LWP::Authen::OAuth2::Overview(3) Overview of accessing OAuth2 APIs with LWP::Authen::OAuth2


This attempts to be the document that I wished existed when I first tried to access an API that used OAuth 2 for authentication. It explains what OAuth 2 is, how it works, what you need to know to use it, and how LWP::Authen::OAuth2 tries to make that easier. It hopefully also explains this in a way which will help you read documentation written by other people who assume that you have this knowledge.

Feel free to read as much or little of this document as makes sense for you. It is not actually designed to be read in a single sitting.

Since part of the purpose of this document is to familiarize you with the jargon that you're likely to encounter, all terms commonly used in discussions of OAuth 2 with a specific meaning are highlighted. Terms will hopefully be clear from context, but all highlighted terms are explained in the ``Terminology'' section.

The Purpose of OAuth 2

OAuth 2 makes it easy for large service providers to write many APIs that users can securely authorize third party consumers to use on their behalf. Everything good (and bad!) about the specification comes from this fact.

It therefore specifies an authorization handshake through which permissions are set up, and then a message signing procedure through which you can then access the API. Well, actually it specifies many variations of the authorization handshake, and multiple possible signing procedures, because large organizations run into a lot of use cases and try to cover them all. But conceptually they are all fundamentally similar, and so have been lumped together in one monster spec.

The Purpose of LWP::Authen::OAuth2

LWP::Authen::OAuth2 exists to help Perl programmers who want to be a consumer of an API protected by OAuth 2 to construct and make all of the necessary requests to the service provider that you need to make. You will still need to set up your relationship with the service provider, build your user interaction, manage private data (hooks are provided to make that straightforward), and figure out how to use the API.

If that does not sound like it will make your life easier, then this module is not intended for you.

If you are not a consumer, this module is definitely not intended for you. (Though this document may still be helpful.)

The Basic OAuth 2 Handshake

OAuth 2 allows a user to tell a service provider that a consumer should be allowed to access the user's data through an API. This permissioning happens through the following handshake.

The consumer sends the user to an authorization_url managed by the service provider. The service provider tells the user that the consumer wants access to that account and asks if this is OK. The user confirms that it is, and is sent back to the consumer with proof of the conversation. The consumer presents that proof to the service provider along with proof that it actually is the consumer, and is granted tokens that will act like keys to the user's account. After that the consumer can use said tokens to access the API which is protected by OAuth 2.

All variations of OAuth 2 follow this basic pattern. A large number of the details can and do vary widely. For example JavaScript applications that want to make AJAX calls use a different kind of proof. Applications installed on devices without web browsers will pass information to/from the user in different ways. And each service provider is free to do many, many things differently. The specification tries to document commonalities in what different companies are doing, but does not mandate that they all do the same thing.

(This sort of complexity is inevitable from a specification that tries to make the lives of large service providers easy, and the lives of consumers possible.)

Becoming a Consumer

If you want to access an OAuth 2 protected API, you need to become a consumer. Here are the necessary steps, in the order that things happen in.
Register with the service provider
You cannot access a service provider without them knowing who you are. After you go through their process, at a minimum you will get a public client_id, a private client_secret, and have agreed on one or more redirect_uris that the user can use to deliver an authorization code back to you. (That is not the only kind of proof that the user can be given for the consumer, but it is probably the only one that makes sense for a Perl consumer.)

The redirect_uri is often a "https:///..." URL under your control. You also are likely to have had to tell the service provider about what type of software you're writing (webserver, command line, etc). This determines your client type. They may call this a scenario, or flow, or something else.

You will also need information about the service provider. Specifically you will need to know their Authorization Endpoint and Token Endpoint. They hopefully also have useful documentation about things like their APIs.

LWP::Authen::OAuth2 is not directly involved in this step.

If a LWP::Authen::OAuth2::ServiceProvider::Foo class exists, it should already have the service provider specific information, and probably has summarized documentation that may make this smoother. If you're really lucky, there will be a CPAN module (or modules) for the API (or APIs) that you want to use. If those do not exist, please consider creating them.

If no such classes exist, you can still use the module. Just pass the necessary service provider facts in your call to "LWP::Authen::OAuth2->new(...)" and an appropriate LWP::Authen::OAuth2::ServiceProvider will be created for you on the fly.

Decide how to store sensitive information
All of the data shared between you and the service provider has to be stored on your end. This includes tokens that will let you access private information for the user. You need to be able to securely store and access these.

LWP::Authen::OAuth2 does not address this, beyond providing hooks that you are free to use as you see fit.

Build interaction asking for user permission
You need to have some way of convincing the user that they want to give you permission, ending in giving them an authorization_url which sends them off to the service provider to authorize access. This interaction can range from a trivial conversation with yourself if you are the only user you will be handling, to a carefully thought through sales pitch if you are trying to get members of the public to sign up.

