of the user's password to IIS. Therefore, a full set of username and password credentials is not available to IIS for doing such tasks as mapping a network drive. If an ISAPI application calls WNetAddConnection2 without specifying a username and password, it will fail under NTLM authentication.

Multiple Authentication Schemes Selected

You can select any combination of Anonymous, Basic, and NTLM authentication in Internet Manager. If Anonymous authentication is checked, the request will try to be handled without any actual authentication and IIS will execute the request in the context of the IUSR_<servername> account. If, for some reason, the IUSR_<servername> account does not have access to the resource, IIS will send back an access-denied error to the client indicating that the client needs to use one of the other authentication schemes. This scenario could occur if you limited access to the actual ISAPI DLL file to a specific user, such as User1. IIS would receive the initial anonymous request and attempt to launch the ISAPI DLL under the IUSR_<servername> user context, only to get an access-denied error from the NTFS file system. IIS would respond to the client with a message saying that access was denied and the client needs to submit the request using either the Basic or NTLM authentication schemes (depending on which one is enabled, possibly even both). The client can then resubmit the request with the Basic authentication credentials or with the initial NTLM challenge/response sequence. If either of these responses provides validation of the User1 account, then IIS will impersonate the User1 account and successfully launch the ISAPI DLL.

It is worth noting that if both NTLM and Basic authentication schemes are checked, IIS responds to requests indicating that both schemes are acceptable. It is up to the client to determine which authentication schemes it supports and to respond appropriately. For browsers, such as Internet Explorer, which support both Basic and NTLM Authentication, they will respond using the first supported authentication scheme indicated by IIS. On IIS 1.0, when both Basic and NTLM authentication schemes were checked, Basic authentication was listed first. On IIS 2.0, NTLM is now listed before Basic. The result is that for a server running IIS 1.0 using both, Internet Explorer will use Basic authentication. For an IIS 2.0 server using both, Internet Explorer will use NTLM authentication.

Many IIS applications access resources provided by other software components. For instance, an ISAPI extension DLL may call an OLE automation server from a third-party software company, or a CGI application may launch an applet built with Microsoft Visual Basic. These components may have persistent information stored in the registry that they require in order to execute properly. For standard desktop use of these components, the registry information is read from the profile of the user currently logged on the Windows NT machine. These applications often have problems when launched by IIS because the profile made available to an IIS application is that of the "default user." The default-user profile is filled with information generic to all users, but, unfortunately, is specific to no users. Therefore, a component may run as expected when User1 executes it interactively on his or her desktop because it is reading information from User1's profile in the registry. The same application may not run at all from IIS because it will not have access to User1's profile. This is true even if IIS is impersonating User1's account using Basic or NTLM authentication.

Desktop Issues

Windows NT uses the concept of having multiple desktops on the same machine. A desktop can be thought of as the screen that you view when you are logged on an NT machine. Your desktop receives all the mouse and keyboard messages that you create as the user in front of the machine, and it allows for applications to interact with one another to a certain extent. For instance, one application on a desktop can post messages to other applications on the desktop. NT supporting multiple desktops implies that there are other desktops running; you just can't see them and you have no way of sending keyboard or mouse messages to them. This may seem like a futile concept, but, in fact, many applications that run as Windows NT Services require the capabilities that a desktop provides yet don't want to interact with the interactive user's desktop. Therefore, each service gets its own desktop that won't be interfered with by the currently logged-on user.

The implications of this to IIS applications are that the IIS service has its own desktop. If your IIS application interacts with a desktop in any way (for instance, if it displays a message box), then it will display that message box on a desktop that cannot be seen on the computer's monitor. Similarly, an IIS application will not be able to send or post messages to an application on the interactive desktop. If your IIS application needs to interact with the interactive desktop, then you should use another form of inter-process communication such as named pipes.


ISAPI Filter DLLs, not to be confused with ISAPI Extension DLLs, run in the original context of the IIS service. All services run by default under the Local System account of the machine on which they are installed. The Local System account has access to almost all resources on the local machine not specifically denied to it, and no resources on any other machines on the network.

COM and OLE Permissions

Launching an OLE or COM object on an NT 4.0 machine requires certain permissions. This is normally not an issue for most interactive users because the default permissions for launching and accessing OLE and COM objects on an NT machine allow access to anyone logged on the local machine interactively. An IIS application, whether it is running in the context of the IUSR_<servername> account or an impersonated user account from Basic or NTLM authentication, is *NOT* interactively logged on. Therefore, the default permissions for launching and accessing OLE and COM objects will not allow an ISAPI extension DLL, CGI application, or Internet script to launch these objects successfully by default.

The utility DCOMCNFG on Windows NT 4.0 allows you to set the default permissions for *ALL* COM and OLE objects on your machine. You can use this utility to provide OLE and COM access to the IUSR_<servername> account as well as all user accounts that might be impersonated by your IIS configuration. You can even grant permissions to the "Everyone" group.

However, providing global access to all OLE and COM objects may not be in your best interest, so DCOMCNFG will also allow you to specify permissions for specific applications so you could provide access to only the applications you will need to access from your IIS application. OLE and COM applications also have the ability to determine what permissions are associated with launching and accessing themselves. To do this from inside your OLE or COM server, see the CoInitializeSecurity function new to Windows NT 4.0, as well as CoCreateInstanceEx (in particular, the COSERVERINFO and COAUTHINFO structures) for manipulating OLE access from the client side.

For more information on launching OLE servers from ISAPI applications, see the REFERENCES section of the article.

Distributed COM (DCOM), also referred to as Remote Automation, requires all of the OLE/COM permissions discussed above. In addition, it needs to access resources across the network. If a request is received using Anonymous authentication, the IUSR_<servername> account username and password credentials will be used to connect to the remote DCOM server. Unless your IIS server machine is also a domain controller, the remote machine by default will not know who the IUSR_<servername> account is (it only exists on the local IIS server machine). Adding access and launch permissions to the group "Everyone" does not help in this case because DCOM will not map access by an unknown account to the guest account in the same way that the Lanman Server service does for file sharing. The DCOM server machine must explicitly know the account that is being used.

To deal with a scenario where you have IIS applications accessing resources (including DCOM resources) on remote machines, you need to have all the machines involved participate in a domain relationship. Then, in Internet Manager, you can change your anonymous account to an account in the local or trusted domain. Now, all machines in the domain structure will recognize the account and can explicitly add/delete access to their network resources for that account or any groups that account is a member of.

Be aware that if Basic authentication is used for an IIS request, access to network resources (including DCOM servers) will be done in the context of the user whose credentials were passed with the request. If the user specified does not have permissions to launch or access the DCOM server, the request will fail.

If the IIS request is validated using NTLM authentication, the impersonation level does not imply knowledge of the username and password credentials. Therefore, access to network resources, regardless of the permissions on the resource, will be denied (with the exception of NULL Session resources).


For additional information, click the article number below to view the article in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:

156223 How To Launch OLE Servers from ISAPI Extensions

Keywords: kbinfo kbnetwork kbsecurity kb3rdparty KB158229