Both JWT and OAuth can help you enhance the security of your web application by offering secure authentication and authorization. But which one should you implement to allow users to access your web application securely? We have prepared a detailed article on JWT vs. OAuth to answer this question.
After reading it, you will have a clear idea about what JWT and OAuth are, what benefits they offer, how they differ, and which one you should implement to enhance your web application security.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What Is a JWT?
JWT, which stands for JSON Web Token, is an open standard defining a way to securely share information between two parties as a JSON object. As the information is digitally signed, parties can trust and verify information transmitted through JSON Web Tokens.
A relatively small size of JWTs allows them to be sent through a POST parameter, a URL, or inside an HTTP header. A JSON Web Token has three parts: Header, payload, and signature.
The Header tells what type of token it is and the kind of signing algorithm being used. The Payload part of a JWT includes claims that are statements about users and additional data.
As the name implies, the Signature part of a JSON Web Token has the signature to verify that the message wasn’t tempered along the way.
How JWTs Work
The following is how a JSON Web Token works.
Users log in to your web application by submitting their usernames and passwords. Then, your application transfers these login credentials to the authentication server.
After the authentication server has verified users’ login credentials, it generates JSON Web Tokens and sends them to users. These JWTs can include critical information about users and authentication sessions. Users store these JWTs locally. Based on the settings, the server can also sign JWTs using a shared secret or private key to enhance security.
When users make requests to your application server to access any resource, they will include their JWTs in their server requests. Your application server will verify signatures in JWTs and check the claims in payloads to verify whether users are allowed to access the requested resources.
If the JWTs are valid, users will be granted access to the requested resources on your web application.
Use Cases of JWTs
One can use JSON Web Tokens in the following ways:
After users successfully log in to your web application via the login endpoint, the authentication server will issue them JWTs. The users will use their JWTs to access resources within the application, which require authentication to prove their identity.
JSON Web Token can be the right option for securely transmitting information to valid users. JSON Web Tokens are signed to ensure that information comes from the original source. Also, the structure of JWT (the signature part) allows receivers to verify that information isn’t tweaked along the way.
Benefits of JWTs
The following are key benefits of implementing JWTs in your web application.
Unlike SAML tokens, JWTs are lightweight. So, you can quickly implement them in HTML and HTPP environments, making JWTs ideal for client applications like mobile applications.
JWTs offer robust security. You can symmetrically sign JWTs by a shared secret using the HMAC algorithm or a private key to sign them asymmetrically.
JWTs come with a built-in expiry mechanism, allowing you to set the expiry period of JWTs to enhance security.
JSON Web Tokens are widely adopted by different Single Sign-On solutions. As a result, it is easy to work with JWT.
Moreover, JWTs can save database storage space in your company. This is because your server only creates JWTs, and they are saved on the client’s side. Also, JWTs don’t require a database lookup.
So, JWTs can be verified quickly, offering a superior user experience.
Limitations of JWTs
Though JWTs are an excellent way to authorize users. They have certain limitations, such as:
You are responsible for ensuring the safety of the encryption key. If a hacker gets their hands on the key that signs your JWTs, you’re in big trouble. They could make fake tokens that mess with your user data. That’s a huge security risk.
JWTs don’t need a database call for each check, which sounds good. But if you need to revoke one ASAP, you’ll have to blacklist it. That’s not a quick or simple task.
When a JWT expires, it’s not just a matter of extending the timer. Your system will ask the user to log in again to get a fresh token. This adds complexity to the entire process, requiring more thought on user experience and security flows. To make the process easier, you can implement refresh tokens in combination with JWTs. When the access token expires, clients can use these refresh tokens to request new access tokens without the client submitting login credentials again.
Implementing JWTs in your web application isn’t a simple task; it requires extra engineering work. You’ll need to set up the token creation process, pick the right signing mechanism to suit your application and integrate it all with your existing architecture.
JWTs are not a one-step solution but rather a project that needs careful planning and execution.
What Is OAuth?
OAuth, short for open authorization, is an open standard authorization protocol for authorization. It allows web applications or websites to access resources hosted by third-party applications on behalf of users without users sharing login credentials for third-party applications.
Now, written as OAuth 2.0 (the latest version of OAuth), it is widely used to authenticate users via an authentication server.
For example, with OAuth in place, users can sign in to your application with their Facebook or Google accounts. But they will enter their login credentials on Facebook or Google accounts only.
How OAuth Works
For example, you have a time-management app. And to allow anyone to use your app efficiently, you need access to their email inboxes. In earlier days, users had to share their login credentials with your app to allow the app to access their inboxes. OAuth2.0 has solved this problem.
Here is how the OAuth2.0 workflow looks like:
Your time management app (the client) requests to access protected resources; in this case, it is the user’s inbox, owned by the user (resource owner). Your app does so by sending the user to the authorized endpoint.
The resource owner (user) authenticates and authorizes the resource access request from the time management app. The client (your app) will get an authorization grant from the authorized endpoint.
