Some Thoughts on FBA (part 1)

It’s funny how topics tend to come in clumps. Take the current example: forms-based authentication (FBA) in Exchange.

An FBA Overview

FBA was introduced in Exchange Server 2003 as a new authentication method for Outlook Web Access. It requires OWA to be published using SSL – which was not yet common practice at that point in time – and in turn allowed credentials to be sent a single time using plain-text form fields. It’s taken a while for people to get used to, but FBA has definitely become an accepted practice for Exchange deployments, and it’s a popular way to publish OWA for Exchange 2003, Exchange 2007, and the forthcoming Exchange 2010.

In fact, FBA is so successful, that the ISA Server group got into the mix by including FBA pre-authentication for ISA Server. With this model, instead of configuring Exchange for FBA you instead configure your ISA server to present the FBA screen. Once the user logs in, ISA takes the credentials and submits them to the Exchange 2003 front-end server or Exchange 2007 (or 2010) Client Access Server using the appropriately configured authentication method (Windows Integrated or Basic). In Exchange 2007 and 2010, this allows each separate virtual directory (OWA, Exchange ActiveSync, RPC proxy, Exchange Web Services, Autodiscover, Unified Messaging, and the new Exchange 2010 Exchange Control Panel) to have its own authentication settings, while ISA server transparently mediates them for remote users. Plus, ISA pre-authenticates those connections – only connections with valid credentials ever get passed on to your squishy Exchange servers – as shown in Figure 1:

Publishing Exchange using FBA on ISA

Figure 1: Publishing Exchange using FBA on ISA

Now that you know more about how FBA, Exchange, and ISA can interact, let me show you one mondo cool thing today. In a later post, we’ll have an architectural discussion for your future Exchange 2010 deployments.

The Cool Thing: Kay Sellenrode’s FBA Editor

On Exchange servers, it is possible to modify both the OWA themes and the FBA page (although you should check about the supportability of doing so). Likewise, it is also possible to modify the FBA page on ISA Server 2006. This is a nice feature as it helps companies integrate the OWA experience into the overall look and feel of the rest of their Web presence. Making these changes on Exchange servers is a somewhat well-documented process. Doing them on ISA is a bit more arcane.

Fellow Exchange 2007 MCM Kay Sellenrode has produced a free tool to simplify the process of modifying the ISA 2006 FBA – named, aptly enough, the FBA Editor. You can find the tool, as well as a YouTube video demo of how to use it, from his blog. While I’ve not had the opportunity to modify the ISA FBA form myself, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about doing so – and Kay’s tool is a very cool, useful community contribution.

In the next day or two (edit: or more), we’ll move on to part 2 of our FBA discussion – deciding when and where you might want to use ISA’s FBA instead of Exchange’s.

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Devin

Husband and father; technology consultant, speaker, author, and blogger; Microsoft Exchange architect and MVP; writer, reader, Xbox player, karate student, and music lover. Seeker of balance, reveler in life, learning how to look for the uplifting.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on FBA (part 1)”

  1. Devin, thanks for this post I was searching around because first time I’ve had to implement ISA with Exchange 2007. This was helpful! I’ll be writing up a post on something else I found interesting about it.

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