Nithin Bekal

Posts About Notes Slides

User Authentication from Scratch in Elixir and Phoenix

30 Jun 2015

In my previous post about Phoenix, we built a very simple blog app. We only added the ability to post content, but there’s no user authentication system. In this post, we will add user authentication to the app.

There are excellent authentication libraries out there like passport and addict, but here we’ll be writing authentication code from scratch, so that we can get more familiar with the framework.

NOTE: I’m using Elixir 1.2.4 with Phoenix 1.1.4 for this example.

Add a user model

The first thing we will do is add a User model. Our users will sign up with an email and a password. We will not be storing the password directly as plaintext, but in an hashed format. Let’s generate the model:

$ mix phoenix.gen.model User users email:unique crypted_password

(Note: If you’re facing problems with the command, you might want to take a look at this issue to solve this. The API to define unique contraint is not available in Phoenix < v1.0.4.)

This adds a User model and a migration to create a users table in the database. Run the migration using the command:

$ mix ecto.migrate

Signup page

Now that we have added the User model, let’s move on to creating a registration page. Let’s add the registration routes to web/router.ex. Add this line after the resources "/posts" line in the file:

# web/router.ex
resources "/registrations", RegistrationController, only: [:new, :create]

This adds a /registrations route, and a POST /registrations path to handle the form submission.

Add a link to the register page in the navigation section of web/templates/layout/app.html.eex:

<%= link "Register", to: registration_path(@conn, :new) %>

Next we add a RegistrationController:

# web/controllers/registration_controller.ex
defmodule Blog.RegistrationController do
  use Blog.Web, :controller
  alias Blog.User

  def new(conn, _params) do
    changeset = User.changeset(%User{})
    render conn, changeset: changeset
  end
end

When we try to load the /register page, Phoenix shows us an error page complaining about a missing RegistrationView. Let’s add an empty view module.

# web/views/registration_view.ex
defmodule Blog.RegistrationView do
  use Blog.Web, :view
end

Now, we are ready to add the HTML view to web/templates/registration/new.html.eex:

<h1>Create an account</h1>

<%= form_for @changeset, registration_path(@conn, :create), fn f -> %>
  <%= if f.errors != [] do %>
    <div class="alert alert-danger">
      <p>Oops, something went wrong! Please check the errors below:</p>
    </div>
  <% end %>

  <div class="form-group">
    <label>Email</label>
    <%= email_input f, :email, class: "form-control" %>
    <%= error_tag f, :email %>
  </div>

  <div class="form-group">
    <label>Password</label>
    <%= password_input f, :password, class: "form-control" %>
    <%= error_tag f, :password %>
  </div>

  <div class="form-group">
    <%= submit "Signup", class: "btn btn-primary" %>
  </div>
<% end %>

Now if we go to the path /registrations/new, we will find a signup form. If we submit the form, we will get this error:

UndefinedFunctionError at POST /registrations
undefined function: Blog.RegistrationController.create/2

Let’s add the RegistrationController.create/2 function to handle this request. The function would look like this:

# web/controllers/registration_controller.ex

def create(conn, %{"user" => user_params}) do
  changeset = User.changeset(%User{}, user_params)

  case Blog.Registration.create(changeset, Blog.Repo) do
    {:ok, changeset} ->
      # sign in the user
    {:error, changeset} ->
      # show error message
  end
end

Here we’re capturing the email and password into user_params, and creating a User changeset using it.

We will need to create the Blog.Registration module to save the user to database. We’ll come back to that later. First, let’s take care of adding validations to the User model.

Validating and persisting User

We need to make some changes to the User model before we can continue. The first thing to do is to add a virtual password attribute to User in web/models/user.ex. This allows us to create a changeset with the password attribute, but it will not be persisted. The schema block should now look like this:

# web/models/user.ex

schema "users" do
  field :email, :string
  field :crypted_password, :string
  field :password, :string, virtual: true
  timestamps
end

Next we’ll change @required_fields to make password mandatory instead of crypted_password.

- @required_fields ~w(email crypted_password)
+ @required_fields ~w(email password)

We also need to add some validations to the changeset/2 function.

