Role Based Access Control Best Practices You Must Know

Role Based Access Control, commonly known as RBAC, is a proven and tested way to manage roles and permissions in SaaS setups today. But many organizations have a tough time getting started. We have compiled a list of 9 best practices to help you with your efforts.

What is RBAC?

Role-based access control (RBAC) is a mechanism for restricting access to computer systems. It allows administrators to define permissions for authorized users. Most large organizations use RBAC to provide employees with varying levels of access based on their roles and responsibilities. This protects sensitive data, while giving employees the access they need to perform their jobs. 

The role is the core RBAC component, a specific set of permissions that apply to a certain type of user. Permissions are not granted directly to users, but to roles. Users can be added or removed from roles according to the requirements. 

How Does RBAC Work?

The provision of user access in the RBAC system is based on the needs of groups of users—for example, departments or functional roles—who have common responsibilities and needs. Each role provides a set of permissions; individuals can be assigned to one or more roles, and then they receive these permissions.

For example, commonly used RBAC roles are guest, contributor, and administrator. A guest can typically only view a restricted set of data, contributors can access more data and modify some of it, and administrators can view and modify all data. 

The relationship between users and roles on the one hand, and between roles and permissions on the other hand, make it easier to assign permissions because individual users no longer have unique access privileges: 

  • Users are granted privileges that match those assigned to a particular role
  • If they are no longer associated with the role or task, they can be removed from the role and their permissions are revoked. 
  • In some cases, users can be added to a role temporarily, allowing them to perform a certain task, and then removed when they complete the task. This facilitates “just in time” access for sensitive systems or data.

This supports the security principle of least privilege, which states that each user should only have the minimal privileges required to do their job.

Best Practices for Role Based Access Control (RBAC)

Let’s dive into the best practices.

1. Develop an RBAC Strategy

To develop an RBAC strategy, you must first assess the current situation in terms of data, processes, policies, and systems. Next, define the desired future state—how users should be able to access your applications and systems. Identify the gap between the current and desired state, and identify potential challenges such as:

  • Data quality
  • Process issues
  • Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities
  • Inconsistencies in authentication or authorization models

By identifying problems ahead of time, you can more easily address them when you begin to implement an RBAC system.

2. Build a Team

Before implementing RBAC in a large organization, it is important to build a team of experienced business analysts or role analysts, who can interview business owners and IT staff to gather RBAC requirements. This process must be carried out for each department or business unit participating in the RBAC program. Experienced role analysts can bridge the gap between business processes and technical requirements of RBAC systems.

3. Have an Identity and Access Management System in Place

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is not a prerequisite for RBAC, but makes it much easier to implement. IAM gives RBAC a structured repository of identities from which it can retrieve user role information. IAM also simplifies user management when employees join or leave the organization and partners or contractors change. 

It is highly recommended to integrate RBAC with IAM to get unified visibility and consistent access logs for user identities.

4. Start with a Top–Down Role Analysis

During the RBAC design phase, hold a discussion with business managers to receive the information needed to build technical roles. Document the functional access rights required by workers, and ensure that each user in a role has the same core access rights. If not, you may need to split a role into several roles. Also discuss exceptions with business managers and try to remove as many as possible to ensure a clean role structure.

5. Conduct a Bottom-Up Role Analysis

Once you have established business requirements for roles, it is important to perform a bottom up analysis of actual access rights that currently exist in the company. This is known as “role mining”. You can use automated tools to collect and evaluate existing data to determine the current access privileges of a group of users. Next, identify which of these access rights conflict with business requirements as stated by the stakeholders.

6. Use the Least-privilege Principle to Define RBAC Roles

The principle of least privilege states that users should have access to the fewest number of actions and objects in a given computing environment. For example, on a website, the least privilege is the ability to view web pages, without being able to interact with dynamic elements, edit page content, or administer the website.

Any access to additional actions and objects beyond the least privilege must be granted via RBAC roles. Each role can have its own baseline of least privileges—for example, an IT administrator will have a much more extensive set of least privileges than a guest user. 

7. Build Policies Related to a Role

After defining a role, specify the policies related to that role:

  • Administrator or superuser roles should be given broad permissions (but assigned to a minimal number of individuals).
  • Regular user roles should be given specific permissions related to the information and actions users need to perform their jobs, while restricting access to everything else.
  • Guest roles should be given minimal access to enable basic functionality while protecting against unauthorized activity and privilege escalation.

8. Test and Verify Your Roles

RBAC roles are critical for user productivity, because they can potentially block users from performing their day-to-day activities. This makes it important to test roles before deploying them. Deploying roles to production without testing can create problems that will require a major effort to clean up.

To ensure a smooth rollout, test roles in a staging environment. Ask stakeholders and users to attempt to perform their usual activities. Correlate user issues with your RBAC model, and identify if users are blocked from accessing a certain function because of a legitimate restriction in the model, or because of an error or oversight in the way roles were defined.

9. Update Your Roles

You cannot “set and forget” an RBAC role—it should change as the business evolves. Roles should be reviewed regularly to ensure that they are still relevant and that the correct users are grouped into the most appropriate roles. Establish a role maintenance process, in which users are periodically reassigned to different roles, and role definitions are updated according to business needs. 

Role Based Access Control (RBAC) with Frontegg

Frontegg is an end-to-end user management platform that provides out-of-the-box RBAC support. Our customers are leveraging the RBAC model to create their own roles and permissions for their own use cases. Additionally, Frontegg also empowers end users to create custom roles to represent their permissions model, without having to change a single line of code in the product. 

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