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06. Jan. 2015

ACL – Access Control Lists – revised

06 Jan

With a focus on CakePHP application development.

Authentication vs Authorization

Those two are often confused. So here a little preface:

Authentication always comes first. It is about whether you are logged in or not. At this point it is not yet relevant who has access to what.
It is merely checked if the specific action/URL can be publicly accessed or needs authentication first.

After the authentication process, usually completed through some kind of login, the authorization decides on who can do what.
Here either roles or specific users are checked upon and the access is then either granted or denied.

Role Based Access Control (RBAC)

The easiest form of authorization is usually "role based access control", where you assign each other a role, and all that needs to be done is comparing
the user’s role (or roles in multi-role setups) to the required role for a specific action.
This can be realized with a single "roles" table and "role_id" in "users" table (or for multi-roles a "roles" and "user_roles" table) along with some table or file to store the
role/action relations.

Row Level Permissions

ACL is part of Authorization, the second step.
It is called "row level" access control, as it can go beyond just roles/actions combinations. Depending on the implementation it can also allow or deny specific users access to certain actions or records and make inheritable tree structures possible. So if you deny a certain user access to a node in the ACL tree(s), the sub-nodes are also prohibited by inheritance.
In its complex form (CRUD) it has even a flag for each type of action.
Such ACL trees can be quite complex to handle manually, and as such the tools provide you usually with some methods and CLI commands to make things easier.
So for the CakePHP core ACL there is even a plugin around some extra utilities for it.

ACO vs ARO

Read in the docs how ACL works regarding ACO (Access Control Object) / ARO (Access Request Object).
Essentially, ACLs are used to decide when an ARO can have access to an ACO.
While this post mainly focuses on controlling access to actions and records, ACOs could be anything you want to control, from a controller action, to a web service, to a line in your grandma’s online diary. So it allows you to make anything "accessible".

Why ACL?

First of all you have to assess what kind of authorization is needed for your application. In 95% of all cases, a full stack row level ACL is not even needed, and simple roles per user would suffice.

The main questions boil down to:
a) Does it need row level permissions as in "I need to allow/deny certain actions – or even specific records – to certain users"? Sure this can’t this be done with more roles?
If so, then go for some ACL implementation. If not (and this often times cuts down the complexity quite a bit) use a role based one.

b) Does it have to be dynamic? For row level this usually has to be some DB driven solution. For roles it is sure nice to have some backend, but in my experience
it is often not really necessary, at least if it is not some kind of CMS, but a web application that has developers close by.

So it results in 3 different outcomes:

  • Row level + dynamic (=ACL)
  • Role based + dynamic (=RBAC dyn)
  • Role based + static (=RBAC stat)

Note that the 2.x core ACL also provides an INI based approach, but that is not recommended and somewhat useless.

Problems with ACL

When working with ACL back in 1.x and 2.0/2.1/2.2 one large problem with it was speed.
It is both slow in generating the aco/aro tree from all actions available throughout the project as well as checking them.
Depending on the implementation this can sometimes be the bottleneck of some controllers and their actions.
Especially with a larger user base and a not so small app this can probably get out of hand very soon.

When building the aro/aco trees the resulting tree structure table always seemed quite fragile to me. At least a few times it got, for some reason,
broken, and repair tools had to recover the tree structure. It is also very difficult to debug due to its complexity.
Additionally, you have to be very carefully with handling the data: You cannot just delete a user manually, or reset/truncate a table. It always has to go through the ACL channels for the tree to stay valid and filled with the right data.

Another problem I encountered when working with ACL:
It is locked to the DB, instead of the code base. So reproducing some issues with accessing actions locally can become tedious as you have a totally different user-base, controlled records and thus ACL entries. And if you deploy, but forget to update the ACL (or some action is not added for some reason) people will be locked out without indication/feedback. If you upload new actions, the permissions to it will not always be deployed along with it which feels counter-intuitive to me.
That applies for any dynamic (DB driven) permission setup, of course. So role based ones with an admin backend wouldn’t be off the hook here.
Using static and "file commited" permissions here assert that those always fit to the current code base. I found that a lot easier to maintain and debug.

Static RBACs ftw

For the last 6 years I have never needed ACL for any of my applications or have it found useful for a lot of others I have examined.
Defining some good roles was enough. And it was simple. Additionally, by keeping it static I neutralized the issue with the "not-in-sync" issues above.

I see a lot of people over-engineering that part without the (immediate) need for it.
So I would really keep it as simple as possible until the use case for more complex mechanisms arises.

ACL definitely has its use cases, and I wouldn’t dare to call it evil, but it needs to be thoroughly thought through and not applied blindly.
In case you need to use it, check here, if the ActionsAuthorize (Uses the AclComponent to check for permissions on an action level) suffices over CrudAuthorize (action -> CRUD mappings).

Alternatives to the CakePHP core ACL

Alternatives on row level

Often times you can’t get around some basic row level checking, e.g. when a user may only edit/delete his own posts.

The book has examples on how to add the currently logged in user to the data upon add action, and how to check for edit/delete if that user is the owner of that record.
This can be done using the controller’s isAuthorized() method. A little bit of hardcoding saves a lot of trouble here.

Alternatives to ACL in general

Role based

  • TinyAuth – static INI files by default but could be easily made DB driven or at least backend adjustable.

Other

  • Controller based: ControllerAuthorize Calls isAuthorized() on the active controller, and uses the return of that to authorize a user. This is often the most simple way to authorize users. You can even mix role based with row level based auth if required.

Let me know if I forgot to list one. The full list of available plugins can be found at awesome-cakephp.

Last notes

In CakePHP3 ACL has been moved into a separate plugin, as it is just too much overhead for the core (since not so many actually use it) and doesn’t quite fit the 80%-rule therefore.

4.56 avg. rating (90% score) - 9 votes
 
3 Comments

Posted by Mark in CakePHP

 

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  1. Robin

    March 5, 2015 at 02:30

    wonderful article! many thanks
    Really get exactly what I need &amp; save a lot of time.

     
  2. Antonis Flangofas

    September 13, 2015 at 11:32

    Thanks for sharing this article. It helped me a lot in understanding the two concepts. Starred cakephp-tinyauth plugin on github, thanks for updating the it for CakePHP 3 🙂

     
  3. Gio

    January 30, 2018 at 01:20

    thanks! It helped me a lot. 😀