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Map Application Architecture



In order to effectively test an application, and to be able to provide meaningful recommendations on how to address any of the issues identified, it is important to understand what one is actually testing. Additionally, it could be helpful to determine whether specific components should be considered out-of-scope for testing.

Modern web applications can vary significantly in complexity, from a simple script running on a single server to a highly complex application spread across dozens of different systems, languages and components. There may also be additional network-level components such as firewalls or intrusion protection systems that can have a significant impact on testing.

Test Objectives

  • Understand the architecture of the application and the technologies in use.

How to Test

When testing from a black box perspective, it is important to try and build a clear picture of how the application works, and which technologies and components are in place. In some cases, it is possible to test for specific components such as a web application firewall, while other components can be identified by inspecting the behavior of the application.

The sections below provide a high-level overview of common architectural components, along with details on how they can be identified.

Application Components

Web Server

Simple applications may run on a single server, which can be identified using the steps discussed in the Fingerprint Web Server section of the guide.

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)

In a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) model, the web server and underlying infrastructure are managed by the service provider, and the customer is only responsible for the application that is deployed on them. From a testing perspective, there are two main differences:

  • The application owner has no access to the underlying infrastructure, which means they will be unable to directly remediate any issues
  • Infrastructure testing is likely to be out-of-scope for any engagements

In some cases, it is possible to identify the use of PaaS, as the application may use a specific domain name (for example, applications deployed on Azure App Services will have a * domain - although they may also use custom domains). In other cases, it is difficult to determine whether PaaS is in use.


In a Serverless model, the developers provide code which is directly run on a hosting platform as individual functions, rather than running a traditional larger web application deployed in a webroot. This makes it well suited for microservice-based architecture. As with a PaaS environment, infrastructure testing is likely to be out-of-scope.

In some cases, the use of Serverless code may be indicated by the presence of specific HTTP headers. For example, AWS Lambda functions will typically return the following headers:


Azure Functions are less obvious. They typically return the Server: Kestrel header - but this on its own is not enough to determine that it is an Azure App function, as it could be some other code running on Kestrel.


In a microservice-based architecture, the application API is made up of multiple discrete services, instead of being run as a monolithic application. The services themselves often run inside containers (usually with Kubernetes), and can use a variety of different operating systems and languages. Although they are typically behind a single API gateway and domain, the use of multiple languages (often indicated in detailed error messages) can suggest that microservices are in use.

Static Storage

Many applications store static content on dedicated storage platforms, rather than hosting it directly on the main web server. The two most common platforms are Amazon’s S3 Buckets, and Azure’s Storage Accounts, and can be easily identified by the domain names:

  • or for Amazon S3 Buckets
  • for Azure Storage Accounts

These storage accounts can often expose sensitive files, as discussed in the Testing Cloud Storage Guide section.


Most non-trivial web applications use some kind of database to store dynamic content. In some cases, it’s possible to determine the database. This can often be done by:

  • Port scanning the server and looking for any open ports associated with specific databases
  • Triggering SQL (or NoSQL) related error messages (or finding existing errors from a search engine

When it’s not possible to conclusively determine the database, the tester can often make an educated guess based on other aspects of the application:

  • Windows, IIS and ASP.NET often use Microsoft SQL server
  • Embedded systems often use SQLite
  • PHP often uses MySQL or PostgreSQL
  • APEX often uses Oracle

These are not hard rules, but can certainly give you a reasonable starting point if no better information is available.


Most applications have user authentication. There are multiple authentication backends that can be used, such as:

  • Web server configuration (including .htaccess files) or hard-coding passwords in scripts
    • Usually shows up as HTTP Basic authentication, indicated by a pop-up in the browser and a WWW-Authenticate: Basic HTTP header
  • Local user accounts in a database
    • Usually integrated into a form or API endpoint on the application
  • An existing central authentication source such as Active Directory or an LDAP server
    • May use NTLM authentication, indicated by a WWW-Authenticate: NTLM HTTP header
    • May be integrated into the web application in a form
    • May require the username to be entered in the “DOMAIN\username” format, or may give a dropdown of available domains
  • Single Sign-On (SSO) with either an internal or external provider
    • Typically uses OAuth, OpenID Connect, or SAML

Applications may provide multiple options for the user to authenticate (such as registering a local account, or using their existing Facebook account), and may use different mechanisms for normal users and administrators.

Third Party Services and APIs

Almost all web applications include third party resources that are loaded or that the client interacts with. These can include:

  • Active content (such as scripts, style sheets, fonts, and iframes)
  • Passive content (such as images and videos)
  • External APIs
  • Social media buttons
  • Advertising networks
  • Payment gateways

These resources are requested directly by the user’s browser, making them easier to identify using the developer tools, or an intercepting proxy. While it is important to identify them (as they can impact the security of the application), remember that they are usually out-of-scope for testing, as they belong to third parties.

