Edit me on GitHub

Chapter 1. Understanding macaroons

Macaroons are a certain type of bearer token that was developed by Google’s Research group. A bearer token is something a client presents to a server, typically when making a request (the client says “I want to delete this file, and this bearer token says I’m allowed to do that”). Unlike X.509 and Kerberos authentication, there is no “back and forth” communication between the client and the server: the client simply presents the bearer. Perhaps the most common example of a bearer token are web browser cookies. These are sent by the web browser (the client) to the web server when making requests.

Macaroon’s main goal is to support sharing. It should be easy for someone to obtain a macaroon and give it to someone else. For example, Alice (who has a valid dCache account) can request a macaroon that allows Bob to read a file in dCache even though Bob is unknown to that dCache instance. The shared file could be private (only Alice can read it), but Alice can still safely share it with Bob without granting anyone else access.

This concept of delegating authorisation supports quite a broad range of use-cases. Person-to-person sharing is only one example. Some other use-cases are discussed below, but this chapter cannot be exhaustive. You may find other use-cases where using macaroons makes sense.

Bearer tokens suffer from the problem that they are relatively easy to “steal”. Here, “steal” really means that an unauthorised person obtains a copy of the token, so they can start using it. There are numerous examples of exploits that work by an attacker somehow “stealing” web-browser cookies.

Macaroons, as bearer tokens, suffer from the same problem. Similar precautions need to be taken (e.g., only send macaroons over an encrypted/TLS network connections). Macaroons also offer some protection over simple cookies by allowing the token to be locked down. This may limit the damage should the token be stolen and could even prevent its misuse altogether.

To be useful, a macaroon has a carefully constructed structure. This structure is described in a research paper published by the team at Google research. Although the macaroon’s format has not been adopted as standardised, various mutually compatible libraries exist that support it. In this sense, macaroons have become a de facto standard.

This chapter will provide an introduction to macaroons. It will not describe how macaroons are encoded, but it will provide a high-level overview so that the key concepts may be understood. For example, caveats are described but without detailing the cryptographic algorithms underpinning their behaviour. The Google Research paper on macaroons provides an excellent description of the structure, if you want to know more.

This chapter will also describe how macaroons work within dCache. For the most part, this means describing the authorisation framework that macaroons provide and how it is mapped to caveats. Unfortunately, there is no standard way of encoding authorisation within macaroons, so this is necessarily dCache-specific. However, similar semantics have been adopted by other storage systems.

Basic structure of a macaroon

A macaroon is a string of characters without any spaces. The following is an example of a macaroon, where the single long line has been split into multiple lines to make the macaroon more readable in this document.

MDAxY2xvY2F0aW9uIE9wdGlvbmFsLmVtcHR5CjAwMThpZGVudGlmaWVyIGh \
sQ0kremlRCjAwMTVjaWQgaWlkOnBGTTA1MnJTCjAwMjFjaWQgaWQ6MjAwMj \

Although it may not be obvious by simply looking at it, a macaroon encodes several pieces of information.

An important part of how macaroons work is that the important information is cryptographically protected. Someone (who understands the macaroon structure) could modify some of these characters in an attempt to gain unauthorised access; however, any such change will be detected and the modified macaroon will be rejected.

A macaroon does contain two fields (the location and the identifier) that are not cryptographically protected. These are meant to provide hints. dCache simply ignores the location information. Modifying the identifier simply prevents the macaroon from working.

The main part of a macaroon are the caveats. This is a list of textual information that is cryptographically protected. Any attempt to create a new macaroon by modifying a caveat in an existing macaroon will be detected and rejected by dCache; for example, Alice obtains a macaroon that allows someone to view the file shared project.dat and she shares that macaroon with Bob. If Bob creates a new macaroon in which the file’s name (shared project.dat) has been changed to top secret.dat then dCache will detect this change and reject the macaroon.