LWP::Authen::OAuth2 helps you build that URL. The rest is up to you.

Build interaction receiving your authorization code
When the user finishes their interaction with the service provider, if the service provider is sure that they know where to send the user (they know your client_id, your redirect_uri makes sense to them) then they will be sent to the redirect_uri to pass information back to you.

If you succeeded, you will receive a code in some way. For instance if your redirect_uri is a URL, it will have a get parameter named "code".

You could get an "error" parameter back instead. See RFC 6749 <http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc6749#section-> for a list of the possible errors. Note that there are possible optional fields with extra detail. I would not advise optimism about their presence.

LWP::Authen::OAuth2 is not involved with this.

Request tokens
Once you have that code you are supposed to immediately trade it in for tokens. LWP::Authen::OAuth2 provides the "request_tokens" method to do this for you. Should you not actually get tokens, then the "request_tokens" method will trigger an error.

NOTE that the code cannot be expected to work more than once. Nor can you expect the service provider to repeatedly hand out working codes for the same permission. (The qualifier ``working'' matters.) Being told this will hopefully let you avoid a painful debugging session that I did not enjoy.

Save and pass around tokens (maybe)
If you will need access to information in multiple locations (for instance on several different web pages), then you are responsible for saving and retrieving those tokens for future use. LWP::Authen::OAuth2 makes it easy to serialize/deserialize tokens, and has hooks for when they change, but leaves this step up to you.
Access the API
LWP::Authen::OAuth2 takes care of signing your API requests. What requests you need to actually make are between you and the service provider. With luck there will be documentation to help you figure it out, and if you are really lucky that will be reasonably accurate.
Refresh access tokens (maybe)
The access token that is used to sign requests will only work for a limited time. If you were given a request token, that can be used to request another access token at any time. Which raises the possibility that you make a request, it fails because the access token expired, you refresh it, then need to retry your request.

LWP::Authen::OAuth2 will perform this refresh/retry logic for you automatically if possible, and provides a hook for you to know to save the updated token data.

Some client types are not expected to use this pattern. You are only given an access token and are expected to send the user through the handshake again when that expires. The second time through the redirect on the service provider's side is immediate, so the user experience should be seamless. However LWP::Authen::OAuth2 does not try to automate that logic. But "$oauth2->should_refresh" can let you know when it is time to send the user through, and "$oauth2->can_refresh_tokens" will let you know whether automatic refreshing is available.

Note that even if it is available, retry success is not guaranteed. The user may revoke your access, the service provider may decide you are a suspicious character, there may have been a service outage, etc. LWP::Authen::OAuth2 will throw errors on these error conditions, handling them is up to you.


This section is intended to be used in one of two ways.

The first option is that you can start reading someone else's documentation and then refer back to here every time you run across a term that you do not immediately understand.

The second option is that you can read this section straight through for a reasonably detailed explanation of the OAuth 2 protocol, with all terms explained. In fact if you choose this option, you will find it explained in more detail than you need to be a successful consumer.

However if you use it in the second way, please be advised that this does not try to be a complete and exact explanation of the specification. In particular the specification requires specific error handling from the service provider that I have glossed over, and allows for extra types of requests that I also glossed over. (Particularly the bit about how any service provider at any time can add any new method that they want so long as they invent a new grant_type for it.)

The consumer is the one who needs to be authorized by OAuth 2 to be able to ``consume'' an API. If you're reading this document, that's likely to be you.
The software on the consumer's side which actually will access the API. From a consumer's point of view, a consumer and the client are usually the same thing. But, in fact, a single consumer may actually write multiple clients. And if one is a web application while another is a command line program, the differences can matter to how OAuth 2 will work.

Where I have a choice in this document I say consumer rather than client because that term is less likely overloaded in most organizations.

The user is the entity (person or company) who wishes to let the consumer access their account.
Resource Owner
What the OAuth 2 specification calls the user, to focus attention on the fact that they own the data which will get accessed.

I chose to say user instead of Resource Owner because that is my best guess as to what the consumer is most likely to already call them.

service provider
The service provider is the one which hosts the account, restricts access and offers the API. For example, Google.
Resource Server
In the OAuth 2 specification, this is the service run by the service provider which hosts provides an API to the user's data. The name has deliberate symmetry with Resource Owner.
Authorization Server
In the OAuth 2 specification, this is the service run by the service provider which is responsible for granting access to the Resource Server.

The consumer does not need to care about this distinction, but it exposes an important fact about how the service provider is likely to be structured internally. You typically will have one team that is responsible for granting access, tracking down clients that seem abusive, and so on. And then many teams are free to create useful stuff and write APIs around them, with authorization offloaded to the first team.

As a consumer, you will make API requests to the Resource Server signed with proof of auhorization from the Authorization Server, the Resource Server will confirm authorization with the Authorization Server, and then the Resource Server will do whatever it was asked to do.

