DEV Community

Warren Parad for Authress

Posted on • Originally published at on


AWS Cognito: Don’t go to production

AWS Cognito is AWS auth solution, it’s much better than Azure’s and many others that think Auth is easy. It’s also great that it is AWS cloud native. But it comes with some glaring issues that might make you think twice.

With all solutions that are important layers for application, it’s critical to find the right one. Given the importance, it is something you don’t want to get wrong, but also can’t afford to build yourself. You can certainly try, and then end up on tomorrow’s front page about your user data leak.

I’m not saying here’s the right answer, but you need to figure out what is critical. Are you building a prototype service or MVP that you might throw away and don’t care about the users logging in, or are those users internal employees, then Cognito is a great thing to start with.

Take heed though, Cognito has the following problems:

  • There is no way to backup Cognito. Cognito doesn’t support disaster recovery (DR) options.
  • Cognito sessions don’t work for long running user login (they have to continue to log in on an ongoing basis)
  • Cognito can’t be replicated between regions (so there is only one instance, users have to connect to the region where it is created
  • You can't turn off SMS MFA after you enable it, which means if you do it by accident and your users don't have SMS, then you permanently broke your pool. This coupled with no Backup strategy spells doom:

Cognito SMS Warning

  • It doesn't support custom configuration for the providers, so after connecting and setting up openId/SAML it is what it is.
  • user management is restricted, as the api’s don’t do even an okay job supporting fetching user data and managing users
  • depending on what you need setting up user emails/MFA etc… is a huge nightmare
  • Sending out custom emails for Cognito interactions requires AWS to explicitly support your language. If your chosen software language isn't listed on this page which at the time of writing is only C, Java, Javascript, and Python, you can't use custom emails, end of story. [Note: This functionality is NOT in the SDK].
  • the libraries are poorly documented and really confusing for most people AWS tried to create Amplify, I think that made it worse
  • Cognito doesn’t offer granular access management, so if you need permissions or IAM for users, you only get the basic JWT hacks
  • Cognito has claims, but those claims are frequently not consistently populated. In a lot of cases that's expected since not every user actually has every claim, but in many cases, they just don't show up in APIGW Authorizers for instance.
  • It’s doesn’t support non-compliant openId implementations. That means you can’t connect providers that didn’t follow the standard (happens a lot, unfortunately)
  • There’s no way to generate api tokens for users to connect with your service utilizing cognito, you have to build a custom implementation.
  • Cognito doesn’t support machine-to-machine authentication, you would have to roll your own implementation
  • It doesn’t support 3rd party app developers logging in with your solution, all applications are meant to be first party.
  • Cognito doesn’t support oauth2 credential vaults, so you can’t use it to interface with first-party authentication app. Want to connect to your user’s Google Drive, or their LinkedIn account, can’t do it with Cognito.
  • Cognito is insecure by design. Simple things like DDoS protection for your login endpoint isn't provided, nor is easy to configure. Since you need this if using Cognito, because you are going to get attacked, here's AWS recommended infrastructure

Cognito Groups look interesting…

Will 99.9% of the groups ever assigned to a user be the only group that is assigned and never replaced with another one. If a user is in group X, are they be in group for their whole existence and never in group Y, and only 0.1% will ever change from X to Y, and that's it. As in changing groups is not a feature of your application.

As long as that is the case, such as creating an Admin group, then this is fine, and it works. But as soon as you have multiple groups, and you expect that users can change which group they are in, you start to have a problem. Group changes are not instantaneous, and more so, understanding what permissions a "Group" has is even more complicated. Having two services both utilizing the same groups "User", "PowerUser", "Admin", both services would have to make explicit guesses about what permissions are in PowerUser and User which aren't in the other. This leads to conflicts about what a user expects they can do and what they can actually do.

Additionally when the gain or lose access to these groups, their permissions are coupled to their JWT. That means you'll need to force the JWT to rotate, which in a lot of cases, you don't have access to do. If your application has users with API keys, then it is down-right impossible.

Here are some common problems with many auth providers in the space:

  • Most auth providers have non standard implementations, despite saying they are oauth2 compliant, so you have to learn a new toolset
  • the bigger the provider the less likely they’ll provide a good onboarding experience for you, so you’ll have to figure out most of migration yourself
  • Some providers require you to use their hosted ui which offers confusing configuration
  • you’ll need to issue service clients for your services to connect to the APIs (since IAM obviously won’t work)
  • Most providers don’t offer good security controls, so you can’t provide your company’s admin/devs granular access to the IdPs resources.

Still want to use Cognito?

Maybe Cognito's got something special that you really want. Be it a username/password DB that support email/sms/2fa device codes or something else. Well, the libraries are terrible, so now you also need to deal with a terrible developer experience. But you can make that a lot easier by using an auth provider that can hook up to Cognito.

So what can we do about it…

I'm sure I'm missing a lot more, that's just what comes to mind in this moment. If you still aren't sure what the right things to look for is, check out this article for How to pick the best auth solution, it might just put you on the right path.

You might be in the situation where you just can't change anything, so trying to avoid Cognito might not be possible. However, there are a number of solutions that let you build on top of Cognito to fill in the gaps in functionality. Especially around RBAC, ABAC, gRBAC, SSO, multiple identities, Disastery Recovery, etc...

The truth is that--your situation matters a lot more than some arbitrary product pitch. However, if you found this article insightful and want a recommendation on a provider that makes it easy to start and and sustainable in the long term, Authress is most likely the best solution.

Come join our Community and discuss this and other security related topics!

Top comments (0)

🌚 Friends don't let friends browse without dark mode.

Sorry, it's true.