Caveats have an interesting trick. A macaroon contains a list of caveats that have a special property. It’s impossible for someone to create a new macaroon by copying fewer caveats from a valid macaroon: dCache will detect this and reject the macaroon. However, anyone can create a new macaroon by taking the caveats from a valid macaroon and appending additional caveats at the end.

In simple terms, you can “add” caveats but cannot “remove” them.

This is easier to expain with some concrete examples, so we’ll come back to this once the authorisation model and the corresponding caveats have been explained.

The format of a caveat

The macaroon paper from dCache describes macaroons in terms of a list of textual caveats. It provides no details on what text these caveats should contain. This makes some sense, since the text will likely be domain-specific: the caveats for a storage system could be rather different from the caveats for, say, a IAAS system or some other kind of service.

In dCache, we have adopted a general structure for caveats. They all have the form KEY:VALUE. In the example caveat before:2022-02-02T09:51:22.840Z, the key is before and the value is 2022-02-02T09:51:22.840Z. The key describes what kind of caveat this is and the value provides the details for this specific restriction. Using this example, the key (before) indicates that this caveat limits the macaroon’s validity, while the value part (2022-02-02T09:51:22.840Z) describes when the macaroon becomes invalid.

Some caveats carry contextual information. Such information does not limit the macaroon’s use, but encodes “useful” information. As an example, dCache will generate a unique identifier for each macaroon. This is encoded as a caveat, which means the value is cryptographically protected, as noone can remove or modify a caveat without dCache rejecting the macaroon.

Authorisation model for macaroons.

All requests for which the client presents a macaroon are evaluated as pertaining to the user that requested the macaroon. If Alice requests a macaroon and shares it with Bob then Bob can only access files that Alice would be able to access.


dCache does this by including a contextual caveat that describes the uid, username and gids of Alice when she requested the macaroon. This has a couple of important consequences:

  • If Alice creates a macaroon for sharing a file and (subsequently) the dCache namespace permissions change so that Alice can no longer read that file, then the macaroon will also no longer have access.

  • If the macaroon allows Bob to create new content (upload files, create directories, etc.), then those new files and directories will be owned by Alice.

    As with regular uploads, if a directory has the setgid bit, then the group-ownership will come from the parent directory.


dCache defines seven activities that describe what someone using the macaroon is allowed to do. These are READ_METADATA, UPDATE_METADATA, LIST, DOWNLOAD, MANAGE, UPLOAD and DELETE,


Any requests that discover metadata about a file or directory. Examples include querying a file's size, POSIX permissions, ownership, any ACLs, any checksum values that dCache knows, reading extended attributes, etc.


Any request that attempts to update the metadata about the file: modifying the POSIX permissions, updating ACLs, updating extended attributes, updating QoS or locality (staging).


Any request through which a user might discover the existence of files or directories. This is mostly through some kind of directory listing. This may be machine readable (e.g., WebDAV's PROPFIND method) or human readable (e.g., WebDAV's HTML-rendering of a directory).


Any request that exposes data from a file.


Any request that adjusts the namespace: by renaming files, moving files, creating directories, etc. If, by renaming a file, the request overwrites some existing data, then the request has both MANAGE and DELETE activities.


Any request that creates new data within dCache. If the upload overwrites some existing data, then the request has both UPLOAD and DELETE activities.


Any request that makes data permanently inaccessible for all users. Making data inaccessible for some users is a modification to authorisation (see UPDATE_METADATA activity). Making data inaccessible from one path but accessible from another is namespace management (see MANAGE activity).

The following describes how HTTP requests are mapped to different activities. Similar mappings exist for other protocols that support macaroons.

The READ_METADATA activity.
The DOWNLOAD activity.
The UPLOAD activity if the file does not already exist, the UPLOAD and DELETE activity if the target file already exists.
The DELETE activity.
The READ_METADATA activity if the target is a file; both the LIST and READ_METADATA activities if the target is a directory.
COPY (internal)
Both the UPLOAD and DOWNLOAD activities.
The UPLOAD activity for pull requests. The DOWNLOAD activity for push requests.