Your application will request an access token from the authorization server to access the user’s inbox. It will do so by submitting the authorization grant and with its own identity authentication.
If your app’s identity is authenticated and the authorization grant is valid, your app will receive an access token to access the user’s inbox.
If the access token is valid, your app can now access user data (user’s inbox) by submitting the access token for authentication.
Now, your time management app can access the user’s inbox. As Oauth has various grant types, the authorization flow may differ slightly based on the authorization grant types.
Benefits of OAuth
The following are key benefits of using OAuth.
OAuth is a widely accepted standard. This means all leading authentication services understand and use OAuth.
Users will find many OAuth plug-ins and features to choose from, thanks to its widespread use and compatibility.
OAuth offers tested client libraries for nearly all programming languages and web frameworks. So, you can use your preferred language with OAuth.
OAuth is highly secure and well-vetted. Because it’s so widely used, experts have already considered all possible security risks.
OAuth is great for code decoupling. Your main application code doesn’t get messed up when handling authentication tasks. This makes it easier to manage and update your app in the long run.
Use Cases of OAuth
The following are some popular use cases of OAuth:
The most common use of OAuth 2.0 is to make third-party applications to access users’ accounts. With OAuth 2.0, users can authorize third parties to access their data stored in different services without providing third parties with the login credentials for those services.
As a web application owner, you can employ OAuth 2.0 to implement Single Sign-on. You can explore these open-source OAuth solutions for your project.
You can implement OAuth 2.0 in your API gateway to make the API gateway act as an authorization server. This will ensure that the API gateway will forward requests from clients with valid access tokens.
OAuth 2.0 can empower IoT and smart devices like refrigerators or TVs to interact with third-party APIs on behalf of users. This comes in handy when a user wants to log into an app on gadgets without a regular keyboard, like a smart TV or gaming console.
Limitations of OAuth
The range of available flows can be daunting for those new to OAuth. It’s not just about picking one; sometimes, you need a combination to meet all your security requirements. This complexity can make it hard for beginners to know where to start, what to use, and how to integrate it effectively.
Each flow serves a unique purpose, whether for mobile apps, server-to-server communication, or web applications. So, carefully analyzing your specific needs is essential before making a choice.
OAuth 2.0 depends on SSL/TLS to keep things safe. If SSL/TLS isn’t set up right, then OAuth 2.0’s security could be at risk.
Also, OAuth can raise privacy issues, particularly when tracking user activity. When you use a service like “Sign in with Google,” Google may become aware of your activity on that third-party site. Not only may Google know you’ve logged in, but it may also track how often and when you interact with that site.
Furthermore, OAuth could be overkill for simpler setups, like an app with just a front end and a back end. You may not need its complexities in such cases.
Difference Between JWTs and OAuth
JWTs and OAuth serve the crucial function of verifying user identity to authorize access to resources. They are essential tools in the security landscape but differ in scope, complexity, and application.
JWTs mainly focus on APIs.
OAuth covers web, browser, API, and other apps.
Token vs. Protocol
JWTs are a token format.
OAuth is an authorization protocol.
JWTs rely only on client-side storage.
OAuth uses both client-side and server-side storage.
JWTs are more limited in scope.
OAuth offers more flexibility and a broader range of use cases.
Ease of Use
JWTs are simpler and easier to grasp.
OAuth is more complex.
While JWTs are more straightforward and geared towards API security, OAuth provides a comprehensive authentication mechanism solution that can adapt to various scenarios.
And OAuth can enable users to let a third-party app access their data on another platform without revealing their login details.
Whether one is better depends on the specific needs of the system or network in question.
Can You Use JWT and OAuth Together?
Though JWTs and OAuth serve different purposes, you can combine them together.
OAuth protocol doesn’t specify any token format that must be strictly used. So you can implement JWTs in OAuth.
For example, the OAuth2 Authentication server can issue an access token featuring JWTs. And this JWT could include additional information in the payload, improving performance. This is because there will be reduced round trips between the authentication and resource servers.
Combining JWTs and OAuth2 can also happen through a dual-token approach—OAuth2 issues two separate tokens in this method: an access_token and a JWT. The JWT contains additional identity information. This approach provides an extra layer of detail, giving you more control over user access and data.
It’s crucial to use OpenID Connect when opting for this dual-token strategy. OpenID Connect builds on OAuth2 and adds more standardized fields to the tokens.
Using JWTs instead of OAuth2 can make things faster and less complex for specific tasks. But it can also make development more challenging.
When deciding to use JWT with OAuth2, consider whether the speed boost justifies the added work in development.
In the battle of JWT vs. OAuth for ultimate web security, each has merits and downsides. JWT shines for stateless, quick authentication but has limitations like lack of built-in revocation. OAuth excels in complex authorization scenarios but might be overkill for more straightforward projects.
If you need robust authorization and efficient authentication, consider combining JWT and OAuth through OpenID Connect.
Your choice should hinge on your specific project needs, not just the hype around these technologies.
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