What Is Role-Based Access Control? A Short Guide

Use role-based network access to make your team more organized and data more secure.

Bojan Jovanovic Image

October 05,2022

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If you're like most businesses, you probably have a variety of users with different levels of access to your company's data and systems. But do you have a system in place that determines what each user is allowed to do?

If not, you should consider implementing role-based access control (RBAC) and bringing some organization into your computer system. RBAC is a security system that defines what users are allowed to do based on their role within the company. Let's take a closer look at what it is capable of and why it might be a good fit for your business.

Introduction to RBAC

First of all, we need to answer the main question - what is role-based access control?

RBAC is a system that assigns users to specific roles and then defines what those roles are allowed to do. For example, you might have a role for salespeople that allows them to access customer data and place orders. Or, you might have a role for accountants that will enable them to access financial data. 

RBAC falls under the category of access control approaches that differs from other subsets by focusing on the assignment of roles within a network. By assigning users to roles, you can control what they're able to do within your systems. Generally speaking, there are three rules for setting up RBAC:

  1. Role assignment to each user in the system,
  2. Role-based authorization - each user needs to have their role authorized,
  3. Permission authorization - setting up which role will have access to what parts of the system and how.

So, what is RBAC able to do for your company? As the name implies, it can help you control what users are able to do within your systems. By assigning user roles and then defining what those roles are allowed to do, you can ensure that only authorized users have access to sensitive data and systems.

RBAC can also simplify the process of managing user permissions. Rather than managing individual user permissions, you control the permissions at the role level. This will save you time and effort in the long run.

Lastly, RBAC improves the security of your systems. By controlling what users can do, you can reduce the risk of data leaks and add additional security layers to your business.

Implementing Role-Based Access Control

Following what we’ve established so far, let’s see what a typical RBAC setup looks like. It is a three-step process involving role creation, user assignment, and on-the-fly role management. Here’s how it all works in more detail.

Creating Roles

The first step in setting up RBAC is to decide what roles you want to create. You can base your roles on job titles, departments, or anything else that makes sense for your business. For example, you might have separate roles for salespeople, accountants, managers, and so on, or broader categories such as employees and contractors.

Once you've decided what roles you want to create, you'll need to define RBAC roles and what they will be allowed to do. This will involve determining which permissions each role should have. Permissions can be specific actions, like viewing customer data or accessing account ordering history. 

They can also be broader user privileges, from unrestricted access to certain parts of the system to viewing or editing company data.

Assigning User Roles

Next up is the user role assignment. To put the system in operation, each user must have their role assigned based on their login credentials and accounts. You'll need to decide which users should be given which roles. Again, this can be based on their positions in your company, like salespeople or system administrators, but it doesn’t have to be.

At this stage, it’s essential to have a clearly defined hierarchy in your RBAC system. Not only does this help with managing all the roles and permissions later on, but it also helps your employees avoid any possible confusion during their day-to-day tasks.

Managing Role-Based Permissions

After setting up everything, you’ll probably have to re-adjust roles and permissions on an ongoing basis. It may be adding new users, removing old ones (for example, people that left your company), or simply updating roles whenever there’s a promotion within your organization.

There are a few different ways to manage RBAC. The simplest way is to create a list of roles and permissions and then update it manually as needed. 

Alternatively, you can use a software solution to manage roles and permissions. These typically offer more features and flexibility than manual methods but will also cost you more.

Role-Based Access Control Examples

Now that we’ve seen how to set up RBAC and answered the question “What is role-based access control?” let’s look at some practical examples of this technology in action.

Say a company has an accounting system that contains financial data. The company decides to create a role for all its accountants and grant access to the accounting system to all users that have this role. Now, only users who are assigned to the "accountant" role will be able to access the relevant data.

Likewise, a company may have a customer database containing sensitive information and a customer service team that needs to access this data. It will create a role for its team but restrict it to just viewing customer data and associated transactions. 

Finally, it may create another role for the supervisors in that same team that has the edit and rewrite privileges, establishing a hierarchy that mirrors the existing one in the workplace.

On a similar note, a store can organize role-based access to manage its orders and stock. For example, a group can have permission to place new restock orders, while another group will just have an overview of that data but not the ability to edit it or add new orders. Likewise, only the salespeople will have access to customer information.

