The digital world thrives on seamless and secure authentication. With data breaches becoming more common, security protocols like OpenID Connect have never been more critical.
OpenID Connect is an identity layer that sits on top of the OAuth 2.0 protocol. In layman's terms, it is a simple way for developers to integrate user authentication into their applications. Unlike many older systems that necessitate users to create a new account for every service they use, OpenID Connect allows users to employ existing credentials from a trusted provider.
OpenID Connect is how the “Google login boxes” that are so common on the web now are powered.
Example OpenID Connect powered login box with Google and GitHub options example:
OpenID Connect (OIDC) uses standard protocols to authenticate users, retrieve user profile information, and handle logout requests. It enables clients to verify the identity of the user based on the authentication performed by an authorization server and obtain basic profile information about the user.
OpenID Connect operates through a series of exchanges between three parties - the user, the relying party (the app requiring authentication), and the OpenID provider (the entity that verifies the user's identity).
In this step-by-step explanation, we'll walk you through obtaining an ID token for a user from an OpenID Provider (OP) using the Authorization Code Flow, which is widely employed by traditional web applications. The Authorization Code Flow is particularly suitable for web applications as it enables secure user authentication and ID token retrieval via server-side communication.
The application (Relying Party, or RP) needs to construct an authorization URL and redirect the user to the OpenID Provider's (OP) authorization endpoint. The URL must include the following query parameters:
The user is redirected to the OP's authentication page, where they enter their credentials and confirm the requested permissions (if needed). Upon successful authentication, the OP redirects the user back to the registered redirect_uri.
The OP appends the authorization code and the state parameter to the redirect_uri. The application must verify that the state value matches the one initially sent to protect against CSRF attacks.
The application makes a POST request to the OP's token endpoint to exchange the authorization code for an ID token and an access token. The request must include:
Example POST request:
POST https://example-op.com/tokenHeaders:Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded Body:grant_type=authorization_code&code=AUTH_CODE&redirect_uri=https://userfront.com/callback&client_id=12345&client_secret=CLIENT_SECRET
The OP responds with a JSON object containing the id_token, access_token, and token_type. The ID token is a JSON Web Token (JWT) that encodes the user's authentication information. The application must validate the ID token by verifying the token's signature, issuer, audience (the client_id), and expiration time.
After successful validation, the application can extract the user's information from the ID token, establish a session, and grant the user access to its resources.
Now you have a better understanding of how OpenID Connect's Authorization Code Flow works to securely authenticate users and obtain ID tokens. This is just one of the many flows supported by OpenID Connect, each designed to address specific use cases and security requirements.
The steps outlined above can be greatly reduced in complexity by going with an Identity Provider, like Userfront, that abstracts out all this complexity.
OpenID Connect and OpenID 2.0 might sound similar, but they aren't the same. The evolution from OpenID 2.0 to OpenID Connect was driven by the need for a more robust and versatile protocol that could handle the increasing complexity and demands of modern web services.
OpenID 2.0, launched in 2006, was a significant improvement over previous systems. It provided decentralized authentication, which meant users could log in to multiple websites using a single identity. However, OpenID 2.0 was found to be difficult to implement and lacked certain features, such as mobile application support and the ability to handle logouts.
While OpenID Connect, SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language), and OAuth all play roles in managing access and identity, they are fundamentally different.
SAML is an XML-based standard used for exchanging authentication and authorization data between parties. It's used for single sign-on (SSO) applications, where users can log in once and gain access to multiple applications. SAML is most often used in enterprise settings, such as when businesses need to authenticate their employees across various internal applications.
OAuth is an open-standard authorization protocol or framework that describes how unrelated servers and services can safely allow authenticated access to their assets. It is not an authentication protocol but rather a method that allows you to authorize one website (the consumer) to access your data from another website (the provider). OAuth provides the authorization layer – not the authentication.
OpenID Connect, as explained earlier, is an identity layer on top of OAuth 2.0, adding the user authentication piece that OAuth lacks.
While there are instances where these protocols overlap, they each serve distinct purposes, and understanding these differences is essential when deciding which protocol is best for your application.
OpenID Connect offers a reliable and versatile solution for user authentication in the modern digital world. Its evolution from OpenID 2.0 has addressed many challenges of the past, and its compatibility with other protocols such as OAuth makes it a flexible and powerful tool in a developer's toolkit.