What Is RBAC?
Role-based access control (RBAC) is a mechanism for restricting system access within an organization. Providing users with more permissions than they require leaves the door open to data breaches and other security incidents, and RBAC closes that door. RBAC gives network administrators and managers the ability to right-size user permissions and enforce the principle of least privilege (PoLP). In this article, we’ll delve into what RBAC is and how it compares with the other major access control method: attribute-based access control (ABAC). We’ll also describe three primary approaches to implementing RBAC, and share four ways RBAC bolsters data security and governance.
What is RBAC?
RBAC, also called role-based security, restricts user access based on the roles or responsibilities users have within the organization. Permissions and privileges aren’t assigned at the individual level. Instead, permissions are determined by a predefined set of rights and privileges according to the role a user is assigned. Everyone assigned to a specific role has the same access to the systems and tools as others in the grouping. For example, a user who has been assigned an HR role would have access to HR-specific applications, documents and data, while a user with a marketing role would have access to the organization’s marketing tools, documents and data.
Employees can and often do have multiple roles, meaning IT needs the flexibility to customize access. With RBAC, when a user’s responsibilities change or grow, the roles they are assigned can be quickly adjusted, and new roles added or removed as needed. There are several ways administrators can define these roles. They can be based on the level of authority the person has within the organization, the types of responsibilities they have or the level of experience they possess. Access permissions may include who can view, open, share or modify a document or file, or who has the ability to take specific actions in an application, such as issuing refunds or opening credit accounts.
RBAC strengthens an organization’s overall security posture, providing administrators with enhanced oversight and a simple but powerful means of managing user permissions. Although it's not the only method for restricting network access, RBAC is a leading model for access management.
RBAC vs. ABAC
The core mission of both RBAC and ABAC is the same: ensuring that users have access to only the resources they require to complete their work. The difference lies in how they accomplish this. ABAC provides permissions based on who the user is (i.e., their attributes), rather than their job roles. ABAC uses a flexible model to assign permissions based on a range of attributes. These may include the user type (position, department or security clearance), when and where the access request has been made, the resource being requested, and the actions that can be taken on them.
In general, RBAC is easier, faster and less expensive to implement than ABAC. But controlling permissions at a granular level with RBAC typically requires the use of numerous roles, causing a “role explosion” for administrators not familiar with the strategies to avoid it. ABAC’s support for a myriad of attributes makes it possible to manage user access with a high degree of precision. But the time and resources required to formulate and manage these highly specific rules can make ABAC-based access policies difficult to implement. Which approach is better depends on the needs and resources of the organization.
Primary types of RBAC
There are three main approaches to RBAC. The right implementation should be chosen based on the organization's specific access control needs.
The core model contains the basic building blocks used in every RBAC use case, including the two discussed below. Core RBAC includes three basic operating principles: role assignment, role authorization and permission authorization. Role assignment requires that users be assigned a role before exercising permissions contained within that role. Role authorization requires the user’s current role to receive authorization, and permission authorization restricts a user’s permissions to only those allowed within their current role. Although core RBAC can be used on its own, it's often incorporated into a more robust, sophisticated access control model.
As the name implies, this approach includes a role hierarchy. Hierarchical RBAC creates a nested structure, where lower-level permissions are inherited by the roles above them. For example, a power user inherits all the permissions granted to a regular user in addition to their own. When an administrator adds one or more permissions to a role, that addition is automatically reflected in the permissions of those further up the hierarchy. This strain of RBAC can accommodate larger, more complex organizational structures.
Constrained RBAC layers separation of duties over the top of the core model. There are two kinds of separation of duties that can be applied: Static Separation of Duties (SSD) and Dynamic Separation of Duties (DSD). SSD does not allow a user to have two conflicting roles, preventing a single user from authorizing a sensitive task such as authorizing and making a purchase. DSD takes a more nuanced approach, allowing users to be assigned mutually exclusive roles while preventing them from exercising both roles within the same session. This is useful for enforcing organizational policies that require two separate authorized users to execute certain operations.
How RBAC strengthens data security and governance
RBAC plays a key role in protecting sensitive data within modern IT environments. By connecting user permissions directly to business roles and responsibilities, RBAC helps enforce a zero trust stance with the principle of least privilege. Properly implementing RBAC methodologies also supports auditing and compliance efforts, strengthening data policies and visibility across the organization.
Managing user permissions individually is a time-consuming and error-prone process. Instead of managing system access on an individual level, administrators can apply roles and predefined collections of permissions required for various job functions. Role assignments make it possible to quickly and efficiently manage user access at scale. RBAC also streamlines the process of creating, maintaining and auditing policies.
Demonstrated regulatory compliance
Having an RBAC system in place helps confirm compliance with government and industry regulations. RBAC roles and policies can be mapped to regulatory and compliance standards, helping organizations manage access to sensitive data such as personal identifiable information (PII) and protected health information (PHI).
When an employee changes roles or a new employee is onboarded, role membership can simply be changed without having to update individual user permissions. When policy updates need to be made, those changes are automatically applied to everyone.
Support for the principle of least privilege
PoLP emphasizes the need for tailored permissioning, restricting a user's access to the minimal amount of data and resources required to complete a task. RBAC provides administrators with a powerful tool for enforcing this with system access restricted to only what is needed for each role.
Platform and system independence
RBAC policies aren’t platform- or system-specific. They can be applied globally across different computing systems, platforms and applications.
Snowflake Horizon: Secure your environment with RBAC
Snowflake Horizon provides access control capabilities that leverage RBAC for governance. Configuring precise RBAC policies in Snowflake Horizon allows organizations to manage access at scale, restricting confidential access to appropriate business roles. With a unified set of compliance, security, privacy, interoperability and access features in the Data Cloud, Snowflake Horizon secures your environment with continuous risk monitoring and protections, RBAC and granular authorization policies.