Macaroons have two paths: a root path and a visibility path. Either is optional and the filesystem root (i.e., /) is assumed if they are not specified.

The root path

The root path describes a path within the dCache namespace under which all requests are resolved. A client attempting to read the file /latest.dat with a macaroon containing a root /Users/paul/shared-with-Bob will attempt to download the file /Users/paul/shared-with-Bob/latest.dat.

This operates in a similar way to the common chroot(8) Unix command.

Care is taken so that it is not possible to “escape” from the root “jail”; for example, requesting a file /../latest.dat using the above example macaroon will resolve to the same file.

The visibility path

(For historic reasons, this path is encoded as a path caveat.)

The visibility path describes which part of the namespace (a subtree) the user can see. Parent directories show only a single directory. Attempts to access files or directories outside of this subtree will fail.

As an example, if a macaroon has a visibility path of /Users/alice/shared-with-Bob, then when Bob makes a directory listing on the root path, he will see a single item: the directory Users. When making a directory listing on /Users he sees only the alice directory. Likewise, when making a directory listing on /Users/alice he sees only the shared-with-Bob directory.

Bob is not allowed to list the directory /Users/paul, since this is not a parent directory of the visibility path (/Users/alice/shared-with-Bob). This is true even if that directory exists and it is visible to Alice.

Comparing root and visibility paths

Root paths have the advantage of hiding unrelated information. For example, if Alice wishes to share the directory /Users/alice/shared-with-Bob there may be no particular benefit in Bob knowing where this directory is located within dCache’s namespace. Indeed, including this information may make it harder for Bob to find the desired file.

Visibility paths have the advantage of providing a common path for a file. A common URL may be shared between dCache users authenticating directly with dCache and users who are accessing data via a macaroon. This may be useful if users with dCache accounts wish to use the same URL when authenticating directly and when accessing data via a macaroon.

The choice of using root path or visibility paths depends on which of these features is more useful.

Combining root and visibility paths

The root and visibility paths are optional. A macaroon may also have both paths defined.

If both the root and visibility paths are defined then the root path takes priority and the visibility path is processed relative to the root path.

TODO double-check this.


Macaroons always have a time limit: they are no longer useful after a specific time.

If, when requesting a macaroon, the client does not indicate for how long the macaroon should be valid, then dCache will add a default validity. If the client indicates for how long the macaroon should stay valid, then dCache will include this value provided it isn’t too long.

IP address

A macaroon may also be limited by specifying from which IP addresses or subnets it may be used. Both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses and subnets may be specified.

dCache will reject requests made from a client if that client has an IP address outside of the set of valid IP addresses.

Caveats supported by dCache

Recall how dCache supports caveats with the structure KEY:VALUE. dCache will reject any macaroon that contains a caveat that is not of the form KEY:VALUE.

The allowed key values are: root, home, path, before, ip, id, iid and activity. If a macaroon contains any caveats with a different key, dCache will reject that macaroon.

Some of these caveat keys must appear only once. A macaroon that contains multiple caveats with that key is invalid and will be rejected by dCache.

Other caveat keys may appear multiple times in a macaroon. This is to allow clients to create “weaker” (more restricted) versions of a macaroon.

More formally, if a macaroon does not allow a request R then, in general, it is not possible to create a new macaroon by adding a caveat that allows R. Caveats only ever reduce the set of allowed operations.

The details on how multiple caveats with the same key combine are described below.


The activity key describes the set of activities that are allowed with this macaroon. The value is a comma-separated list of activity names. The order of the activities does not matter. The semantics of these activities is described above.

For example, the caveat activity:LIST,DOWNLOAD,MANAGE allows the client to make LIST requests, DOWNLOAD requests and MANAGE requests.

The READ_METADATA activity is needed for all the other activities. To save space, it is assumed if any other activity is specified. This means that the caveat activity:LIST and activity:LIST,READ_METADATA are equivalent.

