Authentication methods

Zulip supports a wide variety of authentication methods. Some of them require configuration to set up.

To configure or disable authentication methods on your Zulip server, edit the AUTHENTICATION_BACKENDS setting in /etc/zulip/settings.py, as well as any additional configuration your chosen authentication methods require; then restart the Zulip server.

Details on each method below.

Email and password

The EmailAuthBackend method is the one method enabled by default, and it requires no additional configuration.

Users set a password with the Zulip server, and log in with their email and password.

When first setting up your Zulip server, this method must be used for creating the initial realm and user. You can disable it after that.

Plug-and-play SSO (Google, GitHub, LDAP)

With just a few lines of configuration, your Zulip server can authenticate users with any of several single-sign-on (SSO) authentication providers:

  • Google accounts, with GoogleMobileOauth2Backend
  • GitHub accounts, with GitHubAuthBackend
  • Your LDAP server, with ZulipLDAPAuthBackend

Each of these requires one to a handful of lines of configuration in settings.py, as well as a secret in zulip-secrets.conf. Details are documented in your settings.py.

Apache-based SSO with REMOTE_USER

If you have any existing SSO solution where a preferred way to deploy it (a) runs inside Apache, and (b) sets the REMOTE_USER environment variable, then the ZulipRemoteUserBackend method provides you with a straightforward way to deploy that SSO solution with Zulip.

Setup instructions for Apache-based SSO

  1. In /etc/zulip/settings.py, configure two settings:

    • AUTHENTICATION_BACKENDS: 'zproject.backends.ZulipRemoteUserBackend', and no other entries.
    • SSO_APPEND_DOMAIN: see documentation in settings.py.

    Make sure that you’ve restarted the Zulip server since making this configuration change.

  2. Edit /etc/zulip/zulip.conf and change the puppet_classes line to read:

    puppet_classes = zulip::voyager, zulip::apache_sso
    
  3. As root, run /home/zulip/deployments/current/scripts/zulip-puppet-apply to install our SSO integration.

  4. To configure our SSO integration, edit a copy of /etc/apache2/sites-available/zulip-sso.example, saving the result as /etc/apache2/sites-available/zulip-sso.conf. The example sets up HTTP basic auth, with an htpasswd file; you’ll want to replace that with configuration for your SSO solution to authenticate the user and set REMOTE_USER.

    For testing, you may want to move ahead with the rest of the setup using the htpasswd example configuration and demonstrate that working end-to-end, before returning later to configure your SSO solution. You can do that with the following steps:

    /home/zulip/deployments/current/scripts/restart-server
    cd /etc/apache2/sites-available/
    cp zulip-sso.example zulip-sso.conf
    htpasswd -c /home/zulip/zpasswd username@example.com # prompts for a password
    
  5. Run a2ensite zulip-sso to enable the SSO integration within Apache.

  6. Run service apache2 reload to use your new configuration. If Apache isn’t already running, you may need to run service apache2 start instead.

Now you should be able to visit your Zulip server in a browser (e.g., at https://zulip.example.com/) and log in via the SSO solution.

Troubleshooting Apache-based SSO

Most issues with this setup tend to be subtle issues with the hostname/DNS side of the configuration. Suggestions for how to improve this SSO setup documentation are very welcome!

  • For example, common issues have to do with /etc/hosts not mapping settings.EXTERNAL_HOST to the Apache listening on 127.0.0.1/localhost.
  • While debugging, it can often help to temporarily change the Apache config in /etc/apache2/sites-available/zulip-sso to listen on all interfaces rather than just 127.0.0.1.
  • While debugging, it can also be helpful to change proxy_pass in /etc/nginx/zulip-include/app.d/external-sso.conf to point to a more explicit URL, possibly not over HTTPS.
  • The following log files can be helpful when debugging this setup:
    • /var/log/zulip/{errors.log,server.log} (the usual places)
    • /var/log/nginx/access.log (nginx access logs)
    • /var/log/apache2/zulip_auth_access.log (from the zulip-sso.conf Apache config file; you may want to change LogLevel in that file to “debug” to make this more verbose)

Life of an Apache-based SSO login attempt

Here’s a summary of how the Apache REMOTE_USER SSO system works, assuming you’re using the example configuration with HTTP basic auth. This summary should help with understanding what’s going on as you try to debug.

  • Since you’ve configured /etc/zulip/settings.py to only define the zproject.backends.ZulipRemoteUserBackend, zproject/settings.py configures /accounts/login/sso as HOME_NOT_LOGGED_IN. This makes https://zulip.example.com/ (a.k.a. the homepage for the main Zulip Django app running behind nginx) redirect to /accounts/login/sso for a user that isn’t logged in.
  • nginx proxies requests to /accounts/login/sso/ to an Apache instance listening on localhost:8888, via the config in /etc/nginx/zulip-include/app.d/external-sso.conf (using the upstream localhost_sso, defined in /etc/nginx/zulip-include/upstreams).
  • The Apache zulip-sso site which you’ve enabled listens on localhost:8888 and (in the example config) presents the htpasswd dialogue. (In a real configuration, it takes the user through whatever more complex interaction your SSO solution performs.) The user provides correct login information, and the request reaches a second Zulip Django app instance, running behind Apache, with REMOTE_USER set. That request is served by zerver.views.remote_user_sso, which just checks the REMOTE_USER variable and either logs the user in or, if they don’t have an account already, registers them. The login sets a cookie.
  • After succeeding, that redirects the user back to / on port 443. This request is sent by nginx to the main Zulip Django app, which sees the cookie, treats them as logged in, and proceeds to serve them the main app page normally.

Adding more authentication backends

Adding an integration with another authentication provider (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is easy to do if you’re willing to write a bit of code, and pull requests to add new backends are welcome.

To write such an integration, look in zproject/backends.py at the implementation of GitHubAuthBackend, which is a small wrapper around the popular python-social-auth library. You can write a similar class, and add a few settings to control it. To test your backend (which we’d require for a pull request to the main Zulip codebase,) see the framework in test_auth_backends.py.

Development only

The DevAuthBackend method is used only in development, to allow passwordless login as any user in a development environment. It’s mentioned on this page only for completeness.