Securing a Django Site in Production

Edit (2020): This is pretty outdated. Instead, probably the best resource is the Django deployment checklist.

I was setting up a Django site for somebody recently and got asked the question, “is it possible for someone to hack my site?”. The answer, of course, is yes. To some degree, this is unavoidable. If somebody is willing to expend the time, effort and money, it is almost impossible to have a complex site that is perfectly secure. Even security “experts” can get it wrong. However, this got me thinking about the steps to secure a Django site.

Django does a good job of being reasonably secure by default. Unlike some other frameworks where you have to explicitly use CSRF tokens, Django uses them unless you tell it not to. Django escapes data from your templates automatically and is generally safe from SQL injection. The framework contains the building blocks to build a secure site, but quite often the site is deployed on a shaky foundation.

Securing the admin

For maximum security, the Django admin site should probably always be deployed on a web server running HTTPS. There’s a good guide on setting up SSL for the admin. Redirecting requests for /admin to HTTPS is one way. Another way is setup the admin on a subdomain like and handle them like that. This is what it looks like in Nginx:

Using this, you can proxy to two different Django instances: one handles the site over HTTP and one handles just the admin over HTTPS. Depending on your exact setup, you probably also want to mark the cookie as secure.

While the admin always needs security, some sites could also benefit from security outside of the admin if they’re handling user details, email addresses or other things. As an application developer, you need to build in that security — Django doesn’t know what you need to protect. Just remember the next time you login to your Django admin screen on a wifi hotspot at Starbucks that anybody can run something like Firesheep or Wireshark and capture your credentials. It’s amazing how many notable sites get this wrong. It reminds me of the wall of sheep.

Securing the server

It is amazing how many people put out a server with an inadequate firewall. Either they leave their database port wide open, memcached port open (this is REALLY bad — see here) or in some other way greatly increase the possible attack surface. While I generally knew what Amazon Web Services (AWS) could do as far as hosting, I had never used them before recently and I was impressed by their security. AWS makes configuring the firewall super easy and by default, only port 22 is open and SSH only accepts keys not passwords. That’s fairly secure by default! It gives a simple web GUI to open select ports and only to select machines. For example, if you host your database on a different server than your web server, only the web server should be able to connect to the database, not the whole internet. Also, Amazon S3 can serve its files over HTTPS as well. It’s a rather handy feature. I expect Rackspace is fairly similar in most regards.

Django security update

There were a couple fixes and changes in Django 1.2.5, but the main change was to CSRF exceptions to AJAX requests. The decision to remove the exception — despite backwards incompatibility — was the right move considering that the assumption that XmlHttpRequests could only come from the browser is no longer true (was it ever?). However, this release makes me wonder how many site authors didn’t bother to change much and just put @csrf_exempt above their web services just to get their site working again quickly with the new version.

Note: I secured the wordpress admin using the guide here and the WordPress HTTPS plugin. It’s a self-signed cert so I’m only getting maybe 75% of the security pixie dust, but I can deal with that.

Edit (September 14, 2011): Take a look through the Django security docs which your humble blogger helped write.

Using Django for Intranet Applications

One thing I end up doing quite a bit of at work is developing custom web applications that sit on the company intranet. These aren’t your basic timecard application or company web portal. Instead, these customized applications do everything from reports and dashboards from our bug tracking software to providing a web service API to our test case management solution. This post is about chronicling some of our forays into intranet apps.

Every intranet app needs authentication

If your company is anything like mine, you have a huge Active Directory system and your webservers are protected by single-sign-on (SSO). Django plugs into that nicely with the RemoteUserMiddleware so that users don’t have to remember Yet Another Password for your app. My password to our off the shelf commercial bug tracking software is still “welcome” and my password to our “Agile” project and task tracker is “test”. I’m already on the corporate intranet. Why should I have to authenticate twice? With Django and RemoteUserMiddleware, your users are automatically logged in if they’re authenticated. It seems relatively trivial, but it greatly enhances the user experience to not have to remember the password to the /admin site.

Who needs /admin

It seems that virtually every application has some sort of need for admin functionality. We used to deploy phpMyAdmin on most of our web hosts to administer our content. It was dove hunting with a bazooka. There was little fine grained control and we ran into the same issue of re-authenticating to access the admin site. Now an admin site is not unique to Django and it exists in virtually every major web framework in every major language. This point can be taken as an overwhelming endorsement of using some framework over using no framework at all. However, Django’s admin site is easy and very customizable in case you need to pretty up your admin site because it will be accessed by a wider audience.

Intranet apps have a way of becoming internet apps

You never know management decides some piece of software that was never intended to be used externally suddenly is a must have for some outside group and it needs to be internationalized (into Japanese?!). Suddenly, all the code has to go through open source compliance, export compliance, code scans, and due to licensing restrictions management doesn’t want to ship with MySQL. Unfortunately, that software was written in Java and PHP with no framework and quite a few open source libraries that we couldn’t ship. The transition was much more painful than if we would have just used Django from the start.

Merging and splitting apps

I’ve released and deployed a number of web applications, but the real nightmare comes when apps are merged together or one app is broken apart. This is where Python’s packaging and the Django concept of splitting your project into multiple individual apps really shines. I’ve run into this from a couple of different sides. I’ve had to take multiple PHP applications and merge them together into a single deployment. There was a huge mess with including common code and the solutions aren’t great. You’re either messing with include_dir in php.ini — a huge nightmare when managing multiple deployments with different includes, or you’re stuck modifying every include statement to pickup libraries from a common location. Splitting apps up runs into similar issues. Packaging separable components into different apps used by your project really is the way to go and Django works with this very well.

I’ve developed web apps in Java, Perl and PHP and by far I’ve been happiest with Python and Django. There are other great frameworks out there for these languages and using them could definitely help alleviate some of these issues, but the Django solution fits together better than anything I’ve seen from Struts, CodeIgniter or one of the dozens of other frameworks out there. For me, there has to be a pretty compelling argument not to do new apps with Django.