Exploring the architectural patterns we can use with policy-based access control (PBAC) illustrates the difference between policy-based and attribute-based access control (ABAC).
The primary ways of implementing access control in modern applications are (1) access control lists (ACLs), (2) role-based access control (RBAC), and (3) attribute-based access control (ABAC). I assume you're familiar with these terms in this post. If you're not there's a great explanation in chapter 12 of my new book, Learning Digital Identity.1 Another term, policy-based access control (PBAC), is also common. PBAC uses permissions, expressed as policies, to determine what access is allowed. You'll sometimes see PBAC and ABAC used interchangably, but they're not.
To explore access management patterns, let's classify applications requiring fine-grained access management2 into one of two types:
- Structured—these applications can use the structure of the attribute information to simplify access management. For example, an HR application might express a policy as “all L9 managers with more than 10 reports can access compensation management functionality for their reports”. The structure allows attributes like
number_of_reportsto be used to manage access to the compensation tool with a single policy. A smalls set of policies can control access to the compensation tool. These applications are the sweet spot for ABAC.
- Ad hoc—these applications allow users to manage access to resources they control based on identifiers for both principals and resources without any underlying structure. For example, Alice shares her vacation photo album with Betty and Charlie. The photo album, Betty, and Charlie have no attributes in common that can be used to write a single attribute-based policy defining access. These applications have a harder time making effective use of ABAC.
Ad hoc access management is more difficult than structured because of the combinatorial explosion of possible access relationships. When any principal can share any resource they control with any other principal and with any subset of possible actions, the number of combinations quickly becomes very large.
There are several approaches we can take to ad hoc access management:
- Situation-based—In this approach the application writes a new policy for each individual access situation. In the example given above, when Alice shares her vacation photo album with Betty and Charlie, the application would create a policy that explicitly permits Betty and Charlie to access Alice’s vacation photo album. Every change in access would result in a new policy or the modification of an existing one. This is essentially using policies as ACLs.
- Group-based—In a group-based approach, we create a group for people who can access the vacation photo album and a policy that allows access to the vacation photo album if the user has a group attribute of
canAccessVacationPhotos. The group name has to be unique to Alice's vacation photo album and includes the allowed action. When Alice shares the album with Betty and Charlie, we add them both to the
canAccessVacationPhotosgroup by putting it in the
groupsattributein their profile. Group-based policies look like "principal
canAccessVacationPhotos." This is essentually RBAC.
- Resource-based—In this approach, we add a
canEditattribute to Alice’s vacation photos album that records the principals who can access the resource. Now our policy uses the resource attribute to allow access to anyone in that list. Resource-based policies look like "principal
Pcan edit resource
R.canEdit". Every resource of the same type has the same attributes. This approach is close to ABAC because it makes use of attributes on the resources to manage access, reducing the combinatorial explosion.
- Hybrid—We can combine group and resource-based access management by creating groups of users and storing group names in resource attribute instead of principals. For example, if Alice adds Betty and Charlie to her group
friends, then she could add
sharedWithattribute on her album. The advantage of the hybrid approach is we reduce the length of the attribute lists.
The advantage of the situation-based approach is that it’s the simplest thing that could possibly work. Given a policy store with sufficient management features (i.e., finding, filtering, creating, modifying, and deleting policies) this is straight-forward. The chief downside is the explosion in the number of policies and the scaling that it requires of the policy store. Also since the user’s permissions are scattered among many different policies, knowing who can do what is difficult and relies on the policy store's filtering capabilities.
The group-based approach results in a large number of groups for very specific purposes. This is a common problem with RBAC systems. But given an attribute store (like an IdM profile) that scales well, it splits the work between the attribute and policy stores by reducing the number of policies to one per share type (or combination). That is, we need a policy for each resource that allows viewing, one to allow editing, and so on.
The resource-based approach reduces the explosion of groups by attaching attributes to the resource, imposing structure. In the photo album sharing example, each album (and photo) would need an attribute for each sharing type (view, modify, delete). If Alice says Betty can view and modify an album, Betty’s identifier would be added to the view and modify attributes for that album. We need a policy for each unique resource type and action.
The downside of the resource-based approach is that the access management system has to be able to use resource attributes in the authorization context. Integrating the access management system with an IdP provides attributes about principals so that we can automatically make those attributes available in the authorization context. You could integrate using the attributes in an OIDC token or by syncing the authorization service with the IdP using SCIM.
But the ways that attributes can be attached to a resource are varied. For example, they might be stored in the application's database. They might be part of an inventory control system. And so on. So the access management system must allow developers to inject those attributes into the authorization context when the policy enforcement point is queried or have a sufficiently flexible policy information point to easily integrate it with different databases and APIs. Commercial ABAC systems will have solved this problem because it is core to how they function.
Every application, of course, will make architectural decisions about access management based its specific needs. But if you understand the patterns that are available to you, then you can think through the ramifications of your design ahead of time. Sometimes this is lost in the myth that policy-based access management (PBAC) is all the same. All of the approaches I list above are PBAC, but they're not all ABAC.
- The material that follows is not in the book. But it should be. An errata, perhaps.
- Fine-grained access management generally refers to any scheme that is used to limit access to only some portion of all the entities who access the system.