# web/models/user.ex

def changeset(model, params \\ :empty) do
  model
  |> cast(params, @required_fields, @optional_fields)
  |> unique_constraint(:email)
  |> validate_format(:email, ~r/@/)
  |> validate_length(:password, min: 5)
end

This function makes email and password mandatory, validates uniqueness of email, checks if email contains an @ (this is a very crude format validation, but should suffice for now), and ensures password is longer than 5 characters.

If we submit the form now, we should see the same template re-rendered with the corresponding errors.

Now let’s return to the case where we have a valid changeset and need to persist the user to the database.

# web/controllers/registration_controller.ex

def create(conn, %{"user" => user_params}) do
  changeset = User.changeset(%User{}, user_params)

  case Blog.Registration.create(changeset, Blog.Repo) do
    {:ok, changeset} ->
      conn
      |> put_flash(:info, "Your account was created")
      |> redirect(to: "/")
    {:error, changeset} ->
      conn
      |> put_flash(:info, "Unable to create account")
      |> render("new.html", changeset: changeset)
  end
end

Here, we’re calling Blog.Registration.create/2, which is in a module we haven’t written yet. It hashes the password, writes the User record to database, and returns the persisted object. Then it redirects the user to the home page with the success flash message.

The Registration module

Now let’s implement the Registration module. This will contain a create function that takes in a user changeset and a repo, hash the password using Bcrypt and then save the changeset to the database.

# web/models/registration.ex

defmodule Blog.Registration do
  import Ecto.Changeset, only: [put_change: 3]

  def create(changeset, repo) do
    changeset
    |> put_change(:crypted_password, hashed_password(changeset.params["password"]))
    |> repo.insert()
  end

  defp hashed_password(password) do
    # hash password
  end
end

We haven’t implemented the function to hash the password. For this, we will use the comeonin library which provides functions to hash passwords using bcrypt. Add comeonin to mix.exs:

# mix.exs

  defp deps do
    [{:phoenix, "~> 0.13.1"},
      {:phoenix_ecto, "~> 0.4"},
      {:postgrex, ">= 0.0.0"},
      {:phoenix_html, "~> 1.0"},
      {:phoenix_live_reload, "~> 0.4", only: :dev},
+     {:comeonin, "~> 1.0"},
      {:cowboy, "~> 1.0"}]
  end

Now run mix deps.get to install the new dependency. Once this has been installed, we can implement the hashed_password/2 function like this:

# web/models/registration.ex

defp hashed_password(password) do
  Comeonin.Bcrypt.hashpwsalt(password)
end

If you submit valid email and password, you will now be redirected to the home page and shown the message, “your account has been created”.

Adding a login page

Now that we have added the ability to create an account, let’s add the login/logout feature. The first thing is to add the routes. Add these routes immediately after the registration page routes in web/router.ex.

# web/router.ex

get    "/login",  SessionController, :new
post   "/login",  SessionController, :create
delete "/logout", SessionController, :delete

Next, let’s add the SessionController and create the login page.

# web/controllers/session_controller.ex

defmodule Blog.SessionController do
  use Blog.Web, :controller

  def new(conn, _params) do
    render conn, "new.html"
  end
end

Create a new template web/templates/session/new.html.eex and add this:

<h2>Login</h2>

<%= form_for @conn, session_path(@conn, :create), [name: :session], fn f -> %>
  <div class="form-group">
    <label>Email</label>
    <%= text_input f, :email, class: "form-control" %>
  </div>

  <div class="form-group">
    <label>Password</label>
    <%= password_input f, :password, class: "form-control" %>
  </div>

  <div class="form-group">
    <%= submit "Login", class: "btn btn-primary" %>
  </div>
<% end %>

If you open the page /login it would complain that Blog.SessionView module is missing. Let’s add an empty module as we did with RegistrationController.

# web/views/session_view.ex

defmodule Blog.SessionView do
  use Blog.Web, :view
end

This fixes the problem, and you can now see the login page.

