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The DETER System Programming Interface


The DETER System Programming Interface (SPI) is a standard interface for manipulating fundamental DETER abstractions used to manage testbed resources and to marshall those resources into network and cybersecurity experiments. The SPI is analogous to an operating system's system call interface. It provides the fundamental abstractions that enable application programmers to make tools that are useful to researchers.

There are two motivations for building the SPI: first that the SPI is a context and programming framework for new DETER abstractions that subsumes the existing Emulab codebase cleanly. Second the SPI provides a context in which new developers can extend those abstractions to provide new functionality and to improve their scaling properties.

The SPI is fundamentally a tool-builder's interface. Researchers performing experiments or students performing class exercises are unlikely to access SPI methods directly, though we expect that higher level tools and interfaces will make the fundamental abstractions visible.

The Fundamental Abstractions

There are 6 first class abstractions that make up the DETER SPI. These are:

A researcher who builds and carries out experiments using resources controlled by the testbed.
Administrative groupings of users that embody the trust chains that underly researcher access. A researcher has access to the testbed as a whole because they are a member of an approved project. Trusted users can add other users to an approved project, reducing the administrative overhead.
Groupings of trusted users that embody the sharing of data and resources among researchers. Adding or removing users from circles gives them permission to access resources in use for experimentation or excludes them from such resources.
A description of a research activity. An experiment is composed of aspects, each of which embodies some facet of the activity. Currently the SPI recognizes 4 aspects:
  • Layout: the arrangement and specification of an experiment's elements that make up the experimental apparatus
  • Procedure: The steps taken to carry out an experiment
  • Data Management: The resources and processes used to collect and process data generated by the experiment
  • Constraints: Correctness requirements that must be met in a valid experiment.
Additional aspects can be specified by users and accessed by running experiments. We document a plug-in interface (below) that explains how new aspects can enter the system. Access to experiments and the resources attached to them is controlled by assigning rights to circles.
Collections of experiments grouped by function or semantics. Libraries allow researchers to organize their experiments and share them with other researchers (by assigning rights to circles).
A realization is the binding of resources to an experiment. Users can inspect and modify such bindings in carrying out their experiments.

We describe each of these in more detail below.

The Implementation

This section motivates and explains two of the implementation design decisions that underlie the SPI: expanding the implementation beyond the Emulab abstractions and implementation, and using SOAP and web services to deliver the service.

DETER Abstractions and the Existing Codebase

The DETER research agenda drives the new abstractions, and it differs somewhat from the abstractions that drive the Emulab-derived code base. DETER is interested in sharing experiment infrastructure - including conducting experiments where multiple parties manipulate the environment based on different views of the world and different goals (multi-party experiments). Also, DETER is interested in multi-fidelity, large-scale experiments where the representation of the various partes of the experiment is guided by the researcher's design of the experiment. Finally, we think of experiments as having aspects that go well beyond the definition of the topology or layout, and the abstractions need to support this.

The Emulab code is based on simpler topology and experimentation models, and while its developers have been able to extend it to do more, our changes take the abstractions far enough that relegating the Emulab code to allocating local resources seems the cleanest way forward. Functions including user and project management will move into the SPI, though subsets of that function (basically current Emulab functionality) will remain available through the legacy interface.

SPI system overview

As a last practical point Emulab-based codebase blurs the lines of some implementations between the webserver interface and the backend code. Building the SPI offers DETER a chance to solidify that interface and enable developer to build multiple applications on the DETER abstractions.

Delivering the SPI Through SOAP

The SPI is built on the SOAP web services platform as a compromise between accessibility, extensibility, and support from tools. An important goal of the SPI is to allow multiple applications to use the DETER testbed. A web front-end for teaching cybersecurity classes that coexists with a web front end for experimenting on Internet anonymity are such a pair of applications. That may even look like two different testbeds from the outside.

To support that, the SPI must be platform independent. A web browser is a powerful application platform that the SPI must support. The SOAP/WSDL standards are a proven technology for such access. SOAP may be somewhat stodgier than a JSON/REST interface, but the differences can be constrained to encodings, and many tools for generating SOAP interfaces provide migration paths to other web services platforms.

