Overriding externally set headers and HTTP status codes in ASP.NET Core

I was working on an interesting issue in an ASP.NET Core recently. An external framework was responsible for creating an HTTP Response, and I was only in control of a little component that customized some internal behaviours (via a relevant extensibility point), without being able to influence the final response sent over HTTP.

This is common if you think about extending things like CMS systems or specialized services like for example Identity Server. In those situations, more often than not, the framework would be highly opinionated in what it is trying to do at the HTTP boundaries and as a result, trying to override the HTTP status codes or headers it produces may not be easy.

Let’s have a look at a simple generic workaround.

TL;DR

In ASP.NET Core you can hook a callback to the HTTP response object, which allows you to run arbitrary code just before the response starts getting sent or as soon as it has been sent. This allows you to override status code, headers or even change the response body even if your code is not responsible for flushing the response

The problem

To illustrate the problem better, let’s have a look at a concrete example – and I think Identity Server is a good choice here.

Identity Server allows you to register your own validators for various authentication grant types – for example client credentials grant, resource owner or even your own custom extension grant.

An implementation of such custom validator could like this:

In other words, we validate the user, and allow the token to be issued if the username and password are correct. If not, we will produce a token request error; in addition to that we also produce a different error if the user credentials are correct but the country is not supported.

This is all nice and fine. We have no touchpoints to the HTTP response here, as Identity Server (or any other framework/service that we might be using) would take care of that for us. We only produce the result that we are mandated to produce by the contract – a GrantValidationResult in this case.

It works well in most situations. However, let’s imagine that we’d like to influence the HTTP status codes being returned from this validation code. At the moment the status codes are hidden from us, and it is the responsibility of Identity Server to produce them.

In our case, the Identity Server would actually be returning 2 different ones:

  • GrantValidationResult(user.Id, “password”, user.Claims, “idsrv”) would obviously produce a 200 and result in a token being sent to the user
  • GrantValidationResult(TokenRequestErrors.InvalidRequest, “{ERROR DESCRIPTION}”) would produce a 400 and convey the error description to the caller in the error_description JSON property of the response (as defined by the spec).

Now let’s imagine the situation, that for the code path of user.IsCountrySupported(), we’d like to use HTTP status code 451 instead. This is allowed by the spec, which states “the authorization server responds with an HTTP 400 (Bad Request) status code (unless specified otherwise)”. However, such status code customization is currently not supported by Identity Server.

Let’s have a look at addressing this via a neat ASP.NET Core feature. Before we get there – in case you don’t agree with this spec interpretation – remember that this is merely an example to illustrate that ASP.NET Core feature.

Wrong way to deal with it

There are several ideas of dealing with this, that come to mind straight away.

One naive approach would be to try to throw an exception, let it bubble up as far as possible and then handle it in a way that you can convert the response to the relevant HTTP status code (perhaps with a global handler registered in your Startup class). This, however, wouldn’t work with Identity Server, as it handles all exceptions in the pipeline on its own, without letting it bubble up. In fact, this would typically be the case with most frameworks or services of that sort, not to mention using exceptions for flow control is iffy at best.

Another approach could be to try to write a middleware component, that runs at the end of HTTP pipeline (so wraps the Identity Server middleware) and use it to change the status code. This seems like a great idea at first, but unfortunately it wouldn’t work.

The reason for that is that ASP.NET Core would flush the headers of the response as soon as the first body write happens, and Identity Server, in its pipeline, would start writing to the body already. This means that even though you can technically (there would be no exception thrown for that) change the status code on the response, or inject some headers into it using a custom middleware that runs at the end of the pipeline, that would have no effect on the response anymore, as it is simply too late. You can actually normally see that on the response object by inspecting the response.HasStarted property – at that moment status code and headers modifications are not possible anymore.

One other idea could be to hijack the response writing completely. Since you can inject IHttpContextAccessor to any class, anywhere in the ASP.NET Core application, you can fairly easily get a hold of the HttpResponse. This allows you to simply write to the HTTP response directly. Such approach could possibly work but it is not very elegant to say the least. It would require you to correctly produce the entire set of headers (also the more esoteric ones like Cache-Control and so on) and the status code correctly and flush it before Identity Server can do that, allowing it to only complete the response by writing the body. This is very error prone and very unmaintainable.

Simple solution

A simple and elegant solution is to leverage a little known feature of ASP.NET Core – the ability to register your own callback on the HttpResponse, that would run as soon as the response is started to be sent (or as soon as its completed).

The following hooks exist on the HttpResponse:

This means we can simply register a delegate that would change the HTTP Status Code, modify the headers and possibly even meddle with the response body, from any point in the ASP.NET Core application. Then, as soon as the response starts being sent (irrespective to the fact which component or part of the pipeline triggered that), our code would run, allowing us to influence the structure of that response.

It is extremely convenient, as we are able to create de facto extensibility points for 3rd party applications, frameworks or services (like Identity Server), in places where they normally don’t exist.

In our case, the final code looks like this:

I hope you will find this technique useful – I used Identity Server as an example, because it actually solves a real world problem here – but I think you could apply this approach in various places where you’d like to have a certain response-based extensibility point and it’s simply not available.