Using the OAuth Client Credentials Flow

I often get questions about protecting applications like APIs using OAuth. I guess you know the drill:

  • you have to obtain a token (typically a JWT or JSON Web Token)
  • the client submits the token to your backend (via a Authorization HTTP header)
  • the token needs to be verified (do you trust it?)
  • you need to grab some fields from the token to use in your application (claims).

When the client is a daemon or some server side process, you can use the client credentials grant flow to obtain the token from Azure AD. The flow works as follows:

OAuth Client Credentials Flow (image from Microsoft docs)

The client contacts the Azure AD token endpoint to obtain a token. The client request contains a client ID and client secret to properly authenticate to Azure AD as a known application. The token endpoint returns the token. In this post, I only focus on the access token which is used to access the resource web API. The client uses the access token in the Authorization header of requests to the API.

Let’s see how this works. Oh, and by the way, this flow should be done with Azure AD. Azure AD B2C does not support this type of flow (yet).

Create a client application in Azure AD

In Azure AD, create a new App Registration. This can be a standard app registration for Web APIs. You do not need a redirect URL or configure public clients or implicit grants.

Standard run of the mill app registration

In Certificates & secrets, create a client secret and write it down. It will not be shown anymore when you later come back to this page:

Yes, I set it to Never Expire!

From the Overview page, note the application ID (also client ID). You will need that later to request a token.

Why do we even create this application? It represents the client application that will call your APIs. With this application, you control the secret that the client application uses but also the access rights to the APIs as we will see later. The client application will request a token, specifying the client ID and the client secret. Let’s now create another application that represents the backend API.

Create an API application in Azure AD

This is another App Registration, just like the app registration for the client. In this case, it represents the API. Its settings are a bit different though. There is no need to specify redirect URIs or other settings in the Authentication setting. There is also no need for a client secret. We do want to use the Expose an API page though:

Expose API page

Make sure you get the application ID URI. In the example above, it is api://06b2a484-141c-42d3-9d73-32bec5910b06 but you can change that to something more descriptive.

When you use the client credentials grant, you do not use user scopes. As such, the Scopes defined by this API list is empty. Instead, you want to use application roles which are defined in the manifest:

Application role in the manifest

There is one role here called invokeRole. You need to generate a GUID manually and use that as the id. Make sure allowedMemberTypes contains Application.

Great! But now we need to grant the client the right to obtain a token for one or more of the roles. You do that in the client application, in API Permissions:

Client application is granted access to the invokeRole application role of the API application

To grant the permission, just click Add a permission, select My APIs, click your API and select the role:

Selecting the role

Delegated permissions is greyed out because there are no user scopes. Application permissions is active because we defined an application role on the API application.

Obtaining a token

The server-side application only needs to do one call to the token endpoint to obtain the access token. Here is an example call with curl:

curl -d "grant_type=client_credentials&client_id=f1f695cb-2d00-4c0f-84a5-437282f3f3fd&client_secret=SECRET&audience=api%3A%2F%2F06b2a484-141c-42d3-9d73-32bec5910b06&scope=api%3A%2F%2F06b2a484-141c-42d3-9d73-32bec5910b06%2F.default" -X POST "https://login.microsoftonline.com/019486dd-8ffb-45a9-9232-4132babb1324/oauth2/v2.0/token"

Ouch, lots of gibberish here. Let’s break it down:

  • the POST needs to send URL encoded data in the body; curl’s -d takes care of that but you need to perform the URL encoding yourself
  • grant_type: client_credentials to indicate you want to use this flow
  • client_id: the application ID of the client app registration in Azure AD
  • client_secret: URL encoded secret that you generated when you created the client app registration
  • audience: the resource you want an access token for; it is the URL encoding of api://06b2a484-141c-42d3-9d73-32bec5910b06 as set in Expose an API
  • scope: this one is a bit special; for the v2 endpoint that we use here it needs to be api://06b2a484-141c-42d3-9d73-32bec5910b06/.default (but URL encoded); the scope (or roles) that the client application has access to will be included in the token

The POST goes to the Azure AD v2.0 token endpoint. There is also a v1 endpoint which would require other fields. See the Microsoft docs for more info. Note that I also updated the application manifests to issue v2 tokens via the accessTokenAcceptedVersion field (set to 2).

The result of the call only results in an access token (no refresh token in the client credentials flow). Something like below with the token shortened:

{"token_type":"Bearer","expires_in":3600,"ext_expires_in":3600,"access_token":"eyJ0e..."}

The access_token can be decoded on https://jwt.ms:

Decoded token

Note that the invokeRole is present because the client application was granted access to that role. We also know the application ID that represents the API, which is in the aud field. The azp field contains the application ID of the client application.

Great, we can now use this token to call our API. The raw HTTP request would be in this form.

GET https://somehost/calc/v1/add/1/1 HTTP/1.1 
Host: somehost 
Authorization: Bearer eyJ0e...

Of course, your application needs to verify the token somehow. This can be done in your application or in an intermediate layer such as API Management. We will take a look at how to do this with API Management in a later post.

Conclusion

Authentication, authorization and, on a broader scale, identity can be very challenging. Technically though, a flow such as the client credentials flow, is fairly simple to implement once you have done it a few times. Hopefully, if you are/were struggling with this type of flow, this post has given you some pointers!