User Authentication

In the previous Understand Django article, we learned about the structure of a Django application and how apps are the core components of a Django project. In this article, we’re going to dig into Django’s built-in user authentication system. We’ll see how Django makes your life easier by giving you tools to help your web application interact with the users of your site.

  1. From Browser To Django
  2. URLs Lead The Way
  3. Views On Views
  4. Templates For User Interfaces
  5. User Interaction With Forms
  6. Store Data With Models
  7. Administer All The Things
  8. Anatomy Of An Application
  9. User Authentication

Authentication And Authorization

We need to start with some terms before we begin our study. When your project interacts with users, there are two primary aspects tightly coupled to users that we must consider.

Authentication: When a user tries to prove that they are who they say they are, that is authentication. A user will typically authenticate with your site via some login form or using a social provider like Google to verify their identity.

Authentication can only prove that you are you.

Authorization: What is a user allowed to do? Authorization answers that question. We use authorization to determine what permissions or groups a user belongs to, so that we can scope what a user can do on the site.

Authorization determines what you can do.

The Django auth system covers both of these topics. Sometimes the software industry will shorten authentication to “authn” and authorization to “authz,” but I think those labels are fairly silly and confusing. I will call out topics by their full name and refer to the entire Django system as “auth.”

Setup

If you used the startproject command to begin your project, then, congratulations, you’re done and can move on!

The auth features in Django require a couple of built-in Django applications and a couple of middleware classes.

The Django apps are:

  • django.contrib.auth and
  • django.contrib.contenttypes (which the auth app depends on)

The middleware classes are:

  • SessionMiddleware to store data about a user in a session
  • AuthenticationMiddleware to associate users with requests

Middleware and sessions are both future topics so consider them internal details that you can ignore for now.

The Django docs provide additional context about these pre-requisites so check out the auth topic installation section for more details.

Who Authenticates?

If your site is going to have any level of personalization for anyone who uses it, then we need some way to track identity.

In the Django auth system, identity is tracked with a User model. This model stores information that you’d likely want to associate with anyone who uses your site. The model includes:

  • name fields,
  • email address,
  • datetime fields for when a user joins or logs in to your site,
  • boolean fields for some coarse permissions that are very commonly needed,
  • and password data.

The User model is a critically important model in many systems. Unless you’re creating a website that is entirely public data and has no need to factor in identity, then you will probably use the User model heavily.

Even if you don’t expect your site’s visitors to identify in some fashion, you’ll still probably benefit from the User model because it is integrated with the Django admin site. I mentioned in Administer All The Things that we needed a user with certain permissions to access the admin, but we glossed over the details of what that meant.

The admin will only permit users with the is_staff attribute set to True. is_staff is one of the boolean fields that I listed as included in the default User model implementation.

Now we have an understanding that the User model is a very important model in a Django site. At minimum, the model is important as you use the Django admin, but it can also be very important for the people that come to your site.

Next, let’s look a bit deeper at authentication and how that works in conjunction with the User model.

Authenticating With Passwords

Like many other websites that you’ve used, Django’s built-in auth system authenticates users with passwords.

When a user wants to authenticate, the user must log in to the site. Django includes a LoginView class-based view that can handle the appropriate steps. The LoginView is a form view that:

  • Collects the username and password from the user
  • Calls the django.contrib.auth.authenticate function with the username and password to confirm that the user is who they claim to be
  • Redirects to either a path that is set as the value of the next parameter in the URL’s querystring or settings.LOGIN_REDIRECT_URL if the next parameter isn’t set
  • Or, if authentication failed, re-renders the form page with appropriate error messages

How does the authenticate function work? The authenticate function delegates the responsibility of deciding if the user’s credentials are valid to an authentication backend.

