If your organization is looking for ways to improve your website’s login process, you’ve probably come across the terms token and token-based authentication.
What’s more, token-based authentication can be used with several other types of authentication methods to create an improved user experience.
Before your organization implements token-based authentication, it’s important to understand how this process works, when you should use it, and how you should implement it.
To help you gain a better understanding, we’ve created this article to walk you through each step:
- Get familiar with the differences between cookies and tokens.
- Understand how token-based authentication works.
- Know the advantages of token-based authentication.
- Determine how you’re going to use token-based authentication.
- Implement token-based authentication on your website.
Keep reading to learn more about token-based authentication!
If you’re going to implement token-based authentication, it’s important to understand how tokens differ from cookies.
Let’s start with the basics:
What is cookie-based authentication?
A cookie is a small packet of information that lets the website know you’ve already been authenticated, giving access to features and capabilities that only registered users have access to.
Cookie-based authentication is stateful, which means that an authentication record (or session) is kept on both the user’s browser and on the server.
Take a look at how the login process would work:
- Users enter their usernames and passwords on the website.
- The server will verify that the credentials are in the database of authorized users and create a session that’s stored in the database.
- A cookie with the session ID is stored in your users’ browsers.
- When users want to complete certain actions that require the person to be logged in, their cookie is compared with the information in the database. If they match the action is processed.
- When your users log out, the sessions are terminated on both the database and users’ browsers.
Every time a user logs in, a new session is created and stored in order for the individual to complete tasks without needing to re-authenticate his or her identity.
What is token-based authentication?
Cookies and tokens are very similar except for one crucial difference: tokens are stateless. This means that the server doesn’t need to keep a record of the session. Every action will be accompanied by a unique token that the server must verify.
Since your server isn’t storing information, it can operate at a quicker pace, allowing for more users to be logged in at the same time.
Additionally, tokens are ideal for native platforms (i.e. iOS, Android, Windows 8, etc.).
Main point: Cookies and tokens essentially have the same purpose, but tokens don’t need to be stored in the server in order to work. With tokens, the server only needs to verify that the token is valid before a request can be authorized.
Now that you know how tokens differ from cookies, it’s important to understand how a server verifies a token without storing the information.
When a user logs into a website, here’s how the process would look like with a token:
- The user enters his credentials and the server verifies that the information is correct.
- If the server finds a match, a signed token is sent and stored in the user’s local storage.
- When the user wants to complete an action that requires him to be logged on, the token will be attached to the request and the server will decode and verify it.
- If the token matches, the action is processed.
- When the user logs out, the token is destroyed.
While the user is logged on, the token will be attached to every task and request that the user makes so that it can be verified by the server.
Since no information is stored on the server, how does the system know whether or not the token is valid?
As we’ve stated above, each token is signed with a digital signature or secret key that only the server will know. The server verifies a token by performing the algorithm that created the signature. If the two match, the server knows that the token is valid.
In other words: the token is encoded and signed just like a handwritten signature. If the signature hasn’t been tampered with, the server knows the token came from an authentic source and validates the request.
Main point: The website’s server is able to verify the token without storing the information because the signature on the token matches the signature the server creates.
In the previous sections, we’ve mentioned why tokens are better than cookies, but now we’ll dive deeper into the benefits of token-based authentication.
Since tokens are stateless and only need to be stored on the user’s side, that means that tokens are easily scalable. All the server needs to do is create and verify the tokens—the information never needs to be stored.
As a result, your server won’t be bogged down with information and can, therefore, maintain more users on the website at once.
Moreover, tokens can support multi-server platforms. Think about it this way: a user logs into your website via Server 1. Since the user is already authenticated, the Server 1 can validate any actions the user requests. If the user requests an action that’s on Server 2, your developers will have to complete several additional steps to ensure that the user doesn’t have to re-authenticate their identity.
However, when you use tokens, both Server 1 and 2 have the tools they need to validate the token, so no extra steps are needed.
Since tokens can be used across multiple servers, they can also provide authentication on different websites or applications (see the next section), which can lead to more collaborations between companies.
Another important benefit of token-based authentication is that tokens are well-suited for mobile applications. In fact, tokens are much easier to use than cookies on mobile applications because tokens allow you to control which devices have access.
