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What is a Token? What are its Pros and Cons?

Tokens are widely used to provide authorization and authentication to users when they access a website or a mobile application. This post covers detailed information about the use of tokens along with its advantages and disadvantages.

Govind Malviya
Govind Malviya
July 29, 2021
4 min read

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You may have come across the term “Token” multiple times. However, only a few people know its use and benefits.

A token plays a crucial role in enhancing the overall security mechanism of an organization that helps to deliver flawless and secure authentication and authorization on their website or application.

This post will help you better understand what a token is, what are its pros and cons and will help you decide whether you need to invoke the potential of tokens for your business or not.

What is a Token?

A token can be defined as a digitally encoded signature used to authenticate and authorize a user to access specific resources on a network.

A token is always generated in the form of an OTP (One-Time Password), which depicts that it could only be used once and is generated randomly for every transaction.

The token-based authentication allows users to verify their unique identity, and in return, they receive a unique token that provides access to certain resources for a particular time frame.

Apart from this, users can easily access the website or network for which the token is issued, and need not enter the credentials again and again until the token expires.

Tokens are widely used for regular online transactions for enhancing overall security and accuracy.

How a Token Works?

Whenever you perform a transaction online, you need to enter the credentials. Once you provide the credentials, the system then sends an OTP to your mobile device through a text message or an email.

A token generator generates these random OTPs, and the user is authenticated once the same is presented to the website or application.

A random string to the user is sent, which is stored in persistent storage like web storage, and with every request by the user, the string is sent to authenticate the user multiple times during the token lifespan automatically.

The lifespan of a token is small. Also, a DB table containing all the session tokens is mapped to a user-id is involved and contains other details, including expiry, device-type, etc.

What is JWT (JSON Web Token)?

JWT (JSON Web Token) is used to provide a standard way for two parties to communicate securely. JWT is commonly used for managing authorization.

There exists an open industry standard called RFC-7519, which defines how JWT should be structured and how to use it for exchanging information (called “claims”) in the form of JSON objects. This information can be verified and trusted as its digitally signed.

JWT (JSON Web Token) is a popular method of SSO, which is widely used by B2C applications, and through this system, you can allow your consumers to log in to an application that supports JWT.

LoginRadius acts as an Identity Provider; it means LoginRadius can authorize a third-party application that will act as a Service Provider.

Pros of Using Tokens

1. Token-based Authentication is more Scalable and Efficient

As we know that tokens are required to be stored on the user’s end, they offer a scalable solution.

Moreover, the server just needs to create and verify the tokens along with the information, which means that maintaining more users on a website or application at once is possible without any hassle.

2. Flexibility and Performance

Flexibility and enhanced overall performance are other important aspects when it comes to token-based authentication as they can be used across multiple servers and they can offer authentication for diverse websites and applications at once.

This helps in encouraging more collaboration opportunities between enterprises and platforms for a flawless experience.

3. Tokens Offer Robust Security

Since tokens like JWT are stateless, only a secret key can validate it when received at a server-side application, which was used to create it.

Hence they’re considered the best and the most secure way of offering authentication.

Tokens act as a storage for the user’s credentials and when the token travels between the server, or the web browser, the stored credentials are never compromised.

Cons of Using Tokens

1. Compromised Secret Key

One of the major cons of relying on tokens is that it relies on just one key. Yes, JWT uses only one key, which if handled poorly by a developer/administrator, would lead to severe consequences that can compromise sensitive information.

It’s essential for businesses to seek professional help coupled with robust security mechanisms while planning to add JWT to their authentication mechanism to ensure the highest level of security.

2. Data Overhead

The overall size of a JWT is quite more than that of a normal session token, which makes it longer whenever more data is added to it.

So, if you’re adding more information in the token, it will impact the overall loading speed and thus hamper user experience.

This situation can be fixed if right development practices are followed and minimum but essential data is added to the JWT.

3. Shorter Lifespan

Short-lived JWT are harder for users to work with. These tokens require frequent reauthorization, which can be annoying at times, especially for the clients.

Adding refresh tokens and storing them appropriately is the only way to fix this scenario where long-lived refresh tokens can help users stay authorized for a more extended period of time.

Conclusion

Enterprises can leverage tokens depending on the nature of the requirement and their individual business needs.

Although JWT can be the right option in most scenarios if implemented correctly and securely by following the right security measures.

However, one should consider the above-mentioned aspects before relying on a token for authentication and authorization.

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Govind Malviya

Govind Malviya

Director of Product Development @ LoginRadius. He enjoys technology, reading/writing, and creating new things.

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