Like we have seen with templates and with databases, the auth system has swappable backends. With different backend options, you can have multiple ways of authenticating. The authenticate function will loop through any auth backends that are set in the AUTHENTICATION_BACKENDS list setting. Each backend can do one of three things:

  • Authenticate correctly with the user and return a User instance.
  • Not authenticate and return None. In this case, the next backend is tried.
  • Not authenticate and raise a PermissionDenied exception. In this case, no other backends are tried.

You could add a backend to that setting that lets people authenticate with their social media accounts (django-allauth is a great option to do exactly that). You might be in a corporate setting and need Single Sign-On (SSO) for your company. There are backend options that enable that too.

Although there are many options, we’ll focus on the built-in backend included with the auth system. The default backend is called the ModelBackend and it is in the django.contrib.auth.backends module.

The ModelBackend is named as it is because it uses the User model to authenticate. Given a username and password from the user, the backend compares the provided data to any existing User records.

The authenticate function calls the authenticate method that exists on the ModelBackend. The backend does a lookup of a User record based on the given username passed to the method by the authenticate function. If the user record exists, the backend calls user.check_password(password) where password is the actual password that is supplied by the person who submitted the POST to the LoginView.

Django doesn’t store actual passwords. To do so would be a major weakness in the framework because any leak of the database would leak all users passwords. And that’s totally not cool. Instead, the password field on the User model stores a hash of the password.

Maybe you’ve never encountered hashing before. A hash is a computed value that is generated by running input data through a special function. The details of the computation is a very deep topic, especially when considering security, but the important thing to know about hashes is that you can’t reverse the computation.

In other words, if you generated a hash from mysekretpassword, then you wouldn’t be able to take the hash value and figure out that the original input was myseckretpassword.

Why is this useful? By computing hashes, Django can safely store that computed value without compromising a user’s password. When a user wants to authenticate with a site, the user submits a password, Django computes the hash on that submitted value and compares it to the hash stored in the database. If the hashes match, then the site can conclude that the user sent the correct password. Only the password’s hash would match the hash stored in the User model.

Hashing is a fascinating subject. If you want to learn more about the guts of how Django manages hashes, I would suggest reading the Password management in Django docs to see the details.

Authentication Views

That’s a lot of stuff to do for authentication!

Is Django going to expect you to call the authenticate function and wire together all the views yourself? No!

I mentioned the LoginView earlier, but that’s not the only view that Django provides to make authentication manageable. You can add the set of views with a single include:

# project/urls.py

from django.urls import include, path

urlpatterns = [
    ...
    path("accounts/", include("django.contrib.auth.urls")),
]

This set includes a variety of features.

  • A login view
  • A logout view
  • Views to change a password
  • Views to reset a password

If you choose to add this set, your job is to override the built-in templates to match the styling of your site. For example, to customize the login view, you would create a file named registration/login.html in your templates directory. The All authentication views documentation provides information about each view and the name of each template to override.

If you have more complex needs for your site, you might want to consider some external Django applications that exist in the ecosystem. I personally like django-allauth. The project is very customizable and provides a path to add social authentication to sign up with your social media platform of choice. I also like django-allauth because it includes sign up flows that you don’t have to build yourself. The application is definitely worth checking out.

We’ve now seen how Django authenticates users to a website with the User model, the authenticate function, and the built-in authentication backend, ModelBackend. We’ve also seen how Django provides views to assist with login, logout, and password management.

Once a user is authenticated, what is that user allowed to do? We’ll see that next as we explore authorization in Django.

What’s Allowed?

Authorization From User Attributes

Django has multiple ways to let you control what a user is allowed to do on your site.

The simplest form of checking on a user is to check if the site has identified the user or not. Before a user is authenticated by logging in, that user is anonymous. In fact, the Django auth system has a special class to represent this kind of anonymous user. Sticking to the principle of least surprise, the class is called AnonymousUser.

The User model includes an is_authenticated attribute. Predictably, users that have authenticated will return True for is_authenticated while AnonymousUser instances return False for the same attribute.

Django provides a login_required decorator that can use this is_authenticated information. The decorator will gate any view that needs a user to be authenticated.