Presently we take advantage of the fairly rich SOAP toolspace and have been able to use SOAP for access from a range of platforms from web browsers to multiple standalone programming languages.

The rest of this document goes into more detail on how to use the SPI.

Understanding The SPI

This section describes the SPI abstractions and operations that application writers will use. We are concerned with how to put the concepts into use and how they interrelate with each other. Below we describe the detailed interface.


The SPI is broken up into services that implement the various abstractions. Each major abstraction presents its own service, and there are a few others for administration and information. Each service is a separate SOAP/WSDL service and has its own contact point. We break them up this way to keep the specification reasonably sized for both people and computers.

The services in the SPI are:

Version information and test interfaces. Client and server certificate distribution.
Low level testbed administration
Manipulation of Circles
Manipulation of Experiments
Manipulation of Libraries
Manipulation of Projects
Manipulation of Users


A profile is a collection of metadata attached to an abstraction instance, primarily to help users and administrators understand what the instance is bing used for. Users, projects, circles, experiments, and libraries all have profiles attached to them which describe those things. For example, a user profile includes the researcher's name and an e-mail address.

Profiles are self-describing, so that applications have guidance is what is being presented and how to display it. Each of the abstractions above has an operation called getProfileDescription in its associated service that returns an array of all the valid fields - called attributes - in that abstraction's profile. Each element of that array - each attribute - includes additional metadata that describes its purpose and presentation:

Metadata Meaning
Name Descriptive name for the attribute, e.g. e-mail. All attributes have a name.
Value The contents of the attribute. When retrieving a profile description, every attribute's value is empty
Description Brief natural language description of the attribute, suitable for context sensitive help
Access Whether a user can modify the data. Valid values are READ_ONLY, READ_WRITE, NO_ACCESS, and WRITE_ONLY
Optional True if the field can be omitted in a profile. All non-optional fields must be present when creating an instance. Applications may expect these fields to be present.
DataType How to interpret the data. Valid values are STRING, Int, FLOAT, and OPAQUE.
Format A regular expression describing valid field entries. Applications can use this to check user input locally. Applications are not required to do so, but values for this attribute that do not match the expression will be rejected.
FormatDescription A natural language description of valid input suitable for context sensitive help. The FormatDescription for a phone number field might be "10 digits, optionally separated by hyphens or parentheses."
LengthHint A hint at how much space an application should to reserve for input, in characters. Applications can obviously ignore this.
OrderingHint An integer that suggests to an application what order to display the field relative to others. Applications can ignore this

Each instance has an associated operation, getUserProfile (projects have getProjectProfile, experiments have getExperimentProfile) that returns the profile for that instance as an array of attributes, as above. This profile includes the values for all the (readable) attributes.

Each instance supports a changeUserAttribute operation that allows the application to change the instance's attribute values. changeUserAttribute is used to change a user's phone number. Optional attributes can be deleted through this interface.

An application will use the profile operations in the following ways:

  • When creating an instance that requires a profile, the application will request the profile description using getProfileDescription, fill in non-optional fields (probably based on user input) and include that profile data with the creation request. All abstractions that have profiles attached require a valid profile as a parameter to the operation that creates them.
  • When displaying an instance that supports a profile, the application may request the profiles for various instances using getUserProfile et al., and display all or some of the profile data.
  • Applications that manage abstractions with profiles may allow users to change the contents of the profile using changeUserAttribute, et al.

There is an administrative interface for changing the attributes in each abstraction's profile, but we expect the profile contents to remain relatively constant over time.

Currently the attributes that DETERLab includes in abstraction profiles are as follows:

For users:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
name Name false READ_WRITE STRING
title Title true READ_WRITE STRING
email E-mail false READ_ONLY STRING
affiliation Affiliation true READ_WRITE STRING
affiliation_abbrev Affiliation (abbreviated) true READ_WRITE STRING
address1 Address true READ_WRITE STRING
address2 Address Line 2 true READ_WRITE STRING
city City true READ_WRITE STRING
state State true READ_WRITE STRING
zip Postal Code true READ_WRITE STRING
country Country true READ_WRITE STRING
phone Phone false READ_WRITE STRING

All users are required to have a name, e-mail address, and a phone number present in their profile, but may only change the name and phone number. (The e-mail address is used to validate the accounts.)

