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What is token-based authentication?

I’m creating a new pocket guide and video course on token-based authentication. It’s going to be part of a new expert bundle I’m working on.

Today, I wanted to share a work-in-progress from the guide on what token-based authentication actually is. Let’s dig in!

Token-based authentication

Token-based authentication provides a way to keep users logged in, and verify who they and what content they have access to, without having to save permanent credentials like a username and password in the browser.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The user provides their credentials, typically in the form of a username and password.
  2. The credentials are sent to a server for verification.
  3. The server generates a token, a unique string of random characters that represent the user, and sends it back.
  4. The token is saved in the browser (often in a cookie or localStorage), and sent with every subsequent request or API call.

The token becomes a proxy for a username and password.

In some token-based authentication setups, tokens are stored as keys in a database, with details about the corresponding user. In others, the token itself contains all of the information about the user, without the need for a server at all.

Tokens can also be set to expire after a short period of time to reduce the security risk if they’re ever stolen.

What is session-based authentication, and how is it different?

Before token-based authentication, a popular way to keep users logged in was session-based authentication.

With session-based authentication, a token is still generated to represent the user. The server sets a cookie with the token, which gets sent on every subsequent request, just like with token-based authentication.

But instead of storing the token and associated user info in a database or making it self-contained, the server maintains a session with all of the user details in memory.

Here’s an oversimplified version using JavaScript.

let sessions = {
	kfda987908123jlk: {
		username: '',
		display: 'Merlin',
		permissions: ['admin', 'registration', 'homework']
	rew7812iouio3frx: {
		username: '',
		display: 'Neville',
		permissions: ['registration', 'homework']

This approach has a few major drawbacks.

For large applications with many users, keeping many sessions active in memory can have a big impact on server performance. Storing them in a database and accessing them only when needed can be far more performant.

Today, it’s also very common to have pieces of an application spread across multiple servers, sometimes using third-party services. Because sessions are stored in server memory, session-based authentication requires everything to run on that one server.

Token-based authentication also provides a way to update or refresh tokens with new ones for better security. Session tokens typically don’t change until the user logs out, making them less secure and easier to spoof.

Session-based authentication still exists, and is still a perfectly valid approach for smaller applications.

But today, token-based authentication is the standard approach for handling authentication, and addresses many of the needs and challenges of modern web apps in a way that session-based authentication cannot.