This may be the appropriate level of authorization check if you have an application that restricts who is allowed to log in. For instance, if you’re running a Software as a Service (SaaS) application that requires users to pay a subscription to use the product, then you may have sufficient authorization checking by checking is_authenticated. In that scenario, if your application only permits users with an active subscription (or a trial subscription) to log in, login_required will guard against any non-paying users from using your product.

There are other boolean values on the User model that you can use for authorization checking.

  • is_staff is a boolean to decide whether a user is a staff member or not. By default, this boolean is False. Only staff-level users are allowed to use the built-in Django admin site. You can also use the staff_member_required decorator if you have views that should only be used by members of your team with that permission.
  • is_superuser is a special flag to indicate a user that should have access to everything. This “superuser” concept is very similar to the superuser that is present in Linux permission systems. There’s no special decorator for this boolean, but you could use the user_passes_test decorator if you had very private views that you needed to protect.
from django.contrib.admin.views.decorators import staff_member_required
from django.contrib.auth.decorators import user_passes_test
from django.http import HttpResponse

@staff_member_required
def a_staff_view(request):
    return HttpResponse("You are a user with staff level permission.")

def check_superuser(user):
    return user.is_superuser

@user_passes_test(check_superuser)
def special_view(request):
    return HttpResponse("Super special response")

The user_passes_test decorator behaves much like login_required, but it accepts a callable that receives a user object and returns a boolean. If the boolean value is True, the request is permitted and the user gets the response. If the boolean value is False, the user will be redirected to the login page.

Authorization From Permissions And Groups

The first set of checks that we looked at is data that is stored with a User model record. While that works well for some cases that apply to many sites, what about authorization that depends on what your application does?

Django comes with a flexible permission system that can let your application control who can see what. The permission system includes some convenient auto-created permissions as well as the ability to make custom permission for whatever purpose. These permission records are Permission model instances from django.contrib.auth.models.

Any time you create a new model, Django will create an additional set of permissions. These auto-created permissions map to the Create, Read, Update, and Delete (CRUD) operations that you can expect to use in the Django admin. For instance, if you have a pizzas app and create a Topping model, Django would create the following permissions:

  • pizzas.add_topping for Create
  • pizzas.view_topping for Read
  • pizzas.change_topping for Update
  • pizzas.delete_topping for Delete

A big reason to create these permissions is to aid your development and add control to the Django admin. Staff-level users (i.e., user.is_staff == True) in your application have no permissions to start with. This is a safe default so that any new staff member cannot access all of the data in your system unless you grant them more permissions as you gain trust in them.

When a staff user logs into the Django admin, they will initially see very little. As permissions are granted to the user’s account, the Django admin will reveal additional information corresponding to the selected permissions. Although permissions are often granted through the User admin page, you can add permissions to a user through code. The User model has a ManyToManyField called user_permissions that associates user instances to particular permissions.

Continuing with the pizza application example, perhaps you work with a chef for your pizza app. Your chef may need the ability to control any new toppings that should be available to customers, but you probably don’t want the chef to be able to delete orders from the application’s history.

For the chef, you’d grant the pizzas.add_topping, pizzas.view_topping, and pizzas.change_topping permissions, but you’d leave out orders.delete_order.

from django.contrib.auth.models import Permission, User
from django.contrib.contenttypes.models import ContentType
from pizzas.models import Topping

content_type = ContentType.objects.get_for_model(Topping)
permission = Permission.objects.get(
    content_type=content_type, codename="add_topping")
chef_id = 42
chef = User.objects.get(id=42)
chef.user_permissions.add(permission)

We haven’t covered the contenttypes app so this code may look unusual to you, but the auth system uses content types as a way to reference models generically when handling permissions. You can learn more about content types and their uses at the contenttypes framework documentation. The important point to observe from the example is that permissions behave like any other Django model.

Adding permissions to individuals users is a nice feature for a small team, but if your team grows, it could devolve into a nightmare.

