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User Authorization, an integral aspect of system security, refers to the mechanism of granting specific permissions to users for accessing particular resources or functions. Often synonymous with access control or client privilege, this concept is crucial in ensuring the secure operation of SaaS applications and services. User authorization ensures that a user possesses the appropriate permissions before allowing access to sensitive data, including personal information, secure databases, and private data. In doing so, it aids online businesses in maintaining secure, controlled, and safe access to their resources, thus fortifying their overall data security stance.
Not to be confused with user authentication, authorization is one of two vital security processes that administrators use to protect systems and information, the other being authentication. Both are an integral part of the user management flow, but the former is about checking the user identity by matching credentials with the ones stored in the database.
Authorization is often used interchangeably with access control or client privilege. Authorization levels determine the extent of system rights that a user has access to. For example, a user might be authorized to access a word processor, an email client, or a CRM. In some cases, authorization can be as basic as allowing access to certain applications or information with a username and password.
The authorization process involves:
There are several types of authorization:
Related: Authentication vs Authorization
The authorization process is designed to ensure that users can access only the resources they are permitted to. Here’s a breakdown of the procedure:
User-Based Access Control is the most basic form of User Authorization that’s still used in specific scenarios. Also known as Identity-Based Access Control, UBAC requires a dedicated system admin to pinpoint users and define permissions accordingly. Unfortunately, this methodology is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and not too practical for most SaaS use cases today.
With UBAC, the system admin has to map all users (stakeholders) and grant different levels of access. This process is so cumbersome that UBAC isn’t even in the discussion when it comes to growing SaaS businesses today.
Implementing ACL Authorization is one of the most straightforward ways to get things done fast. When it comes to SaaS use cases, this methodology basically involves the creation (and maintaining) of a user list with the actions each one can perform. These permissions need to be monitored, changed, and revoked as per the organization’s specific needs and requirements.
ACLs are easy to implement and this is the biggest advantage of taking this route. SaaS setups with relatively small scopes can be up and running in no time with this authorization model. But that’s where the pros basically end.
With SaaS businesses becoming increasingly complex with subscription tiers and feature-based pricing, the number of use cases is constantly growing. You also have fluctuating usage metrics and engagement levels. Onboarding new users can create a lot of friction and maintenance can become increasingly cumbersome (and error-prone) with ACLs as the business scales up.
Let’s wrap this section up with a common example.
Any company’s Finance department works on employee salaries on an ongoing basis, but other departments can’t access the payroll files. Employees can only view the specific files they have been authorized to with full permissions.
Mandatory Access Control is a stringent model where access to resources is based on the classification level of the information and the clearance level of the user. The system, and not the owner of the information, determines who can access specific data. In environments where security is paramount, like governmental or military services, MAC is an ideal choice.
The major advantage of MAC is its tight security. However, it might be overkill for many commercial applications, and its rigidity can hinder operational efficiency.
Discretionary Access Control gives the owner of the information the power to determine who can access specific resources. In a DAC model, each resource (like a file or folder) has an associated Access Control List (ACL) that determines user permissions.
The main advantage of DAC is its flexibility. Owners can quickly grant or revoke access as they see fit. However, this flexibility can also be its downfall. If an owner isn’t security-conscious, they might inadvertently grant excessive permissions, leading to potential security breaches.
Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) takes things a step further to address more dynamic use cases. RBAC allows the assigning of roles with tailormade permissions for each one of them. These permissions can be revoked or altered based on the specific use case or changes in the business model. For example, Support teams will get access only to specific features in the application.
Unlike the rigid Access Control Lists, RBAC can be used to define each role and authorization levels. A single user can have one role as a rule, but can also be assigned multiple roles if the use case requires it to be that way.
While RBAC is definitely more versatile than ACL Authorization, it’s still relatively easy to implement since all permissions directly hinge on roles that you are defining. It’s also great to contain the risk from third-party access (limited roles). The most significant con is that while scaling up, you can have an “explosion” of roles, something that can create a big headache for your IT and support teams.
How about a RBAC example?
The CMO can get a HubSpot admin role, allowing full control over role management and employee authorization. The Content Manager can then be given access to HubSpot, with access only to limited features and functionality.
Related: RBAC vs ABAC
Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) is an evolution of RBAC as it allows a more granular and defined approach to User Authorization. ABAC essentially goes beyond the basic roles and factors in contextual information – user (email, role, etc.), environment, and resource attributes. You can really be very specific with the access you are granting users, based on your specific use case/s.
You can manage your corporate Google Drive with ABAC as shown below. The lowest level of User Authorization can be “View Only” or temporary access. You can also give users access to specific documents or folders only.
ABAC is a great option if you have a complex SaaS offering catering to both B2B and B2C audiences. However, you need to know that implementing it can be both expensive and complex, especially when in-house development is involved.
Related: Demystifying OAuth Flows
A new kind of User Authorization is emerging on the horizon – Next Generation Access Control (NGAC). While essentially a subset of ABAC, this open-source Policy Machine also takes some useful cues from the RBAC philosophy.
How does this upcoming methodology work?
NGAC works with Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs). This methodology contains a Resource Model and a User Model. Once established, these models are connected with predefined and customized permissions. Policy classes (scope, file systems, etc) can also be introduced into the mix to make access even more granular and sharpen access decisions on an ongoing basis.
Besides the added granularity and flexibility, NGAC is also extremely auditable and can be extremely useful from a compliance standpoint. But just like ABAC, implementation can be expensive, complex, and time-consuming.
There are different ways to approach User Authorization, but there’s no clear winner because use cases, financial constraints, and resource limitations will be playing a huge role in your decision.
But this is exactly where Frontegg enters the picture.
OS tools have inherited flaws and in-house development can prove to be too expensive (and slow). Frontegg has created an end-to-end user management solution that’s also self-served. You can now manage roles and permissions with just a few clicks, all via a user-friendly and centralized dashboard. Monitoring and auditing access is also a breeze with our plug-and-play solution.
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