Logging In With Laravel

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Welcome to the much-belated Part 2 of my Laravel Authentication series! As promised, in this chapter we’ll be diving more into the nuts and bolts of the authentication process. We’ll also look at the login process in an attempt to better understand how the authentication process works within a Laravel application.

If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you can find it on Medium here.

I’m going to start with the code that’s added to a Laravel application once the developer uses the make:auth command. From there, we'll work our way from the top on down, looking at the code behind a typical login request before examining the code that makes such a login workflow possible.

Scaffolding Auth

First, let’s look at code powering the make:auth command:

The important part for our purposes is the routes appended to our web.php file via file_put_contents. This is where Laravel adds the routes powering the default authentication experience.

As it turns out, the appended stub is only two lines long:

In an additional convenience, the routes method is the only method defined directly on the Auth facade. Examining that method shows that the bulk of our authentication logic is contained in the Router class:

The corresponding Router function accepts an array of options specifying whether registration, reset and verify routes should be included. Using those options, the router adds a number of routes to our application:

Because we’re trying to follow the journey of a typical login request, we’ll be focused only on the routes that interface with Laravel once a login request has been sent. In particular, we are concerned with the POST login route, which redirects to the LoginController@login method.

Looking at the Login controller, we don’t see much:

However, notice that there’s an AuthenticatesUsers trait, which means any methods available in the trait will also be accessible in this controller. Let's look there and see if we can find a login method:

Fortunately, as with much of the Laravel source code, the top-level API utilizes descriptive method names to resemble the plain-language description of the workflow as closely as possible.

First, the login request is validated. We need to make sure that a username and password are included, and that both are strings:

From there, we move onto login throttling. As specified in the authentication docs, login throttling prevents a user from spamming your server with login requests if they’ve failed to login multiple times.

Here is the hasTooManyLoginAttempts method:

We see that the brunt of the throttling logic is delegated to the class returned by limiter(), which is an instance of Laravel's Cache/RateLimiter. Before looking at that, let's inspect the two methods we can find in ThrottlesLogins: throttleKey and maxAttempts.

We see that a throttle key is created by combining the username provided in the login request (by default, this is the user’s email) with the IP address of the device from which the user is logging in.

Next, maxAttempts():

This one’s fairly self-explanatory: unless the developer has defined a custom maxAttempts property, a default value of 5 is used. Keep in mind that you would define this property on the LoginController within your application, and not on the ThrottlesLogins trait itself. As the LoginController uses both the ThrottlesLogins and AuthenticatesUsers traits, any properties available on the controller are also available to its traits.

With this in mind, let’s look at the tooManyAttempts method in Cache/RateLimiter:

We see that the RateLimiter class makes extensive use of Laravel's native cache functionality. It uses the throttleKey defined above to check the cache and see whether the user has logged in too many times. If they have, and there's still a timer on that particular key, tooManyAttempts returns true and the user is denied entry. Otherwise, if there's no timer on the user's throttle key, this means that their throttling period has expired. In this case, the RateLimiter resets the user's login attempts to give them a clean slate and avoid throttling based on stale attempts.

Of course, if true is returned from the tooManyAttempts method, the user isn't allowed to login, and Laravel responds accordingly. First, a new Lockout event is fired using Laravel's event system. After that, the user is sent a lockout response, specifying the number of seconds until another attempt is permitted:

Defensive Programming

By this point, having confirmed that the user has supplied login information and is not currently locked out, the authentication processes we’ve studied in the first chapter come into play. This logic is encapsulated at this point in the LoginController@login method:

Notice how the “happy path” is encapsulated within its own conditional logic: a good example of defensive programming.

In plain English, here’s what the above means. The “happy path” for any piece of code is what happens when everything goes as planned. It’s the golden brick road, the mythical destination where we as developers realize there’s no place like a good user experience.

In our case, the “happy path” is a successful login: the user provides the correct credentials and is allowed access to our application. The sendLoginResponse method contains the necessary actions for the happy path to occur. It is thus important that this method is found only within a conditional. If, and only if, the return value of attemptLogin() is truthy, then our users can follow the happy path.

Let’s look at this code with a bit more context:

If the users follow the happy path, the incrementLoginAttempts and sendFailedLoginResponse methods are never called, as execution stops on the sendLoginResponse method instead.

Therefore, if the user has reached the point where incrementLoginAttempts is being called, then we know that the login attempt has not been successful.

The crux of this strategy, and of defensive programming in general, is the assumption of failure. The happy path is guarded with a conditional, and defensive programming assumes that this condition returns falsy. The main benefit of this approach is that it’s better to accidentally deny a successful login than to accidentally allow a fraudulent login.

There is little downside to accidentally denying valid logins: your users can always try again. By contrast, allowing illegitimate access because your program assumed the happy path can result in your website’s accounts being compromised.

In this way, defensive programming is a lot like defensive driving: assuming the worst and planning accordingly is your best chance at success, no matter the outcome.

Attempting a Login

With that aside covered, let’s look at the actual login attempt code:

To perform our authentication check, we use the credentials provided by the request and the credentials() method:

By default, username() returns email, which means that the user's email and password are used in the auth check.

