February 10, 2023

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) vs. Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC): What’s the Difference?

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Key takeaways

  • RBAC is a more straightforward access management rights tool to set up and implement as long as defined roles are permanent. 
  • RBAC cannot block employees from accessing sensitive files if they are added to a department role with access to sensitive files.
  • ABAC uses four attributes allowing for more granular control down to a specific file, at a particular time, and location.
  • ABAC can dynamically take actions to grant or deny permissions based on established policies, so ABAC can be complex to set up and implement.

Role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC) access right management software tools restrict or limit employees’ access to Information Technology (IT) resources and services. Access right management software helps businesses approve or deny access to IT resources or services based on employee-assigned duties, which also helps prevent potential internal threats. Before comparing RBAC vs. ABAC, it’s important to fully understand the benefits and drawbacks of each.

What is role-based access control?

Role-based access control limits or restricts employees’ access to specific IT resources and services based on the roles and responsibilities of an employee. Roles can be based on job responsibilities, specific tasks, and required job skills. Depending on the user role, an employee can have limited network access or restricted access to sensitive information on a cloud or premises server. 

Using RBAC helps companies manage employee access to IT resources and services based on a subset of tasks assigned to a role.

How does a role work in an RBAC?

A database administrator will be authorized to create, modify, and delete tables in a database, so the database administrator will have these permissions enabled. The database administrator can also change a field name from LName to LastName, which a regular user cannot. 

A typical database user will be authorized to view and add or modify the contents of a database table field value within a record. Still, the user cannot modify the structure of a database table because those permissions are restricted. For example, users can change the contents of the LastName value of a record from Smith to Jones, but the user cannot change the field name.

A SolarWinds database with different levels of access.
Source: SolarWinds

What are the types of roles in an RBAC?

Employees should only be assigned roles that allow them to do their jobs. 

System administrators use four levels of role-based control that provide an employee with a specific subset of permissions defined in a role. For example, a Human Resource (HR) employee will be assigned to a compensation and benefits role but not assigned to the HR compliance role. However, a person in HR compliance can be assigned to the compensation and benefits and workplace safety roles to ensure the HR office is compliant in these two areas; employees can be assigned multiple roles. 

Here are the four levels of roles organizations can use:

  • Flat RBAC – Before users can access any IT services or resources, they must be assigned to a role with associated permissions.   
  • Hierarchical RBAC – The hierarchical role is set up so management personnel can inherit the same permissions as their employees.
  • Constrained RBAC – Purposely creating several roles to complete one task, so no one person can complete a task. 
    • This separation of duties prevents nefarious activities by separating roles so no person can complete a single task. 
  • Symmetric RBAC – This occurs when an administrator routinely reviews permission settings for each role with the intent of moving permissions from one user to another user if required.

What is attribute-based access control?

Attribute-based access control focuses on the characteristics of the user, the requested access, the requested resource, and the conditions or environment of the request. The user, the request, the resource, and the environment in which the request is submitted are all attributes.

How does an attribute work in an ABAC?

When using ABAC, decisions are made based on four attributes. The attributes are subjects, resources, actions, and the environment. For example, when a user submits a request to perform an action, the ABAC software tool will approve or deny it based on the user, the activity, the established policies, and the environment or conditions.

Attributes in NextLabs SAP.
Source: NextLabs SAP

What are the types of attributes in an ABAC

There are four attributes: 

  • Subjects – Unique employee information. 
  • Resources – IT resource being accessed.
  • Actions – The action the user will perform on the requested IT resource.
  • Environmental – the time, place, or established policies will determine if access is granted or denied. This can be a policy, time window, specific device, or location.

ALSO READ: 3 Steps to Implementing Zero Trust in a Sustainable Way

What are the key differences between RBAC vs ABAC?

Though RBAC and ABAC are effective access rights management tools, they grant access rights differently. Besides the noticeable difference between RBAC using roles to grant access to resources and ABAC using attributes, the most significant difference is that ABAC can dynamically assign permissions based on the four attributes. 

