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hsadmin-ng's Role-Based-Access-Management (RBAC)

The requirements of hsadmin-ng include table-m row- and column-level-security for read and write access to business-objects.
More precisely, any access has to be controlled according to given rules depending on the accessing users, their roles and the accessed business-object.
Further, roles and business-objects are hierarchical.

To avoid misunderstandings, we are using the term "business-object" what's usually called a "domain-object".
But as we are in the context of a webhosting infrastructure provider, "domain" would have a double meaning.

Our implementation is based on Role-Based-Access-Management (RBAC) in conjunction with views and triggers on the business-objects.
As far as possible, we are using the same terms as defined in the RBAC standard, for our function names though, we chose more expressive names.

In RBAC, subjects can be assigned to roles, roles can be hierarchical and eventually have assigned permissions.
A permission allows a specific operation (e.g. view or edit) on a specific (business-) object.

You can find the entity structure as a UML class diagram as follows:

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package RBAC {

    ' forward declarations    
    entity RbacUser
    together {
        entity RbacRole
        entity RbacPermission
        RbacUser -[hidden]> RbacRole
        RbacRole -[hidden]> RbacUser
    together {
        entity RbacGrant
        enum RbacReferenceType
        entity RbacReference
    RbacReference -[hidden]> RbacReferenceType
    entity RbacGrant {
        ascendantUuid: uuid(RbackReference)
        descendantUuid: uuid(RbackReference)
    RbacGrant o-u-> RbacReference
    RbacGrant o-u-> RbacReference
    enum RbacReferenceType {
    RbacReferenceType ..> RbacUser
    RbacReferenceType ..> RbacRole
    RbacReferenceType ..> RbacPermission
    entity RbacReference {
        *uuid : uuid <<generated>>
        type : RbacReferenceType
    RbacReference o--> RbacReferenceType  
    entity RbacUser {
        *uuid : uuid <<generated>>
        name : varchar
    RbacUser o-- RbacReference
    entity RbacRole {
        *uuid : uuid(RbacReference)
        name : varchar
    RbacRole o-- RbacReference
    together {   
        enum RbacOperation
        entity RbacObject
    entity RbacPermission {
        *uuid : uuid(RbacReference)
        objectUuid: RbacObject
        op: RbacOperation
    RbacPermission o-- RbacReference
    RbacPermission o-- RbacOperation
    RbacPermission *-- RbacObject
    enum RbacOperation {
    entity RbacObject {
        *uuid : uuid <<generated>>
        objectTable: varchar
    RbacObject o- "Business Objects"    

package "Business Objects" {

    entity package
    package *--u- RbacObject
    entity customer
    customer *--u- RbacObject

    entity "..." as moreBusinessObjects
    moreBusinessObjects *-u- RbacObject


The RBAC Entity Types


An RbacReference is a generalization of all entity types which participate in the hierarchical role system, defined via RbacGrant.

The primary key of the RbacReference and its referred object is always identical.


The enum RbacReferenceType describes the type of reference.
It's only needed to make it easier to find the referred object in RbacUser, RbacRole or RbacPermission.


An RbacUser is a type of RBAC-subject which references a login account outside this system, identified by a name (usually an email-address).

*RbacUser*s can be assigned to multiple *RbacRole*s, through which they can get permissions to *RbacObject*s.

The primary key of the RbacUser is identical to its related RbacReference.


An RbacRole represents a collection of directly or indirectly assigned *RbacPermission*s.
Each RbacRole can be assigned to *RbacUser*s or to another RbacRole.

Both kinds of assignments are represented via RbacGrant.

RbacRole entities can *RbacObject*s, or more precise


An RbacPermission allows a specific RbacOperation on a specific RbacObject.


An RbacOperation determines, what an RbacPermission allows to do.
It can be one of:

  • 'add-...' - permits creating new instances of specific entity types underneath the object specified by the permission, e.g. "add-package"
  • 'view' - permits reading the contents of the object specified by the permission
  • 'edit' - change the contents of the object specified by the permission
  • 'delete' - delete the object specified by the permission
  • '*'

This list is extensible according to the needs of the access rule system.

