HTTP Error 401 Unauthorized

Introduction

The Web server (running the Web site) thinks that the HTTP data stream sent by the client (e.g. your Web browser or our CheckUpDown robot) was correct, but access to the URL resource requires user authentication 1) which has not yet been provided or 2) which has been provided but failed authorization tests. This is commonly known as "HTTP Basic Authentication". The actual authentication request expected from the client is defined in the HTTP protocol as the WWW-Authenticate header field. (Last updated: March 2012).

Generally this error message means you need to log on (enter a valid user ID and password) somewhere first. If you have just entered these and then immediately see a 401 error, it means that one or both of your user ID and password were invalid for whatever reason (entered incorrectly, user ID suspended etc.).

Fixing 401 errors - general

Each Web Server manages user authentication in its own way. A security officer (e.g. a Web Master) at the site typically decides which users are allowed to access the URL. This person then uses Web server software to set up those users and their passwords. So if you need to access the URL (or you forgot your user ID or password), only the security officer at that site can help you. Refer any security issues direct to them.

If you think that the URL Web page *should* be accessible to all and sundry on the Internet, then a 401 message indicates a deeper problem. The first thing you can do is check your URL via a Web browser. This browser should be running on a computer to which you have never previously identified yourself in any way, and you should avoid authentication (passwords etc.) that you have used previously. Ideally all this should be done over a completely different Internet connection to any you have used before (e.g. a different ISP dial-up connection). In short, you are trying to get the same behaviour a total stranger would get if they surfed the Internet to the Web page.

If this type of browser check indicates no authority problems, then it is possible that the Web server (or surrounding systems) have been configured to disallow certain patterns of HTTP traffic. In other words, HTTP communication from a well-known Web browser is allowed, but automated communication from other systems is rejected with an 401 error code. This is unusual, but may indicate a very defensive security policy around the Web server.

Fixing 401 errors - CheckUpDown

Our service monitors your site for HTTP errors like 401. When you set up your CheckUpDown account, you may optionally provide two items 2. Web Site User ID and 3. Web Site Password. You should provide these only if the site uses HTTP Basic Authentication. If you provide them, the CheckUpDown robot always uses them. This will result in a 401 error if in fact the site does not use this authentication. Conversely, if you do not provide them and the site does use this authentication, you also get a 401 error.

If however your URL is open to all comers, then an 401 message should not appear. Because it indicates a fundamental authority problem, we can only resolve this by negotiation with the personnel responsible for security on and around the Web site. These discussions unfortunately may take some time, but can often be amicably resolved. You can assist by endorsing our service to the security personnel. Please contact us (email preferred) if you see persistent 401 errors, so that we can agree the best way to resolve them.


401 errors in the HTTP cycle

Any client (e.g. your Web browser or our CheckUpDown robot) goes through the following cycle when it communicates with the Web server:

(1) Obtain an IP address from the IP name of the site (the site URL without the leading 'http://'). This lookup (conversion of IP name to IP address) is provided by domain name servers (DNSs).
(2) Open an IP socket connection to that IP address.
(3) Write an HTTP data stream through that socket.
(4) Receive an HTTP data stream back from the Web server in response. This data stream contains status codes whose values are determined by the HTTP protocol. Parse this data stream for status codes and other useful information.

This error occurs in the final step above when the client receives an HTTP status code that it recognises as '401'.


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