An authorization Rails plugin using a declarative DSL for specifying authorization rules in one place
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Declarative Authorization

The declarative authorization plugin offers an authorization mechanism inspired by RBAC. The most notable distinction to existing authorization plugins is the declarative authorization approach. That is, authorization rules are not programmatically in between business logic but in an authorization configuration.

Currently, Rails authorization plugins only provide for programmatic authorization rules. That is, the developer needs to specify which roles are allowed to access a specific controller action or a part of a view, which is not DRY. With a growing application code base and functions, as it happens especially in agile development processes, it may be decided to introduce new roles. Then, at several places of the source code the new group needs to be added, possibly leading to omissions and thus hard to test errors. Another aspect are changing authorization requirements in development or even after taking the application into production. Then, privileges of certain roles need to be easily adjusted when the original assumptions concerning access control prove unrealistic. In these situations, a declarative approach as offered by this plugin increases the development and maintenance efficiency.

Plugin features

  • Authorization at controller action level

  • Authorization helpers for Views

  • Authorization at model level

    • Authorize CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Delete) activities

    • Query rewriting to automatically only fetch authorized records

  • DSL for specifying Authorization rules in an authorization configuration


  • An authentication mechanism

    • User object in Controller#current_user

  • User object needs to respond to a method :roles, which should return an array of role symbols

See below for installation instructions.

Authorization Data Model

----- App domain ----|-------- Authorization conf ---------|------- App domain ------

                      includes                   includes
                       .--.                        .---.
                       |  v                        |   v
 .------.  can_play  .------.  has_permission  .------------.  requires  .----------.
 | User |----------->| Role |----------------->| Permission |<-----------| Activity |
 '------' *        * '------' *              * '------------' 1        * '----------'
                                          1 /        | 1     \ *
                                .-----------.   .---------.  .-----------.
                                | Privilege |   | Context |  | Attribute |
                                '-----------'   '---------'  '-----------'

In the application domain, each User may be assigned to Roles that should define the users' job in the application, such as Administrator. On the right-hand side of this diagram, application developers specify which Permissions are necessary for users to perform activities, such as calling a controller action, viewing parts of a View or acting on records in the database. Note that Permissions consist of an Privilege that is to be performed, such as read, and a Context in that the Operation takes place, such as companies.

In the authorization configuration, Permissions are assigned to Roles and Role and Permission hierarchies are defined. Attributes may be employed to allow authorization according to dynamic information about the context and the current user, e.g. “only allow access on employees that belong to the current user's branch.”



If authentication is in place, enabling user-specific access control may be as simple as one call to filter_access_to :all which simply requires the according privileges for present actions. E.g. the privilege index_users is required for action index. This works as a first default configuration for RESTful controllers, with these privileges easily handled in the authorization configuration, which will be described below.

class EmployeeController < ApplicationController
  filter_access_to :all
  def index

When custom actions are added to such a controller, it helps to define more clearly which privileges are the respective requirements. That is when the filter_access_to call may become more verbose:

class EmployeeController < ApplicationController
  filter_access_to :all
  # this one would be included in :all, but :read seems to be
  # a more suitable privilege than :auto_complete_for_user_name
  filter_access_to :auto_complete_for_employee_name, :require => :read
  def auto_complete_for_employee_name

For some actions it might be necessary to check certain attributes of the object the action is to be acting on. Then, the object needs to be loaded before the action's access control is evaluated. On the other hand, some actions might prefer the authorization to ignore specific attribute checks as the object is unknown at checking time, so attribute checks and thus automatic loading of objects needs to be enabled explicitly.

class EmployeeController < ApplicationController
  filter_access_to :update, :attribute_check => true
  def update
    # @employee is already loaded from param[:id]
    @employee ||= Employee.find(param[:id])

If the access is denied, a permission_denied method is called on the current_controller, if defined and the issue is logged. For further customization of the filters and object loading, have a look at the complete API documentation of filter_access_to in Authorization::AuthorizationInController::ClassMethods.


In views, a simple permitted_to? helper makes showing blocks according to the current user's privileges easy:

<% permitted_to?(:create, :employees) do %>
<%= link_to 'New', new_employee_path %>
<% end %>
<% for employee in @employees %>
<%= link_to 'Edit', edit_employee_path(company) if permitted_to?(:update, employee) %>
<% end %>

See also Authorization::AuthorizationHelper.


There are two destinct features for model security built into this plugin: authorizing CRUD operations on objects as well as query rewriting to limit results according to certain privileges.

See also Authorization::AuthorizationInModel.