Organizing internal responsibilities in this manner makes it easier for many independent teams in a large company to write public APIs.

client type
The service provider internally tags each client with a client type which tells it something about what environment it is in, and how it interacts with the user. Are are the basic types listed in RFC 6749 <http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc6749#section-2.1>:
web application
Runs on a web server. Is expected to keep secrets. Likely to be appropriate for a Perl client.
user-agent-based application
JavaScript application running in a browser that wants to make AJAX calls. Can't keep secrets. Does not make sense for A Perl client.
native application
Application installed on a user's machine. Can't keep secrets. Possibly appropriate for a Perl client.

Of course all of this is up to the service provider. For example at the time of this writing, Google documents no less than six client types at <https://developers.google.com/accounts/docs/OAuth2>, none of which have been given the above names. (They also call them ``Scenarios'' rather than client type.) They rename the top two, split native application into two based on whether your application controls a browser, and add two new ones.

Your flow is the sequence and methods of interactions that set up authorization. The flow depends on your service provider and client type. For example the service provider might redirect the user to a URL controlled by a web application, while instead for a native application the user is told to cut and paste a code somewhere.

Despite flow being more common terminology in OAuth 2, client type is more self-explanatory, so I've generally gone with that instead.

The client_id is a public ID that tells the service provider about the client that is accessing it. That is, it says both who the consumer is, and what the client type is. Being public, the client_id can be shared with the user. The details of how this is assigned are between the consumer and the service provider.
The client_secret is a somewhat private piece of information that the consumer can pass to the service provider to prove that the request really comes from the consumer. How much this is trusted, and how it is used, will depend on the client type and service provider.
The service provider needs a way to tell the user how to pass information back to the consumer in a secure way. That is provided by the redirect_uri which can be anything from a "https://..." URL that the consumer controls to an instruction that lets the service provider know that it should tell the user to cut and paste some information.

It is up to the service provider what values of are acceptable for the redirect_uri, and whether it is a piece of information that is remembered or passed in during the authorization process.

The state is an optional piece of information that can be created by the consumer then added to all requests as an extra piece of protection against forgery. (You are supposed to create a random piece of information for each request, then check that you get it back.) In the OAuth 2 specification it is optional, but recommended. Depending on the combination of your service provider and client type, it may be required.
The scope describes what permissions are to be granted. To get multiple permissions, you need to join the permissions requested with spaces. Everything else is up to the service provider.

Inside of the service provider, what likely happens is that the team which runs a given Resource Server tells the team running the Authorization Server what permissions to their API should be called. And then the Authorization Server can limit a given consumer to just the APIs that the user authorized them for.

Authorization Endpoint
The Authorization Endpoint is the URL provided by the service provider for the purpose of sending requests to authorize the consumer to access the user's account. This is part of the Authorization Server.
The response_type tells the service provider what kind of information it is supposed to pass back. I am not aware of a case where a Perl client could usefully use any value other than "code". However there are flows where other things happen. For example the flow for the user-agent-based application client type uses a response_type of token.

While the field is not very useful for Perl clients, it is required in the specification. So you have to pass it.

This is the URL on the service provider's website that the user goes to in order to let the service provider know what authorization is being requested.

It is constructed as the Authorization Endpoint with get parameters added for the response_type, client_id, and optionally state. The specification mentions both redirect_uri and scope but does not actually mandate that they be accepted or required. However they may be. And, of course, a given service provider can add more parameters at will, and require (or not) different things by client type.

An example URL for Google complete with optional extensions is <https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/auth?scope=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.googleapis.com%2Fauth%2Fuserinfo.email+https%3A%2F%2Fwww.googleapis.com%2Fauth%2Fuserinfo.profile&state=%2Fprofile&redirect_uri=https%3A%2F%2Foauth2-login-demo.appspot.com%2Fcode&response_type=code&client_id=812741506391.apps.googleusercontent.com&approval_prompt=force>

In LWP::Authen::OAuth2 the "authorization_url" method constructs this URL. If your request needs to include the state, scope, or any service provider specific parameter, you need to pass those as parameters. The others are usefully defaulted from the service provider and object.

(authorization) code
If the response_type is set to "code" (which should be the case), then on success the service provider will generate a one use authorization code to give to the user to take back to the consumer. Depending on the flow this could happen with no effort on the part of the user. For example the user can be redirected to the redirect_uri with the code passed as a get parameter. The web server would then pick these up, finish the handshake, and then redirect the user elsewhere.

In all interactions where it is passed it is simply called the code. But it is described in one interaction as an authorization_code.

