Identity in Web Apps in 2016, and looking ahead

2016 has been a great year for identity in web apps. New releases from Microsoft and IdentityServer embrace authentication and authorization standards along with new web frameworks for tomorrow’s cross-platform and cloud-optimized web apps, giving customers more Identity-as-a-Service options and developers new frameworks to build upon.

There’s no getting around the fact that handling identity in web apps can be challenging. New services and frameworks emerge at a fast pace, giving customers hard choices to make about platform strategies while developers inherit implementation challenges based on these choices.

Choosing an IDaaS (Identity as a Service) provider or even building your own identity platform, based on the open authentication and authorization standards OpenID Connect and Oauth2.0, are two options to consider when choosing an identity strategy for your web apps in today’s enterprise segment.

This year we saw some promising new services and frameworks which applies to both of these options.

  • Microsoft released Azure AD B2C — building on the existing Azure AD (Active Directory) platform
  • IdentityServer, a popular Microsoft-endorsed ASP.NET implementation of OpenID Connect and OAuth2.0, now support Microsoft’s new open-source web framework ASP.NET Core 1.0.

Microsoft used to recommend IdentityServer for those looking at an identity platform based on ASP.NET. Now that they built their equivalent in Azure, there’s a new exciting IDaaS option to choose from.

IdentityServer’s port to ASP.NET Core 1.0 is a big step into the future for ASP.NET web apps. Once it matures it will be a natural place to start for those looking to build their identity platform based on IdentityServer.

Introducing Microsoft Azure Active Directory Business-to-Consumer

BUILD 2016 - Microsoft Identity

Earlier this year at BUILD I saw Microsoft talk about the current state of Microsoft Identity and Azure AD B2C. Microsoft announced later in July that Azure AD B2C is already Generally Available in the North America region. This is great news and meets a need I see in the B2C identity space for both Azure and on-premise web apps. Let me explain why.

Azure AD has already been around for a few years and has served well as the identity provider for company employees, i.e. internal users. This enabled employees to log in and use company services such as Office365 and internal websites.

Why did we miss B2C?

There was really no good story for a company’s customers: the Business-to-Consumer (B2C) users. Lets say a company has an extranet or an e-commerce website. Do the users of these websites belong in Azure AD along with internal employee users? Ideally not. For many reasons; spam-accounts and increased attack surface on a central business-critical service to name a few.

So until now you’d put these external users in separate databases with a membership-framework for the B2C-website sitting on top. Now, you’re probably doing authentication and authorization on these websites as well, duplicating the responsibilities that you’re already paying Azure AD to do for your internal users and services!

What do we get from B2C?

BUILD 2016 - Azure AD B2C

So Microsoft created Azure AD B2C. It targets these misplaced and “homeless” external users and gives them a place to exist, so that the already existing platform of Azure AD can be applied to this user segment as well.

Azure AD B2C offers the expected IDaaS benefits for the B2C-segment, including:

  • Built on a well-established authentication platform
  • Runs on the same infrastructure as Azure AD. Which means scalability, security & auditing, support, standards-compliance and more are already in place.
  • Use local accounts, social providers, email verification
  • Fully customizable UX (critical for not breaking user context during login!)

Alternatives to Azure AD B2C

In addition to building your own identity platform, Auth0 is a great IDaaS provider that offer many of the same benefits as Azure AD B2C, including:

  • Set up social identity providers (e.g. Facebook, Google, Microsoft)
  • Customize UX
  • A rich API
  • Based on open standards
  • Enterprise level integration with AD

Auth0 can be used for both external users and internal users, which is convenient for customers looking for a single IDaaS platform for both user segments.

IdentityServer on ASP.NET Core 1.0

Just last week one of the authors of IdentityServer, Dominick Baier, announced that IdentityServer4 was RC1. This version targets Microsoft’s new open web framework ASP.NET Core 1.0, bringing the popular open-source identity platform to a new framework for cross-platform and cloud-optimized web apps. IdentityServer4 has been in development for some time already.

What changes in version 4?

The announcement explains in more technical detail all of the internal architectural changes and benefits from ASP.NET Core 1.0. Overall, version 4 is a porting of version 3 with big upgrades in key areas along with several deep architectural re-writes.

The increased separation between UI and back-end is one of the biggest improvements, in my opinion. This makes bringing in a separate front-end developer to do pure UX work easier and much more efficient.

The highlights include:

  • Customizing UX is easier due to more separation in the architecture
  • Integrates well with the built-in middleware for logging, configuration etc. in ASP.NET Core 1.0
  • Improved integration with the standard ASP.NET identity framework, ASP.NET Core Identity
  • Extended compliance with the OpenID Connect and OAuth2.0 standards

Will MembershipReboot be ported as well?

Brock Allen, the other author of IdentityServer, originally built the MembershipReboot user management framework out of frustration for lacking functionality in the ASP.NET Identity framework. Today, MembershipReboot seems to be the go-to user management framework for not only IdentityServer, but also any ASP.NET web app not using ASP.NET Identity and needs user management features such as:

  • social identity providers
  • email verification
  • notification system
  • reset/forgot password
  • custom user attributes
  • multi-tenancy

Looking ahead, the ASP.NET Core 1.0 ships with the new ASP.NET Core Identity framework for user management, replacing the old ASP.NET Identity framework. Brock has stated that this framework will most likely replace MembershipReboot for ASP.NET Core web apps, because of improvements made to the ASP.NET Core Identity framework. Improvements which he himself and Dominick have contributed with, based on lessons learned from MembershipReboot and IdentityServer.

So no, it doesn’t look like MembershipReboot will be ported but instead be replaced by ASP.NET Core Identity, and customers and developers looking at building IdentityServer on ASP.NET Core should explore ASP.NET Core Identity for user management.

Summary

For those who have already built an identity platform because Azure AD or other IDaaS-providers didn’t yet have a good B2C-story, exploring Azure AD B2C to get the mentioned IDaaS-benefits would be time well spent. If you already are invested in Microsoft Azure and have yet to make an identity decision for your web apps, Azure AD and the new Azure AD B2C are excellent services to explore. As I mentioned, there are also great IDaaS-alternatives.

For those who are comfortable with building their own identity platform, and are taking a close look at where ASP.NET is heading with ASP.NET Core 1.0, IdentityServer is still an industry leader in identity and offers a great open-source alternative.

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