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API Security

OAuth vs JWT - Detailed Comparison

OAuth vs JWT - Detailed Comparison

A digital application requires to be perfect on several fronts to fulfill the expectations of its users and succeed in the market. Having great features, good market visibility, reliable process, secure user data/sessions, and continual improvements are essential for it to grow.

If coding is the main emphasis of a SaaS product, authentication is what strengthens it. Without proper authentication measures implemented, all your application development efforts will go in vain as the app will soon become a target of hackers and attackers. 

When it comes to authentication or user authority verification for the web, the name of OAuth & JWT protocols come into mind. Don’t know much about these protocols? Let us explain.

They both are the two most well-known names in the web/application authentication world. But are they the same? Which one is better? Which should be used when? These are some of the questions that need to be answered before you get extensively involved in application development. So, answers are elaborated for you next.

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Learning Objectives

All About JSON Web Tokens (JWT)

These are server-generated tokens comprising the basic details related to the concerning end-user. The data set that it carries is mainly email ID, user ID, password, login details, and so on. 

As clear from its name, all the records created using it are stored in the JSON format. What’s worth noting here is that the JWT information is easy to use for the client. It makes effective use of cryptography too.

Advantages and disadvantages

JWT is preferred over any other authentication method because of certain distinct benefits it presents.  

  • Developers opt for JWT as these tokens are self-contained and don’t ask for any effort to collect info about the user. Developers don’t have to get involved in database query generation or server authentication for every request. This saves a huge deal of time and effort.  
  • JWTs are known for better security and reliability that comes from their digitally signed nature. As no explicit signing is allowed or needed, no outside source like a hacker or another client can access them.
  • Using JWT asks for less digital storage space. They have generated servers and then forwarded them to the client who further stores them alongside attaching them to each most recent request.
  • When it comes to verification, the job is easy with JWT as it won’t ask for extensive searching of the database.

Despite the promising and incomparable advantages, we must not overlook the disadvantages that are tucked with JWT.

  • Bringing JWT into action asks for added engineering efforts.
  • The no database call for verification process acts like a hindrance as immediate revocation will require JWT blacklisting implementation. This is a highly time and labor-extensive process.
  • An attack on the signing key will create a huge security bottleneck. Hackers will be able to generate task-specific JWTs that could potentially hide the actual user’s identity.
  • When the token expires, JWT will ask for re-authentication. This makes its implementation more extensive.
Structure of JWT
Structure of JWT

Best Use case of JWT

JWT delivers the best value when it’s used in an environment that requires partial information transformation to any unverified client. In addition, the situation also demands client-side information verification at the payload. It’s a great choice to make when your goal is API and server-to-server authorization.

Securely store JWT

As JWT carries sensitive user information, its storage has to be perfected and secured. The ideal place for JWT storage is somewhere safe in the end-user’s browser. Generally, the httpOnly cookie is preferred. Avoid storing it at places like local storage and session storage as these two places have higher chances of hacker attacks.

JWT for API authentication

Alongside the boosted use of API in the cyberworld, awareness related to its authentication has also increased. JWT is a great tool for this task. The JWT’s mechanism for the API access control (that Google uses) is so popular. To begin and have an understanding of the subject, you must also know about this process.

As API is established, you receive a secret key that is able to generate a token on the client side. As an API request is forwarded, this token becomes its part and will help them serve to identify a specific client.

Now that you have sufficient knowledge about JWT, let us explain the basics of OAuth, its versions, and how far have it progressed.

JWT authentication
JWT authentication

All About Open Authorization (OAuth)

The famous protocol we all have heard at least once about! It is known for allowing secured user authorization. Not to confuse it with API or service, as OAuth is a globally-recognized standard that anyone throughout the world can use. Functional over HTTPS, it works wonderfully with servers, APIs, devices, and access-token-based applications.

With the help of OAuth, apps can decide how to allow secure and controlled access to a use for a client app. It’s widely used in Java-based, web, mobile, and browser-based app development.

