HMAC: How I securely deploy to this site from Travis CI

- 9 mins


This website has dynamic content like my link shortener and static content like this blog post. I have Travis CI set up to build my website’s static content whenever a new commit is made to the github repository. My website has a very simple method of updating itself: HTTP POST-ing a zip file to a magic URL will unzip that file over the static file directory. This post is how I try to secure that mechanism while preserving the simplicity of a “deploy via cURL” model.

The problem

This website’s source is hosted on github although the site itself is hosted on OpenShift. If you look at the site’s source code you’ll see that it’s just a pretty simple Python web application using the flask web framework for Python.

Another thing you might notice is that none of the content is in that repository. That’s because having a full dynamic website for my simple little corner of the web is overkill. Instead I use jekyll to generate a static website from a pile of Markdown files and HTML templates. All of this magic is hosted in a separate repository.

Why separate the repos like this? Well there is some non-trivial downtime associated with pushing a new version of an OpenShift webapp. Previously I had a lot of pre-build and build hook magic which would install jekyll, install bower, build the static site, etc which was inappropriate for what is, essentially, a very simple Python webapp.

By separating out the static content from the dynamic content I can configure the webapp to simply serve any URL is doesn’t know about from the static directory. All very nice, clean and modular but how do I update the static files on my website when I make a change?

I tend to subscribe to the “Unix laziness” philosophy which holds that spending some time automating a solution will make things a lot easier in the long run. The repo holding the static site content is monitored by a corresponding Travis-CI job. Travis CI is very good at installing the various Node.js, Ruby and JavaScript dependencies to build the site and so we should make use of its strengths.

So my problem is: I have a webapp serving static content from a directory on the filesystem and I have Travis with a freshly built pile of HTML, CSS, etc. How do I get the new content over to the webapp in a secure way? “Secure” here means that anyone with read access to the webapp repository, static content repository and Travis CI configuration file shouldn’t be able to scribble all over my website(!)

Simple is better

I wanted a very simple way to deploy a new bundle of static content. Initially I thought github releases would be the way forward. My plan was to make Travis create a new release associated with the static content repo on each successfully built commit to master. Unfortunately github is geared up to make releases only when there’s an associated tag. Having to tag each and every commit seemed ugly and, as usual when things seem ugly, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about the problem. A build of the static content isn’t really a “release” in the github sense; once it’s deployed I don’t need to keep it around forever more.

After a bit more thought, I decided to make the deployment process a kind of “fat webhook”. When Travis built the static content, it would zip it up and then HTTP POST that file to some URL. (In this case, The Python webapp would take the payload and unzip it into the static files area. Handily Python has a zipfile module which can handle zipped up data directly.

So far, so simple. We only need to write two functions. The first is a utility function to take a destination directory, ensure it exists and to unzip the contents of a file object to the directory:

def update_static(destdir, fileobj):'Extracting new static site...')
    z = zipfile.ZipFile(fileobj, 'r')
    if not os.path.exists(destdir):

The second is a flask handler for the URL:

@app.route('/static-content', methods=['POST'])
def update_static_content():
    update_static(STATIC_SITE_DIR, request.files['archive'].stream)
    return 'OK'

All Travis now needed to do was to zip up the new static site content into a file called, for example, and POST it to my website using something like cURL:

$ curl -i -F ""

This works beautifully but it is massively insecure: anyone can modify my site’s content. To overwrite or create a file on my site an attacker need only POST a zipfile to a URL which is plainly listed in the Tavis configuration file.

Shhh… It’s a (shared) secret

HMAC or “hash-based message authentication code” is a standard technique to compute a token given a message and a secret value. Anyone in possession of the same secret value can then verify that the message is authentic. (Or, at least, was generated by someone who also knew the secret.)

In principle it’s quite simple: the deploy script on Travis combines the zip file and secret together and takes a hash. It then sends the zip file and computed hash to the webapp. The webapp computes its own version of the hash from the given zip file and its own copy of the shared secret. If the hashes match then I know the person who sent me the zip file knows the shared secret.

HMAC itself is a little more subtle than this but fortunately there is a implementation in the Python standard library. We’re free to choose our own hash algorithm and so, as a good default, I chose SHA256.

The complete Python code to compute a HMAC from an open file object is very small:

import hashlib
import hmac
# ...
digest =,, hashlib.sha256)
token = digest.hexdigest() # hex-digit string containing HMAC

On the Travis side, this is wrapped up into a small script. On the webapp side we need only create a check function and modify our request handler to use it:

def check_hmac(fileobj, secret, provided_digest):
    # Compute expected digest
    digest =,, hashlib.sha256)

    # Does this digest match? Use compare_digest() because it it constant time.
    # (Timing attacks are subtle. Crypto is hard :(.)
    return hmac.compare_digest(provided_digest, digest.hexdigest()):

@app.route('/static-content', methods=['POST'])
def update_static_content():
    # Get a file object pointing to the archive sent with the request
    archive = request.files['archive'].stream

    # Check the HMAC which was provided matches the shared secret
    hmac_ok = check_hmac(archive, SHARED_SECRET, request.values['hmac'])
    if not hmac_ok:
        return abort(403)

    # Unzip the static files
    update_static(STATIC_SITE_DIR, archive)
    return jsonify({ 'status': 200, 'message': 'OK' })

We’re nearly there. All that’s needed now is a way to get the shared secret to Travis and the OpenShift webapp in a secure manner.

Sharing the secret

Both OpenShift and Travis have the ability to securely store “secret” information. Travis allows you to store encrypted environment variables and OpenShift recently added secure environment variable support.

It’s straightforward to arrange for both Travis and OpenShift to have the same shared secret exposed via the STATIC_SITE_SECRET variable using a little bit of bash:

$ SECRET=`dd if=/dev/urandom count=1024 | sha1sum`
$ cd $OPENSHIFT_APP   # cd to checkout of OpenShift app repo
$ cd $STATIC_SITE     # cd to checkout of static site repo
$ travis encrypt --add STATIC_SITE_SECRET=$SECRET

Note that this can be automated via a cron job and so the shared secret need not stay constant. The Python webapp can now just use os.environ['STATIC_SITE_SECRET'] for the shared secret.


Above, I outlined the method I use for pushing new static site content to my website without requiring a time-consuming re-deployment. The astute among you will notice two potential problems which will need to be considered at a later date:

For my tiny website neither of these problems are major at the moment although I may re-visit the solution at a later date.

Also, crypto is hard. Even though this HMAC based system is about a simple as it can get, there may still be ways for a sufficiently motivated attacker to push content to my website. I’m defending against the trivial “LOL his website accepts any zip thrown at it”-style attacker, not someone willing to put real effort into defacing my website :). That being said, if you do find some obvious way to subvert this method, I’d be interested to hear it. I’m always willing to learn more about crypto because if anyone claims they know it all, they’re lying or mad.

Rich Wareham

Rich Wareham

You know, programming is fun!

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