Here is the first major difference between the login auth process and the code we examined in the first chapter: while we were previously examining the TokenGuard, the default guard for login attempts is the SessionGuard. Let's take a look at the SessionGuard@attempt method:

Notice defensive programming at work: only if the user has valid credentials are they logged in. Otherwise, a failed login event is fired and the user is denied access. As before, by assuming failure as the default, this method reduces the possibility of false positives and protects user data as a result.

Besides that, there are three major functions to look at here: retrieveByCredentials, hasValidCredentials, and login.

retrieveByCredentials is attached to the guard's provider. As we learned in the last chapter, providers are responsible for defining how your application defines a "user" within the context of authentication. Laravel provides two providers out of the box. Both attempt to fetch a user from your database, but they differ on how to create a user from a database row:

  1. The eloquent driver casts your user into an Eloquent model.
  2. The database driver casts your user into a GenericUser model, which is a simple class wrapper around a database row containing only the necessary methods for authentication.

The eloquent driver is default, so we'll look at that first:

First, we ensure that we have enough information to fetch a user. As a user cannot be fetched by an unhashed password alone, the method returns null if only a password is provided.

Next, a new Eloquent query is created using whatever model you define alongside the eloquent driver. In the vast majority of cases, this will be the default User model that comes with all Laravel applications.

From there, for each value provided in the credentials array, a new WHERE clause is added to the query. The first database entry that matches the resulting query is returned as a User model.

Let’s compare this against the retrieveByCredentials method in the DatabaseUserProvider:

As before, we abort if there are not enough credentials to successfully fetch a user. Unlike with the EloquentUserProvider, we establish a direct connection to our database instead of relying on Eloquent to manage the connection for us.

Once the connection has been established, the query itself is set up in a similar manner to EloquentUserProvider. The main difference is the return value of the query's first method. Instead of a User model, we are instead given the raw values returned from the database. Working with raw arrays can be clunky and error-prone, however, so the queried array is cast into a GenericUser model before being returned to the SessionGuard.

With any luck, the above explanation demonstrates how different providers use different data sources and methods to accomplish the same result. While the retrieveByCredentials method on both providers ultimately returns a user object, the two classes differ in how they choose to query the database and construct their user objects.

Validating Credentials

With our user in hand, it’s time to check their password. This is handled by the SessionGuard’s hasValidCredentials method:

If retrieveByCredentials didn't return a user, we can safely assume that the given credentials are invalid, and we return false. Otherwise, the responsibility for determining how to validate the credentials is passed off to the provider. In this case, the two providers implement the method in exactly the same way:

Now, cryptography is an interesting and useful subject, but if we were to include an intro to cryptography in this column the reading time would span well over an hour. Suffice it to say for now that the hasher@check method returns either 'true' or 'false' depending on whether the provided password matches the password on record.

Mission Success: Logging In

At this point, if the user has passed the hasher check and reached the login method, the login attempt has been successful. From here, the SessionGuard transitions into doing the work necessary to log the user into your application.

First, because this is the SessionGuard, our application updates the user’s session to reflect their successful login.

A new session value is added with the user’s ID to let our application know that this user is logged in. From there, the session is renewed using migrate to force our app to refresh and acknowledge our changes.

I’m going to skip the logic behind the remember token process, as it’s rather intricate, requires some knowledge of how cookies work, and ultimately not directly related to whether a user actually is who they claim to be.

Besides the event methods, which don’t directly affect the login process, the only function remaining in the login method is setUser. The sole responsibility of this method is to save some information about the user and the login attempt in memory so that the user doesn't have to be loaded again should this class be called later on in the app lifecycle.

With this, the login function stops execution, effectively ending the login process. The true value is returned from the guard's attempt method, which then causes the the attemptLogin method in our LoginController to return true as well. At this point, the only thing left to do is to send the user a successful login response:

Remember that our application’s session was reset after we stored the user’s ID. By refreshing the request’s session, we guarantee that the request session is fully in sync with the application session. This means that calls to $request->session() that happen after our user has logged in will correctly state that the user is authenticated.

The last step depends on your application. If you’ve defined an authenticated method in your LoginController, that method will take over from here. This is good if you want to implement some custom logic that's more advanced than a simple redirect.

Otherwise, your user is redirected using the RedirectsUsers trait:

If there’s a redirectTo method on your controller, this trait will call it and redirect users to whatever the return value is. This could be helpful if your application has different tiers of users that should be directed to different places - subscribers to /subscribers/ and regular users to /dashboard/, for instance.

Otherwise, if a redirectTo property exists, that will be the redirect target. In case neither a method nor a property exists, the default redirect path is to /home. Personally, I never end up using the /home route in my own applications, so I recommend that you define your custom redirectTo property to fit your application.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully this journey through the lifecycle of a Laravel login has been illustrative. We’ve taken the opportunity not only to examine how the authentication process works at a high level, but also how the different drivers and guards available within Laravel can customize individual steps of a process while creating the same end result.

Should you have any more requests for similar walkthroughs, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me @mariowhowrites on Twitter, Medium, Practical Dev, or my own website.

Written by

Chief Typer-of-Words at Ceiba Web

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