Planning your App’s Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) Implementation
When building an application, managing access to resources is critical to ensuring data security and privacy. Once you have authentication (verifying the user identity) covered, the next step is to think about how your authorization layer (who can do what) should function.
The importance of planning user roles for your app can't be stressed enough. Well-planned user authorization can not only help prevent security breaches but also improve scalability and can reduce development time. Taking the time to plan user roles and authorizations is undoubtedly worth it in the long run.
In this post, we'll explore the importance of mapping your authorization layer in advance, scaling it for the future, when it might be necessary to upgrade to attribute-based access control (ABAC), and how all these steps can be achieved as painlessly as possible - allowing you to focus on the thing you care about most: building cool, unique features.
Planning User Roles
When designing an application, it's essential to consider the roles that users will play within the system. It’s important to know that organization-level roles are not always clearly translated into application-level roles. Understanding how this translation is made, which roles should exist on the application level, and which actions should be able to perform on which resources is the first step of understanding how your authorization layer should look like.
Each role may have access to different resources and data within the application, and it's critical to ensure that the right people have the right level of access. By defining user roles and their associated permissions, you can ensure that access to data is granted only to those who need it, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.
The approach of defining Role-based access control (RBAC) is a widely-used mechanism for granting or denying access to specific resources based on a user's role.
Mapping Your Authorization Layer in Advance
To ensure that user roles and permissions are properly defined, it's important to map out the authorization layer in advance. This includes defining the resources that need to be protected and identifying the roles that will have access to them. By mapping out the authorization layer in advance, you can ensure that the necessary security controls are in place and that access to resources is properly restricted. Additionally, this can help to reduce development time and prevent bottlenecks in the development process.
Here's an example of what that might look like:
Resource: Customer Information
Allowed actions: View, Edit, Delete
Role: Customer Support
Allowed actions: View, Edit
Resource: Order Information
Allowed actions: View, Edit, Delete
Allowed actions: View, Edit
Allowed actions: View
In this example, two resources are identified: Customer Information and Order Information.
The roles that have access to each resource are then defined, along with the specific permissions that each role has. For instance, the Admin role has full access to both Customer Information and Order Information, including the ability to view, edit, and delete. However, the Salesperson role only has access to view Order Information.
By mapping out the authorization layer in advance, developers can ensure that the necessary security controls are in place and that access to resources is properly restricted. Additionally, this can help to reduce development time and prevent bottlenecks in the development process.
Be ready to scale
As your application grows, it's important to ensure that your authorization layer can scale with it. This means ensuring that your RBAC model can handle an increasing number of roles and permissions without creating bottlenecks in the development process. This can be achieved by structuring your authorization layer in a way that allows for easy modification and expansion. By doing so, you can ensure that your application remains secure and that users have access to the resources they need, even as your user base and application functionality grows.
The solution is implementing and managing your RBAC and ABAC policies using an authorization service that allows for flexible transition between authorization models.
Upgrading to Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)
While RBAC is a widely-used mechanism for managing access to resources, it may not be enough in some cases. Attribute-based access control (ABAC) is a more granular approach to access control that allows for more detailed and context-specific permissions. ABAC uses attributes such as time, location, and user behavior to determine access to resources, providing a higher level of security than traditional RBAC models.
Here's a practical example: Imagine a company that develops software for the healthcare industry. The application has multiple user roles, including doctors, nurses, and administrators. In the RBAC model, each role is granted access to specific resources based on their job function. However, with ABAC, access to resources can be more granularly defined based on the specific patient the user is accessing records for, the time of day, and even the location of the user.
As your application will grow, its authorization requirements will grow along with it. If you don’t plan ahead and implement a scalable authorization solution that allows for easy migration between policy models, you might end up refactoring your entire authorization system every 3-6 months.
I mapped it out - now what?
Once you planned the permission model needed in your application, it’s time to implement it!
Building, implementing, and maintaining your own authorization solution can take months of complex R&D work and steep learning curves.
Also, if only your developers know how to operate this system, they will become bottlenecks in your app’s permission management, other stakeholders will be locked out of the conversation, and your customers will be left without the flexibility they require.
That’s where Permit comes in -
Permit provides developers with a permission management solution that allows you to implement your planned-out model within minutes using an intuitive no-code UI for both RBAC and ABAC. Permit’s UI generates policy code for you (In the Rego language used by Open Policy Agent), and wraps it nicely into Git and API/UI interfaces that you can edit, add to, and manage however you like.
This means you can not only implement RBAC quickly but also transition from RBAC to ABAC without writing a single line of code.
By implementing authorization with Permit, you can ensure that your planned authorization model is seamlessly integrated into your application, without creating bottlenecks in the development process.
Implementing RBAC with Permit
Here’s the same RBAC example we mapped before, expressed within Permit’s UI:
An Admin can perform any action on both resources -
A Customer Support representative can only view and edit customer information -
A Manager can only view and edit order information -
A Salesperson can only view order information
Changing any type of permissions, adding new resources or roles, or adding attributes (Thus switching to ABAC) can be done with nothing but a few clicks -
Migrating to ABAC With Permit
Let’s say we need to add an attribute-based policy into the mix. A policy that only allows for EU-based Managers to view Information of EU-based Customers.
With Permit’s UI, this can be achieved as simply as:
1. Edit the ‘Customer Information’ resource to include a “Location” string attribute.
2. Add a new “Resource Set” for EU-based Customer Information. This allows managing policies specifically to Costumer information with location=EU
3. Now that we have the resource set up let’s deal with the “Manager” role:
Add a new ‘Location’ attribute in the “User Attributes” screen -
This will allow us to create user sets with a ‘Location’ attribute.
4. Create a new “User Set” of ‘EU Managers’. This allows managing policies specifically to role=Manager and location=EU.
5. Just click the checkboxes!
Now EU-based Managers can view Information on EU-based Customers. It’s as simple as that. The greatest thing about all this is that you can essentially migrate from RBAC to ABAC without changing a single line of code in your application!
What did we learn?
In conclusion, planning user roles and authorizations is a critical aspect of application development. By mapping out your authorization layer in advance and ensuring that it can scale with your application, you can reduce development time and prevent security breaches. While RBAC is a widely-used mechanism for managing access to resources, upgrading to ABAC may be necessary in some cases to achieve more granular access control. By following these best practices, you can ensure that your application remains secure and accessible to the right people.
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