There are many more examples of how role-based access control can be employed to organize a business. It all works similarly to parent control apps, which are sort of a simplified version of a commercial RBAC platform. The exact way to employ RBAC depends on your needs and your company’s infrastructure.

Benefits of Role-Based Access Control

By now, you’ve probably gotten a solid understanding of RBAC technology and how to use it to improve security and hierarchy within your company. But, there are other reasons to use it, so here are some of the benefits of RBAC over other access control systems:

  • RBAC is more flexible than other access control models, like Discretionary Access Control (DAC) and Mandatory Access Control (MAC). With RBAC, you can easily add or remove roles and permissions as needed while restricting third-party users from accessing the system.
  • It’s easy to understand and use. Users are typically familiar with the concept of roles, so they can easily understand how RBAC works, and assigning user permissions is fairly simple.
  • Implementation of roles and RBAC is straightforward. There are many great software solutions and ways to create a list of roles and permissions that do not require advanced computer knowledge.
  • Improving compliance. Depending on your company’s location, you’ll have to comply with local laws and regulations, which is part of what RBAC was made for.
  • RBAC can save you money. As you restrict user access to applications within specific roles, you’ll then only need to purchase licenses for those that can access them in the first place.

RBAC Disadvantages

No system is perfect, and the same can be said about the RBAC. After examining the most significant RBAC benefits, we must also consider some of its downsides.

First of all, it is a time-consuming process. If you run a big organization and need many roles and permissions, RBAC will take a long time to set up fully. This is especially true if the setup requires additional software, which will further complicate and slow down things.

Likewise, management of such a system isn’t a walk in the park. You'll need to keep track of which users are assigned to which roles and make sure that roles and permissions are assigned correctly. Maintaining and updating an extensive list may even require a dedicated team.

It’s also a very rigid system. As you’ll first need to define everything, RBAC cannot simply figure out how to behave when a new user starts using the system on the fly. In those instances, a parameter-based access control works better.

Role-Based Access Control Best Practices

Each system has certain “do’s and don’ts” for setting up, and RBAC is no different. Here are some of the best practices and suggestions to keep in mind if you decide to set up such a system for your company:

  1. Define roles and permissions carefully. Make sure you understand your organization's needs and the access requirements of each role.
  2. Correctly assign roles and permissions to your employees. Ensure you know who needs to access which parts of the system to do their job.
  3. Review roles and permissions on a regular basis. Keeping all the roles and permissions up-to-date and adjusting them as you go to reflect the needs of your organization will reduce the chances of data breaches and system access problems.
  4. Assign managers if needed. In larger companies, role-based access control management can become convoluted, especially if HR and IT departments don’t easily come to an agreement. Having a dedicated person or group handle it will speed up any future updates and changes you’ll need to do down the line.
  5. Start small. A beta test of the RBAC will iron out all the issues and help you get a better overview of how to develop the system further.

Alternatives to RBAC

As we’ve seen so far, there are certain advantages but also limitations to role-based access control. For example, users cannot adjust their access level, and the system can be too rigid sometimes, requiring lots of preparation before the launch. 

If you're looking for an alternative to RBAC, you might want to consider one of the following access control models:

Discretionary Access Control (DAC): DAC is a security model that allows users to control access to systems and data. With DAC, users can decide who can access which part of the system. This is most commonly used in operating systems and works as an attribute-based access control system.

Mandatory Access Control (MAC): MAC is the strictest level of access control. It only works on the administrator level, and further locks access based on granular data and access levels. It’s similar to RBAC but even more rigid and, thus, challenging to manage.

Final Thoughts

As we've seen today, role-based access control (RBAC) is an excellent security model for restricting access to systems and data based on user roles. RBAC is a flexible and effective way to control access, making it an attractive option for many organizations. While not without its downsides, it proved to be very popular and valuable in many companies regardless of size, as long as it is set up correctly.

What are the 3 types of access control?

The main types of access control are Discretionary Access Control (DAC), Role Based Access Control (RBAC), and Mandatory Access Control (MAC).

What are the three primary rules of RBAC?

Those would be:

  1. Role assignment
  2. Role-based authorization
  3. Permission authorization
What is meant by role-based access control?

This is a system designed mainly for access management based on privileges each user has within the organization. With RBAC, you don’t risk data breaches or leaks.

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