What is a Token?
Earlier today I hopefully gave a somewhat reasonable, simple answer to the question "What is a Claim?" Let's try the same with "Token":
In the WS-* security world, "Token" is really just a another name the security geniuses decided to use for "Handy package for all sorts of security stuff". The most popular type of token is the SAML (just say "samel") token. If the ladies and gentlemen designing and writing security platform infrastructure and frameworks are doing a good job you might want to know about the existence of such a thing, but otherwise be blissfully ignorant of all the gory details.
Tokens are meant to be a thing that you need to know about in much the same way you need to know about ... ummm... rebate coupons you can cut out of your local newspaper or all those funny books that you get in the mail. I have really no idea how the accounting works behind the scenes between the manufacturers and the stores, but it really doesn't interest me much, either. What matters to me is that we get $4 off that jumbo pack of diapers and we go through a lot of those these days with a 9 month old baby here at home. We cut out the coupon, present it at the store, four bucks saved. Works for me.
A token is the same kind of deal. You go to some (security) service, get a token, and present that token to some other service. The other service takes a good look at the token and figures whether it 'trusts' the token issuer and might then do some further inspection; if all is well you get four bucks off. Or you get to do the thing you want to do at the service. The latter is more likely, but I liked the idea for a moment.
Remember when I mentioned the surprising fact that people lie from time to time when I wrote about claims? Well, that's where tokens come in. The security stuff in a token is there to keep people honest and to make 'assertions' about claims. The security dudes and dudettes will say "Err, that's not the whole story", but for me it's good enough. It's actually pretty common (that'll be their objection) that there are tokens that don't carry any claims and where the security service effectively says "whoever brings this token is a fine person; they are ok to get in". It's like having a really close buddy relationship with the boss of the nightclub when you are having troubles with the monsters guarding the door. I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, though.
In the post about claims I claimed that "I am authorized to approve corporate acquisitions with a transaction volume of up to $5Bln". That's a pretty obvious lie. If there was such a thing as a one-click shopping button for companies on some Microsoft Intranet site (there isn't, don't get any ideas) and I were to push it, I surely should not be authorized to execute the transaction. The imaginary "just one click and you own Xigg" button would surely have some sort of authorization mechanism on it.
I don't know what Xigg is assumed to be worth these days, but there is actually be a second authorization gate to check. I might indeed be authorized to do one-click shopping for corporate acquisitions, but even with my made-up $5Bln limit claim, Xigg may just be worth more that I'm claiming I'm authorized to approve. I digress.
How would the one-click-merger-approval service be secured? It would expect some sort of token that absolutely, positively asserts that my claim "I am authorized to approve corporate acquisitions with a transaction volume of up to $5Bln" is truthful and the one-click-merger-approval service would have to absolutely trust the security service that is making that assertion. The resulting token that I'm getting from the security service would contain the claim as an attribute of the assertion and that assertion would be signed and encrypted in mysterious (for me) yet very secure and interoperable ways, so that I can't tamper with it as much as I look at the token while having it in hands.
The service receiving the token is the only one able to crack the token (I'll get to that point in a later post) and look at its internals and the asserted attributes. So what if I were indeed authorized to spend a bit of Microsoft's reserves and I were trying to acquire Xigg at the touch of a button and, for some reason I wouldn't understand, the valuation were outside my acquisition limit? That's the service's job. It'd look at my claim, understand that I can't spend more than $5Bln and say "nope!" - and it would likely send email to SteveB under the covers. Trouble.
Bottom line: For a client application, a token is a collection of opaque (and mysterious) security stuff. The token may contain an assertion (saying "yep, that's actually true") about a claim or a set of claims that I am making. I shouldn't have to care about the further details unless I'm writing a service and I'm interested in some deeper inspection of the claims that have been asserted. I will get to that.
Before that, I notice that I talked quite a bit about some sort of "security service" here. Next post...