Outsourcing of Authorization and Authentication

Photo of Wojciech Gomoła

By Wojciech Gomoła, in Technology

Nowadays, we can observe many repetitive patterns in existing implementations. From microservices, to MVC layers, or REST APIs. Authorization and authentication are the fundamental parts of application security. The most popular pattern it the login and password, frequently with the addition of two-factor authentication via SMS code, e-mail or a software token.
But the problem is more complex than it seems at first. There is a chance that every year the current “best practices” become obsolete as they fail to provide a sufficient level of security. Sometimes a critical bug, like HeartBleed, creates an earthquake in the security world and forces everyone to immediately review update their services.
To top it all off, unfortunately security is not something that’s painfully obvious for the non-technical clients - so from the business perspective it does not directly “make money”. As a result, some companies try to reduce resources spent on it. The management is more likely to spend a month on improving the appearance of a landing page than a week on improving passwords encryption.
The complexity and lack of a business reason to invest in the problem make it a great candidate to outsource. Those reasons made our customers do so.

When to delegate?

In this section I would like to list the cases which can make delegation extremely profitable.

Providers have everything we need. Almost.

Major identity providers addressed a wide range of their clients’ problems. Namely, the configuration of their service takes most likely less time than writing everything from scratch on your own. This makes even more sense when we consider startup-like projects when time is putting on us the pressure of “sell fast or die” and having a working prototype is crucial as soon as possible.

We don’t know the requirements yet.

Another problem that frequently appears in the initial phase is postponing the creation of the security model to the remote future. Writing your own temporary solution from scratch would take days and if key decisions are not made yet it would end up being rewritten again and again. Integration with an external provider in default configuration takes hours, and usually there is a free trial period (and it doesn’t always have to be expensive, Auth0 starts at $13 /month for databases less than 1k users). Migration from the external provider to your own in an optimistic case, may be as simple as changing a couple of entries in the configuration file.

Relatively high costs of support authorization.

Perfect software should not need any maintenance. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t that perfect, nor any software we write. If our services contain their own authorization mechanism it may require some changes in it even it has been coded properly long time ago. Improving security (for instance changing password encryption from MD5 to blowfish) requires a couple of days of the developer’s work. It engages other departments such as the UX team - users have to be notified in a non-invasive way, a test team - someone has to check if the new path works and check whether or not any features have been affected by it.
If your software is rarely changed and the identity management is the most common reason to change it - then rewriting the authorization mechanism to use external provider makes a lot of sense.

What should you not be afraid of?

There are cases when such delegation provides significant value, but it also comes with an additional cost.

Social networks integration

Most identity providers offer Facebook integration. It is slightly different to other social networks, because it is mandatory to fill an additional form which is required by Facebook’s bureaucracy. It also happens when you integrate Facebook SSO yourself. Integration with other social networks is easier in both approaches.

Data import

It is possible to import existing user data to an external provider. Unfortunately, in most cases it won’t be transparent from the users perspective. For example, Auth0 doesn’t import passwords even if for some reason we have them in plain text (of course, nobody has). It forces the user to set their password at next login via the password reset mechanism.

Vendor lock-in

I have mentioned before that, in an optimistic case, the migration from an external provider to your own solution may be as simple as changing configuration files. The problem is that we don’t live in a perfect world. A lot of provides share libraries that speed up integration, but make the migration to a different vendor much harder. If your software runs on a local machine or a mobile device, chances are that a certain group of users may resist to download the latest update from the store. You have to decide if you prefer to change the authorization, lose them, or provide both solutions simultaneously for some period of time.
There is a story of team, that have built their own authorization service once provider wasn’t able to handle as many requests as they need. It shows that despite the long and successful relationship with the provider, they were able to break it up and move to the totally new solution.

When not to delegate?

There are also cases when the integration is not possible or creates more problems than it actually solves.

Law and other regulations

There are governmental or organizational regulations that control how data should flow and where it can be stored. Auth0 allows you to store data somewhere in EU, but you cannot control if it is stored in Spain, Germany or Poland. Having GDPR in mind it may have consequences to store data in EU when you create a project for the United States. Also, government projects generally require all (or at least confidential) data to stay inside the country.

Costs

Most providers work in the SaaS model. It means that the monthly fee depends on the number of users and the features you use. In some rare cases, it may not scale very effectively and the invoice from the provider may get really high. In this case, you should consider preparing your own local solution for the problem. Storing user data in your own datacenters may be cheaper.

Communication with other servers

Delegation requires communication with the provider. By default, providers require to redirect users to the external or to use iframe element on your site. It is impossible to use that in the application which should, even temporarily, work without an internet connection. This sometimes forces team to create mock services for end to end automatic tests.

Integration with custom solutions

  • Software that works in an internal network (for instance LDAP or Active Directory) is harder, ask your operations team if it is possible.
  • Authorization with the client-side software – the most popular solution for digital signature in Poland requires the installation of the Java Applet based plugin. Integration with it, even without integrating it with an identity provider poses many obstacles.

To delegate or to do not delegate?

If you aim for PoC or MVP type of project, just integrate a trial version of the existing authorization and authentication service provider - if it’s not the core feature of your product. Start fast, implement the most important features and then, when you feel that the solution is too limited, switch to your own implementation or maybe a different provider.

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