OAuth 2.0

OAuth 2.0 is the latest version of OAuth that works both ways, as a protocol and as a framework. It has fixed the bottleneck of early OAuth versions and promotes interoperability. As it effectively fixed potential issues, it soon gained popularity and is presently used by famous apps like Twitter and Facebook.

What’s worth noting here is that its prime aim is to control access to specific resources like user data and API.  

OAuth  workflow
OAuth  workflow

OAuth Grant Types

Providing a grant means, allowing a user to access a resource or a set of resources upon his request. OAuth gives such a permission in 5 ways, where the rights of the user to access/control/use the information vary alongside.

Below mentioned are the five key OAuth grant types for a user acquiring (or requesting to acquiring) a token. See here:

  • Authorization: It permits direct login using the 3rd resource. There is no need to provide the username or other login credentials.
  • Implicit: It won’t ask for any kind of code. Rather, the client app gets an access token soon after the user’s consent.
  • Resource owner credentials: It involves verification of token validity by the resource server. If valid, the user data will respond to it according to the pre-defined scope.
  • Client credentials: Useful in situations requiring to obtain a token for a scenario that falls outside the user’s context. Only the client uses it.
  • Refresh token: It is useful when accessing as app needs a renewed token.
OAuth Authorization
OAuth Authorization

Tokens

OAuth or its v2.0 is all about tokens. Hence, it’s crucial to understand what the term means. In OAuth, two token kinds exist.  

An access token is shared as a request header or parameter by the client. It can permit the 3rd party application to approach user data present on the resource server. The time-constraint feature of the token helps the client (app) define an app usage/access limit for 3rd party resources. While one tries to use it, it’s important to define its scope.

Next is a refresh token. Though issued in combination with access grant/token, it’s not a part of the client-side request. Its main job is to renew the expired client app token.

Advantages 

The protocol is widely used and that’s for several reasons. Do you know why? Read about its advantages to figure out the same:

  • It’s a highly preferred and standardized authorization protocols. Hence, it’s compatible with most authentication services.
  • Because of its wide acceptance and compatibility, the users will have ample OAuth plug-ins and feature options.  
  • It makes client library testing in multiple languages and frameworks possible.  
  • It’s best for code decoupling as the appl code isn’t hampered during auth code processing.
  • It’s a highly secured protocol that has been tested extensively.

Disadvantages

We wished OAuth to be only a fair deal with no downside. However, this expectation is absurd. Have a look at a few challenges that you’re going to face while using OAuth.

  • With multiple complex OAuth flows, it’s not easy to decide which one will work best for you.  
  • Its user's privacy isn’t that much perfected.
  • It lacks session management assistance.

JWT Vs. OAuth

  • JWT is mainly used for APIs while OAuth can be used for web, browser, API, and various apps or resources. 
  • JWT token vs oauth token: JWT defines a token format while OAuth deals in defining authorization protocols.
  • JWT is simple and easy to learn from the initial stage while OAuth is complex.
  • OAuth uses both client-side and server-side storage while JWT must use only client-side storage.
  • JWT has limited scope and use cases. OAuth is highly flexible and can be easily used in a wide range of situations.

Both are the parts of the process that verifies the credibility of a user entering a system or network. So, could it be that we can use them together? Let’s try to find it out next.

Read another article comparison - How OAuth Differs From SAML And OpenID

Can I use OAuth and JWT together?

As we delved deeper into JWT Token vs OAuth, we managed to understand that one isn’t always an option. In fact, they both can be used together for improved authentication. They are compatible with each other and work together towards secured data transmission.

The key reason behind their coexistence is the lack of format specification beforehand. This leaves scope for JWT’s implementation in OAuth2.

There is a possibility that the access_token that the OAuth2 Authentication server returns to the client could feature a JWT token that might carry extra payload information.

If that happens, the server performance will improve, as it has to make fewer trips to fetch the same amount of information. It even saves huge operational costs in the long term.

There is one more way to combine. You need to guide OAuth2 to issue two tokens. The first token should be access_token and the second token should be a JWT token featuring additional identity details. While you plan to adopt this way to combine JWT and OAuth2, you need to make sure that you’re using OpenID Connect. This is an OAuth2-based extension and is useful to supply extra standardization.

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