Keeping Users Logged In

Published on September 26, 2011 | Filed Under Advice

Recently, I’ve been doing some work with login forms and maintaining site credentials.  There are several issues, which must be taken into account when you handle how a user accesses your website.  I wanted to take a moment and write a quick
blog about how I like to handle users on my website.

Database Setup

The first step to user management is to properly set up your database.  In SQL Server 2008, I like to use the following table definition:

Field Type Notes
UserID INT Auto-Incrementing integer.  Unique. Primary Key
Username NVARCHAR(50)  
Password NVARCHAR(35) An MD5 Hash is 32 characters. You can use whichever method to encrypt that you would like.
Admin BIT Is the user an administrator?
ChangePassword BIT Should the user be prompted to change their password when they login next time?
SessionID NVARCHAR(15) Randomly-generated ID used to verify that this is the correct user.

Accessing the database

How often should you query your database for user information?  I’d highly recommend getting yourself a server that can handle being called every time someone lands on your web page. This might seem like overkill, but it will do the job.  If you generate a Session ID, don’t let the fact that the cookie exists be an indicator that the user is logged in.  What if your user is on one computer and a hacker is on another computer with an old Session ID?  If you’ve programmed your website properly, you can easily make 10+ calls to a database without any drag in performance.

The next time you’re on a major website such as your bank, or even Facebook, look at how much information is displayed on the page and try to imagine how many calls were made to the database to grab that information.  You should figure that it makes those calls for every single user that’s online at that time.


I’m sure that there is a lot of debate on the topic of what you should hold in your cookie information.  The general consensus is that less is more.  Basically, if you know that you can handle authentication with just one cookie, then be my guest.  Personally, I like to use two cookies: Username and SessionID.  However, when I’m working on a small project that can only be accessed internally, I don’t mind just using SessionID.

Note: Do not store a user’s password in the cookie information; even if you’re storing a hashed
version. There is enough software out there to sniff cookies and decrypt many popular encryption algorithms that you’re opening yourself up to a major security hole if you decide to store that in a cookie.

Session IDs

I’ve spoken about the Session ID, but I didn’t really discuss how to generate them.  There really isn’t a specific way to do this. It’s all up to your imagination. I like to be case-sensitive with these, so I make sure to make Case-Sensitive Calls to SQL
when I have to verify the information. As for the original generation, I just use a random number generator and break my ASCII characters up into groups:

ASCII Range Character Range
48 – 57 0 – 9
65 – 90 A – Z (Uppercase)
97 – 122 a-z (Lowercase)

So the theory is as follows:

  • Randomly pick a number (0-2)
  • If 0: Choose 0-9 Range
    • Randomly Pick a number (48-57)
  • If 1: Choose A-Z Range
    • Randomly Pick a number (65-90)
  • If 2: Choose a-z Range
    • Randomly Pick a number (97-122)

Then you just build your string from there.  The logic isn’t too intense, but for the sake of this article, I won’t post any real code; I’d like to keep it generic.

Wrapping Up

I think my theories are fairly straight-forward.  I always welcome combating arguments.  If you have any suggestions or concerns, please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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