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WTH is OAuth?

Recently I had to add Single Sign-On SSO in a frontend project at work. I had absolutely no idea what OAuth is. I had to learn about it and here I am! Sharing what I’ve learned so far 😊

What is OAuth

Well, let's start with the basics. OAuth stands for Open Authentication. It’s the first version, OAuth 1.0 was designed to handle the Delegated authorization problem. Imagine you need to let some service X access some of your data located in service Y. Before OAuth, You would have to give the password of service Y to service X. That's bad! You are not just giving them access to some data. You are giving them full control of your account. Without a doubt, we needed a better way! ✋

That's where OAuth 1.0 protocol came in, It handled that problem by allowing service X to get access to certain data in service Y without compromising your password. 💪

Let's start by some terminology, just to make it clear for the rest of this post. These are also different roles in an OAuth protocol.

  1. Resource owner: That's basically you, you own the data in the resource server
  2. Client: That's service X. In other words, The application that wants to access a resource in the resource server
  3. Authorization server: This server is responsible for authorizing access to the resource.
  4. Resource server: That's service Y, In other words, The application that contains the resource.
  5. Resource/Scope: The requested resource. Could be some data, could be a permission to do some action.

Note that both the authorization server and resource server could be the same application, or they could be totally different ones.

OAuth Flow ( authorization code flow )

I created this diagram that shows the whole OAuth flow, have a quick look at it and we will go over every step after the diagram.
OAuth Authorization Code Flow

Is it overwhelming? Maybe I am not that good with diagrams 🙄. Don’t worry, Let’s take it one step at a time.

Let’s do this with an example. Let's say that you want to create a Spotify account, but let’s face it. You are too lazy to add all your information 😞. You want Facebook to fill it all for you. So you clicked on that sign-up with facebook button. Let’s pause here and analyze this for a bit.

What is happening here? According to OAuth terminology, Who’s whom?

  1. The resource/scope is your profile information, the data that Spotify needs from facebook to sign you up.
  2. The resource owner is you obviously 😒.
  3. Spotify is the client application.
  4. Facebook is acting as both the resource server and the authorization server.

Hold on! Before we dig into the diagram, OAuth depends on a one-time initial configuration step. Basically, it is a way for the auth server to identify which client app is asking for the authorization. The auth server generates a client ID and a client secret, both are unique to this client. They are then saved in the client, used in the next steps and must be kept secret.
Also, each client needs to specify a redirect-URL. This URL is used by the auth server during the OAuth flow.

With that said, let's dig into that diagram.

  1. First of, Clicking on "Sign up with Facebook" button will redirect you to a login page from the auth server.
    • This step requires two parameters the client ID and the scope.
    • The client ID is used by the auth server to identify which client is requesting permission.
    • The scope is used to identify which data/permissions are being requested.
  2. After Logging in, The auth server will display the consent screen to the user
    • The consent screen asks the resource owner if he would allow the client to have access to data/permissions defined in the scope
  3. Granting the permission, The auth server will direct the browser to the redirect-URL passing along the authorization code in the query params
  4. Having the code, The client would need to exchange the code and the client secret with the access token
  5. Having the access token, The client could finally access the resource from the resource server

Super cool! But, Why do we need that extra step where we exchange the authorization code with the access token? Why don’t we just get the access token directly? Well, It’s a security measure, It ensures that the access token is not exposed in the params of the redirect URL.
Ummm, but couldn’t a man in the middle just grab the authorization code somehow and beat the client to the exchange with the token?
No, because this exchange also requires the client secret, which is only known by the client application and the authorization server.

This flow is called the authorization code flow, there exist other types.
Also, OAuth was misused after its initial release. That's why there was a need for OAuth 2.0 and OpenID connect. I may talk more about this In a future post.😌

If you like this blog post, please let me know. And don’t forget to spread the word!

As always, Happy coding 🔥🔥
Or in Arabic… كود بسعادة

Top comments (7)

phlash profile image
Phil Ashby

Nicely done Sir :)

We are in the process of adding OpenID Connect / OAuth 2.0 support to all our services at work, for a couple of reasons that I wanted to mention, in addition to your first point about not sharing passwords (always good advice!):

  • SSO across multiple services, so our customers have one account with us from both a business and technical viewpoint
  • Federated authentication - this is the real win for customers, as they can use their own authentication system(s) to manage the access for their people and machines to our services - no more helpdesk calls to reset passwords for us (80% of calls!), no more risk of dangling system access after someone leaves for them, plus their choice of multi-factor etc.
bassemibrahim profile image

Great! the Federated authentication sounds like a great idea.

amroessam profile image

Great explanation, if I didn't understand OAuth - which I didn't completely, I definitely do now 😄

bassemibrahim profile image

Awesome, Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it.

amrmahmoud profile image
Amr hazem

Very well done Sir,

I especially like the last paragraph that provides an extra explanation and reasoning of why the auth2 is implemented that way, This article surely light's the Bulb.

bassemibrahim profile image

Thanks, Amr. totally appreciate it!

rahucrux profile image
Rahul Mourya

Can't wait to read about OAuth 2.0 and OpenID connect.