RBAC Explained: Role-Based Access Control in Active Directory

Role-based access control allows organizations to simplify their permission management by granting access to users based on their department, location or position. Read our guide to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of RBAC and how to implement RBAC in Active Directory domains.

What Is Role-Based Access Control?

Role-based access control or RBAC is an access control model that works by grouping together IT privileges for users with similar access needs, such as those working in the same department.

Instead of assigning permissions individually to each employee, RBAC recognizes that employees with the same job typically need access to the same apps and information. This allows you to simplify your provisioning process, saving time and preventing mistakes.

How Does Role-Based Access Control Work?

In order to use role-based access control, organizations first have to create permission roles that define the intended privileges for users in different departments, locations or positions. Once these roles have been established, new users that join the organization simply have to be added to the right role to receive all permissions that go along with it.

Likewise, if a user changes role – for example because they switch departments or leave the org – they automatically lose all associated privileges.

RBAC: How to Create Roles

Designing your own permission roles is often seen as the biggest barrier to using RBAC, since this step cannot be (fully) automated. However, creating roles is not as difficult as it might sound. There are two important things to know: First, use roles to group together users with similar access needs. Second, use as many roles as necessary, but try to keep the system lean and efficient.

Many businesses base roles on their organizational structure and factors such as branch/location, department/team and position/rank. However, this is far from the only approach role-based access control. The important part is that you find a model that works for you.

Creating permission roles in 5 steps:

  • 1

    Create an inventory of apps and IT assets

  • 2

    Group users based on access needs

  • 3

    Define baseline access for different roles

  • 4

    Automate user provisioning and deprovisioning

  • 5

    Update permission roles as needed

Important: Keep in mind that the roles you create for RBAC need to follow the principle of least privilege and segregation of duties. Your users should only receive permissions that are strictly necessary for their job. Overprivileged users increase the risk of employee data theft and the damage caused by cyberattacks and account compromise.

An identity and access management solution can help you create roles by analyzing existing permissions in your organization, a process also known as role mining. You select the people that will be part of a newly created role and the software shows you good candidates for permissions to include by highlighting privileges they have in common.

Advantages of Role-Based Access Control

By allowing enterprises to assign privileges automatically based on a user’s role in the organization, RBAC offers many advantages in terms of efficiency, accuracy and security.

The benefits of role-based access control include:

  • Less work: By establishing the baseline access for different user groups, admins save a lot of time in the long run, especially in organizations with a lot of staff or high turnover.

  • Easier on/offboarding: Assigning permissions through roles not only makes it easier to onboard new users, but helps with the entire user lifecycle. Users switching departments or leaving the organization becomes a simple matter of updating their assigned roles. If they lose the role that grants them access, they automatically lose those privileges.

  • More visibility: By checking a user’s roles, admins can easily track which resources they have access to without needing to break down group membership and permission inheritance.

  • Easier compliance: Many organizations need to strictly manage access to sensitive data to comply with internal, national or international regulations. Role-based access control helps you both maintain and document compliance.

  • Accuracy & security: By providing each user with the exact privileges they need, RBAC not only ensures seamless access for your staff, it also prevents privilege creep and overprivileged users, which threaten the security of mission-critical data.

Disadvantages of Role-Based Access Control

Implementing RBAC has many clear benefits, making it a net positive for most organizations. However, it’s important to understand the downsides of this model to avoid potential pitfalls during implementation. Knowing these weaknesses ahead of time allows you to plan around and counteract them.

Disadvantages of role-based access control are:

  • Setup effort: While RBAC saves a lot of time in the long run, businesses first need to put in the effort to design roles and automate workflows. However, with the right software, implementing RBAC is a lot easier than it seems.

  • Role bloat: Sometimes, organizations make the mistake of creating too many roles in order to cover fringe use cases or subdivide teams into smaller and smaller units – which makes your role model bloated and inefficient. This problem can also arise over time, if orgs keep adding roles that are not really needed.

  • Limited flexibility: Users often need permissions outside their normal role to work on projects with other departments or fill in for another colleague. These are common events, but difficult to model through role-based access.

tenfold solves this lack of flexibility by combining role-based access with a self-service platform that allows users to request additional permissions whenever they need them. Access is granted by the data owner who controls the resource in question, eliminating the need for emails, phone calls or helpdesk tickets.

With tenfold, users can request new privileges quickly, safely and without IT involvement.

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Role-Based Access Control in Active Directory

The AGDLP Principle

Microsoft’s recommended approach for implementing role-based access control in Active Directory environments is known as the AGDLP principle, short for “account, global, domain local, permission”.

AGDLP is based on multiple levels of nested AD groups: First, you create global user groups that represent the different roles in your organization: Sales, Marketing, Accounting etc. Next, you add these global user groups to local permission groups, each of which controls access to one specific directory or resource. For example: You might have one group that grants read access to the Finance folder on your file server and another that grants write access to customer support tickets.

When a user is added to a global role group, they also become a member of the permission groups nested within it and automatically receive access to the intended resources. By using clear names for the permission groups, AGDLP also allows admins to easily see which privileges are part of a particular role group. If you granted access directly to the global user group, this would be a lot harder to keep track of.

RBAC & AD: The Problem with Group Management

Implementing an AD group structure that follows the AGDLP principle is essential in order to use role-based access control in Active Directory. But there is one big problem: Creating and managing the necessary groups takes a lot of time and effort, not to mention a very precise and consistent approach to naming and usage conventions.

While this effort eventually pays off by allowing you to largely automate AD provisioning and user management, it is still a huge barrier to implementing AGDLP and RBAC. Which is why manual group management is actually not recommended: It is far easier to create and maintain the required AD structures through an IAM solution that automates the entire process and lets you focus on what’s important.

RBAC & AD: Role-Based Access Control with tenfold

tenfold, our revolutionary no-code IAM platform makes it fast and easy to roll out role-based access control across Active Directory, Microsoft 365 and a wide range of business apps. tenfold helps you choose which permissions to include in different roles by analyzing the existing access of your users. It also automates AGDLP by creating the necessary groups and structures for you.

This way, you benefit from every advantage of RBAC without suffering the disadvantages like difficult role modeling or limited flexibility. From role mining to centralized permission reporting, regular access reviews and a self-service platform for requesting additional permissions, tenfold supports you across all levels of successful Active Directory administration.

The best part? Thanks to our no-code approach to access governance, tenfold can be implemented in a fraction of the time it would take to set up comparable solutions. Simple, effective and easy to use – all this and more makes tenfold the ideal access management solution for your business!

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About the Author: Joe Köller

Joe Köller is tenfold’s Content Manager and responsible for the IAM Blog, where he dives deep into topics like compliance, cybersecurity and digital identities. From security regulations to IT best practices, his goal is to make challenging subjects approachable for the average reader. Before joining tenfold, Joe covered games and digital media for many years.