Let’s suppose that your application is wildly successful, and you need to hire a large support staff to help with customer issues. If your support team needs to view certain models in your system, it would be a total pain if you had to manage that per staff member.

Django has an ability to create groups to alleviate this problem. The Group model is the intersection between a set of permissions and a set of users. Thus, you could create a group like “Support Team,” assign all the permissions that such a team should have, and include all your support staff on that team. Now, any time that the support staff members require a new permission, it can be added once to the group.

A user’s groups are tracked with another ManyToManyField called groups.

from django.contrib.auth.models import Group, User

support_team = Group.objects.get(name="Support Team")
support_sally = User.objects.get(username="sally")
support_sally.groups.add(support_team)

In addition to the built-in permissions that Django creates and the group management system, you can create additional permissions for your own purposes.

Let’s give our chef permission to bake pizzas in our imaginary app.

from django.contrib.auth.models import Permission, User
from django.contrib.contenttypes.models import ContentType
from pizzas.models import Pizza

content_type = ContentType.objects.get_for_model(Pizza)
permission = Permission.objects.create(
    codename="can_bake",
    name="Can Bake Pizza",
    content_type=content_type,
)
chef_id = 42
chef = User.objects.get(id=42)
chef.user_permissions.add(permission)

To check on the permission in our code, you can use the has_perm method on the User model. has_perm expects an application label and the permission codename joined together by a period.

>>> chef = User.objects.get(id=42)
>>> chef.has_perm('pizzas.can_bake')
True

You can also use a decorator on a view to check a permission as well. The decorator will check the request.user for the proper permission.

# pizzas/views.py

from django.contrib.auth.decorators import permission_required

@permission_required('pizzas.can_bake')
def bake_pizza(request):
    # Time to bake the pizza if you're allowed.
    ...

Working With Users In Views And Templates

Now we’ve discussed how to authenticate users and how to check their authorization. How do we interact with users in your application code?

The first way is inside of views. Part of configuring the auth system is to include the AuthenticationMiddleware in django.contrib.auth.middleware.

This middleware has one job in request processing: add a user attribute to the request that the view will receive. This middleware gives us very clean and convenient access to the user record.

# application/views.py

from django.http import HttpResponse

def my_view(request):
    if request.user.is_authenticated:
        return HttpResponse('You are logged in.')
    else:
        return HttpResponse('Hello guest!')

The AuthenticationMiddleware is what makes it possible for the decorators that I’ve described in this article (i.e., login_required, user_passes_test, and permission_required) to work. Each of the decorators finds the user record as an attribute attached to the request.

How about templates? If you had to add a user to a view’s context for every view, that would be tedious.

Thankfully, there is a context processor named auth that let’s you avoid that pain (the processor is in django.contrib.auth.context_processors). The context processor will add a user to the context of every view when processing a request.

Recall that a context processor is a function that receives a request object and returns a dictionary that will be merged into the context. Knowing that, can you guess how this context processor works?

If you guessed AuthenticationMiddleware, you get a cookie! 🍪 Since the middleware adds the user to the request, the context processor has the very trivial job of creating a dictionary like {'user': request.user}. There’s a bit more to the actual implementation, and you can check out the Django source code if you want to see those details.

Now you’ve seen how Django leverages the auth middleware to make users easily accessible to your views and templates.

Summary

In this article, we got into Django’s built-in user auth system.

We learned about:

  • How auth is set up
  • What the User model is
  • How authentication works
  • Django’s built-in views for making a login system
  • What levels of authorization are available
  • How to access users in views and templates

Next time we’ll study middleware in Django. As the name implies, middleware is some code that exists in the “middle” of the request and response process. We will learn about:

  • The mental model for considering middleware
  • How to write your own middleware
  • Some of the middleware classes that comes with Django

If you’d like to follow along with the series, please feel free to sign up for my newsletter where I announce all of my new content. If you have other questions, you can reach me online on Twitter where I am @mblayman.