Model security for CRUD opterations

To activate model security, all it takes is an explicit enabling for each model that model security should be enforced on, i.e.

class Employee < ActiveRecord::Base



fails, if the current user is not allowed to :create :employees according to the authorization rules. For the application to find out about what happened if an operation is denied, the filters throw Authorization::NotAuthorized exceptions.

As access control on read are costly, with possibly lots of objects being loaded at a time in one query, checks on read need to be actived explicitly by adding the :include_read option.

Query rewriting using named scopes

When retrieving large sets of records from databases, any authorization needs to be integrated into the query in order to prevent inefficient filtering afterwards and to use LIMIT and OFFSET in SQL statements. To keep authorization rules out of the source code, this plugin offers query rewriting mechanisms through named scopes. Thus,


returns all employee records that the current user is authorized to read. In addition, just like normal named scopes, query rewriting may be chained with the usual find method:

Employee.with_permissions_to(:read).find(:all, :conditions => ...)

If the current user is completely missing the permissions, an Authorization::NotAuthorized exception is raised. Through Model.obligation_conditions, application developers may retrieve the conditions for manual rewrites.

Authorization Rules

Authorization rules are defined in config/authorization_rules.rb. E.g.

authorization do
  role :admin do
    has_permission_on :employees, :to => [:create, :read, :update, :delete]

There is a default role :guest that is used if a request is not associated with any user or with a user without any roles. So, if your application has public pages, :guest can be used to allow access for users that are not logged in. All other roles are application defined and need to be associated with users by the application.

Privileges, such as :create, may be put into hierarchies to simplify maintenance. So the example above has the same meaning as

authorization do
  role :admin do
    has_permission_on :employees, :to => :manage

privileges do
  privilege :manage do
    includes :create, :read, :update, :delete

Privilege hierarchies may be context-specific, e.g. applicable to :employees.

privileges do
  privilege :manage, :employees, :includes => :increase_salary

For more complex use cases, authorizations need to be based on attributes. E.g. if a branch admin should manage only employees of his branch:

authorization do
  role :branch_admin do
    has_permission_on :employees do
      to :manage
      # user refers to the current_user when evaluating
      if_attribute :branch => is {user.branch}

Lastly, not only privileges may be organized in a hierarchy but roles as well. Here, project manager inherit the permissions of employees.

role :project_manager do
  includes :employee

See also Authorization::Reader.

Installation of declarative_authorization and Usage

To install simply execute in your applications root directory

cd vendor/plugins && git clone git://


  • provide the requirements as noted below,

  • create a basic config/authorization_rules.rb–you might want to take the provided example authorization_rules.dist.rb in the plugin root as a starting point,

  • add filter_access_to, permitted_to? and model security as needed.

Providing the Plugin's Requirements

The requirements are

  • An authentication mechanism

  • A user object returned by controller.current_user

  • An array of role symbols returned by user.roles

Of the various ways to provide these requirements, here is one way employing restful_authentication.

  • Install restful_authentication

    cd vendor/plugins && git clone git:// restful_authentication
    ruby script/generate authenticated user sessions
  • Move “include AuthenticatedSystem” to ApplicationController

  • Add before_filter :login_required to controllers where a user should be forced to log in; if parts of your application are public, filter_access_to calls as described above are sufficient.

  • If you'd like to use model security, add a before_filter that sets the user globally to your ApplicationController. Note, this is by no means thread-safe.

    before_filter :set_current_user
    def set_current_user
      Authorization.current_user = current_user
  • Add roles field to the User model through a :has_many association (this is just one possible approach; you could just as easily use :has_many :through or a serialized roles array):

    • create a migration for table roles

      class CreateRoles < ActiveRecord::Migration
        def self.up
          create_table "roles" do |t|
            t.column :title, :string
            t.references :user
        def self.down
          drop_table "roles"
    • create a model Role,

      class Role < ActiveRecord::Base
        belongs_to :user
    • add has_many :roles to the User model and a roles method that returns the roles as an Array of Symbols, e.g.

      class User < ActiveRecord::Base
        has_many :role_objs, :class_name => 'Role'
        def roles
          (role_objs || []).map {|r| r.title.to_sym}
    • add roles to your User objects using e.g.

      user.role_objs.create(:title => "admin")

Note: If you choose to generate an Account model for restful_authentication instead of a User model as described below, you have to customize the examples and create a ApplicationController#current_user method.

Debugging Authorization

Currently, the main means of debugging authorization decisions is logging and exceptions. Denied access to actions is logged to warn or info, including some hints about what went wrong.

All bang methods throw exceptions which may be used to retrieve more information about a denied access than a Boolean value.


Steffen Bartsch TZI, Universität Bremen, Germany sbartsch at


Copyright © 2008 Steffen Bartsch, TZI, Universität Bremen, Germany released under the MIT license