Saturday, August 26, 2006

Representing Authorization Model

I read xacml [James McGovern] entry around representing the authorization model. He has raised a great point on how to translate the authorization use-case narratives in to a simple representations. So far based on the various conversations around the authorization models, I have not been able to find a way to represent the complete authorization model as a diagram. The simple reason being that at the core of the authorization model are business rule and it is tough to represent them as diagram. Let me elaborate on that.

Basically, when you start looking at the authorization use-cases, at a very high level the following components typically form the part of the authorization data model

  1. Users and their organization into groups, roles, client organization, etc
  2. Resources and their organization into hierarchy, groups, etc
  3. Actions and probably some form of their organization
  4. Attributes of the user, resources (and may be actions), environment that help perform fine grained evaluation
  5. Policies which are the business rules (i.e. a combination of corporate, LOB, application security rules) that bring together the user, resource, actions, their organizations and attributes.

The items 1-4 can probably be represented as diagram (but I still have reservations about representing the business logic for complex organization memberships). Incase of 5, some of the simple like ACLs may be represented using the diagrams. But when it comes to complex rule-based access control, the basic question is how do you represent business rules in diagram? Most of the places that I have seen, the business rules are represented using language and not as diagram (but I am not an expert in business rule representation and would love some pointers in this direction).

Can we use XACML for this purpose? The way I see it, XACML as it stands right now is way too simplistic. It is not appropriate to represent complex authorization patterns satisfactorily. I may get beaten up on this, but I think XACML at this time is more like SOAP of old days without any of the WS-* specifications to standardize the basic cross-cutting requirements. I think over time, through the various profiles (hopefully which are pretty intuitive), we would be able to standardize on more complex patterns which will help us represent the complex authorization models as diagram.

Besides that a very good point raised is around the requirement of mapping the existing authorization model to vendor data model (referred to as reverse engineering if I understood correctly). Now this is a very tricky subject since there is no right way to perform the mapping. Most of the time the application authorization data model  is not built around the simple user, role, resource, action system (unless the architects were really building under the constraints of following that model and the business requirements were simple enough) that automatically translates to the model provided by most of the vendors. The actual translation of the application model to vendor specific model (which vary in their richness and complexity a lot) is dependent on various constraints like

  1. Manageability requirements
  2. Data location and synchronization
  3. Authorization Queries that need to be fulfilled now and in future
  4. flexibility required in the future
  5. performance of vendor functionality being used
  6. and so on....

So, to reiterate there is no single way to transform Application authorization model to a Vendor specific data model and so coming up with a methodology which takes into consideration the various possible issues (like some specified above) is the best way to do it. 

My thought process at this point may look very pessimistic but would love to hear thoughts on this and would like to be part of any initiative that tries to solve this issue.

Thoughts and Next Steps?  

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