Nowadays, especially in this modern digital workspace, working together successfully as a team is a great challenge and depends on a good collaboration. As part of that collaboration, it’s critical for team members to have access to the files and programs they need to do their jobs. But that access should be easily revocable when employees change job positions or leave the company. This is could be achieved through access control which defines who is allowed to access what.  In this post, we will look at the comparison of two of the most popular access control models: role-based access control (RBAC) versus attribute-based access control (ABAC). We’ll also briefly discuss how RBAC contribute to secure monitoring best practices.

Role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC) are the two most commonly used access control tools used for authorization and permissions systems. Most developers have heard them and may have a sense for what they mean, but many aren’t clear on how to think about RBAC and ABAC as tools for modelling permissions in their apps. Understanding the differences between the two is key for choosing between RBAC vs. ABAC for your system.

RBAC versus ABAC

  • What is RBAC and how does it work?

Role-based access control (RBAC), also known as role-based security, is a mechanism that restricts system access. It includes setting permissions and privileges to enable access to authorized users. Most large organizations use role-based access control to provide their employees with varying levels of access based on their roles and responsibilities. This protects sensitive data, limit the risk of data leaks and and ensures employees can only access information and perform actions they need to accomplish their tasks.

In addition to restricting access, the company assigns a role-based access control role to every employee; the role determines which permissions the system grants to the user. Likewise, the right to access a file is based on the role of the user. Moreover, it is also possible for a single user to have multiple roles. The main advantage of RBAC is that this policy does not need to change when a certain person with the role leaves the organization. It is also easier to activate a role on a new employee.

The Benefits of RBAC include:

– Security. RBAC uses the principle of least privilege to lower the risk of a data breach. It also limits damage should a breach occur.

– Ease of Use. RBAC connects employees to the data and systems they need and reduces administrative overhead for IT.

– Compliance Readiness. Administrators can more easily prove that data and sensitive information have been handled according to privacy, security, and confidentiality standards.

  • What is ABAC and how does it work?

ABAC stands for Attribute Based Access Control. In this method, the access to a resource is determined by a collection of several attributes. It considers user attributes (subject attributes), resource attributes (object attributes) and environmental attributes. In practice, attributes can include everything from the position of employees to their departments, IP addresses, devices, and more. By using ABAC, the organizations can simplify access management and reduce risks due to unauthorized access. Furthermore, it helps to centralize auditing.

  • Key benefits of ABAC include:

– Granularity: it uses attributes rather than roles to specify relationships between users and resources, administrators can create precisely targeted rules without needing to create additional roles. 

– Flexibility: ABAC policies are easy to adapt as resources and users change.

– Adaptability: ABAC makes adding and revoking permissions easier by allowing admins to modify attributes. This simplifies onboarding and offboarding as well as the temporary provisioning of contractors and external partners.

– Security: ABAC allows admins to create context-sensitive rules as security needs arise so they can more easily protect user privacy and adhere to compliance requirements.

  • RBAC versus ABAC: differences between the two access control models

One key distinction between RBAC and ABAC is their static versus dynamic nature, as implied in their respective models — RBAC permits access based on roles, which are generally fairly static within an organization, where ABAC relies on attributes, which can be dynamic — changing, for example, when a user attempts to access a resource from a different device or IP address.

This brings us to the benefits and downsides of each model: ABAC can be automated to update permissions, and — once everything is set up — requires less overall administration. It’s also secure when set up correctly. In terms of downsides, ABAC can be quite complex and environment-specific, and complicated attribute sets can be hard to scale.

RBAC, on the other hand, is highly efficient and can streamline the compliance process. While any form of access control comes with a degree of complexity, RBAC is transparent enough that you can see how individuals interact with resources based on their roles.

One major downside of RBAC is if your environment has a multitude of different roles, each with its own complex set of permissions, which can make management difficult. In contrast to ABAC, RBAC can’t be automated, so the more complex your environment, the more manual the access management control becomes.

  • RBAC or ABAC: The best access model depends on company size and security needs

RBAC and ABAC are both effective ways to control access to data in your system. Which one works best for you will be based on a few factors:

– How big is your company? RBAC tends to not scale well because as more people and resources are added, more roles are created to define more detailed permissions. If you work at a big enterprise, ABAC is probably the right approach.

– How complex does your authorization strategy need to be? In general, you should try to do the least complex form of access control possible. If RBAC will cut it, this would be the right choice. If you need more detailed permissions or to look at variables that fall outside of roles (like device type, location, or time), you’ll need to use ABAC.

The good news is that you can use both RBAC and ABAC in tandem. A common model is to begin with RBAC and keep it as an overarching access model, then slowly add ABAC on top to fine-tune security for various users, resources, and operations.