Network Components

Reverse Proxy

A reverse proxy sits in front of one or more backend servers and redirects requests to the appropriate destination. They can be used to implement various functionality, such as:

  • Acting as a load balancer or web application firewall
  • Allowing multiple applications to be hosted on a single IP address or domain (in subfolders)
  • Implementing IP filtering or other restrictions
  • Caching content from the backend to improve performance

It is not always possible to detect a reverse proxy (especially if there is only a single application behind it), but you can sometimes identify it by:

  • A mismatch between the frontend server and the backend application (such as a Server: nginx header with an ASP.NET application)
  • Duplicate headers (especially the Server header)
  • Multiple applications hosted on the same IP address or domain (especially if they use different languages)

Load Balancer

A load balancer sits in front of multiple backend servers and allocates requests between them in order to provide greater redundancy and processing capacity for the application.

Load balancers can be difficult to detect, but can sometimes be identified by making multiple requests and examining the responses for differences, such as:

They may also be indicated by the presence of specific cookies (for example, F5 BIG-IP load balancers will create a cookie called BIGipServer.

Content Delivery Network (CDN)

A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a geographically distributed set of caching proxy servers designed to improve site performance.

It is typically configured by pointing the publicly facing domain to the CDN’s servers, and then configuring the CDN to connect to the correct backend servers (sometimes known as the “origin”).

The easiest way to detect a CDN is to perform a WHOIS lookup for the IP addresses that the domain resolves to. If they belong to a CDN company (such as Akamai, Cloudflare or Fastly - see Wikipedia for a more complete list), it is then likely that a CDN is in use.

When testing a site behind a CDN, you should bear in mind the following points:

  • The IP addresses and servers belong to the CDN provider, and are likely to be out-of-scope for infrastructure testing
  • Many CDNs also include features such as bot detection, rate limiting, and web application firewalls
  • CDNs usually cache content. Therefore, changes made in the backend may not appear immediately on the site.

If the site is behind a CDN, it could be useful to identify the backend servers. If proper access control is not enforced, the tester may be able to bypass the CDN (and any protections it offers) by directly accessing the backend servers. There are a variety of different methods that may allow one to identify the backend system:

  • Emails sent by the application may come direct from the backend server, which could reveal it’s IP address
  • DNS grinding, zone transfers or certificate transparency lists for a domain may reveal it on a subdomain
  • Scanning the IP ranges known to be used by the company may help identify the backend server
  • Exploiting Server-Side Request Forgery (SSRF) may reveal the IP address
  • Detailed error messages from the application may expose IP addresses or hostnames

Security Components

Network Firewall

Most web servers will be protected by a packet filtering or stateful inspection firewall, which blocks any network traffic that is not required. To detect this, perform a port scan of the server and examine the results.

If the majority of the ports are shown as “closed” (i.e, they return a RST packet in response to the initial SYN packet), this suggests that the server may not be protected by a firewall. If the ports are shown as “filtered” (i.e, no response is received when sending a SYN packet to an unused port), then a firewall is most likely to be in place.

Additionally, if inappropriate services are exposed to the world (such as SMTP, IMAP, MySQL, etc), this suggests that either there is no firewall in place, or that the firewall is badly configured.

Network Intrusion Detection and Prevention System

A network Intrusion Detection System (IDS) is designed to detect suspicious or malicious network-level activity, such as port or vulnerability scanning, and raise alerts. An Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) functions similarly, but also takes action to prevent the activity, usually by blocking the source IP address.

An IPS can usually be detected by running automated scanning tools (such as a port scanner) against the target, and seeing if the source IP is blocked. However, many application-level tools may not be detected by an IPS (especially if it doesn’t decrypt TLS).

Web Application Firewall (WAF)

A Web Application Firewall (WAF) inspects the contents of HTTP requests and blocks those that appear to be suspicious or malicious. They can also be used to dynamically apply other controls such as CAPTCHA or rate limiting. They usually utilize a set of known bad signatures and regular expressions, such as the OWASP Core Rule Set, to identify malicious traffic. WAFs can be effective at protecting against certain types of attacks such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting, but are less effective against other types such as access control or business logic related issues.

A WAF can be deployed in multiple locations, including:

  • On the web server itself
  • On a separate virtual machine or hardware appliance
  • In the cloud, in front of the backend server

Because a WAF blocks malicious requests, it can be detected by adding common attack strings to parameters and observing whether or not they are blocked. For example, try adding a parameter called foo with a value such as ' UNION SELECT 1 or ><script>alert(1)</script>. If these requests are blocked, it is likely that there may be a WAF in place. Additionally, the contents of the block pages may provide information about the specific technology that is in use. Finally, some WAFs may add cookies or HTTP headers to responses that can reveal their presence.

If a cloud-based WAF is in use, then it may be possible to bypass it by directly accessing the backend server, using the same methods discussed in the Content Delivery Network section.