Token Endpoint
The Token Endpoint is the URL provided by the service provider for the purpose of sending requests from the consumer to get tokens allowing access to the user's account.
The grant_type is the type of grant you expected to get based on the response_type requested in the authorization_url. For a response_type of "code" (which is almost certainly what will be used with any consumer written in Perl), the grant_type has to be "authorization_code". If they were being consistent, then that would be code like it is everywhere else, but that's what the spec says.

We will later encounter the grant_type "refresh_token". The specification includes potential requests that can be in a flow that might prove useful. However you are only likely to encounter that if you are subclassing LWP::Authen::OAuth2::ServiceProvider. In that case you will hopefully discover the applicability and details of those grant_types from the service provider's documentation.

Access Token Request
Once the consumer has a code the consumer can submit an Access Token Request by sending a POST request to the Token Endpoint with the grant_type, code, client_id, client_secret, redirect_uri and (if in the authorization code) the state. Your service provider can also require you to authenticate in any further way that they please. You will get back a JSON response.

An example request might look like this:

    POST /o/oauth2/token HTTP/1.1
    Host: accounts.google.com
    Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded

and the response if you're lucky will look something like:

    HTTP/1.1 200 OK
    Content-Type: application/json;charset=UTF-8
    Cache-Control: no-store
    Pragma: no-cache

or if you're unlucky, maybe like this:

    HTTP/1.1 200 OK
    Content-Type: application/json;charset=UTF-8
    Cache-Control: no-store
    Pragma: no-cache

Success is up to the service provider which can decide not to give you tokens for any reason that they want, including that you asked twice, they think the user might be compromised, they don't like the client, or the phase of the Moon. (I am not aware of any service provider that makes failure depend on the phase of the Moon, but the others are not made up.)

The "request_tokens" method of LWP::Authen::OAuth2 will make this request for you, read the JSON and create the token or tokens. If you passed in a "save_tokens" callback in constructing your object, that will be called for you to store the tokens. On future API calls you can retrieve that to skip the handshake if possible.

The token_type is a case insensitive description of the type of token that you could be given. In theory there is a finite list of types that you could encounter. In practice service providers can add more at any time, either intentionally or unintentionally by failing to correctly implement the one that they claimed to have created.

See LWP::Authen::OAuth2::AccessToken for advice on how to add support for a new or incorrectly implemented token_type.

The number of seconds until you will need a new token because the old one should have expired. LWP::Authen::OAuth2 provides the "should_refresh" method to let you know when you need that new token. (It actually starts returning true slightly early to avoid problems if clocks are not synchronized, or you begin a series of operations.)
An access_token is a temporary token that gives the consumer access to the user's data in the service provider's system. In the above response the "access_token" is the value of the token, "expires_in" is the number of seconds it is good for in theory (practice tends to be close but not always exact), and "token_type" specifies how it is supposed to be used.

Once the authorization handshake is completed, if the access_token has a supported token_type. then LWP::Authen::OAuth2 will automatically sign any requests for you.

Bearer token
If the token_type is "bearer" (case insensitive), then you should have a bearer token as described by RFC 6750 <http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc6750>. For as long as the token is good, any request signed with it is authorized. Signing is as simple as sending an https request with a header of:

    Authorization: Bearer 1/fFAGRNJru1FTz70BzhT3Zg

You can also sign by passing "access_token=..." as a post or get parameter, though the specification recommends against using a get parameter. If you are using LWP::Authen::OAuth2, then it is signed with the header.

The above example also included a refresh_token. If you were given one, you can use it later to ask for a refreshed access_token. Whether you get one is up to your service provider, who is likely to decide that based on your client_type.
Refresh Access Token
If you have a refresh_token, you can at any time send a Refresh Access Token request. This is a POST to the Token Endpoint with the refresh_token, client_id and client_secret arguments. You also have to send a grant_type of "refresh_token".

Thus in the above case we'd send

    POST /o/oauth2/token HTTP/1.1
    Host: accounts.google.com
    Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded

and if lucky could get a response like

    HTTP/1.1 200 OK
    Content-Type: application/json;charset=UTF-8
    Cache-Control: no-store
    Pragma: no-cache

and if unlucky could get an error as before.

In LWP::Authen::OAuth2 this request is made for you transparently behind the scenes if possible. If you're curious when, look in the source for the "refresh_access_token" method. There are also optional callbacks that you can pass to let you save the tokens, or hijack the refresh method for your own purposes. (Such as making sure that only one process tries to refresh tokens even though many are accessing it.)

But note that not all flows offer a refresh_token. If you're on one of those flows then you need to send the user back to the service provider for authorization renewal. From the user's point of view this is likely to be painless because it will be done with transparent redirects. But the consumer needs to be aware of it.


Ben Tilly, "<btilly at gmail.com>"


Thanks to Rent.com <http://www.rent.com> for their generous support in letting me develop and release this module. My thanks also to Keith Cascio "<[email protected]>" for very helpful feedback on early drafts.