RobDWaller A Developer

Bio

Rob Waller Profile Picture

I am a PHP and JavaScript Developer and Head of Tech at a communications agency in London. I also built Twitter's largest anti-bot app.

View My GitHub Profile

Tweet Me: @RobDWaller

How to Create a JSON Web Token Using PHP

January 29, 2018 Home > Blogs > How to Create a JSON Web Token Using PHP Author: Rob Waller Tags: php, json, jwt, tokens, authentication

I have spent the last year intermittently working on a PHP JSON Web Token library called ReallySimpleJWT, and this week I released version 1.0.0. The code is accessible via GitHub and Packagist.

For those of you who have not used JSON Web Tokens before they are a URL friendly, token based, authentication system. And they allow you to easily transfer information via an encoded JSON payload.

The core benefits of JSON Web Tokens are twofold: you don’t need to use sessions or cookies to maintain authentication between states; and you don’t have to constantly call the database for user information as this can be stored in the token payload.

Each token is broken down into three parts and each part is separated by a dot.

  • Header: This contains information on the token type, usually JWT, and the hashing algorithm used, eg HMAC SHA256 or RSA.
  • Payload: This contains any information you wish to transfer about the user, eg the user identifier.
  • Signature: This secures the token and is a hash of the encoded header and payload, along with a secret.
// Token structure
header.payload.signature

// A real world token
eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJzdWIiOiIxMjM0NTY3ODkwIiwibmFtZSI6IkpvaG4gRG9lIiwiYWRtaW4iOnRydWV9.TJVA95OrM7E2cBab30RMHrHDcEfxjoYZgeFONFh7HgQ

JWT security is achieved via the signature which is created by hashing the encoded header and payload and securing this with a secret only known to the author.

When receiving a token from a user the author will then be able to validate the signature by re-hashing the received header and payload with the known secret and checking it matches the received signature. If anyone were to tamper with the header or payload the signatures would not match and authentication would fail.

If you wish to get started quickly with JWTs the ReallySimpleJWT library offers an easy to use interface for generating and validating JSON Web Tokens.

use ReallySimpleJWT\Token;

// Generate a token
$token = Token::getToken('userIdentifier', 'secret', 'tokenExpiryDateTimeString', 'issuerIdentifier');

// Validate the token
$result = Token::validate($token, 'secret');

It’s perfect if you need to quickly implement user authentication on a simple API. The library also offers more advanced usage and functionality if you’d like to read the documentation.

How to Build a JSON Web Token in PHP

If you’d like to build your own JWT generator or just learn a little bit more about them the following guide will help. While the examples below are written using PHP the concepts apply to any language so all developers should find them useful. The full script is at the bottom of this guide.

Create the Header and Payload

To begin we need to create header and payload JSON strings. We’ll do this based on two simple arrays each asserting a number of claims about the token. You can read more about claims in the associated RFC. For the header we define the type typ and the algorithm alg claims which are RFC standard claims; for the payload we’ll create our own claim user_id.

// Create token header as a JSON string
$header = json_encode(['typ' => 'JWT', 'alg' => 'HS256']);

// Create token payload as a JSON string
$payload = json_encode(['user_id' => 123]);

Create Base64Url Header and Payload Strings

Next we encode our $header and $payload JSON strings as Base64Url strings. This is slightly different to a standard Base64 string and there is no built in PHP Base64Url method yet. So we have to do a bit of string replace magic which will replace + with -, / with _ and = with ''. This is so that the Base64 string is passed within URLs without any URL encoding.

// Encode Header to Base64Url String
$base64UrlHeader = str_replace(['+', '/', '='], ['-', '_', ''], base64_encode($header));

// Encode Payload to Base64Url String
$base64UrlPayload = str_replace(['+', '/', '='], ['-', '_', ''], base64_encode($payload));

Create the Signature

To create the signature we need to use the hash_hmac() method available in PHP and use the sha256 algorithm. We pass in a concatenated string of the Base64Url encoded header and payload $base64UrlHeader . "." . $base64UrlPayload. It’s important to note we have to include the dot . between the two strings. We add a secret, ideally a strong one that is longer than twelve characters. The ReallySimpleJWT library enforces this principle, but for our example we don’t need to worry. Finally we force the hash_hmac() method to return the output as binary data.

// Create Signature Hash
$signature = hash_hmac('sha256', $base64UrlHeader . "." . $base64UrlPayload, 'abC123!', true);

Base64Url Encode the Signature

Once we have created the signature we simply need to Base64Url encode it as we did with the header and payload.

// Encode Signature to Base64Url String
$base64UrlSignature = str_replace(['+', '/', '='], ['-', '_', ''], base64_encode($signature));

Create the JSON Web Token

Finally we create the JWT by concatenating the header $base64UrlHeader, payload $base64UrlPayload and signature $base64UrlSignature. Each part of the JWT is separated by a dot.

// Create JWT
$jwt = $base64UrlHeader . "." . $base64UrlPayload . "." . $base64UrlSignature;

// Output
eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjoxMjN9.NYlecdiqVuRg0XkWvjFvpLvglmfR1ZT7f8HeDDEoSx8

And that’s it, really easy. You can test the JWT that this code produces on the JWT.io website. The code is below in full and I’d suggest you read the relevant documentation on the JWT site along with the RFC.

You can of course use the ReallySimpleJWT Library if you wish and I will produce a post on validating JWTs in the next week or two. If you have any thoughts or have noticed any mistakes please message me @RobDWaller on Twitter.

The Script

// Create token header as a JSON string
$header = json_encode(['typ' => 'JWT', 'alg' => 'HS256']);

// Create token payload as a JSON string
$payload = json_encode(['user_id' => 123]);

// Encode Header to Base64Url String
$base64UrlHeader = str_replace(['+', '/', '='], ['-', '_', ''], base64_encode($header));

// Encode Payload to Base64Url String
$base64UrlPayload = str_replace(['+', '/', '='], ['-', '_', ''], base64_encode($payload));

// Create Signature Hash
$signature = hash_hmac('sha256', $base64UrlHeader . "." . $base64UrlPayload, 'abC123!', true);

// Encode Signature to Base64Url String
$base64UrlSignature = str_replace(['+', '/', '='], ['-', '_', ''], base64_encode($signature));

// Create JWT
$jwt = $base64UrlHeader . "." . $base64UrlPayload . "." . $base64UrlSignature;

echo $jwt;