OAuth vs JWT

There are numerous ways to secure your resources and authenticate users. Two popular choices among developers are OAuth and JWT, both offering their own unique benefits. This article will compare these two authentication protocols and discuss their differences and similarities.

Overview Comparison Table

For a quick comparison, here's a summary table:

JWT (JSON Web Token)OAuth (Open Authorization)
What is it?A compact and URL-safe means of representing claims to be transferred between two parties.An authorization framework that enables applications to obtain limited access to user accounts on an HTTP service.
UsageMainly used for Authorization process and information exchange.Mainly used for access delegation, to enable applications to access resources from another application on behalf of the user.
SecurityIt uses strong signing algorithms to verify the data it holds.It uses tokens that are generated from the authorization server and are stored for later use.
PerformanceLess overhead and good performance because it does not require server-side storage.It may have performance issues due to data bloating and server side storage issues.
Expiration TimeYou can set the expiry time in the payload of the JWT Tokens.The lifespan of the token managed by the OAuth server, it usually provides refresh token mechanism.

The main difference between OAuth and JWT lies in their use and performance: OAuth is primarily used for delegation, allowing applications to access resources from another application on behalf of the user, while JWT is used mainly for the authorization process and information exchange with less overhead and good performance as it doesn't require server-side storage.

What is OAuth?

OAuth, or Open Authorization, is a popular protocol for authorization. It allows an application to obtain access to certain parts of a user's data from another application, eliminating the need for the user to share their login details with the application seeking access. OAuth achieves this by using "access tokens" instead of traditional login credentials that are issued by a dedicated authorization server.

Say, for example, you're using a mobile app and want to share your Google photos. Instead of handing out your Google login data to this app (which would be a security risk), you can use OAuth.

Here's a simple process for how OAuth works:

  1. The app asks permission to access your Google photos.
  2. You are redirected to login to your Google account (if not already logged in) and asked to authorize the app's request.
  3. Google's authorization server then sends the app a short-lived token.
  4. The application uses this token to gain temporary limited access to your photos.

Examples of OAuth

Most social media networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter use OAuth for authenticating third-party applications. These networks have well-established OAuth endpoints that return access tokens which can be used to fetch user profiles, post updates, and perform other operations.

Here's a portion of a Python-based OAuth flow using Google's OAuth 2.0 system:

import google.auth from google.auth.transport.requests import Request from google.oauth2.credentials import Credentials # Load credentials from the 'token.json' file creds = None if os.path.exists('token.json'): creds = Credentials.from_authorized_user_file('token.json') if not creds or not creds.valid: if creds and creds.expired and creds.refresh_token: creds.refresh(Request()) else: flow = InstalledAppFlow.from_client_secrets_file( 'credentials.json', SCOPES) creds = flow.run_local_server(port=0) # Save the credentials for the next run with open('token.json', 'w') as token: token.write(creds.to_json())

In this example, the Python script first attempts to load credentials from a 'token.json' file. If the credentials don't exist or they're expired, it either refreshes them or creates a new token from a 'credentials.json' file obtained from the Google API Console. The credentials are used to authenticate subsequent API requests.

What is JWT?

JWT stands for JSON Web Tokens, a compact and URL-safe method of transferring information between two parties. Data transferred via JWTs can be verified because they are digitally signed using a secret key or public/private key pair.

Each JWT contains a payload which includes the claims or the pieces of information being passed between applications and users.

For example, a server could generate a token with the claim "logged in as admin" and provide that to a client. The client could then use that token to prove that it's logged in as admin.

The great part about this is the server can verify it, because it's the one that signed it, and other servers can also verify it, if they share the same secret key with the issuing server. This is how decentralized systems work.

Examples of JWT

JWTs are handy for passing user information during single sign-on (SSO) or between a web server and a JavaScript frontend.

Here's an example of creating a JWT token using Node.js with the jsonwebtoken package:

var jwt = require("jsonwebtoken"); // payload var payload = { name: "John Doe", admin: true, }; var secretKey = "mySuperSecretKey"; var token = jwt.sign(payload, secretKey, { expiresIn: "1h" }); console.log(token);

In this example, a payload object is defined containing the user information. The payload, along with a secret key, is then passed to the jwt.sign method to create a JWT token. This token can be sent in the 'Authorization' header of any HTTP request made to the server for user authentication. The 'expiresIn' option sets a 1-hour expiration for the token.

