Yet another role-based authorization system for Rails
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Acl9 is yet another solution for role-based authorization in Rails. It consists of two
subsystems which can be used separately.

Role control subsystem allows you to set and query user roles for various objects.

Access control subsystem allows you to specify different role-based access rules
inside controllers.

A bunch of access rules is translated into a complex
boolean expression. Then it’s turned into a lambda or a method and can
be used with before_filter. Thus you can block unprivileged access to certain
actions of your controller.

An example:

  class VerySecretController < ApplicationController
    access_control do
      allow :superadmin
      allow :owner, :of => :secret

      action :index do
        allow anonymous, logged_in

      allow logged_in, :to => :show
      allow :manager, :of => :secret, :except => [:delete, :destroy]
      deny :thiefs

    def index
      # ...

    # ...


Acl9 is hosted on the GitHub.

You may find tutorials and additional docs on the wiki page.

Rdocs are available here.

If you have questions, please post to the
acl9-discuss group


Acl9 can be installed as a gem from gemcutter.

Add the following line to your config/environment.rb:

  config.gem "acl9", :source => "", :lib => "acl9"

Then run rake gems:install (with possible rake gems:unpack thereafter) and you’re done!

Alternatively you can install Acl9 as a plugin:

  script/plugin install git://


Authorization is not authentication!

Both words start with “auth” but have different meaning!

Authentication is basically a mapping of credentials (username, password) or
OpenID to specific user account in the system.

Authorization is an authenticated user’s permission to perform some
specific action somewhere in the system.

Acl9 is a authorization solution, so you will need to implement authentication
by other means. I recommend Authlogic
for that purpose, as it’s simple, clean and at the same time very configurable.


Role is an abstraction. You could directly assign permissions to user accounts in
your system, but you’d not want to! Way more manageable solution is to assign permissions
to roles and roles further to users.

For example, you can have role called admin which has all available permissions. Now
you may assign this role to several trusted accounts on your system.

Acl9 also supports the notion of object roles, that is, roles with limited scope.

Imagine we are building a magazine site and want to develop a permission system. So, what roles
and permissions are there?

Journalists should be able to create articles in their section and edit their own articles.

Section editors should be able to edit and delete all articles in their sections and
change the published flag.

Editor-in-chief should be able to change everything.

We clearly see that journalists and section editors are tied to a specific section, whereas
editor-in-chief is a role with global scope.

Role interface

All permission checks in Acl9 are boiled down to calls of a single method:

subject.has_role?(role, object)

That should be read as “Does subject have role on object?”.

Subject is an instance of a User, or Account, or whatever model you use for
authentication. Object is an instance of any class (including subject class!)
or nil (in which case it’s a global role).

Acl9 builtin role control subsystem provides has_role? method for you, but you can
also implemented it by hand (see Coming up with your own role implementation below).

Acl9 role control subsystem

Role control subsystem has been lifted from
Rails authorization plugin,
but undergone some modifications.

It’s based on two tables in the database. First, role table, which stores pairs [role_name, object]
where object is a polymorphic model instance or a class. Second, join table, which joins users and roles.

To use this subsystem, you should define a Role model.

Role model

  class Role < ActiveRecord::Base

The structure of roles table is as follows:

  create_table "roles", :force => true do |t|
    t.string   "name",              :limit => 40
    t.string   "authorizable_type", :limit => 40
    t.integer  "authorizable_id"
    t.datetime "created_at"
    t.datetime "updated_at"

Note that you will almost never use the Role class directly.

Subject model

  class User < ActiveRecord::Base

You won’t need any specific columns in the users table, but
there should be a join table:

  create_table "roles_users", :id => false, :force => true do |t|
    t.integer  "user_id"
    t.integer  "role_id"
    t.datetime "created_at"
    t.datetime "updated_at"

Object model

Place acts_as_authorization_object call inside any model you want to act
as such.

  class Foo < ActiveRecord::Base
  class Bar < ActiveRecord::Base


Subject model

A call of acts_as_authorization_subject defines following methods on the model:

subject.has_role?(role, object = nil). Returns true of false (has or has not).

subject.has_role!(role, object = nil). Assigns a role for the object to the subject.
Does nothing is subject already has such a role.

subject.has_no_role!(role, object = nil). Unassigns a role from the subject.

subject.has_roles_for?(object). Does the subject has any roles for object? (true of false)

subject.has_role_for?(object). Same as has_roles_for?.

subject.roles_for(object). Returns an array of Role instances, corresponding to subject ’s roles on
object. E.g. subject.roles_for(object).map(&:name).sort will give you role names in alphabetical order.

subject.has_no_roles_for!(object). Unassign any subject ’s roles for a given object.

subject.has_no_roles!. Unassign all roles from subject.

