Authenticate Single-Page Apps With Cookies

Securing a single-page app (SPA) can be a challenge. However, if your SPA meets the following criteria, then you can simplify your implementation by using cookies to authenticate.

  • Served to the client using your own backend.

  • Has the same domain as your backend.

  • Makes API calls that require authentication to your backend.

Here is a description of this approach as well as a sample implementation using Node.js.

How it works

The steps below show how tokens are retrieved and used. In this approach, the Implicit Flow with Form Post is used instead of a traditional Authorization Code Flow with Proof Key for Code Exchange. This is because Form Post Response Mode is a simpler way to implement login when it’s your own resource you are requesting to access.

Authenticate Single-Page Apps Using Cookies How it Works part 1 diagram

  1. The user accesses a protected route using the browser, or performs some action that requires an authentication step to be initiated (such as clicking on a Login button)

  2. The browser client redirects to a /login route on the backend, or to the protected route depending on what the user did

  3. The backend constructs a request to the authorization server’s /authorize endpoint and redirects the browser client there

  4. The user is prompted to authenticate themselves using whatever method the authorization server presents

  5. The authorization server POSTs the tokens to the redirect URI as a URL-encoded form post. The backend is able to retrieve those tokens by parsing the body data.

At this point, the user is authenticated and the backend has the required tokens. A cookie can now be created to represent this state on the client. The client browser is then redirected to a route that serves the SPA and also receives the authentication cookie.

From now on, this cookie is traded between the client and backend when API calls are made using an AJAX call. On each request, the backend verifies if the cookie is still valid and if so, allows the request to continue.

Authenticate Single-Page Apps Using Cookies How it Works part 2 diagram

Invalid or missing cookies

When implementing this approach you'll need to handle cases where the authentication cookie is invalid or missing. The API call to the backend from the client happens in the background, so the client has to deal with any response from the server indicating the user should reauthenticate.

In the following sample application, this case is handled in a naive way by prompting the user to re-authenticate if the API call results in a 302 Redirect result. The 302 occurs because, upon unsuccessful validation of the cookie, the server tries to redirect to the Authorization endpoint of the authorization server and sends this response to the client.

Example

The example application uses Node.js and Express to demonstrate the concepts covered above.

Prerequisites

  • To follow along, make sure you have the latest version of Node installed.

  • Once Node is installed, download or clone the source code and open the project folder inside a terminal window.

    // Clone the tutorial respository using SSH
    git clone git@github.com:auth0-blog/spa-cookie-demo
    // ... or if you use HTTPS:
    git clone https://github.com/auth0-blog/spa-cookie-demo.git
    // Move into the project directory
    cd spa-cookie-demo
    
    

  • The master branch represents the state of the application before any authentication is added. If you would like to refer to the final version of the application, check out the with-oidc branch: git checkout with-oidc

Initialize the Node.js app

Install the application dependencies by running npm install from your terminal window. To run the application, use npm run dev. This starts the Express server. Go to http://localhost:3000 in your browser to view the application.

The development servers uses nodemon, which automatically restarts whenever it detects any file changes.

Explore the application

With the application open at http://localhost:3000, click the Call API button. You should see a message displayed on the screen.

SPA Authentication with Cookies Explore the Application screen

Note that you were able to make the API call without being logged in. Let's fix that by adding some middleware that requires the user to authenticate before the API call can be made.

Set up environment

For the application to work with authentication, express-openid-connect requires some environment variables to be present. For this application, these variables can be specified in a .env file. Create a .env file in the root of the project directory and populate it with the following:

ISSUER_BASE_URL=<YOUR OIDC URL>
CLIENT_ID=<YOUR OIDC CLIENT ID>
BASE_URL=http://localhost:3000
APP_SESSION_SECRET=<YOUR SECRET VALUE>

Set up app in Auth0

  1. Go to Dashboard > Applications > Applications and click Create Application.

  2. Name your new application, select Regular Web Applications, and click Create

  3. In the Settings for your new app, add http:/localhost:3000/callback to Allowed Callback URLs.

  4. Add http:/localhost:3000 to Allowed Logout URLs.

  5. Click Save Changes.

  6. Go to Dashboard > Authentication > Social and set up some social connections. Enable them for your app in the Application options in the Connections tab. The example uses username/password database, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

  7. On the Settings screen, note the domain and client ID settings at the top.

  8. There are two values that need to be configured as part of the application. Reopen the .env file and set these values:

    ISSUER_BASE_URL=YOUR_DOMAIN
    CLIENT_ID=YOUR_CLIENT_ID
    BASE_URL=http://localhost:3000
    APP_SESSION_SECRET=<YOUR SECRET VALUE>
    
    
    

Run the app

  1. With the server and environment configuration done, find your browser window that has the application open. If you've closed the browser and stopped the server, run the following from the terminal to restart the application: npm run dev

  2. Open http://localhost:3000 in the browser. From a user interface perspective, the app should look the same, however this time when the Call API button is clicked, you should receive a warning that the user is not logged in. Also note that you do not see the "Hello, World" message as before since the call to the API has been rejected.

  3. Click Log in now to log in. Once you have been authenticated, you'll return to the app and see an updated UI that reflects your new logged-in state. You should be able to press the Call API button once more to invoke an API call to the server, and it now works.

  4. Click the Profile link at the top of the page to show user information retrieved from the ID token.

    SPA Authentication Using Cookies User Profile

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