Understanding Authentication: A Guide to Cookie-Based and Session-Based Authentication

5 Jul 2024


If there’s one thing I would like to know previously, it is the entire way authentication works. Session authentication and cookie authentication are both types of token-based authentication. So, we will be talking about Cookie-Based and Session-Based Authentication. As a developer, there will come a time when you will see the need to use authentication in your web application.

What images do you have in mind when you hear the terms sessions and cookies? Cookies are kept on the client directly (Browser). Whereas sessions make use of a cookie as a kind of key to link with the information kept on the server side. Because the actual values are concealed from the client and the developer has control over when the data expires, sessions are preferred by the majority of developers.

Without wasting your time, let’s jump straight into this guide.

What Is Authentication

Verifying a user or entity's identity to access a system, network, or application is known as authentication. It entails confirming that the user's or an entity's identity credentials, such as a username and password, a security token, biometric information, or a digital certificate, are accurate.

To ensure that only authorized parties or individuals are given access to sensitive data and resources, authentication is a crucial component of security. To offer a secure and dependable access control system, it is frequently used in conjunction with other security measures including authorization, encryption, and multi-factor authentication.

What Is Session Authentication

When a user logs into an application or website, session authentication, a sort of token-based authentication, creates a special session ID for them. The server-side storage of this session ID is used to verify user requests made after that point.

The server generates a fresh session ID and links it to the user's account each time they log in. The user's browser then receives this session ID as a cookie, which is saved on the user's device. With each successive request, the user's browser subsequently sends the session ID back to the server, enabling it to confirm the user's identity and grant access to secured resources.

Web apps and websites frequently utilize session authentication to provide users access to their accounts without requiring them to enter their passwords again each time they change pages or do other actions. It frequently works in tandem with other security measures like multi-factor authentication and encryption to offer a strong and dependable access control solution.

Pron Of Session-Based Authentication

Session-based authentication has advantages. Below are the advantages of using Session-Based authentication.

  1. Security: By asking the user to enter login information for each session, session-based authentication aids in preventing unwanted access to a user's account. As a result, it becomes more challenging for attackers to access a user's account because they would need to be aware of the login information for each session.

  2. User Experience: Since a user only needs to log in once and their session is kept active for a while, session-based authentication can make using the system easier (e.g., 30 minutes or an hour). This indicates that the user can go between pages of the website or application without repeatedly entering their login information.

  3. Scalability: As the server just needs to keep track of active sessions rather than keeping login information for each user, session-based authentication can be readily scaled up to handle huge numbers of users.

Cons Of Session-Based Authentication

Session-Based Authentication's drawbacks.

  1. One of the largest threats to session-based authentication is session hijacking, in which an attacker takes control of a user's session and assumes their identity. Using safeguards like SSL encryption, secure session cookies, and session timeouts can help mitigate this.

  2. Session Fixation: This potential flaw in session-based authentication occurs when an attacker establishes a user's session ID before the user logs in, giving the attacker control of the user's session after the user logs in. By creating a fresh session ID after the user logs in, this can be avoided.

  3. Resource Consumption: Because the server must keep track of all active sessions, session-based authentication can be very resource-intensive. This is because this procedure uses a lot of memory and processing power. By putting in place restrictions like session timeouts and a cap on the number of active sessions per user, this can be lessened.

What Are Cookies Authentication

Websites and web apps employ cookie authentication as a user authentication technique. After a person logs in to a website, little text files known as cookies are used and kept on their device.

A cookie with a special identifier linked to the user's account is created by the website when a user checks in. The user's device then receives and stores this cookie in their browser. The website may recognize the user and authenticate them without them having to log in again by sending the cookie back to the website on subsequent visits.

As users do not need to log in repeatedly to access their accounts, cookie authentication can be used to offer a simple and seamless user experience. To avoid jeopardizing the security of the user's account, it is crucial to make sure that the cookies used for authentication are safe and difficult to manipulate. Also, because it could not always offer enough security, cookie authentication might not be appropriate for all websites or applications.

Pron Of Cookies-Based Authentication

Cookies-Based Authentication's Advantages

  1. Convenience: Cookies-based authentication makes it easier for users to access the website or application since they don't need to continuously enter their login information after closing their browser or powering off their device.

  2. Scalability: Because the server only needs to keep track of each user's active sessions, cookies-based authentication may be scaled up to handle enormous numbers of users.

  3. Personalization: By collecting users' preferences and behavior on the website or app, cookies-based authentication enables websites or applications to tailor the user experience.

Cons Of Cookies-Based Authentication

Negative aspects of cookies-based authentication

  1. Security Risks: Cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks and session hijacking are two security vulnerabilities that cookies-based authentication may be subject to. Session timeouts, SSL encryption, and the use of secure cookies are among the countermeasures that can be used to lessen this risk.

  2. Cookies-based authentication can present privacy issues because the website or application may be gathering and storing personal information about the user. By putting policies in place like making clear privacy policies and receiving explicit user agreements for data collecting, this can be lessened.