Object model

A call of acts_as_authorization_object defines following methods on the model:

object.accepts_role?(role_name, subject). An alias for subject.has_role?(role_name, object).

object.accepts_role!(role_name, subject). An alias for subject.has_role!(role_name, object).

object.accepts_no_role!(role_name, subject). An alias for subject.has_no_role!(role_name, object).

object.accepts_roles_by?(subject). An alias for subject.has_roles_for?(object).

object.accepts_role_by?(subject). Same as accepts_roles_by?.

object.accepts_roles_by(subject). An alias for subject.roles_for(object).

Custom class names

You may want to deviate from default User and Role class names. That can easily be done with
arguments to acts_as_....

Say, you have Account and AccountRole:

  class Account < ActiveRecord::Base
    acts_as_authorization_subject :role_class_name => 'AccountRole'

  class AccountRole < ActiveRecord::Base
    acts_as_authorization_role :subject_class_name => 'Account'

  class FooBar < ActiveRecord::Base
    acts_as_authorization_object :role_class_name => 'AccountRole', :subject_class_name => 'Account'

Or… since Acl9 defaults can be changed in a special hash, you can put the following snippet:

    :default_role_class_name => 'AccountRole',
    :default_subject_class_name => 'Account',

… into config/initializers/acl9.rb and get rid of that clunky arguments:

  class Account < ActiveRecord::Base

  class AccountRole < ActiveRecord::Base

  class FooBar < ActiveRecord::Base

Note that you’ll need to change your database structure appropriately:

  create_table "account_roles", :force => true do |t|
    t.string   "name",              :limit => 40
    t.string   "authorizable_type", :limit => 40
    t.integer  "authorizable_id"
    t.datetime "created_at"
    t.datetime "updated_at"
  create_table "account_roles_accounts", :id => false, :force => true do |t|
    t.integer  "account_id"
    t.integer  "account_role_id"
    t.datetime "created_at"
    t.datetime "updated_at"


  user = User.create!
  user.has_role? 'admin'              # => false

  user.has_role! :admin

  user.has_role? :admin               # => true

user now has global role admin. Note that you can specify role name either
as a string or as a symbol.

  foo = Foo.create!

  user.has_role? 'admin', foo         # => false

  user.has_role! :manager, foo
  user.has_role? :manager, foo        # => true
  foo.accepts_role? :manager, user    # => true
  user.has_roles_for? foo             # => true

You can see here that global and object roles are distinguished from each other. User
with global role admin isn’t automatically admin of foo.


  user.has_role? :manager             # => true

That is, if you have an object role, it means that you have a global role with the same name too!
In other words, you are manager if you manage at least one foo (or a bar…).

  bar = Bar.create!

  user.has_role! :manager, bar
  user.has_no_role! :manager, foo

  user.has_role? :manager, foo        # => false
  user.has_role? :manager             # => true

Our user is no more manager of foo, but has become a manager of bar.


  user.has_role? :manager             # => false
  user.has_role? :admin               # => false
  user.roles                          # => []

At this time user has no roles in the system.

Coming up with your own role implementation

The described role system with its 2 tables (not counting the users table!)
might be an overkill for many cases. If all you want is global roles without
any scope, you’d better off implementing it by hand.

The access control subsystem of Acl9 uses only subject.has_role? method, so
there’s no need to implement anything else except for own convenience.

For example, if each your user can have only one global role, just add role
column to your User class:

  class User < ActiveRecord::Base
    def has_role?(role_name, obj=nil)
      self.role == role_name
    def has_role!(role_name, obj=nil)
      self.role = role_name

If you need to assign multiple roles to your users, you can use serialize
with role array or a special solution like

Access control subsystem

By means of access control subsystem you can protect actions of your controller
from unauthorized access. Acl9 provides a nice DSL for writing access rules.

Allow and deny

Access control is mostly about allowing and denying. So there are two
basic methods: allow and deny. They have the same syntax:


Specifying roles

ROLE_LIST is a list of roles (at least 1 role should be there). So,

  allow :manager, :admin
  deny  :banned

will match holders of global role manager and holders of global role admin as allowed.
On the contrary, holders of banned role will match as denied.

Basically this snippet is equivalent to

  allow :manager
  allow :admin
  deny  :banned

which means that roles in argument list are OR’ed for a match, and not AND’ed.

Also note that:

  • You may use both strings and :symbols to specify roles (the latter get converted into strings).
  • Role names are singularized before check.

