Microservice architecture has been around for years now, and I think it’s here to stay. The approach has many advantages, but it brings some challenges along the way. One of which is authentication/authorization.

Authentication and authorization are two very distinct concerns that are often treated together, expecially if the information used to verify them is the same (for example a username or a session identifier). From now on we will refer to both terms together as “auth”.

An example: microservice architecture

In this little essay we consider a web-facing application with a microservice architecture, we assume we have a cluster where internal connectivity is not exposed, and we also have one or more services that are exposed on the internet as part of their responsibility.

In this context one would think that after the outermost services handle auth, then the auth problem “disappears” within microservices’ network. This would result in inner services having no auth, meaning integration would be very easy. It would also let everyone within the network to access data and invoke procedures without any check. This scenario assumes good intentions, so a misconfigured process or a bad actor could access or change data from within the network.

One way to partially deal with the unlimited access is acting at the network level by either firewall rules, network policies in kubernetes, or by solutions like a service mesh. Another approach would be to authenticate each and every request even within the cluster. And here is where JWT shines!

JSON Web Token

JWT - or JSON Web Token - is a standardized tool to carry data over the network, expecially over HTTP. It consists in a JSON object with conventions on fields and also customizable fields, which is then encoded with Base64URL. The encoding happens to be compatible with HTTP headers, which is convenient because it will be the way we use it. JWT is also optionally signed (JWS - JWT signature) and/or encrypted (JWE - JWT encryption).

More in depth, a JWT is composed of two or more JSON objects:

  • a header object which describes the token type and optional sign and encryption algorithms
  • a payload object containing data
  • an optional signature object
  • one or more encryption objects depending on the chosen algorithm

The header object has standard fields:

  • type (typ) represents the type of token, it can be a mime type for or “JOSE”
  • algorythm (alg) optionally represents the signature or encryption algorithm. Note that when type is encrypted/signed the algorithm can still be “none” and this renders the token unencrypted/unverifiable

The payload object has standard fields called “claims” for common concepts:

  • unique identifiers
  • validity timestamps and validity limits
  • audience specification for the token
  • token issuer specification
  • the subject of the token, i.e. who is the verified user/person/service authorized with this token

The payload can be freely extended with custom claims, as long as they are represented with standard JSON. A possible use of this is mapping capabilities of the authenticated entity, or carrying user information if JWT is used to represent a session.

Enhancing the example

So what does this bring to the context of microservices? Consider extending the original scenario: the outermost service verifies the auth of the caller, and also creates a JWT that represents the caller. It additionally sign the token, obtaining a JWS. Now you get a verifiable token that can be used to auth the request within all the internal calls inside the microservice architecture. In this scenario we only consider JWS (or JWE) because JWT by itself is easy to change, we need at least a signature to trust the caller.

Other services should accept the call only if they:

  • verify the signature of the token
  • check whether they trust the issuer (“iss” claim in the payload)
  • check whether they are part of the audience for the token. That is, if their name is in the “aud” list in the payload.
  • check if token is still valid according to timestamp limits (“exp”, “nbf” claims, see RFC)

This is nothing new but the biggest advantages of JWT/JWS is that these verifications can happen without calling other services. In other words, properly crafted JWTs provide stateless authentication/authorization.

Final remarks and conclusion

There are added benefits of JWT:

  • you can pass JWT along the next service in chained calls
  • you can carry contextual information like transaction id, or user data
  • for HTTP services you only add a header, so you get to keep a clean API
  • testing can be enabled by ignoring JWT signature or by configuring a trusted issuer, no fancy setup is needed
  • format is standard and uses formats and encodings that are easy to decode and debug
  • it is becoming pretty common so it’s easy to find API gateways and framework libraries that support it


  • you need to configure your gateway (or web-facing server) to create the JWS
  • you need an infrastructure to handle certificates, although with solutions like letsencrypt this is becoming easier to do
  • you need to whitelist accepted algorithms and issuers of JWT on each service
  • any process that initiates calls to JWT-protected services from within the cluster has to either pass through an API gateway or have a mean to create a trusted JWT by itself
  • since claims can be personalized and JWT does not have a fixed schema, you need to agree on the actual combination of claims you want to use

I would also add that JWT are not limited to a microservice environment. The standard is agnostic and has been successfully used:

  • as a soft replacement for HTTP session in frontend-backend communication
  • as a format for information exchange between trusting parties
  • as part of OpenID Connect, a standardized mechanism to authenticate a user on a service via a third party identity provider

I think JWT is a nice versatile tool to encode information. I really liked what this tiny JSON enables in a microservice environment, enhancing the security of a system without disrupting the protocols or affecting the developer experience.