View Source Defining Custom Authentication Strategies

AshAuthentication allows you to bring your own authentication strategy without having to change the Ash Authentication codebase.

Add-on vs Strategy?

There is functionally no difference between "add ons" and "strategies" other than where they appear in the DSL. We invented "add ons" because it felt weird calling "confirmation" an authentication strategy.

There are several moving parts which must all work together so hold on to your hat!

  1. A Spark.Dsl.Entity struct. This is used to define the strategy DSL inside the strategies (or add_ons) section of the authentication DSL.
  2. A strategy struct, which stores information about the strategy as configured on a resource which must comply with a few rules.
  3. An optional transformer, which can be used to manipulate the DSL state of the entity and the resource.
  4. An optional verifier, which can be used to verify the DSL state of the entity and the resource after compilation.
  5. The AshAuthentication.Strategy protocol, which provides the glue needed for everything to wire up and wrappers around the actions needed to run on the resource.

We're going to define an extremely dumb strategy which lets anyone with a name that starts with "Marty" sign in with just their name. Of course you would never do this in real life, but this isn't real life - it's documentation!

DSL setup

Let's start by defining a module for our strategy to live in. Let's call it OnlyMartiesAtTheParty:

defmodule OnlyMartiesAtTheParty do
  use AshAuthentication.Strategy.Custom

Sadly, this isn't enough to make the magic happen. We need to define our DSL entity by adding it to the use statement:

defmodule OnlyMartiesAtTheParty do
  @entity %Spark.Dsl.Entity{
    name: :only_marty,
    describe: "Strategy which only allows folks whose name starts with \"Marty\" to sign in.",
    examples: [
      only_marty do
        case_sensitive? true
        name_field :name
    target: __MODULE__,
    args: [{:optional, :name, :marty}],
    schema: [
      name: [
        type: :atom,
        doc: """
        The strategy name.
        required: true
      case_sensitive?: [
        type: :boolean,
        doc: """
        Ignore letter case when comparing?
        required: false,
        default: false
      name_field: [
        type: :atom,
        doc: """
        The field to check for the users' name.
        required: true

  use AshAuthentication.Strategy.Custom, entity: @entity

If you haven't you should take a look at the docs for Spark.Dsl.Entity, but here's a brief overview of what each field we've set does:

  • name is the name for which the helper function will be generated in the DSL (ie only_marty do #... end).
  • describe and examples are used when generating documentation.
  • target is the name of the module which defines our entity struct. We've set it to __MODULE__ which means that we'll have to define the struct on this module.
  • schema is a keyword list that defines an options schema. See Spark.Options.

By default the entity is added to the authentication / strategy DSL, however if you want it in the authentication / add_ons DSL instead you can also pass style: :add_on in the use statement.

Next up, we need to define our struct. The struct should have at least the fields named in the entity schema. Additionally, Ash Authentication requires that it have a resource field which will be set to the module of the resource it's attached to during compilation.

defmodule OnlyMartiesAtTheParty do
  defstruct name: :marty, case_sensitive?: false, name_field: nil, resource: nil

  # ...

  use AshAuthentication.Strategy.Custom, entity: @entity

  # other code elided ...

Now it would be theoretically possible to add this custom strategies to your app by adding it to the extensions section of your resource:

defmodule MyApp.Accounts.User do
  use Ash.Resource,
    extensions: [AshAuthentication, OnlyMartiesAtTheParty],
    domain: MyApp.Accounts

  authentication do
    strategies do
      only_marty do
        name_field :name

  attributes do
    attribute :name, :string, allow_nil?: false

Implementing the AshAuthentication.Strategy protocol

The Strategy protocol is used to introspect the strategy so that it can seamlessly fit in with the rest of Ash Authentication. Here are the key concepts:

  • "phases" - in terms of HTTP, each strategy is likely to have many phases (eg OAuth 2.0's "request" and "callback" phases). Essentially you need one phase for each HTTP endpoint you wish to support with your strategy. In our case we just want one sign in endpoint.
  • "actions" - actions are exactly as they sound - Resource actions which can be executed by the strategy, whether generated by the strategy (as in the password strategy) or typed in by the user (as in the OAuth 2.0 strategy). The reason that we wrap the strategy's actions this way is that all the built-in strategies (and we hope yours too) allow the user to customise the name of the actions that it uses. At the very least it should probably append the strategy name to the action. Using Strategy.action/4 allows us to refer these by a more generic name rather than via the user-specified one (eg :register vs :register_with_password).
  • "routes" - AshAuthentication.Plug (or AshAuthentication.Phoenix.Router.html) will generate routes using Plug.Router (or Phoenix.Router) - the routes/1 callback is used to retrieve this information from the strategy.

