Mar 9, 2018

CORS and Preflight Requests

#programming #frontend

As a frontend developer, it's pretty common to deal with Cross Origin Resource Sharing, or CORS. In the past, I have pretty thoughtlessly used * configuration on my backend servers to allow all Javascript clients the ability to make all types of requests to my backend APIs. That means that I've never taken more than a cursory look at how it all works.

Last week, I learned that I had been making some assumptions that were not true (and were not immediately clear to me from reading the MDN documentation).

What I Learned

I learned that it is possible for a server to respond to a preflight OPTIONS request with all the appropriate headers that whitelist the real request, but then respond to the real request with a different set of headers, and thoroughly confuse everyone.

The big reveal is that an OPTIONS request isn't coupled to the real CORS request at all. It is the browser that maintains the connection between them.

This seems obvious in retrospect, because a stateless server will not have any way to connect an OPTIONS request to the followup real request, so it has no obligation to respond to a CORS request in a way that matches its response to the preflight request.

My Understanding Before I Learned This

Previously, I thought that the entire purpose of an OPTIONS request was to enable a CORS request. I assumed that if an OPTIONS request came back with the appropriate headers, the CORS request would be whitelisted and all would be well.

But consider this scenario:

  1. Javascript triggers a CORS GET request

  2. The browser sends a preflight request to the server

  3. The server responds with 200 OK and the following headers:

    HTTP/1.1 200 0K
    Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *
    Access-Control-Allow-Methods: GET
    Access-Control-Allow-Headers: *
    Access-Control-Expose-Headers: *
  4. The browser sends the GET request

  5. The server responds with a 200 and the following headers:

    HTTP/1.1 200 OK
    Access-Control-Allow-Methods: GET
    Access-Control-Allow-Headers: *
    Access-Control-Expose-Headers: *

Notice that the Access-Control-Allow-Origin header is missing from the GET request.

This means that although the preflight request told the browser that the CORS GET was okay to send, the server "changed it's mind" about it on the real GET request. This is uncommon and most likely a server bug, but it is possible.

Until now, I thought that the CORS related response headers on the GET request didn't matter! I assumed that if the OPTIONS request permitted the GET, then all was ok.

I was wrong. If the server doesn't whitelist the origin for a request, Javascript cannot read the response to the request.

Understanding More

To understand this more, I read the MDN documentation on CORS (which is really good), and learned that not all CORS requests require a preflight request. These are called "simple" requests.

A good followup question from this nugget information would have been: if the OPTIONS request is responsible for notifying the browser about CORS rules maintained by the server, how do simple requests get those rules?

This makes it easier to debunk my working understanding of CORS. The rules of CORS are PER request, and the OPTIONS request is simply a way for browsers to abort requests prematurely.

More reading

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