What is role-based access control?

Role based access control (RBAC) is a privileged access management control that explicitly grants permissions to users based on their roles in an organization. The concept of role-based access control revolves around roles and privileges where only authorized users (subjects) get to perform privileged actions on critical resources (objects).

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Last updated date : 02 Aug 2023

Understanding role-based access

Implementing secure access management strategies in an enterprise begins with identifying users with appropriate roles. User roles are the rudimentary titles that help demarcate the privileges owned by individuals so that no one gets to access areas that they are not entitled to.

Based on what business responsibilities a user holds, RBAC provides least privilege access for them to carry out various operations. Essentially, this means that not every user can have access to sensitive resources considering the critical nature of data hosted within. Let us delve deep to understand how role-based access control works in an ideal enterprise scenario.

For example, consider a sensitive server to which various users require access. Here, it is important to understand that not every user requires complete access to the server, and this is where role-based access comes into play. A system administrator who monitors everyday security activities can claim full access to the server, while non-administrators like managers and other standard users will be provided with only view or modify permissions, according to the tasks to be performed. This helps to stay ahead of potential security breaches by ensuring that no user has excessive privileges.

The need for role-based access control

RBAC works by conferring roles to users that deem them fit for carrying out sensitive actions on high-value assets. With that said, every user needs to be authenticated and authorized to hold privileges and perform mission-critical operations.

Organizations that depend on RBAC can effectively streamline request-release workflows where every user is bound to gain access to sensitive endpoints, such as servers, databases, applications, and so on, within a stipulated period only after being approved by a higher level user (an admin). RBAC thus lays the foundation for implementing the principle of least privilege, regardless of how trustable the user is, and prevents critical data from being even inadvertently exposed.

How does role-based access control differ from other access control methods?

While role-based access control emphasises the roles conferred on users, let us understand the key differences between the various access control mechanisms that work on par.

  • Mandatory access control (MAC)
  • Discretionary access control (DAC)
  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC)
  • MAC

    Centralized access control enforced based on policies that cannot be altered by individual users.

  • DAC

    Entirely based on the owner of the resources. The owner has direct control over resources and grants and revokes permissions to fellow users.

  • ABAC

    An access control strategy based on the attributes or characteristics of subjects (user role, job title, job location, etc.) and objects ( file type, file access type, department access, etc.).

How does role-based access control work?

Delegating user roles with appropriate permissions ensures that users only perform the tasks assigned to them. Implementing role-based access is a three-pronged approach that involves:

  • Assigning roles to users during onboarding.
  • Authorizing the user to ensure the "right" person performs the "right" actions.
  • Granting role-based, granular access to differentiate the privileges of a higher level user from those of a standard user.


When it comes to granting role-based access controls, every privileged action takes place under the purview of an administrator. The administrator can grant view, edit, or complete access to privileged identities based on the privileges that the individual roles have. To make things much simpler, users with similar roles can be grouped together for access provisioning under a single roof.

Besides allowing users to perform tasks based on roles, enabling just-in-time access controls ensures fine-grained access within a stipulated duration. For example, when a user wants special access to a particular resource, the administrator allows this action to be performed only for a finite period. Once the job is completed, user access will automatically be revoked. Thus, orphaned accounts are prevented from lingering around, ensuring zero standing privileges and a well-knit enterprise infrastructure.

Addressing the ultimate challenge to role-based access control

Adopting privileged access management (PAM) strategies into business operations has simplified and automated RBAC for administrators. Were this a manual process, access provisioning for individuals would be a daunting task. An effective PAM tool helps address this challenge and allows continuous monitoring of privileged users to ensure that they refrain from misusing their rights.

Benefits of role-based access control

Implementing role-based access control rationalizes the tasks under each user and aligns with the overall security requirements of an organization. Some of the significant benefits of enforcing role-based access control are mentioned below.

  • User administration based on roles allows for an easy transition when users move from one role to another.
  • RBAC allows organizations to meet compliance requirements by clearly mapping the user privileges and eliminating unauthorized access to sensitive endpoints.
  • Role-based, granular access to business-critical systems reduces the attack surface by effectively restricting privileged users, thereby reducing the possibility of privilege creep and misuse.
  • RBAC can be implemented for organizations of various sizes, making it a scalable approach to access management.
  • Segregation of duties according to roles prevents excessive controls allotted to a single user at any point in time, and minimizes the risk of unauthorized access.

Achieving compliance with role-based access control

Implementing role-based access controls allows organizations to adhere to compliance standards like PCI DSS, ISO-IEC 27001, NERC-CIP, and the GDPR in a few clicks. This provides an overview of all critical privileged management actions performed by users and helps improve the overall security posture of the enterprise.

Best practices to implement role-based access control

Implementing role-based access control in an organization goes hand in hand with a sound PAM strategy. Here are some of the best practices that bring about a profound impact on organizational security:

  • Define and assign roles to users while they are onboarded to allow segregation of privileges by individuals.
  • Create custom roles for tasks that demand select few privileges to be offered to users, and adhere to the principle of least privilege.
  • Enforce policy-based access, which verifies a set of predefined policies to provision and deprovision access controls when employees complete tasks, leave the organization, or switch to different teams.
  • Provide granular, just-in-time access to users who require special permissions for a stipulated time.
  • Adhere to compliance requirements to ensure a well-mapped system for user roles and their privileges.

How does ManageEngine help in streamlining role-based access control?

ManageEngine PAM360 offers an encrypted repository to store and manage sensitive enterprise passwords, and it is important that fine-grained access restrictions are imposed to enable additional protection to this data. The role-based access control capability of the tool helps achieve this goal innately. PAM360 supports a list of administrative and non-administrative users whose access privileges range from basic view permission to full access permission to enable authorized resource handling. This builds a framework for efficient access provisioning, and offers leeway for a secure access management workflow within the organization.