Multiple activity caveats combine by taking the intersection of the allowed activities.

For example, a macaroon with the two activity caveats


is equivalent to the single activity caveat:



The before key describes when a macaroon is no longer valid. The value is a timestamp following ISO 8601 and must be in UTC (“Zulu”) time zone. The timezone information must be provided.

Once this time has occured, the macaroon is rejected.


The home caveat describes the home directory of the user. This caveat is optional and assumed to be the filesystem root (/) if omitted.


The identity of the user, encoding the user’s uid, gids and username.

A macaroon must have exactly one caveat with this key to be valid. This caveat is added automatically by dCache.


A caveat with iid key is the “issuer” ID. It provides a unique ID for this macaroon.

A macaroon must have exactly one caveat with this key to be valid. This caveat is added automatically by dCache.


The IP addresses or subnets from which a client may use the macaroon. The value is a comma-separated list of addresses (IPv4 or IPv6) or subnets following CIDR representation.

If a macaroon contains multiple caveats with the ip key, then this is equivalent to taking the intersection of these sets. In other words, a client request is accepted only if its IP address is valid according to all caveats containing the ip key.


A caveat with the path key describes the visibility path for this macaroon. See above for a full description of the semantics of this path.

This caveat is optional. If omitted, the visibility path is assumed to be the filesystem root (/).

A macaroon may contain multiple path caveats. These combine by considering subsequent caveats as relative paths and resolving them against the current (effective) visibility path.

For example, a macaroon with the two path caveats:


is equivalent to a macaroon with the single path caveat:


Visibility path caveats are always considered relative to the their previous caveats even if they start with a slash. For example a macaroon with the two path caveats


is also equivalent to a macaroon with path:/Users/alice/shared-with-Bob.

Care should be taken when combining root and path caveats as including a root caveat will modify the effective visibility path.


A caveat with the root key describes the root path for this macaroon. See above for a full description of the semantics of this path.

This caveat is optional. If omitted, the root path is assumed to be the filesystem root (/).

A macaroon may contain multiple root caveats. These combine by considering subsequent caveats as relative paths and resolving them against the current (effective) root path.

For example, the macaroon with the two root caveats:


is equivalent to the macaroon with the single root caveat:


Specifying a root caveat after a visibility path caveat will alter the effective visibility path.

For example, a macaron with the two path and root caveats:


is equivalent to a macaroon with the caveats:


If the macaroon contains root and visibility paths that are incompatible then the macaroon is invalid.

Requesting a macaroon

To request a macaroon, make a POST request to the WebDAV door with the Content-Type request header set to application/macaroon-request. The request must be authenticated, but any authentication mechanism should work: X.509 client certificate, Kerberos, username+password, OpenID-Connect and SciToken.

The following example shows a simple macaroon request where X.509 client authentication is used:

curl -E /tmp/x509up_u1000 -X POST \
|    -H 'Content-Type: application/macaroon-request' \
|    https://dcache.example.org/
|    "macaroon": "MDA[...]Qo",
|    "uri": {
|        "targetWithMacaroon": "https://dcache.example.org/?authz=MDA[...]Qo",
|        "baseWithMacaroon": "https://dcache.example.org/?authz=MDA[..]o",
|        "target": "https://dcache.example.org/",
|        "base": "https://dcache.example.org/"
|    }

The response to this request is a JSON Object. The macaroon property value is the macaroon. The four uri properties (targetWithMacaroon, baseWithMacaroon, target and base) are for convenience only.

This returns the most powerful macaroon: a macaroon with the least number of caveats.

Once you have received the macaroon, you can create a new macaroon that has additional caveats to make the new macaroon less powerful.

A convenient way of obtaining such a macaroon is to request dCache includes the extra caveats in the macaroon. This has the advantage that the macaroon only leaves dCache with the additional caveats, providing a slight security benefit.