Renewal tokens can be created in the same fashion but usually have longer expiration times and are stored securely on the client side.

Pros and Cons of OAuth

Like any protocol, OAuth has its strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these can guide you in deciding whether it’s the right choice for your application or not.

The Advantages of OAuth

  1. Secure Login and Delegation: OAuth allows clients to access resources on behalf of users in a secure way without revealing user passwords. For example, you can share your Google Docs with a third-party application without sharing your Google password with that application.

  2. Scalability: OAuth is useful for large enterprises with multiple microservices. Users only need to authenticate once, and services can share the authentication token. For instance, Google uses OAuth to provide users with seamless experience across its suite of services, including Gmail, Drive and Photos.

  3. Widespread Adoption: Because OAuth is a framework used by many companies, it is a tested, reliable standard. This also means that many libraries and tools are available to facilitate the use of OAuth.

The Disadvantages of OAuth

  1. Phishing Vulnerability: Users might be tricked into granting malicious applications permissions. For instance, a malicious application might disguise itself as a trusted one, tricking users into providing access, putting their data at risk.

  2. Complexity: Implementing OAuth can be complex, especially for new developers. The process involves multiple steps and exchanges between the client, server, and resource server.

  3. Potential for Access Overreach: If an application demands too much access, this could lead users to unintentionally disclose sensitive information. For example, an application requests write access when only read access is required.

Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of OAuth will help you make effective decisions about the best authorization method for your system. Often, the choice of whether to use OAuth will depend on your specific security needs and the nature of your application.

Pros and Cons of JWT

Just like OAuth, JWT comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here's a breakdown:

The Advantages of JWT

  1. Self-contained: A JWT contains all the necessary information and does not require a database lookup to validate each request. This makes it a powerful choice for distributed, scalable applications.

  2. Performance: As JWTs are self-contained, it reduces the need for server-side storage, leading to less database overhead and better performance.

  3. Use Across Different Domains: JWTs can be used across different domains. This is a big advantage for cross-origin requests, where sending cookies are traditionally blocked.

The Disadvantages of JWT

  1. Size: A JWT is larger compared to other tokens. This might contribute to increased latency when JWTs are sent over the network in HTTP headers.

  2. No Automatic Revocation: Unlike sessions, which can be destroyed on the server, JWTs are by design stateless. Therefore, the only way to revoke a JWT is to have it expire or to maintain a blacklist of invalidated tokens, which undermines the purpose of using stateless JWT tokens.

  3. Sensitive Data: JWTs can contain any arbitrary data, but it's important to remember that unless they're encrypted, anyone can decode them. Hence, sensitive data should not be stored in a JWT.

Both OAuth and JWT have their uses, and neither is strictly better than the other. As always, the best one to use depends on your needs and specifics of the system you're developing. Consider all the advantages and disadvantages before you decide which one to implement.

When to Use OAuth

OAuth is a highly efficient authorization mechanism, primarily used when there is a need for an application to access resources on behalf of the user, without revealing the user's password.

Instances where OAuth is Appropriate

1. Third-Party Access: OAuth is an excellent choice when you want to provide a third-party app with limited access to user resources. For instance, a cloud printing application could use OAuth to access Google Drive files without requiring users to share their Google password.

2. Single Sign-On Experience: OAuth is often used to create a single sign-on experience for users across multiple applications. For example, users could log into a web application using their Facebook credentials thanks to OAuth.

Here's a snippet of OAuth process:

from requests_oauthlib import OAuth2Session client_id = "<Client_ID>" client_secret = "<Client_Secret>" redirect_uri = "https://yourcallback/uri" authorization_base_url = "https://github.com/login/oauth/authorize" token_url = "https://github.com/login/oauth/access_token" github = OAuth2Session(client_id, redirect_uri=redirect_uri) authorization_url, state = github.authorization_url(authorization_base_url) print(f"Please go here and authorize: {authorization_url}") redirect_response = input("Paste the full redirect URL here: ") github.fetch_token(token_url, client_secret=client_secret, authorization_response=redirect_response)

In this python code, an OAuth client is created that will redirect the users to GitHub login page where they will authorize the app, and then they get redirected back to our app with a code in the URL. This code is then exchanged for a token which can be used to authenticate the requests.

