SAS, it’s just another token

Note: Please bear with me, I authored this post in Markdown. 🙂

I’ve been trying to finish this post since September of 2014. But I kept getting distracted away from it. Well this lovely (its 5 degrees Fahrenheit here in Minnesota) Saturday morning, it IS my distraction. I’ve been focused the last few weeks on my new love, the Simple Cloud Manager Project, as well as some internal stuff I can’t talk about just yet. Digging into things like Ember, Jekyll, Broccoli, GitHub Pages, git workflows, etc… has been great. But it’s made me keenly aware of how much development has leapfrogged my skills as a Visual Studio/.NET centric cloud architect. With all that learning, I needed to take a moment and get back to something I was a little more comfortable with. Namely, Azure services and specifically Service Bus and Shared Access Signatures (SAS).

I continue to see emails, forum posts, etc… regarding to SAS vs ACS for various scenarios. First off, I’d like to state that both approaches have their merit. But something we all need to come to terms with is that at their heart, both approaches are based around a security token. So as the name of this blog article points out, SAS is just a token.

What is in a SAS token?

For the Azure Service Bus, the token is simply a string that looks like the following


Within this string, you see a set of URL encoded parameters. Let’s break them down a bit…

SharedAccessSignature – used to identify the type of Authorization token being provided. ACS starts with “WRAP”

sr – this is the resource string we’re sharing access to. In the example above, the signature is for anything at or under the path ““

sig – this is a generated, HMAC-SHA256 hash of the resource string and expiry that was created using a private access key.

se – the expiry date/time for the signature expressed in the number of seconds since epoch (00:00:00 UTC on January 1st, 1970)

skn – the policy/authorization rule who’s key is was used to generate the signature and who’s permissions determine what can be done

The token, or signature, is created by using the resource path (the url that we want to access) and an expiry date/time. A HMAC-SHA256 hash using the key of a specify authorization policy/access rule is then generated off of those parameters. In its own way, using the policy name and its key is not that different then using an identity and password. And like an ACS token, we have an expiry value that helps ensure the token we receive can only be used for a given period of time.

Generating our own Token

So the next logical question is how to generate our own token. If we opt to use .NET and have the ability to leverage the Azure Service Bus SDK, we can pull together a simple console application to do this for us.

Start by creating a Console application, and adding some prompts for a parameter to it so that the main method looks like this…

static void Main(string[] args)
Console.WriteLine("What is your service bus namespace?");
string sbNamespace= Console.ReadLine();

Console.WriteLine("What is the path?");
string sbPath = Console.ReadLine();

Console.WriteLine("What existing policy would you like to use to generate your signature?");
string sbPolicy = Console.ReadLine();

Console.WriteLine("What is the policy's secret key?");
string sbKey = Console.ReadLine();

Console.WriteLine("When should this expire (MM/DD/YY HH, GMT)?");
string sbExpiry = Console.ReadLine();

Console.WriteLine("Press any key to exit...");

The first parameter we’re going to capture and save is the namespace we’re wanting to access without the “” part. Next, is the path to the Service Bus Entities we want provide access to. This can be a specific entity such as a queue name or as I mentioned last time, a partial path to grant access to multiple resources. Then we need to provide a named policy (which you can set up via the portal), and one of its secret keys. Finally, you will specify when this signature will need to expire.

Next, we need to transform the expiration time that was entered as a string into a Timespan (how long does the SAS need to ‘stay alive’. We’ll insert this right after we read the expiration value…

// convert the string into a timespan...
DateTime tmpDT;
bool gotDate = DateTime.TryParseExact(sbExpiry, "M/dd/yy HH", enUS, DateTimeStyles.None, out tmpDT);
if (!gotDate)
Console.WriteLine("'{0}' is not in an acceptable format.", sbExpiry);

Now we have all the variables we need to create a signature, so it’s time to generate it. For that, we’ll use a couple classes contained in the .NET Azure Service Bus SDK. We’ll start by adding it to our project using the instructions available on MSDN (so I don’t have to retype them all here).
With the proper references added to the project, we add a simple using clause at the top..

using Microsoft.ServiceBus;

Then add the code that will create the SAS token for us right after the code that created out TimeSpan.

var serviceUri = ServiceBusEnvironment.CreateServiceUri("https", sbNamespace, sbPath).ToString().Trim('/');
string generatedSaS = SharedAccessSignatureTokenProvider.GetSharedAccessSignature(sbPolicy, sbKey, serviceUri, expiry);

And there we have it. A usable SAS token that will automatically expire after a given period of time, or that we can revoke immediately by removing the policy on which its based.

But what about doing this without the SDK?