  3. Users who share devices or use public computers might not have the optimal user experience using cookies-based authentication because other users may be able to access their login information if it is kept on the device. Using safeguards like giving users the choice to log out of the session and erasing the cookies when a user signs out can help mitigate this.

Difference Between Cookies-Based Authentication And Session-Based Authentication

Common methods for preserving user authentication over numerous requests in web applications include cookies-based authentication and session-based authentication.

Cookies-based authentication involves putting authentication data in a cookie that is saved on the user's browser, including their login credentials. To identify the user and preserve their authorized state, the server sends this cookie along with every subsequent request the user makes to the web application.

On the other hand, session-based authentication includes saving the authentication data on the server side. An exclusive session ID is generated and linked to an account when a user checks in. This session ID is then provided to the server with each subsequent request and saved on the user's browser as a cookie. The server can then look up the user's authentication details using the session ID, which helps keep the user in an authenticated state.

The location of the authentication data storage is the primary distinction between cookies-based authentication and session-based authentication. Although session-based authentication stores the authentication data on the server, cookies-based authentication stores it on the user's browser.

In general, cookies-based authentication is simpler to implement because the server doesn't need to keep track of any session data, which is a benefit. However, cookies-based authentication is more susceptible to security threats, like cookie theft and session hijacking.

As the authentication data is retained on the server and inaccessible to the user, session-based authentication is typically thought to be more secure. Nevertheless, because the server must manage session timeouts and expiration as well as session information, session-based authentication might be trickier to implement.

In the end, the web application's demands and requirements will determine whether to use cookies-based authentication or session-based authentication.

Which one should I use?

Every developer is entitled to His/Her opinion on which authentication to use. But my advice is to use session-based authentication because it’s safer. While building your site or application, you may need to go for any of them. Below are the use cases for Session and Cookies authentication.

Use case for Cookies Authentication

When a person registers to a website, cookies authentication is frequently used. The server creates a distinct session ID after verifying the user's credentials once they submit their username and password. The user's browser's cookie then contains the session ID. Each time the user makes a new request to the server, the cookie is sent along with it, enabling the server to recognize the user and deliver customized information. Because it is reasonably simple to implement and is widely supported by web browsers, cookie authentication is a popular option.

Use case for Session Authentication When a user interacts with a web application that necessitates repeated requests to complete a job, session authentication is frequently used. To place an order on an e-commerce website, for instance, a user may need to add items to their cart, enter shipping details, and enter payment information. The server constructs a session object linked to the user's login credentials to preserve the state of the order across multiple requests. An individual session ID is delivered in a cookie to the user's browser along with this session object, which is saved on the server. The server can obtain the session object and keep track of the order's status because each future request from the user includes the session ID. To enable safe, stateful interactions between the user and the web application, session authentication is frequently combined with cookie authentication.

Best Practices for Cookies-Based Authentication

Authentication Using Cookies: Best Practices:

  1. With the HttpOnly and Secure flags set, use secure cookies.
  2. Consider the sensitivity of the data and the user's behavior when setting the cookie expiration time.
  3. To prevent tampering, encrypt the cookie contents using powerful encryption methods.
  4. To stop replay attacks, give each cookie a special identification number.
  5. In stateless apps or other situations where cookies are inappropriate, take into account utilizing a token-based strategy as an alternative to cookies for authentication.

Best Practices for Session-Based Authentication

Session-based authentication best practices

  1. Use a private, random session identification and save it on the server.

  2. To lessen the chance of a session being hijacked, limit the session's lifespan.

  3. Use secure session archiving techniques, such as an encrypted file or database system.

  4. To protect the session data while it is in transit, use SSL/TLS encryption.

  5. When logging out or after a predetermined amount of inactivity, invalidate the session.

In both situations, it is crucial to routinely evaluate and audit the authentication procedures to spot and fix any potential security flaws. Users must also be instructed about best practices, such as not disclosing their login information to others and staying away from public computers when conducting sensitive business.


Finally, we’re done with this guide, hope you’ve gained a ton of value! Going through this guide entirely you will learn the basics of Cookies and Sessions authentication, and learn more about authentication itself.

We also saw a lot of differences between them; you’ll bet me that going through this guide was a waste. Feel free to drop a comment in the comment section, like this guide, and follow me for more information.

Thanks, till next time!!!

About The Author

Full-stack Laravel developer Emmanuel Okolie has 2+years of experience working in the software development sector. By combining software development, writing, and instructing others in what he does, he has developed full-fledged skills.
His stacks includeReactJs, Laravel, PHP, JavaScript, and other languages and frameworks.

As a freelancer, he creates websites for clients and writes technical guides to show people how to do his work.

If given the chance, Emmanuel Okolie would enjoy speaking with you. Please follow him on his website, Facebook, Github, LinkedIn, and Twitter.