9 min read
Token-based authentication
Curious about how token-based authentication works? Discover the different types of token-based authentication and the benefits of these methods.

Token-based authentication guide

Link to this section

Web-based platforms and apps are becoming increasingly complex. That means it’s important to create a robust screening process during authentication and authorization to make sure that the data from these resources remain secure.

Token-based authentication has grown quickly as a popular security protocol, as it maintains a high level of security, without compromising the user experience.

This protocol is easy to implement and offers many benefits, now seen as a critical component of securing web-based applications. Token-based authentication is only expected to grow in popularity as more platforms require this level of security and efficient authentication protocols.

Understanding the different types of tokens available and their use cases can help developers choose the right authentication mechanism for their apps to keep their users and their data protected.

Token-based authentication defined

Link to this section

Token-based authentication is a popular protocol for apps, platforms, and APIs, with the purpose of simplifying the process of verifying the identity of a user.

It works by generating a token, or a string of code, that authenticates the user’s identity for future access requests. A token will usually be a unique string of characters that is generated by the server, for the user, after they validate their log-in credentials. This token can then be used for future authentication, as long as it’s still valid.

Tokens are what enable the single sign-on (SSO) method, where one set of credentials allows access to a number of apps. Once the server validates the credentials, an authentication token is generated and then sent back to the user. This eliminates the need for users to input their login credentials every time they attempt to access the platform.

To simplify this, think of it as a conversation between the two pieces of code. The user sends a request to the server, which validates the user based on the values registered in its database. The server then responds with an authentication token, which is used by the user for future authentication requests. The server verifies the token against the registered token in its database, and access is granted.

Then, when the same user tries to reaccess the server in the future, the request can be authorized, not by inputting a username and password, but with the token-based authentication code.  The server cross-references the token with the token registered in its database, and access is granted.

The different types of token-based authentication

Link to this section

Token-based authentication has emerged as a popular solution to the growing complexity and sophistication of web-based apps. Its rise in popularity is in part due to its simplicity and security.

There are a few ways to implement this protocol. Below we look at the different types of token-based authentication methods.

Access tokens are one of the most common token types used in this protocol. They are typically issued by a server after successfully verifying the user’s identity.

Once generated, the client can use the token to access protected resources on behalf of the user. Access tokens are short-lived, lasting for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. This short lifespan helps to prevent any interception or attempt to corrupt the token, and limits any unauthorized access to the protected resource.

ID tokens differ from access tokens in that they contain information about the user’s identity, such as their username or email address. These types of tokens are usually issued by the authentication server after the user has successfully authenticated themselves. The tokens are then used by the client to obtain information about the user’s identity.

These tokens generally take the form of JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) and are typically signed and encrypted for additional layers of security. This ensures that the information contained within the token cannot be easily tampered with or accessed by unauthorized parties.

Refresh tokens

Link to this section

Refresh tokens are a convenient way to get a new access token without requiring the user to go through the authentication process again. In this protocol, following the initial authentication of the user, the authentication server issues both an access token and a refresh token.

When the access token expires, which by nature should only last for a short period, the client can then use the refresh token to obtain a new access token, without the need for the user to re-authenticate themselves.

This simplifies the process for the user while maintaining a high level of security.

Federated tokens

Link to this section

Federated tokens are designed to allow users to authenticate themselves across multiple platforms using a common identity provider. They eliminate the need for separate login credentials for each platform, allowing the user to authenticate themselves once and then access multiple platforms seamlessly.

In this type of protocol, federated tokens typically use protocols such as security assertion markup language (SAML) or OAuth to exchange information about the user’s identity between the different applications.

How token-based authentication works

Link to this section

The process of creating and using an authentication token typically involves four steps, regardless of the application or platform being accessed.

The first step is the initial request where the user authenticates and provides identification information, such as username and password, to authenticate themselves. This step is necessary to establish the user’s identity.

Following this is the verification process. The user’s login credentials are checked against the permission they have on the server they are trying to access. This step is essential for authenticating the user’s identity and ensuring they have the necessary permissions to access the platform.

If the authentication is successful, a software token is generated, which is then issued to the user. From the user’s perspective, this process is happening in the background, as the client communicates with the server.

The next step is the persistency or storage phase, where the user is in possession of the token. Most commonly the token is stored in the user’s browser, which allows them to access the resource without needing to enter again, and this will last for the lifespan of the token.

It’s important to note that subsequent access requests by the user, will involve sending the token instead of the user’s credentials. For security reasons, the life span of the token is typically kept short to minimize the risk of unauthorized access.

The benefits of token-based authentication

Link to this section

Token-based authentication has emerged as a powerful protocol to boost security in web-based applications and can reduce the server’s memory load and mitigate password theft.

Unlike traditional password-based authentication, token-based authentication uses a secondary service to verify the server request, eliminating the need for the server to authenticate each login attempt and store a record of each attempt.

So even though the user still has to create, memorize, and input the password, tokens offer another form of access that’s harder to steal. And the session record takes up no space on the server.

There are also several more benefits of using token-based authentication:

  • Tokens are self-contained and contain all the necessary information to authenticate and authorize the user to access resources.
  • This approach provides fine-grained access control, allowing for precise control over access to specific parts of a platform, which reduces the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive information.
  • Tokens are flexible and can have longer expiration times, and can be exchanged or refreshed, providing more convenience for users.
  • The authentication process is streamlined, reducing friction for the user without compromising security.

Best practices for using token-based authentication

Link to this section

Token-based authentication is an effective way to secure web applications and services. To ensure that your system is secure and functioning properly, it’s important to follow best practices.

Ensure that your authentication tokens are private and avoid sharing them among users or departments. Tokens should be treated like passwords and kept confidential.

Use HTTPS connections to ensure that communication between the token and your server is secure. Encryption is critical in keeping tokens safe from interception and unauthorized access.

Regularly run tests to ensure that your token authentication system is functioning properly and securely. If you notice any issues, take immediate action to fix them.

Select the appropriate type of token for your use case. For example, while JWTs are popular, they may not be ideal for session tokens due to their cost and security risks. Always choose the right tool for the job to ensure maximum security and efficiency.

JSON Web Tokens

Link to this section

JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) are a popular method of token-based authentication as they provide a secure and efficient way to transmit information between parties.

JWTs are composed of three parts: a header, a payload, and a signature, and can be used to provide authentication credentials and other information about the user or account. As they contain all the necessary information about the user or account, reducing the need for multiple queries to the server or database.

JWTs can be quickly transmitted as URLs, POST parameters, or HTTP headers, and their flexibility makes them ideal for use in session-based authentication. They can be set to expire after a specific period or exchanged and refreshed, and they can be generated from anywhere.

However, it’s important to choose the right token type for your use case. JWTs are not ideal for session tokens and can be costly to implement. There are also security risks, so it’s important to use encryption to keep tokens secure.

Token-based authentication simplifies the authentication process and improves performance, ensuring users have a seamless experience while accessing the application, while also providing a secure and efficient method for protecting web applications from unauthorized access.

See how Kinde compares to other authentication providers.

Get started now

Boost security, drive conversion and save money — in just a few minutes.