The e-mail and phone number attributes have formats attached:

Name Format Format Description
email [^\s@]+@[^\s@]+ A valid e-mail address
phone [0-9-\s\.\(\)\+]+ Numbers, whitespace, parens, plus signs, and dots or dashes

Because we expect applications to edit user profiles, there is layout information as well:

Name Ordering Hint Length Hint
name 100 0
title 200 0
address1 500 0
address2 600 0
city 700 0
state 800 0
zip 900 0
country 1000 0
email 1100 0
URL 1200 0
phone 1300 15
affiliation 3000 0
affiliation_abbrev 4000 5

For Projects:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING
funders Funders true READ_WRITE STRING
affiliation Affiliation true READ_WRITE STRING

For Circles:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING
email Email true READ_WRITE STRING

For Experiments:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING

For Libraries:

Attribute Name Description Optional Access DataType
description Description false READ_WRITE STRING


A user represents a researcher using the testbed. Most operations in the SPI are carried out on behalf of a user. Users must authenticate themselves to the testbed in order to carry out such operations. Users own other instances, for example a user owns experiments or projects that they create. Ownership is both an auditing construct - the testbed can determine which researcher configured which objects - and through policy assigns some rights to carry out operations. The owner of an experiment has rights outside those specified by the circles the owner belongs to.

Each user has a unique identifier, a textual userid. Permissions, resources, objects, etcetera are all bound to that userid. A userid is a text string that uniquely identifies a user. A userid cannot contain the colon character (:) nor can it conflict with other userids or projectids.

A user creates a namespace for circles, experiments, and libraries. Instances of each of those abstractions are names as namespace:name. A user with userid u can create experiments with names of the form u:experiment. This allows each user to manage their own names without introducing ambiguity when another user creates an experiment with the same name. Applications are welcome to hide the prefix on such names, except when needed to resolve an ambiguity. In such a case, teh application may display only the parts of experiment names after the colon to user u unless that user also has access to another user's experiment with the same name after the colon. Such an application might display an experiment list to user u that looks like:

Experiment Name

Most experiments are unambiguous, but because u can see the experiment that user bob called mytest1 and the experiment that u called mytest1, the application presents the prefixes as well.


Authentication is the problem of binding a request to a userid.

In order for a user to carry out operations on the testbed, the user must log in to the testbed. When requests are made to the SPI they are made through a secure connection where client and server (that is user and testbed) are identified by an X.509 certificate issued by the testbed. The login process binds an X.509 certificate used to make a secure connection to a userid in the testbed used to determine rights. Users are authenticated through a password system.

The simplest way to log in through the SPI is to call the requestChallenge operation on the Users service. The caller specifies the sorts of challenges it can carry out and the server sends the input for such a challenge. Challenges can include hashing passwords and other mechanisms. Because the challenge and its response are passed through encrypted channels, we also support a clear challenge. In a clear challenge the caller submits a password in the clear. Each challenge is valid for a limited time - 2 minutes - and has a unique identifier so a response is bound to a specific challenge.

Once the caller gets a challenge, it calculates the response and replies to the challenge by calling challengeResponse on the Users service. If successful, the user is logged in and can begin carrying out operations.

The login process binds a user to an X.509 certificate, so the certificate and the challenge response need to work together. There are two ways to do this: if the user has no X.509 certificate from the testbed, the challengeResponse request can be made without a client certificate. In that case, the result of a successful challenge will include a signed certificate and a private key in PEM format that the user can use for future communications. The key is unencrypted, and it is the responsibility of the client to properly protect it.

If the user has an X.509 certificate - say from a previous successful challengeResponse exchange - the user can make the challenge response connection with that certificate, and the certificate/user binding will be complete and no new certificate created.

In either case, connections made with that X.509 client certificate will be treated as from the user until the user logs out using the logout operation on the Users service, logs in as another user as above, or the login times out in 24 hours.

