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Access Control

Asking the Right Question: RBAC vs. ABAC or RBAC AND ABAC?

|Chief Scientist
Before they can access data, users must get authenticated and authorized. In this regard, access control refers to the process of obtaining access to data. This article will discuss the most common systems that organizations deploy to manage this process: role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC).   Many activities require digital access, and the more technology people rely on, the more entry points each will need. One of the most challenging decisions you will have to make when running a business is selecting who should have access to what—an extremely important distinction as today’s organizations manage increasingly large amounts of data.   This is why we will discuss RBAC & ABAC for data access. Now, let us dive into each of them and see which option is right for you.

In the Right Corner: RBAC

Role-based access control (RBAC) is a form of advanced access control that limits network access based on a person's role within an organization. Moreover, employees' degrees of access to the network are referred to as their RBAC roles. In this system, employees only receive access to the information they need to do their jobs efficiently. Furthermore, access to data might be restricted to specific operations, such as viewing, creating, or editing a file. For example, data analysts may be able to read data but not write or update it. As a result, if employees of specific roles do not require sensitive data to accomplish their obligations, they should not have access to it. In some cases, RBAC may be applied on fine-grained access control, such as dynamic data masking. This control can, for example, prevent users from accessing PII unless they have a certain role.  

The Advantages of RBAC

Information security necessitates managing and auditing access. With hundreds and even thousands of users, security is easier to maintain by restricting needless access to important data based on each user's known function within the company. RBAC allows companies to effectively scale access control Other benefits include:

Reducing the Administrative Work and IT Support Required

When an employee is hired or changes roles, you can use RBAC to decrease the amount of administrative work required. Instead, you may utilize RBAC to swiftly add and switch roles across operating systems, platforms, databases, and apps, and you can automatically do so universally.

Improving and Ensuring Compliance

Federal, state, and local regulations apply to all organizations. Thus, companies can more easily meet statutory and regulatory standards for privacy and confidentiality by using an RBAC system because IT, data engineering, and executives can control how data is accessed and utilized in RBAC security policies.

Optimizing the Efficiency of Operations

RBAC is a simple and logical solution for managing access control. Rather than attempting to administrate lower-level access control, it allows you to align all roles with the business's organizational structure, so users can work more efficiently and autonomously.

In the Left Corner: ABAC

Attribute-based access control (ABAC) has emerged as the next-generation model for securing business-critical data access. Because of the complexities of today's IT ecosystem–think cloud apps, data platforms, mobile, IoT, and Big Data – RBAC solutions have gotten exposed, leaving enterprises susceptible on the data security front. Attribute-based access control (ABAC) grants users access based on their attributes, such as information about who they are instead of what they do. These attributes can be the business unit where the employees work or are employed, but they can also be “whether the user is currently on-shift,” what geographical region they are connecting from, and more. Furthermore, ABAC allows you to define a comprehensive, complicated access control policy more simply by looking at a user's attributes—information that is already known and often recorded in HR and other systems.  

The Advantages of ABAC

With attribute-based access control, every access decision is made through you, which means you have complete control over who has access to what at any given time. There are numerous benefits to having such autonomy:  

Better Scaling

ABAC systems are especially useful when you are trying to scale your business. Filtering various employees based on location, time, activities, and other characteristics becomes easy with ABAC because you have already put in the effort to develop your rules. Thus, ABAC is the key to safely scaling your business as long as the security policies are clear and deterministic.  

Decreasing, if not Eliminating, Oversight

Permission updates are straightforward once ABAC is in place. You no longer have to think strategically about issuing permissions to single members of larger teams because access permissions are changed immediately when a user's attributes change.  

Optimizing Security

While RBAC provides a basic level of security for your company's data, ABAC allows you to be more precise with your access. For example, if a user wanted to access a confidential file after hours from their phone, the ABAC control system would highlight those two variables: the time accessed and the device used. It also means that access can be more granular (e.g. only granted to a specific user in a certain way, rather than allowing access to their entire team).  


RBAC and ABAC are two methods for regulating and approving users to access data during the authentication process. Essentially, RBAC widely manages access across an organization, whereas ABAC manages access at a finer level. If RBAC is sufficient, you should use it before implementing ABAC access control. If you do not need more granular access control, there is no point in utilizing the more powerful filter and incurring the associated resource costs. In either case, it is critical to structure your access and security landscape with as few RBAC and ABAC filters as possible. It is a good idea to thoroughly plan out your directory data and access ways to avoid employing unneeded filters or overcomplicating matters.   Read more in our complete guide on the differences between RBAC and ABAC.  

Using RBAC & ABAC Together

In some circumstances, you can utilize a combination of RBAC and ABAC systems. For example, a company might use RBAC to keep sensitive assets hidden from broad groups of employees and ABAC to determine what action the user wishes to take on those assets, when, and from where. Using these two systems together is all about combining heavy protection with dynamic rules, where RBAC provides a foundation of impenetrable protection for your files and ABAC drills down an additional layer of specificity in regards to the user's actions.  


To distinguish between RBAC and ABAC, remember that RBAC is more static while ABAC is more dynamic. Ultimately, thoroughly planning and monitoring your access control processes is critical when it comes to security. To set up your access controls, choose a powerful access management solution and check your setup regularly to ensure it still meets your organization's needs. Satori, the DataSecOps platform, provides both RBAC and ABAC for data access, regardless of the underlying data platforms. You can apply security policies to databases, data warehouses, or data lakes in a single location. Among Satori’s capabilities, you will enjoy:  Click here to learn more about Satori.
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About the author
|Chief Scientist

Ben is an experienced tech leader and book author with a background in endpoint security, analytics, and application & data security. Ben filled roles such as the CTO of Cynet, and Director of Threat Research at Imperva. Ben is the Chief Scientist for Satori, the DataSecOps platform.

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