Scalable Cross-Domain “Cookie” Authentication/Authorization: An Example with macaroon.js

Recently, cookie authentication has fallen out of favor in the web community for it’s inability to port across domains and scale.

However, there exists a method to use cookies in a distributed fashion that is both portable across domains and scalable: macaroons (it’s a better kind of cookie).

Google introduced the world to macaroons in 2014 with a white paper. Unfortunately, there does not exist much documentation or code examples for it; so, I thought I’d help fill that void with this blog post.

(Not) Introducing Macaroons

I will not talk about the theory of macaroons. You can use the following resources to get the theory:

A Basic Example

Suppose that you had a website that needs to authorize a user and authenticate their access before it can do anything. You probably would have the server send the user a cookie. The user would then send the cookie value to the server with each request, and the server would use that value to determine authentication and authorization details.

This has severe limitations because we cannot easily share that cookie across domains, and most attempts to do so usually introduce network bottlenecks. I will not go into the details of why this happens; you can easily google it.

Macaroons overcome these limitations by allowing you to put arbitrary restrictions on a “cookie”. Further, these “cookies” can include information from third parties.

This allows you to easily share them across domains and distribute them arbitrarily.

Let’s consider a simple example.

Suppose we had an application that we logically divided into (a) the browser, (b) the service provider, and (c) the identity provider.

The browser contains the code that powers user interaction, the service provider contains the code that powers data access and manipulation, and the identity provider powers user management of the system.

Suppose that the user wants to see his stock portfolio on a web page.

In order to satisfy this use case, our system needs to complete the following tasks:

  • Verify the user’s identity
  • Verify the user’s rights
  • Find the data
  • Show the data

The following sequence diagram shows how we can satisfy those tasks with the help of macaroons.

macaroon_authentication

I will use node.js and the macaroon.js module to power this example. I will only provide code snippets that are relevant to the most important elements of the use case.

Request Macaroon

For this example, the browser will kick-off the macaroon process by making a request to sp.domain.com for a macaroon. Let’s suppose that sp.domain.com exposed the url “/api/macaroons” for that

Generate Macaroon

The code to generate and return a macaroon could look like the following:

This code creates a first party caveat for the macaroon.

A first party caveat is an enforceable restriction on the macaroon created by the minter of the macaroon. In this case, we retrict this macaroon to a particular ip address.

The code also creates a third party caveat for idp.domain.com. A third party caveat is a restriction that we delegate to another party. In this case, we are requiring the recipient of the macaroon to pass the macaroon to the idp to authorize his requests.

The ability to delegate attenuation to third parties is the secret sauce for macaroons. With normal cookies the service provider would have to manage and coordinate all the services associated with authentication/authorization. However, with macaroons, we can simply delegate authority to a trusted third party.

For security reasons, we generate the caveat key on sp.domain.com and encrypt it using the public key for idp.domain.com. We have to pass the encrypted caveat key to browser along with the macaroon.

The following is the code that could handle the response from /api/macaroons.

The browser is responsible for coordinating the authentication for the macaroon. In this case,

the callback sends the encrypted caveat key and the macaroon to idp.domain.com along with a username and password.

Verify Third Party Caveats

The idp will verify the username and password of the user. If that passes then we can create a discharge macaroon and apply it to our original macaroon. When we create a discharge macaroon, we are satisfying the delegation request from sp.domain.com. In this case, we also assign a timestamp to the macaroon to enable revocation. We are telling sp.domain.com that this macaroon is only good until the time set.

We expect sp.domain.com to obey that restriction.

idp.domain.com will send the original macaroon and the discharge macaroon to the callback. We need them both because macaroon’s hmac chaining algorithm protocol requires them to verify the authenticity of the macaroon.  

The above code makes a request to sp.domain.com for the portfolio information. It also sends the root macaroon and discharge macaroon with the request.

Request Data

We know have enough information to verify the authenticity of the macaroon. I know that we have some handwavy helper functions that verify the authenticity. The particulars are not important, though. The verification details will always changed depending on the application.  

Conclusion

This is not production ready code. There is no error checking or edge case handling. This is just a bare bones examples of how you could use macaroons in a distributed environment.
We can easily scale this process up to an arbitrary number of servers. Hopefully, you’ll be able to use this as a starting point to building your own macaroons.

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One thought on “Scalable Cross-Domain “Cookie” Authentication/Authorization: An Example with macaroon.js

  1. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is wonderful blog.
    An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

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