Given this information, let's implement the strategy. It's quite long, so I'm going to break it up into smaller chunks.

defimpl AshAuthentication.Strategy, for: OnlyMartiesAtTheParty do

The name/1 function is used to uniquely identify the strategy. It must be an atom and should be the same as the path fragment used in the generated routes.

  def name(strategy), do:

Since our strategy only supports sign-in we only need a single :sign_in phase and action.

  def phases(_), do: [:sign_in]
  def actions(_), do: [:sign_in]

Next we generate the routes for the strategy. Routes should contain the subject name of the resource being authenticated in case the implementer is authenticating multiple different resources - eg User and Admin.

  def routes(strategy) do
    subject_name = AshAuthentication.Info.authentication_subject_name!(strategy.resource)

      {"/#{subject_name}/#{}", :sign_in}

When generating routes or forms for this phase, what HTTP method should we use?

  def method_for_phase(_, :sign_in), do: :post

Next up, we write our plug. We take the "name field" from the input params in the conn and pass them to our sign in action. As long as the action returns {:ok, Ash.Resource.record} or {:error, any} then we can just pass it straight into store_authentication_result/2 from AshAuthentication.Plug.Helpers.

  import AshAuthentication.Plug.Helpers, only: [store_authentication_result: 2]

  def plug(strategy, :sign_in, conn) do
    params = Map.take(conn.params, [to_string(strategy.name_field)])
    result = action(strategy, :sign_in, params, [])
    store_authentication_result(conn, result)

Next, we implement our sign in action. We use Ash.Query to find all records whose name field matches the input, then constrain it to only records whose name field starts with "Marty". Depending on whether the name field has a unique identity on it we have to deal with it returning zero or more users, or an error. When it returns a single user we return that user in an ok tuple, otherwise we return an authentication failure.

In this example we're assuming that there is a default read action present on the resource.


When it comes to authentication, you never want to reveal to the user what the failure was - this helps prevent enumeration attacks.

You can use AshAuthentication.Errors.AuthenticationFailed for this purpose as it will cause ash_authentication, ash_authentication_phoenix, ash_graphql and ash_json_api to return the correct HTTP 401 error.

  alias AshAuthentication.Errors.AuthenticationFailed
  require Ash.Query
  import Ash.Expr

  def action(strategy, :sign_in, params, options) do
    name_field = strategy.name_field
    name = Map.get(params, to_string(name_field))
    domain = AshAuthentication.Info.domain!(strategy.resource)

    |> Ash.Query.filter(expr(^ref(name_field) == ^name))
    |> then(fn query ->
      if strategy.case_sensitive? do
        Ash.Query.filter(query, like(^ref(name_field), "Marty%"))
        Ash.Query.filter(query, ilike(^ref(name_field), "Marty%"))
    |> case do
      {:ok, [user]} ->
        {:ok, user}

      {:ok, []} ->
        {:error, AuthenticationFailed.exception(caused_by: %{reason: :no_user})}

      {:ok, _users} ->
        {:error, AuthenticationFailed.exception(caused_by: %{reason: :too_many_users})}

      {:error, reason} ->
        {:error, AuthenticationFailed.exception(caused_by: %{reason: reason})}

Lastly, we have to implement the tokens_required?/1 function. This function indicates Ash Authentication whether your strategy creates or consumes any tokens. Since our strategy does not, we can simply return false:

def token_required?(_), do: false

Bonus round - transformers and verifiers

In some cases it may be required for your strategy to modify it's own configuration or that of the whole resource at compile time. For that you can define the transform/2 callback on your strategy module.

At the very least it is good practice to call AshAuthentication.Strategy.Custom.Helpers.register_strategy_actions/3 so that Ash Authentication can keep track of which actions are related to which strategies and AshAuthentication.Strategy.Custom.Helpers is automatically imported by use AshAuthentication.Strategy.Custom for this purpose.


For simple cases where you're just transforming the strategy you can just return the modified strategy and the DSL will be updated accordingly. For example if you wanted to generate the name of an action if the user hasn't specified it:

def transform(strategy, _dsl_state) do
  {:ok, Map.put_new(strategy, :sign_in_action_name, :"sign_in_with_#{}")}

In some cases you may want to modify the strategy and the resources DSL. In this case you can return the newly mutated DSL state in an ok tuple or an error tuple, preferably containing a Spark.Error.DslError. For example if we wanted to build a sign in action for OnlyMartiesAtTheParty to use:

def transform(strategy, dsl_state) do
  strategy = Map.put_new(strategy, :sign_in_action_name, :"sign_in_with_#{}")

  sign_in_action =
    Spark.Dsl.Transformer.build_entity(Ash.Resource.Dsl, [:actions], :read,
      name: strategy.sign_in_action_name,
      accept: [strategy.name_field],
      get?: true

  dsl_state =
    |> Spark.Dsl.Transformer.add_entity([:actions], sign_in_action)
    |> put_strategy(strategy)
    |> then(fn dsl_state ->
      register_strategy_actions([strategy.sign_in_action_name], dsl_state, strategy)

  {:ok, dsl_state}

Transformers can also be used to validate user input or even directly add code to the resource. See the docs for Spark.Dsl.Transformer for more information.


We also support a variant of transformers which run in the new @after_verify compile hook provided by Elixir 1.14. This is a great place to put checks to make sure that the user's configuration makes sense without adding any compile-time dependencies between modules which may cause compiler deadlocks.

For example, verifying that the "name" attribute contains "marty" (why you would do this I don't know but I'm running out of sensible examples):

def verify(strategy, _dsl_state) do
  if String.contains?(to_string(strategy.name_field), "marty") do
        path: [:authentication, :strategies, :only_marties],
        message: "Option `name_field` must contain \"marty\""


You should now have all the tools you need to build custom strategies - and in fact the strategies provided by Ash Authentication are built using this system.

If there is functionality or documentation missing please raise an issue and we'll take a look at it.

Go forth and strategise!