3. Microservices Architecture: OAuth is a good choice in a microservices ecosystem where you need to propagate identity information from one service to another securely.

These are a few prime instances where OAuth can do wonders, however, it's essential to understand the requirements and peculiarities of your specific application or system before taking a call on using OAuth.

When to Use JWT

JWTs are a good choice when it comes to clearly representing a set of information between two parties. They can offer utility in a variety of scenarios.

Situations where JWT is the Best Choice

1. Session Validation: JWT is commonly used for session validation. When a user logs in, the server generates a JWT that is sent to the client. The client then sends the JWT in each subsequent request's authorization header, letting the server know which user is making the request.

Here's a code snippet that shows JWT creation in Node.js:

const jwt = require("jsonwebtoken"); const payload = { username: "John", role: "admin", }; const secret = "some_secret_key"; const token = jwt.sign(payload, secret, { expiresIn: "1h" }); console.log(token);

In this example, a payload object which contains user information is created. This payload, along with a secret string, is then used by jwt.sign function to create a JWT token.

2. Stateless Systems: Because all the information needed to identify a user and their permissions are contained within the JWT itself, JWTs are a popular choice for stateless systems where no server-side session storage is needed.

3. Information Exchange: JWTs are an open and standard way for parties to securely transmit information. For example, two different systems can exchange information about a user after the user has initiated a process in a secure way using JWTs.

Remember, such solutions should be carefully considered under the prism of the system's specific security and structure requirements before settling on JWTs as the solution.

Key Takeaways

The choice between OAuth and JWT isn't about which is 'better', as each one excels in different scenarios. Both can be highly effective tools to achieve various aims when it comes to the world of web applications.

Both OAuth and JWT can greatly enhance the security and efficiency of web applications. OAuth, by providing a smooth and secure way for third-party apps to gain access to user data, and JWT, by providing a compact, self-contained mechanism for transferring information securely.

In the web application world, an OAuth flow can be used when you need an application to interact with a third-party service on behalf of the user, without revealing the user's credentials, while JWT could be used to authenticate each http request made by the user once they're logged in, just by adding the JWT in the request header.

JWTs play a crucial role in API authentication. In the case of a RESTful API, a stateless protocol, where no client context is being stored on the server between requests, JWTs provide a way of maintaining client states. When a client logs into an application, a JWT is generated by the server and sent back to the client. The client then attaches this token in the header of its each future request to authenticate and access protected resources.

Both JWT and OAuth have crucial roles to play in authorization as well. While OAuth is often used to delegate permissions, JWT can be used to carry user credentials and permissions (claims) in a secure and compact way.

Thus, OAuth and JWT, each in their own unique way, have key roles in the world of secure and efficient web applications. Understanding how both work will provide you with an important set of tools when it comes to designing secure and user-friendly web and mobile applications.


We've covered a lot of information about OAuth and JWT. Here are some common questions that people often ask:

Can OAuth and JWT Be Used Together in the Same Project?

Absolutely! In fact, it's quite common to see them being used together. OAuth is used as the Authorization mechanism while JWT is used as the token. This combined approach takes advantage of the strengths of both: OAuth's robust authorization and JWT's compact, information-packed tokens.

What Are Some Potential Considerations of Using OAuth?

While OAuth is great for external authorization, it's considered overkill for simple authentication. Implementing OAuth can be complex, particularly because it involves multiple steps and exchanges between the client, server, and resource server. Also, end users must be educated about granting permissions to avoid security risks.

When Exactly is Using a JWT Appropriate?

JWT is appropriate when server-side session management isn't feasible or when you need a method to securely transmit information between parties. It's also good when you want to minimize server-side load, as JWT ensures that every request can be validated without needing to query a database or cache.

Remember, the choice between OAuth and JWT, or when to use a combination of both, will largely depend on the specific needs and constraints of your project. Be sure to thoroughly analyze your needs and the capabilities of each before implementing.