Lets start by looking at what the Service Bus SDK is doing for us. Fortunately, Sreeram Garlapati has already written some code to generate a signature.

static string CreateSasToken(string uri, string keyName, string key)
// Set token lifetime to 20 minutes. When supplying a device with a token, you might want to use a longer expiration time.
DateTime origin = new DateTime(1970, 1, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0);
TimeSpan diff = DateTime.Now.ToUniversalTime() - origin;
uint tokenExpirationTime = Convert.ToUInt32(diff.TotalSeconds) + 20 * 60;

string stringToSign = HttpUtility.UrlEncode(uri) + "n" + tokenExpirationTime;
HMACSHA256 hmac = new HMACSHA256(Encoding.UTF8.GetBytes(key));

string signature = Convert.ToBase64String(hmac.ComputeHash(Encoding.UTF8.GetBytes(stringToSign)));
string token = String.Format(CultureInfo.InvariantCulture, "SharedAccessSignature sr={0}&sig={1}&se={2}&skn={3}",
HttpUtility.UrlEncode(uri), HttpUtility.UrlEncode(signature), tokenExpirationTime, keyName);
return token;

This example follows the steps available at this SAS Authentication with Service Bus article. Namely:
– use the time offset from UTC time January 1st, 1970 in seconds to set when the SAS should expire
– create the string to be signed using the URI and the expiry time
– sign that string via HMACSHA256 and the key for the policy we’re basing our signature on
– base64 encode the signature
– create the fully signed URL with the appropriate parameters

With the steps clearly laid out, its just a matter of converting this into the language of your choice. Be it javascript, objective c, php, ruby… it doesn’t really matter as long as you can perform these same steps.

In the future, its my sincere hope that we’ll actually see something in the Azure Service Bus portal that will make this even easier. Perhaps even a callable API that could be leveraged.

But what about “Connection Strings”

This is something I’ve had debates about. If you look at most of the Service Bus examples out there, they all use a connection string. I’m not sure why this is except that it seems simpler because you don’t have to generate the SAS. The reality is that the connection string you get from the portal works much like a SAS, except that is lacks an expiry. The only way to revoke a connection string is by revoking the policy on which its based. This seems fine, until you realize you only get a handful of policies per entity to creating hundreds of policies to be used by customers is a tricky proposition.

So what are you to do when you want to use a SAS, but all the examples use a connection string? Lets start by looking at a connection string example. First with the connection string.


This string has several parameters:

sb – the protocol to be used. In this case its ‘sb’ which is Service Bus shorthand for “use AMQP”.

namespace – the URL we’re trying to access

SharedAccessRuleName – the policy we’re using

SharedAccessKey – the policy’s secret key

The common approach is to put this string into a configuration setting and with the .NET SDK, load it as follows…

EventHubClient client = EventHubClient.Create(ConfigurationManager.AppSettings["eventHubName"]);


string connectionString = CloudConfigurationManager.GetSetting("Microsoft.ServiceBus.ConnectionString");
var namespaceManager = NamespaceManager.CreateFromConnectionString(connectionString);

These are common examples you’ll see using the connection string. But what if you want to use the SAS instead… For that, we go up a level to the Service Bus MessagingFactory. Both of the examples above abstract away this factory. But we can still reach back and use it.

We start by creating the URI we want to access, and a SAS token object:

Uri runtimeUri = ServiceBusEnvironment.CreateServiceUri("sb", , string.Empty);
TokenProvider runtimeToken = TokenProvider.CreateSharedAccessSignatureTokenProvider());

Alternatively, we can create the token provider using a policy and its secrete key. But here we want to use a SAS token.

Now its just a matter of using the message factory to create a client object…

QueueClient sendClient = mf.CreateQueueClient(qPath);

Simple as that. A couple quick line changes and we’ve gone from a dependency on connection strings (ick!), to using SAS tokens.

So back to SAS vs ACS

So even with all this in mind, there’s one argument that gets brought up. The SAS tokens expire.

Yes, they do. But so do ACS and nearly all other claims based tokens. The only real difference is that most of the “common” security mechanisms support a way of renewing the tokens. Be this asking the user to log in again, or some underlying bits which store the identity/key and use them to request new tokens when the old is about to expire. The reality is that this same pattern needs to be implemented when you’re doing a SAS token.

Given what I’ve shown you above, you can now stand up your own simple token service that accepts a couple parameters (identity/key), authenticates them, selects the appropriate policy and URL for the provided identity, and then creates and returns the appropriate SAS.

The client then implements the same types of patterns we can already see for things like mobile notification services. Namely to store tokens locally until they’re about to expire. When they are approaching their expiry, reach back out using our credentials and ask for an updated token. Finally, use the token we been provided to perform the required operations.

All that’s really left up to you is to determine the expiry for the token. You can have one set value for all tokens. You may also opt to have tokens for more sensitive operations expire faster. You have that flexibility.

So until next time, enjoy SAS’s. Just please…. don’t be afraid of them.


4 Responses to SAS, it’s just another token

  1. ppatierno says:

    Hi Brent !
    Very good article … just to be clear for other readers …

    On the following line :

    uint tokenExpirationTime = Convert.ToUInt32(diff.TotalSeconds) + 20 * 60;

    You are assuming a token who has 20 minutes as duration (20 * 60 seconds) starting from token request.

    Last thing ,,, here

    string stringToSign = HttpUtility.UrlEncode(uri) + “n” + tokenExpirationTime;

    we have to use “\n” instead of “n”.

    Paolo Patierno

  2. Imad Daou says:

    How long we can set the expiry of a SAS token? I know ACS maximum of 24 hours but can we have SAS Tokens for much longer periods.

    • Brent says:

      I’m not aware of a exact limit. I have used SAS tokens that were more than 24hrs out, with the longest I’ve personal used being several weeks out.

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