ABAC uses eXtensible Access Markup Language (XACML) to assign access control rules. ABAC can also use conditional IF/THEN statements that decide a user’s access rights based on the value of an attribute. Another difference is ABAC requires an administrator with expert-level knowledge in setting up rules because it provides a more granular level of control that is more specific than just roles that RBAC provides.

What are the pros and cons of RBAC vs ABAC?

IT managers need to understand their organizations when evaluating the pros and cons of these access right management tools. Whatever tool an IT manager selects, the pros must have a decided advantage over the cons.

RBAC vs. ABAC pros and cons

Overall, RBAC is easier to set up and use. 

RBAC pros:

  • Out-the-box implementation time is much quicker. 
  • Best used in small to midsize business environments that have a simple organizational structure.

RBAC cons:

  • Role expansion can quickly get out of control.
  • Permissions can be assigned to user roles only and not objects or actions.
  • No ability to restrict access to a sensitive data file on a server or in a folder.

ABAC pros:

  • Offers more granular restrictions by using attributes such as time of the day, location, and file access rights.
  • Policies that establish rules using conditional statements that can dynamically make decisions based on an employee’s permissions. 

ABAC cons:

  • Setting up rules to take advantage of the four attributes can be complex and time-consuming.
  • Prior experience and expertise are required to set up an ABAC deployment; if not done correctly, it can be difficult to undo and time-consuming.
A Cloudflare editing access policy.
Source: Cloudflare

The five best practices for using access right management tools

To get the most out of using access right management tools, IT managers need to consider implementing best practice concepts. Companies will significantly improve their internal cybersecurity posture when using access right management tools with the best practices. The five best practices when using access right management tools are the following:

  • The principle of least privilege – provides the minimum access needed to allow employees to do their job.
  • Multi-factor authentication – verifies the employee’s identification twice by having them log in initially with a username and password followed by a six-digit code sent to their work email or a biometric verification like a fingerprint.
  • Removing obsolete accounts – having an effective offboarding process that revokes access to IT resources immediately after an employee is no longer employed.
  • Identify vulnerable high-risk IT systems – Identifying and removing any IT system that cannot be adequately protected by an access right management tool.
  • Zero-Trust security – forces all employees to authenticate their identities whenever they access an IT resource.

IT managers now have additional knowledge on how these access right management tools operate and what they can secure. Role-based access control is for small to midsize businesses that will not constantly add roles in the organization. An RBAC solution is recommended if a company has a limited budget, time, or IT staffing.

The RBAC vs. ABAC debate takes into account many factors. ABAC is the recommended solution for large organizations that grow annually with a diverse workforce and a large IT staff. An IT manager must select an ABAC solution if your business wants to grant or deny access to data files. SolarWinds Access Right Manager and other access right manager software tools for 2023 can be found in our IT Software Buyer’s Guide.

1 Wrike

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Wrike is an IT work management software trusted by 20,000+ companies and over two million users. Streamline your IT management using custom request forms, Kanban boards, Gantt charts, time-tracking, automated workflows and approvals, budget management, and advanced reporting, all in one place. Integrate Wrike with 400+ applications such as GitHub for seamless development and tracking. Customize your workflows so you can see progress at every step. Transform your IT management with Wrike.

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2 Zoho Assist

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Zoho Assist is a premium remote support tool tailored to the needs of IT professionals. This IT software solution enables unified support and efficient service management. It's versatile, compatible with various workplace environments, and easy to integrate with top help desk and live chat tools. With industry-standard features, Zoho Assist empowers organizations to optimize their IT support, work efficiently, and elevate client service standards.

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3 Site24x7

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Site24x7 offers unified cloud monitoring for DevOps and IT operations, and monitors the experience of real users accessing websites and applications from desktop and mobile devices. In-depth monitoring capabilities enable DevOps teams to monitor and troubleshoot applications, servers and network infrastructure, including private and public clouds. End-user experience monitoring is done from more than 110 locations across the world and various wireless carriers.

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