Submitting the login form

Now we need to add a function to handle submission of this form. This is what the create function looks like:

# web/controllers/session_controller.ex

def create(conn, %{"session" => session_params}) do
  case Blog.Session.login(session_params, Blog.Repo) do
    {:ok, user} ->
      conn
      |> put_session(:current_user, user.id)
      |> put_flash(:info, "Logged in")
      |> redirect(to: "/")
    :error ->
      conn
      |> put_flash(:info, "Wrong email or password")
      |> render("new.html")
  end
end

This function matches the session params and passes them to Blog.Session.login/2. This function checks if there is a user in the repo with the matching password, and returns a tuple containing :ok and the user if the email and password are correct. Otherwise it returns the atom :error.

The Session module

We haven’t added the Blog.Session module yet. Let’s go ahead and write the code.

# web/models/session.ex

defmodule Blog.Session do
  alias Blog.User

  def login(params, repo) do
    user = repo.get_by(User, email: String.downcase(params["email"]))
    case authenticate(user, params["password"]) do
      true -> {:ok, user}
      _    -> :error
    end
  end

  defp authenticate(user, password) do
    case user do
      nil -> false
      _   -> Comeonin.Bcrypt.checkpw(password, user.crypted_password)
    end
  end
end

We can use Comeonin.Bcrypt.checkpw/2 to check if the password matches the user’s password. If the password is wrong, or if a user does not exist with that email, we return the atom :error. If authentication succeeds, we return a tuple containing :ok and the user.

Adding some helper functions for the view

You will notice that even when a user is logged in, they can see the register link in the navbar, and access the page. We need to hide this, and show the logout button when a user is logged in.

Let’s add a couple of functions to Blog.Session and make them available in the view. The first function is current_user/1 that returns the currently logged in user. It uses the :current_user session variable we set during login.

# web/models/session.ex

def current_user(conn) do
  id = Plug.Conn.get_session(conn, :current_user)
  if id, do: Blog.Repo.get(User, id)
end

We can now use this to add another helper function, logged_in?, to Blog.Session.

# web/models/session.ex

def logged_in?(conn), do: !!current_user(conn)

Now we can make these available in the views by adding this line at the end of the quote do .. block in the Blog.Web.view/0 function in web/web.ex:

# web/web.ex

import Blog.Session, only: [current_user: 1, logged_in?: 1]

We can now replace the register page link with code that shows the login and register links only when the user isn’t signed in. Let’s edit web/templates/layout/app.html.eex:

<%= if logged_in?(@conn) do %>
  <li><%= current_user(@conn).email %></li>
  <li><%= link "Logout", to: session_path(@conn, :delete), method: :delete %></li>
<% else %>
  <li><%= link "Login",    to: "/login" %></li>
  <li><%= link "Register", to: registration_path(@conn, :new) %></li>
<% end %>

We have also used the current_user function to show the logged in user’s email in the views.

Logout functionality

The last thing we need to do now is to add the ability for users to logout. To do this, we can add the following delete function to SessionController:

# web/controllers/session_controller.ex

def delete(conn, _) do
  conn
  |> delete_session(:current_user)
  |> put_flash(:info, "Logged out")
  |> redirect(to: "/")
end

If you now click the logout link in the navbar, the user will be logged out correctly.

Automatic login on signup

One final thing we will do before finishing up with this tutorial is to log users in immediately after signup. We will add the following line in Blog.RegistrationController.create/2:

# web/controllers/registration_controller.ex

  case Blog.Registration.create(changeset, Blog.Repo) do
    {:ok, changeset} ->
      conn
+     |> put_session(:current_user, changeset.id)
      |> put_flash(:info, "Your account was created")
      |> redirect(to: "/")
  else

This automatically logs in the user after signup. There are many more details that we need to add to turn this into a complete authentication system, but we have already set up the basics.

Next steps

You might have noticed that we can still access login and register pages even when we’re logged in. This is not something we want in a proper authentication system.

We can easily do this using plugs, which I will hopefully cover in a future blog post.

Hi, I’m Nithin Bekal, a software craftsman with over 7 years of experience in shipping web applications. I mostly use Ruby, but lately have also been exploring Elixir. Co-founder of CrowdStudio.in, and helping organize Rubyconf India. Tweet to me at @nithinbekal.