What Is RBAC? Examples, Benefits and Implementation

5 min read

Access control is a key component of security programs, since it regulates who or what can access data and resources within an organization’s systems. Granting access only to authorized users prevents data breaches and malicious attacks and is a good way to practice the security principle of least privilege. 

This article focuses on RBAC, a type of access control, and its benefits and implementation.

What is role-based access control?

Role-based access control (RBAC) allows users to access resources based on their role within the organization, considering factors such as authority and responsibilities. Role permissions are granted based on whether they need access to the resource to perform their job, and access can even be limited to only performing specific tasks such as the ability to view, create or modify a file. 

RBAC ensures that lower-level employees can’t view sensitive data. This method is beneficial in large companies with many employees and when dealing with third-party contractors. In general RBAC replaces access control lists (ACLs), which work in a similar way but offer even less fine-grained control over permissions.

There are three primary rules of RBAC:

  1. Role assignment: A user can use permission only if they have an assigned role.
  2. Role-based authorization: The user roles must be authorized. Users can’t assign roles to themselves as they see fit.
  3. Permission authorization: A user can only use the permissions their specified role has been authorized to use. This rule ensures that the other two rules have been followed. 

What are some RBAC benefits?

The benefits of RBAC include: 

  • Increased operational efficiency: RBAC reduces administrative overhead associated with password changes when a new team member is added or roles are changed. It allows administrators to quickly implement these changes across all operating systems, applications and platforms, reducing the potential for error. In addition, organizations can also simplify third-party integrations into the network by assigning predefined roles. 
  • Better compliance with government regulations: With RBAC, organizations can more effectively meet data protection, privacy and industry-specific regulations. Managing how data is accessed, used and stored is especially important for financial and healthcare institutions, which work with sensitive information.  
  • Audit trail and network visibility: Administrators gain better visibility into their networks and can see the resources and data users access. RBAC also provides them with an audit trail, showing who accessed what, which can become evidence in case of a security breach. 
  • Reduced costs: Organizations can reduce the expenses associated with network bandwidth, memory and data storage by restricting access to these resources. 
  • Reduced risk of data breaches: In 2022, the average cost of a data breach will be $4.35 million, according to IBM. Restricting access to sensitive information reduces the chances of a data breach.    

5 steps for RBAC implementation

Setting proper employee controls for IT to manage is one of the biggest challenges in cloud-native expansion, according to 64% of the developers we surveyed. To simplify RBAC implementation, follow this 5-step approach:

  1. Take inventory of all your resources and services 

Figure out what resources and services users need access to and list them — for example, email systems, customer databases or folders on a file server. 

  1. Define and group roles 

Take a look at your workforce, group roles that need access to the same resources and assign permissions to these roles. Avoid creating too many different roles. You could, for example, create a limited user role, another role for read/write access and an administrator role that would have full access to a resource.

  1. Assign roles 

After you have created roles and defined what can be accessed, the next step is to assign the roles to people. When you assign roles, avoid adding too many exceptions or overlapping roles. 

  1. Apply the RBAC model

Roll out RBAC gradually to avoid disrupting business functions too much. Start by implementing basic user roles and later add more granular access and detailed roles. It is also crucial to ensure RBAC implementation across all company systems. Employees should be trained on the RBAC system, and accounts of employees leaving or joining the organization should be appropriately managed.

  1. Monitor and audit

Regularly audit the roles, the people assigned to them and the level of access each role has. Make sure any exceptions granted to users are not permanent. Keep an eye on the system to see if any users are trying to access information outside their role. Allow for user feedback to help you make any improvements if necessary. 

Several open-source and commercial RBAC tools can assist organizations with implementing and maintaining RBAC. These tools prevent you from setting inappropriate permissions for user roles and audit old permissions to help you set up an effective program. 

A role-based access control example

Chances are you have already experienced RBAC if you have used some of the popular systems on the internet. The basic principle remains the same — to provide only the needed level of access. Take Styra Declarative Authorization Service (DAS), for example. 

Styra DAS is a control plane for Open Policy Agent (OPA), the de facto authorization standard for the cloud-native stack. Within Styra DAS, you can use RBAC to set roles at the Workspace, System and Stack level that grant permissions over resources without impacting the resource itself. Some of the built-in user roles are:

Workspace roles:

  • WorkspaceAdministrator has complete control over the entire workspace and all workspace-level resources.
  • WorkspaceViewer can view all systems, tabs and settings for the workspace, except for system install and uninstall instructions.

System roles:

  • SystemOwner has complete control over the systems that they own. However, they can’t create new systems.
  • SystemViewer has read-only access to the system.
  • SystemEditor can read and modify most resources in a system. They can’t change system configurations or authorization permissions. 
  • SystemPolicyEditor has complete control over the policies in a system and read-only access to other system-specific resources. 

Stack roles:

  • StackOwner has full access to their stack but can’t create a new one.
  • StackViewer only has read-only access to the stack.
  • StackEditor can read and modify all stack resources but can’t change stack. authorization permissions. They can, however, read top-level Workspace configuration.

In addition, some roles in each level allow permissions to refresh tokens. Owners can grant roles by going to the respective permissions pane, clicking the plus icon and selecting “Add user permissions.

Check out the Styra DAS Documentation to learn more about our RBAC integration.

Challenges of RBAC authorization

RBAC enforces coarse-grained authorization, and while it may be easier to configure and manage than more granular approaches, it does come with limitations and may leave gaps in your security. Sometimes, a more advanced fine-grained authorization solution is required. 

As more users with different functions are added, role explosion can add complexity to the static model of RBAC authorization. Role explosion happens when the granularity level for access control gets too detailed. 

RBAC is also inherently reliant on constant updating and manual input and can’t meet the needs of a dynamic organization. For example, RBAC is not enough for Kubernetes API security. Since Kubernetes has intent-based APIs, RBAC provides less control than required. If users have permission to update a resource, they have access to update any portion of that resource.

How to implement role-based access control with Styra 

For cloud-native entitlements, you can use Styra DAS to set up coarse-grained or fine-grained authorization according to your organization’s needs. With Styra DAS, you can easily configure RBAC permissions for users, API tokens and SSO claims for the entire workplace and underlying resources. Users are granted permissions based on the combination of all their assigned roles. 

Want to lean more about implementing RBAC (or more fine-grained controls like ABAC)? Take advantage of the Styra DAS trial to see how RBAC works in action.


What is Azure RBAC?

Azure RBAC is an authorization system built upon the Azure Resource Manager that provides users access to Azure resources. It includes 120 built-in roles and allows for the creation of custom roles as well.

What is RBAC testing?

After implementing RBAC, tests are performed on the code written to evaluate the effectiveness of the policies. Testing can be either black-box or white-box, depending on the software’s internal structure.  

What is full access?

Full access generally refers to the admin role in RBAC. An administrator role with full access can create, edit and use all resources within the RBAC system.

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