Guide: Authorization

Server Authorization: How It Works and 7 Critical Best Practices

User authorization is a key component of server security, one that is often not given the right attention. How does it actually work? How can you optimize it within your ecosystem to safeguard private data and sensitive information? Let’s learn more about the specifics and touch upon some important best practices.

What Is Server Security? 

Server security refers to the measures, policies, and practices implemented to protect server systems and their data from unauthorized access, misuse, damage, or theft. This encompasses a wide range of security techniques, including encryption, authentication, access control, network security, software patching, and regular security audits, among others. 

Server authorization is a field within server security that refers to practices and mechanisms that ensure server systems can only be accessed and controlled according to an organization’s Internal policies.Server authorization, together with other server security measures, ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data and services hosted on the server, while safeguarding against potential threats like cyber-attacks, malware, and data breaches.

This is part of a series of articles about authorization.

In this article:

What Is Server Access Control?

Server access control is the process of mediating access to resources on a server based on identity and policies (either explicit or implicit). This primary security service is supported by other security services, such as authentication and confidentiality. Access control decisions are usually enforced based on user-specific policies, with authentication being the method to establish the user’s identity.

In the context of server authorization, policies are generally applied to sets of resources, and may vary for individual actions (or capabilities) that can be performed on those resources, such as reading, writing, executing, creating, and deleting files. 

Access control involves determining, documenting, and managing the subjects (users, devices, or processes) that should be granted access and the objects (resources) they should have access to. It also covers the methods and conditions of enforcement that allow or restrict subjects from connecting with, viewing, consuming, entering, or using identified information resources.

Broken Access Control (A01) is the top application security risk according to the OWASP Top 10 list, updated 2021. According to OWASP research, 94% of applications tested had some form of broken access control.

Server Authorization Approaches 

There are several approaches to server authorization that can be implemented to manage and enforce access control policies. Each approach has its unique benefits and is suitable for different scenarios. Here are some common server authorization approaches:

  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): RBAC is a widely used approach that grants access permissions based on predefined roles. Users are assigned roles, each with a set of permissions associated with it. This approach simplifies the management of permissions, as administrators only need to manage roles rather than individual users. RBAC is particularly effective in large organizations with many users and resources.
  • Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC): ABAC is a more flexible and dynamic authorization approach that grants access based on a combination of user attributes, environmental factors, and resource properties. Attributes can include information such as the user’s role, department, location, or security clearance. ABAC allows for more granular and context-aware access control policies, making it suitable for complex environments with diverse access requirements.
  • Access Control Lists (ACLs): ACLs are lists of permissions attached to specific resources, such as files or directories, that define which users or groups can access or modify them. ACLs provide fine-grained control over access to individual resources but can be more complex to manage, especially in large environments with numerous resources.
  • Mandatory Access Control (MAC): MAC is a security model in which access control policies are enforced by the operating system or a centralized security policy manager. In MAC, users and resources are assigned security labels or classifications, and access is granted based on these labels. MAC is often used in high-security environments where strict control over information flow is required, such as government or military organizations.
  • Discretionary Access Control (DAC): DAC is an access control model where resource owners have the discretion to determine and manage access permissions for their resources. This allows individual users to grant or revoke access to their resources as needed. DAC is generally less secure than MAC, as it can be more susceptible to unauthorized access or information leakage.
  • Rule-Based Access Control: With this approach, access control policies are defined by a set of rules or conditions. These rules can be based on factors like user attributes, resource properties, or environmental context. Rule-based access control allows for dynamic and context-aware access control policies but can be more complex to manage and maintain than other approaches.

Technologies Used for Server Authorization

A wide range of technologies and protocols can be used for server authorization to enforce access control policies and ensure that only authorized users have access to server resources. Some of the commonly used technologies for server authorization include:

  • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP): LDAP is a commonly used protocol for managing and accessing directory services, which store user and resource information in a hierarchical structure. LDAP can be used to centralize user authentication and authorization, making it easier to manage access control across multiple servers and applications.
  • Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML): SAML is an XML-based standard for exchanging authentication and authorization information between parties. It is commonly used for single sign-on (SSO) and can be used for server authorization by allowing users to access multiple servers and applications with a single set of credentials.
  • OAuth: OAuth is an open standard for authorization that allows users to grant third-party applications limited access to their resources without sharing their credentials. OAuth 2.0 is an improved version of OAuth, providing more flexibility and security features. These protocols can be used for server authorization in scenarios where third-party applications need access to user resources.
  • JSON Web Tokens (JWT): JWT is a compact, URL-safe means of representing claims to be transferred between two parties. JWTs can be used for server authorization by securely transmitting user information and permissions between servers and applications, allowing the receiving party to make authorization decisions based on the token’s content.
  • Active Directory (AD): Active Directory, a Microsoft technology, is a directory service that provides centralized user and resource management for Windows-based environments. AD can be used for server authorization by defining access control policies based on user accounts, groups, and organizational units.
  • Kerberos: Kerberos is a network authentication protocol that uses strong cryptography to provide secure authentication and authorization for users and services in a distributed environment. It can be used for server authorization by verifying user identities and granting access to resources based on predefined access control policies.

Learn more in our detailed guide to authorization service (coming soon)

7 Server Authorization Best Practices 

Implementing server authorization best practices is crucial for ensuring the security and integrity of server resources and protecting sensitive data. Here are some best practices to follow when implementing server authorization:

  1. Principle of least privilege (PoLP): Grant users the minimum level of access required to perform their tasks. Limiting access helps to minimize the potential impact of security breaches and reduces the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive data.
  2. Regularly review and update access control policies: Periodically review access control policies to ensure they remain aligned with current business requirements and security best practices. Remove or modify outdated or excessive permissions to minimize the risk of unauthorized access.
  3. Centralize access management: Use centralized access management solutions, such as LDAP, Active Directory, or Identity and Access Management (IAM) systems, to manage user accounts, roles, and permissions across multiple servers and applications. This approach simplifies access management and helps to maintain consistency in access control policies.
  4. Implement strong network security: Protect server resources by implementing network security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDS/IPS), and network segmentation. These measures help to restrict server access to authorized users and devices.
  5. Encrypt sensitive data: Use encryption to protect sensitive data stored on servers or transmitted between servers and clients. Encryption ensures that unauthorized users who may gain access to server resources cannot read or modify the encrypted data.
  6. Monitor and audit server access: Regularly monitor and audit server access to detect suspicious activity, identify potential security threats, and ensure that access control policies are being enforced effectively. Use logging and monitoring tools to track user actions, resource access, and system events.
  7. Educate and train users: Ensure that users understand the importance of server security and are trained in best practices for accessing and using server resources. This includes educating users about password security, safe browsing habits, and reporting suspicious activity.

Authentication and Authorization with Frontegg

The industry standard today is to use Authentication providers to “build the door”, but what about Authorization (the door knob)? Most authentication vendors don’t go that extra mile, forcing SaaS vendors to invest in expensive in-house development. This often delays investment in core technology development, which negatively impacts innovation and time-to-market (TTM) metrics. 

Frontegg’s end-to-end user management platform allows you to authenticate and authorize users with just a few clicks via a centralized dashboard. Integration takes just a few lines of code and you can be up and running with this plug-and-play platform in a day or two. It’s also multi-tenant by design, which saves a lot of development time and helps teams focus on what matters most – innovation. 

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