Some web applications have trouble adding an X.509 certificate on the fly - especially those that run in browsers. To simplify the development of those applications, there is an operation in the ApiInfo service called getClientCertificate that returns a certificate issued by the testbed and an unencrypted private key, both in PEM format. This interface does not require a login and can be accessed through most web browsers, enabling a user to cut and paste the certificate into a local file for use with applications. The certificate is not logged in.

Additionally, a user can always get the server's certificate to check or add to a trusted servers file using getServerCertificate from the ApiInfo service.

Applications will have to carry out these challenges before doing anything else and can choose to log users out as well.

Profile Management

The Users service supports the operations described in the profiles description to allow applications to manipulate user profiles.


Many operations in the SPI require a user to agree with the operation before the operation becomes final. Users who wish to join a project or a circle request permission from the users who own or administer them. Administrators who wish to add users to their circles request confirmation from the users. Basically any operation that expands the rights of users requires the users in question to concur. In order to let users know when such changes are pending or desired, the SPI supports a system for managing short messages available through the Users service.

Notifications are these short messages. Notifications are sent by the system in response to actions requiring confirmation. This is not a general inter-user messaging system.

A notification consists of a the text of the message a unique identifier for the message, and a set of flags. The valid flags are:

Flag Name Meaning
Urgent The message is more important than most messages
Read The user has read this message

Each user has a queue of notifications they can access. The getNotifications operation on the Users service returns an array of notifications for an application to display. Notifications can be filtered by source and by flags. The flags can be set using the markNotifications operation that specifies notifications by unique ID.

Applications will use these operations to:

  • Present a user with a list of pending notifications when a user logs in, or at regular intervals.
  • Display urgent and other notifications differently.
  • Allow users to read and respond to notifications by calling avrious SPI operations to confirm pending actions
  • Search notifications for past actions
  • Mark notifications as read once viewed and acted upon

Note that users generally cannot send notifications to other users. Only administrators and testbed actions do this.

Password Management

The Users service provides operations for managing a user's password. A user who is logged in can change their password directly using the changePassword operation. The operation takes a user identifier and a password. Administrators can also use that interface to change other user's passwords.

If a user cannot log in - for example their password has expired or they have forgotten it - the application can use the requestPasswordReset interface to issue temporary credentials that can be used to set a user's password to a known value. When requestPasswordReset is called the credentials are e-mailed to the user's e-mail address. That address is part of their required profile. The application can then gather a password from the user and call the changePasswordChallenge operation with the new passowrd and the temporary credentials from the e-mail. To make it easier for browser based applications to incorporate this interaction into their operations, requestPasswordReset takes a URL prefix that it can embed in the challenge it sends to the user, allowing the user to click on that URL in the mail to transfer the temporary credentials back to the application.

As an example of using the URL prefix, if a user forgets their password, the application can call requestPasswordChange with a URL prefix of The user will get an e-mail including the link that they can click on. That link will take the user back into the web-based application to a page that collects the new password. The app has the temporary credentials from the URL.

Creating New Users

To create a new account/user instance, an application calls the createUser operation from the Users service. The application must provide a valid profile, can provide a preferred user ID, and an application URL prefix.

The profile must have all non-optional fields present, and any fields having required formats correctly formatted. The application can get the profile requirements from the profile service. Note that all READ_ONLY fields are specified at this time - creation is when they are written.

The application can request a user ID if the user requests one. If that ID is already taken, the testbed will pick a similar one. If no ID is specified, a base user ID is generated from the required e-mail address and if that is taken, a similar one is generated.

The request can also include a URL prefix that works the same way as the URL prefix in the password reset interface. The user is created without a valid password, and the same sort of temporary credentials are issued and mailed to the user. A browser-based application can use the URL prefix to redirect the user back to the application to set their initial password.

Once the user is created through this interface, that user has very few rights because it is not a member of an approved project. It can reset its password and either create a project or attempt to join an existing one.

Administrative Operations

There are a few more operations that are restricted to administrators.

There are profile operations to add, remove and change attributes to the user profile schema.

There is an operation sendNotification to send a system notification to users.

There is an operation, createUserNoConfirm to create a new user instance with a valid password, without going through an e-mail confirmation to set a password.

These are documented below.