Additionally, tokens are a secure way to authenticate a user because no sensitive information is actually stored in the token. The token acts as a placeholder for the user’s credentials, so as the token travels between the server, web application, and the user’s browser, the user’s credentials aren’t at risk of being stolen.
Main point: Because tokens are easily scalable, they lessen the load on your server and allow users to stay authenticated on multiple servers during a single session.
Now that you have a better understanding of what token-based authentication is and how it can benefit your user-experience and server load time, it’s time to figure out how you’ll use token-based authentication.
Of course, the most obvious use of token-based authentication is to replace cookies in your traditional login process, but it can be used for other situations:
- Organizations can use tokens as a way to keep user’s devices authenticated on mobile apps.
- Tokens can also be used to track credentials that aren’t the traditional password and username. Any credential—be it a fingerprint, email account, or single-use code—can be replaced with a token to authenticate a user.
Best of all? Token-based authentication can be used to grant access to other websites or applications in a process known as open authentication (or OAuth).
It’s likely that you’re already familiar with this form of authentication. For example, let’s say that your company wants to use a social media management tool (think: HootSuite, Buffer, or Hubspot) to help you schedule Facebook posts and Tweets.
In order for the tool to schedule and publish posts automatically, it’ll need certain permissions and access to your social media account, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to give this tool your credentials.
Instead, the social media management tool will send a request to your Facebook or Twitter account. Here’s how it works:
- When the social media management tool makes a request, you’ll be directed to the Facebook or Twitter login page.
- You’ll insert your credentials, and Twitter or Facebook will ask you to allow the management tool to publish posts on your behalf.
- When you agree to the terms, Facebook or Twitter will create, sign, and send a token to the social media management tool.
- When the social media management tool needs to publish a post, they will send the token to your social media account along with the request. The token lets Facebook or Twitter know that this application has the proper permissions to complete this action and will validate the request.
Interested in learning more about OAuth? Check out our complete guide!
Tokens can be used in a variety of ways to help various applications “communicate” with each other.
In fact, Swoop’s instant buy and donate buttons use tokens to help authorize transactions via email. When a person clicks on one of Swoop’s instant buttons, the user will be redirected to a pre-written email that once sent, will authorize their purchase or donation.
Even though the action is verified using the person’s email, the website accepting the transaction doesn’t receive any credentials from the email account; instead, a token is used to validate the request.
Main point: Token-based authentication can be used to verify a user’s identity without actually using their credentials. This can lead to collaborations between websites and services.
You understand how token-based authentication and figured out how you want to use this feature on your website. Now it’s time to implement tokens into your business or nonprofit’s website.
There are two routes you can take:
- Have your web development team complete the proper steps to implement token-based authentication.
- Purchase a tool or service that can implement token-based authentication.
Let’s take a look at each option in more detail!
Use your web development team
This option is ideal for larger corporations or nonprofits that already have a strong development team in place.
Since your team already has a solid understanding of how your infrastructure works, they’ll be able to incorporate the necessary code on your website and test the system to ensure that it’s functioning properly.
Keep in mind, you’ll have to outline exactly how you plan to use tokens as this may affect how you store information, which can lead to a much bigger project.
Purchase software from a vendor
If you have a small organization or want the development to be handled by an outside source, purchasing software and services from a vendor is your best option. This is also a great option if you’re still unsure how you want to use tokens.
A vendor can assess your current situation and suggest the best solution as well as incorporate the code to make token-based authentication work.
Aside from providing the basics, many vendors offer additional tools that can make the user experience more user-friendly.
For instance, Swoop can help your organization implement tokens and email authentication. That way, users don’t need a separate set of credentials to access their account on your website—a token sent from their email account is enough to validate their requests.
Main point: When it comes to determining how you’re going to implement token-based authentication, it’s important to consider how you want to use tokens and what resources your organization needs.
Hopefully, these steps have helped you learn how you can implement token-based authentication into your website.
If you’re interested in looking at other ways you can strengthen your website’s security and offer a better user experience, check out these additional resources:
- Password Security Guide: One of the many benefits of using tokens is that it keeps your users’ passwords protected. Learn more about how you can improve your website’s password security with our ultimate guide.
- How Strong is My Password? | “Not Very,” Security Experts Say: If security is your main objective, you might want to consider using password alternatives. Learn why passwords aren’t the best at keeping information secure.
- Understanding User Authentication: 3 Basics You Should Know: If you’re interested in learning more about how website authentication works, read our article on user authentication.
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