Send a JSON object with the POST request to request dCache issues a macaroon that has additional caveats. The general form for caveat-requesting JSON is:

    "caveats": [

For example, to request a single additional caveat activity:DOWNLOAD,LIST, the JSON object is:

    "caveats": [

As a curl command, this request looks like:

curl -E /tmp/x509up_u1000 -X POST \
|        -d '{"caveats": ["activity:DOWNLOAD,LIST"]}' \
|        -H 'Content-Type: application/macaroon-request' \
|        https://prometheus.desy.de/
|    "macaroon": "MDA[...]bgK",
|    "uri": {
|        "targetWithMacaroon": "https://prometheus.desy.de/?authz=MDA[...]bgK",
|        "baseWithMacaroon": "https://prometheus.desy.de/?authz=MDA[...]bgK",
|        "target": "https://prometheus.desy.de/",
|        "base": "https://prometheus.desy.de/"
|    }

Requesting path caveats

The path caveat may be obtained by specifying a path in the POST request.

The following operation requests a macaroon with the path:/data/2019 caveat:

curl -E /tmp/x509up_u1000 -X POST \
|        -d '{"caveats": ["activity:DOWNLOAD,LIST", "path:/data/2019]}' \
|        -H 'Content-Type: application/macaroon-request' \
|        https://prometheus.desy.de/

The following operation requests a macaroon with the same path:/data/2019 caveat, but specified in the request URL:

curl -E /tmp/x509up_u1000 -X POST \
|        -d '{"caveats": ["activity:DOWNLOAD,LIST"]}' \
|        -H 'Content-Type: application/macaroon-request' \
|        https://prometheus.desy.de/data/2019

Requesting a macaroon with limited validity

Including the before caveat in a macaroon limits for how long a macaroon may be used. Once the time has elapsed, the macaroon is useless.

The value is an instant in time, which is often not really what is desired. Instead, it is often desired to have a macaroon that is valid for a fixed duration (e.g., the next five minutes). This would require calculating the expiry time in order to build the before caveat. An additional problem is that the clocks on the client and server might not agree exactly.

Both these problems are resolved by the validity property in the request JSON object. The value is an ISO 8601 duration; for example, the value PT5M represents five minutes.

The following JSON object requests a macaroon that allows read-only access to dCache for one hour.

    "caveats": [
    "validity": "PT1H"

Adding caveats

Anyone with a macaroon can create a new macaroon with additional caveats. As each successive caveat either leaves the set of allowed operations the same or reduces it, the new macaroon either has the same authorisation, or weaker authorisation.

Adding caveats autonomously

Various libraries exist for handling macaroons. These libraries may be used to create a new macaroon with more caveats.

Adding caveats with dCache

Another way to create a more restricted macaroon is to use the macaroon to request a new macaroon. Simply use the macaroon to authenticate when issuing the HTTP POST request. All the current macaroon’s caveats are copied into the new macaroons and any requested caveats are added subsequently.

Using a macaroon

dCache supports macaroon-based requests with the WebDAV door and the frontend door.

For both doors, there are two ways of using a macaroon: in the Authorization request header and in the URL.

In the Authorization header

Include the macaroon prefixed by the word Bearer as the Authorization HTTP request header: Authorization: Bearer MDA[...]bgK.

The following example shows a curl request authorised by including the macaroon in the Authorization request header. The macaroon is stored in the variable MACAROON to make this curl command (and any subsequent ones) easier to read.

curl -H "Authorization: Bearer $MACAROON" \
|        https://dcache.example.org/

In the URL

In some cases, you cannot control the HTTP requests, so cannot include the macaroon in the Authorization request header. This is perhaps most common for web-browsers, but can occur with frameworks.

To support these clients, dCache accepts the macaroon in the URL, as an authz query parameter.

In the following example, curl sends the macaroon as part of the URL.

curl https://dcache.example.org/?authz=$MACAROON

Example macaroon use-cases

See Macaroon Hands-On for a few examples on using macaroons with curl on the command line.

Portal use-case

Direct sharing

Third-party transfer

Enfore catalogue permissions