A Project is an administrative grouping of users that helps to scale testbed administration by allowing trusted users to add others to the testbed. Intuitively, a project collects users who are working on a particular research project. A user proposes such a project to the testbed administration. If the administration approves that project, the proposing user is granted the power to add other users to the project. Until a user is a member of an approved project, they have minimal rights on the testbed.

To make the distinction above explicit, projects can be in 2 states: approved and unapproved. All projects are initially unapproved. Members of unapproved projects gain no additional rights on the testbed. Once an administrator approves the project, the members gain broader rights. Approval is an explicit operation undertaken only in accordance with the testbed's real-world policies.

As users have userids, projects have projectids. A projectid is a text string that uniquely identifies a project. It cannot contain a colon, nor can it conflict with either another projectid or userid.

An approved project creates its own namespace for circles, experiments, and libraries in much the same way creating a user does. Users can be explicitly given the right to create circles, experiments, and libraries in the project's namespace. The SPI places no meaning on an instance created with a user name prefix rather than a project name prefix, but applications may.

A project also is linked to a circle named after the project. A project named myproject will have a linked circle myproject:myproject. The system keeps the membership of that circle and the project synchronized. By assigning rights to that circle, users can assign rights to all project members.

The operations on projects are controlled by the Projects [wikiSPIDocs#Services service].

When a researcher joins the testbed by creating a user instance, one of the few operations the testbed will allow them to carry out is to propose a project. The intended workflow is that a researcher comes to the testbed, joins it by creating a user instance and then gains rights by proposing a project that is approved. Then that user (and other users to which it delegates rights) can administer access under that project.

Project Permissions

Any member of a project may have one or more of the following permissions that define the operations that user can carry ont on the project itself. The permissions are:

Permission Name Meaning
ADD_USER Request that a user be added to the project or confirm a request by a user to join the project
CREATE_CIRCLE Create a new circle in the project's namespace (a name prepended by projectid:)
CREATE_EXPERIMENT Create a new experiment in the project's namespace (a name prepended by projectid:)
CREATE_LIBRARY Create a new library in the project's namespace (a name prepended by projectid:)
REMOVE_USER Remove a user from the project. Any objects they have created in the project's namespace remain

Creating A Project

A user creates a project using the createProject operation on the Projects service. Mechanically, the procedure to create a project is very similar to creating a user. An application will:

  • User the getProfileDescription operation on the Projects service to get an empty project profile
  • Gather data from the user to fill in the project description, including non-optional fields and proper formatting
  • Call the createProject with a project name from the user and that user as the project's owner. (Administrators can create projects owned by other users).

When createProject completes successfully, the project exists but is unapproved. An administrator can approve it by calling approveProject in the Projects service once the testbed's real-world criteria are met. An administrator may also call removeProject in the Projects service to remove an unapproved project. (removeProject also will remove approved projects, potentially removing many users' rights to operate on the testbed.)

Adding Users To A Project

Users can become members of a project by requesting to join or or by being invited to join. Because joining a project adds a user to the project's circle, that changes the rights of a user, so either of these routes must be endorsed by both the user and someone with relevant permissions in the project. The difference is only the order in which the endorsements are gathered.

When a user finds a project the would like to join, usually through some out of band mechanism, they call the joinProject operation on the `Projects service. This registers the user's intention to join and sends a notification to members of the project who have the right to add users to the group. This notification includes a challenge that is similar in format to the requestPasswordChange challenge. As with that operation, an application can include a URL prefix that will be prepended to the challenge in the notification.

One of the users receiving the notification can then call joinProjectConfirm with the challenge and a list of permissions that the user will be assigned. When that operation completes, the user is a member of the project with the associated rights. The user calling joinProjectConfirm must have the ADD_USER right and similarly cannot confer more rights than they have.

When a user with the ADD_USER permission wants to invite another user to join the project, the inviting user calls the addUsers operation with the projectid, a list of users, proposed permissions, and an a URL prefix that serves the same purpose as the prefix on joinProject. When the operation succeeds, each invited user receives a notification containing a challenge (and descriptive text about the project). If the invited user does wish to join, they call the addUserConfirm operation with the challenge. When that operation succeeds, they are a member of the project.

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