Thus the snippet above can also be written as

  allow :managers, :admins
  deny  'banned'

or even

  allow *%w(managers admins)
  deny  'banned'

Object and class roles

Examples in the previous section were all about global roles. Let’s see how we can
use object and class roles in the ACL block.

  allow :responsible, :for => Widget
  allow :possessor, :of => :foo
  deny  :angry, :at => :me
  allow :interested, :in => Future
  deny  :short, :on => :time
  deny  :hated, :by => :us

To specify an object you use one of the 6 preposition options:

  • :of
  • :at
  • :on
  • :by
  • :for
  • :in

They all have the same meaning, use one that makes better English out of your rule.

Now, each of these prepositions may point to a Class or a :symbol. In the former case we get
a class role. E.g. allow :responsible, :for => Widget becomes subject.has_role?('responsible', Widget).

Symbol is trickier, it means that the appropriate instance variable of the controller is taken
as an object.

allow :possessor, :of => :foo is translated into
subject.has_role?('possessor', controller.instance_variable_get('@foo')).

Checking against an instance variable has sense when you have another before filter which is executed
before the one generated by access_control, like this:

  class MoorblesController < ApplicationController
    before_filter :load_moorble, :only => [:edit, :update, :destroy]

    access_control do
      allow :creator, :of => :moorble

      # ...

    # ...


    def load_moorble
      @moorble = Moorble.find(params[:id])

Note that the object option is applied to all of the roles you specify in the argument list.
As such,

  allow :devil, :son, :of => God

is equivalent to

  allow :devil, :of => God
  allow :son,   :of => God

but NOT

  allow :devil
  allow :son, :of => God


There are three pseudo-roles in the ACL: all, anonymous and logged_in.

allow all will always match (as well as deny all).

allow anonymous and deny anonymous will match when user is anonymous, i.e. subject is nil.
You may also use a shorter notation: allow nil (deny nil).

logged_in is direct opposite of anonymous, so allow logged_in will match if the user is logged in
(subject is not nil).

No role checks are done in either case.

Limiting action scope

By default rules apply to all actions of the controller. There are two options that
narrow the scope of the deny or allow rule: :to and :except.

  allow :owner, :of => :site, :to => [:delete, :destroy]
  deny anonymous, :except => [:index, :show]

For the first rule to match not only the current user should be an owner of the site, but also
current action should be delete or destroy.

In the second rule anonymous user access is denied for all actions, except index and show.

You may not specify both :to and :except.

Note that you can use actions block instead of :to (see Actions block
below). You can also use :only and :except options in the
access_control call which will serve as options of the before_filter and thus
limit the scope of the whole ACL.

Rule conditions

You may create conditional rules using :if and :unless options.

  allow :owner, :of => :site, :to => [:delete, :destroy], :if => :chance_to_delete

Controller’s :chance_to_delete method will be called here. The rule will match if the action
is ‘delete’ or ‘destroy’ AND if the method returned true.

:unless has the opposite meaning and should return false for a rule to match.

Both options can be specified in the same rule.

  allow :visitor, :to => [:index, :show], :if => :right_phase_of_the_moon?, :unless => :suspicious?

right_phase_of_the_moon? should return true AND suspicious? should return false for a poor visitor to
see a page.

Currently only controller methods are supported (specify them as :symbols). Lambdas are not supported.

Rule matching order

Rule matching system is similar to that of Apache web server. There are two modes: default allow
(corresponding to Order Deny,Allow in Apache) and default deny (Order Allow,Deny in Apache).

Setting modes

Mode is set with a default call.

default :allow will set default allow mode.

default :deny will set default deny mode. Note that this is the default mode, i.e. it will be on
if you don’t do a default call at all.

Matching algorithm

First of all, regardless of the mode, all allow matches are OR’ed together and all deny matches
are OR’ed as well.

We’ll express this in the following manner:

  ALLOWED = (allow rule 1 matches?) OR ((allow rule 2 matches?) OR ...
  NOT_DENIED = NOT ((deny rule 1 matches?) OR (deny rule 2 matches?) OR ...)

So, ALLOWED is true when either of the allow rules matches, and NOT_DENIED is true when none
of the deny rules matches.

Let’s denote the final result of algorithm as ALLOWANCE. If it’s true, access is allowed, if false – denied.

In the case of default allow_:


In the case of default deny_:


Same result as a table:

Rule matches Default allow mode Default deny mode
None of the allow and deny rules matched. Access is allowed. Access is denied.
Some of the allow rules matched, none of the deny rules matched. Access is allowed. Access is allowed.
None of the allow rules matched, some of the deny rules matched. Access is denied. Access is denied.
Some of the allow rules matched, some of the deny rules matched. Access is allowed. Access is denied.

