GraphQL Authentication and Authorization at Scale

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At Unity, we use GraphQL federation to expose a wide range of business functionality across the organization in a single GraphQL schema. With an ever-growing number of services, this presents challenges for authentication and authorization across the board. I explore how we implemented GraphQL auth at the gateway level, the key design decisions behind it, and the wide-reaching benefits this can have.

Jonny Green
Jonny Green
22 min
10 Dec, 2021

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Video Summary and Transcription

This talk discusses the implementation of GraphQL Authentication and Authorization at scale at Unity. The speaker explains how they use GraphQL Federation to expose business functionality through a centralized schema and the challenges they faced in handling auth at scale. They describe how they simplified configuration and scaling using Mercurius and implemented hooks and an Orth plugin. The implementation at Unity involves a Unity Orth endpoint and a central Unity Orth directive definition. The talk also covers the implementation of AuthPolicyHandler and AuthDirective for downstream services and showcases different access levels. The Mercurius Auth plugin provides a scalable approach to authentication and ongoing improvements include adding support for a filter schema.

1. Introduction to GraphQL at Unity

Short description:

Hi everyone, and welcome to my talk on GraphQL Authentication and Authorization at Scale. I'll discuss GraphQL at Unity, the problem we wanted to solve with Auth at scale, the design, and the solution. At Unity, we use GraphQL Federation to expose business functionality to clients through a centralized GraphQL schema. We are actively working on improving our self-service options and automating the process. Our tech stack includes Node.js, TypeScript, and the Mercurius GraphQL server.

Hi everyone, and welcome to my talk on GraphQL Authentication and Authorization at Scale. My name's Jonny Green and I'm a Senior Software Engineer at Unity Technologies and also an open-source developer.

So before we get into it, I'd like to just quickly discuss the agenda. Just to really set the scene for you all and just really provide a lot of context for the solution and design that we'll talk about coming up. So first of all, we'll talk about GraphQL at Unity. I'll introduce our team and basically some of the things that we do, as well as talking about our tech stack. Just to really provide you all with an idea of how we work and how we implement GraphQL.

Next up, I'll discuss the problem we wanted to solve with Auth, especially at scale. So I'll discuss, yeah, basically the problems we encountered and also what benefits we're looking to solve, looking to have as well. Next up, I'll talk about the design. So I'll discuss the actual details of the design, as well as also how this solves our original problem and how it gives us the benefits that we're looking to have as well. And then finally, I'll show you all the solution. So this will include the implementation, but also a short, brief example to give you an idea of exactly how we implemented this at Unity.

So GraphQL at Unity. So I work in the live platform team, where our primary aim is to expose business functionality to clients. And this is all through a centralized GraphQL schema. So we use GraphQL Federation under the hood, where we have a gateway, and then, behind this, we expose several services that expose different parts of the business. And it's functionality, and clients talk to the centralized schema, which they treat as the hard contracts, do we expose and basically, yeah, just get the bits of business functionality that they need to access.

We also are actively working on improving our self-service options. So as we get more and more requests from clients, we want them to be able to do the work themselves as well. So if they want to expose a new bit of business functionality, we want to say to them, here's some instructions, and you can go and implement it yourself in a GraphQL compliant way with all the benefits that we serve as well. So for instance, we do a lot of caching under the hood, so we can tell them how to take advantage of all these benefits and tooling that we've developed over the past year or so. We're also looking to automate a lot of this. So a lot of this is fairly generic stuff and standardized by convention, so this enables us to look into, can we generate all this code and can we make lives for new developers a lot easier by just saying, if you want to spin up a new service, just run this command, and you're good to go. And you've got all the service set up you need. It's all hooked in, and it can be deployed as well.

So I thought I'd also talk about our tech stack. So we use Node.js and TypeScript under the hood, and it's done very well for us. And with that, we also use the Mercurius GraphQL server. And this is for both all our services and also our gateway as well.

2. Handling Auth at Scale with GraphQL Federation

Short description:

We chose Mercurius because of its fantastic open-source community and the functionality it provides. With GraphQL Federation, we can expose business functionality at scale and take advantage of federation features. However, handling auth at scale was a challenge. We wanted to simplify the implementation and ensure a consistent auth model across all services. We also wanted to be closer to the auth mechanisms provided by Unity and have a single policy definition for all services.

So the reason why we chose Mercurius is just it's got a fantastic open-source community, and we really bought into that, and we really like it because of that. Also Mercurius provides all the functionality that we need and more. So we just thought it was a bit of a no-brainer for us to choose Mercurius, and it's been fantastic so far.

We also use GraphQL Federation. So as I mentioned before, we're exposing business functionality at scale, so through a central gateway with lots of services. Now, lots of these services provide functionality that can be related to other bits of functionality. So we're not only federating the graph and all the individual graphs into one big graph. Also, taking advantage of federation features, such as if we've got a user with a certain set of details that comes from another service, we can provide that through GraphQL Federation.

So I'd like to discuss a problem next, and that is handling auth at scale. So when we started out, all our services were running auth. So that means all the services had to implement the auth mechanism. They had to define their auth policy definition, and also then just define all the fields they wish to protect. And that's quite a lot of stuff for a service to be doing when we really want to scale this out long-term. So we want to take a lot of this responsibility away from the service, and just really make sure that the implementation is like really simple, and they just need to, all the services need to worry about is a business logic is exposing, and just take a lot of the responsibility away from that.

So with that, we've also got multiple services and also multiple teams. So lots of new contributors outside of our team that are contributing new and more and more services to our federated system. And this comes with its own problems. So multiple teams, they may use different tech stacks, they may use different auth models. And for the clients, they don't necessarily know how the fields are protected or what fields are protected. So we also want to solve this as well. So we want to ensure that we've got a consistent auth model across all services that they all adhere to. And we also want to present all this information to clients. So if a service protects a certain field in a certain way, we want to tell clients about this in order to tell them how to handle all the errors and basically how to integrate with our system. In terms of the benefits we're looking for, so we also want to be closer to the auth mechanisms. So because the services are currently running auth, they're quite far away from the Unity auth endpoint that they interact with. So we want to be closer to that, which will give us better performance, but also allow us to optimize, for example, how many requests we make to this endpoint and how we request this endpoint. So we want to be closer to the auth mechanisms that Unity provides. We also want a single policy. So we essentially want to control the centralized policy and basically tell services how to access it. So all the services all use the same policy definition, and as long as they adhere to that, we're good to go.

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