Apparently default deny mode is more strict, and that’s because it’s on by default.

Actions block

You may group rules with the help of the actions block.

An example from the imaginary PostsController:

  allow :admin
  actions :index, :show do
    allow all

  actions :new, :create do
    allow :managers, :of => Post

  actions :edit, :update do
    allow :owner, :of => :post

  action :destroy do
    allow :owner, :of => :post

This is equivalent to:

  allow :admin
  allow all, :to => [:index, :show]
  allow :managers, :of => Post, :to => [:new, :create]
  allow :owner, :of => :post, :to => [:edit, :update]
  allow :owner, :of => :post, :to => :destroy

Note that only allow and deny calls are available inside actions block, and these may not have
:to/:except options.

action is just a synonym for actions.

access_control method

By calling access_control in your controller you can get your ACL block translated into…

  1. a lambda, installed with before_filter and raising Acl9::AccessDenied exception on occasion.
  2. a method, installed with before_filter and raising Acl9::AccessDenied exception on occasion.
  3. a method, returning true or false, whether access is allowed or denied.

First case is by default. You can catch the exception with rescue_from call and do something
you like: make a redirect, or render “Access denied” template, or whatever.

Second case is obtained with specifying method name as an argument to
access_control (or using :as_method option, see below) and may be helpful
if you want to use skip_before_filter somewhere in the derived controller.

Third case will take place if you supply :filter => false along with method
name. You’ll get an ordinary method which you can call anywhere you want.


Acl9 obtains the subject instance by calling specific method of the controller. By default it’s
:current_user, but you may change it.

  class MyController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :subject_method => :current_account do
      allow :nifty
      # ...

    # ...

Subject method can also be changed globally. Place the following into config/initializers/acl9.rb:

  Acl9::config[:default_subject_method] = :current_account


:debug => true will output the filtering expression into the debug log. If
Acl9 does something strange, you may look at it as the last resort.


In the case

  class NiftyController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :as_method => :acl do
      allow :nifty
      # ...

    # ...

access control checks will be added as acl method onto MyController, with before_filter :acl call thereafter.

Instead of using :as_method you may specify the name of the method as a positional argument
to access_control:

  class MyController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :acl do
      # ...

    # ...


If you set :filter to false (it’s true by default) and also use
:as_method (or method name as 1st argument to access_control, you’ll get a
method which won’t raise Acl9::AccessDenied exception, but rather return
true or false (access allowed/denied).

  class SecretController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :secret_access?, :filter => false do
      allow :james_bond
      # ...

    def index
      if secret_access?

    # ...


    def _secret_index
      # ...
    def _ordinary_index
      # ...

The generated method can receive an objects hash as an argument. In this example,

  class LolController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :lolcats?, :filter => false do
      allow :cats, :by => :lol
      # ...

you may not only call lolcats? with no arguments, which will basically return

  current_user.has_role?('cats', @lol)

but also as lolcats?(:lol => Lol.find(params[:lol])). The hash will be looked into first,
even if you have an instance variable lol.


Sometimes you want to have a boolean method (like :filter => false) accessible
in your views. Acl9 can call helper_method for you:

  class LolController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :helper => :lolcats? do
      allow :cats, :by => :lol
      # ...

That’s equivalent to

  class LolController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :lolcats?, :filter => false do
      allow :cats, :by => :lol
      # ...

    helper_method :lolcats?

Other options

Other options will be passed to before_filter. As such, you may use :only and :except to narrow
the action scope of the whole ACL block.

  class OmgController < ApplicationController 
    access_control :only => [:index, :show] do
      allow all
      deny :banned

    # ...

is basically equivalent to

  class OmgController < ApplicationController 
    access_control do
      actions :index, :show do
        allow all
        deny :banned

      allow all, :except => [:index, :show]

    # ...

access_control in your helpers

Apart from using :helper option for access_control call inside controller, there’s a
way to generate helper methods directly, like this:

  module SettingsHelper
    include Acl9Helpers

    access_control :show_settings? do
      allow :admin
      allow :settings_manager

Here we mix in Acl9Helpers module which brings in access_control method and call it,
obtaining show_settings? method.

An imaginary view:

  <% if show_settings? %>
    <%= link_to 'Settings', settings_path %>
  <% end %>

show_to in your views

show_to is predefined helper for your views:

  <% show_to :admin, :supervisor do %>
    <%= link_to 'destroy', destroy_path %>
  <% end %>

or even

  <% show_to :prince, :of => :persia do %>
    <%= link_to 'Princess', princess_path %>
  <% end %>

Copyright © 2009 Oleg Dashevskii, released under the MIT license.