Please notice, that there is no create operation to create new instances of unrelated business-object-types.
For such a singleton business-object-type, e.g. *Organization" or "Hostsharing" has to be defined, and its single entity is referred in the permission.
Only with this rule, the foreign key in RbacPermission can be defined as NOT NULL.


The RbacGrant entities represent the access-rights structure from *RbacUser*s via hierarchical RbacRoles down to *RbacPermission*s.

The core SQL queries to determine access rights are all recursive queries on the RbacGrant table.

Role naming

The naming pattern of a role is important to be able to address specific roles.
E.g. if a new package is added, the admin-role of the related customer has to be addressed.

There can be global roles like 'administrators'.
Most roles, though, are specific for certain business-objects and automatically generated as such:


Where business-object-table is the name of the SQL table of the business object (e.g customer or 'package'),
business-object-name is generated from an immutable business key(e.g. a prefix like 'xyz' or 'xyz00')
and the relative-role' describes the role relative to the referenced business-object as follows:


The owner-role is granted to the subject which created the business object.
E.g. for a new customer it would be granted to 'administrators' and for a new package to the 'customer#...admin'.

Whoever has the owner-role assigned can do everything with the related business-object, including deleting (or deactivating) it.

In most cases, the permissions to other operations than 'delete' are granted through the 'admin' role.
By this, all roles ob sub-objects, which are assigned to the 'admin' role, are also granted to the 'owner'.


The admin-role is granted to a role of those subjects who manage the business object.
E.g. a 'package' is manged by the admin of the customer.

Whoever has the admin-role assigned, do everything with the related business-object, including deleting (or deactivating) it.

In most cases, the permissions to the 'view' operation is granted through the 'tenant' role.
By this, all roles ob sub-objects, which are assigned to the 'tenent' role, are also granted to the 'admin'.


The tenant-role is granted to everybody who needs to be able to view the business-object.
Usually all owners, admins and tenants of sub-objects get this role granted.

Some business-objects only have very limited data directly in the main business-object and store more sensitive data in special sub-objects (e.g. 'customer-details') to which tenants of sub-objects of the main-object (e.g. package admins) do not get view permission.

Example Users, Roles, Permissions and Business-Objects

The following diagram shows how users, roles and permissions could be granted access to operations on business objects.

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package RbacUsers {
    object UserMike
    object UserSuse
    object UserPaul

package RbacRoles {
    object RoleAdministrators
    object RoleCustXyz_Owner
    object RoleCustXyz_Admin
    object RolePackXyz00_Owner
RbacUsers -[hidden]> RbacRoles

package RbacPermissions {
    object PermCustXyz_View
    object PermCustXyz_Edit
    object PermCustXyz_Delete
    object PermCustXyz_AddPackage
    object PermPackXyz00_View
    object PermPackXyz00_Edit
    object PermPackXyz00_Delete
    object PermPackXyz00_AddUser
RbacRoles -[hidden]> RbacPermissions

package BusinessObjects {
    object CustXyz
    object PackXyz00
RbacPermissions -[hidden]> BusinessObjects

UserMike o---> RoleAdministrators
UserSuse o--> RoleCustXyz_Admin
UserPaul o--> RolePackXyz00_Owner

RoleAdministrators o..> RoleCustXyz_Owner
RoleCustXyz_Owner o-> RoleCustXyz_Admin
RoleCustXyz_Admin o-> RolePackXyz00_Owner

RoleCustXyz_Owner o--> PermCustXyz_Edit
RoleCustXyz_Owner o--> PermCustXyz_Delete
RoleCustXyz_Admin o--> PermCustXyz_View
RoleCustXyz_Admin o--> PermCustXyz_AddPackage
RolePackXyz00_Owner o--> PermPackXyz00_View
RolePackXyz00_Owner o--> PermPackXyz00_Edit
RolePackXyz00_Owner o--> PermPackXyz00_Delete
RolePackXyz00_Owner o--> PermPackXyz00_AddUser

PermCustXyz_View o--> CustXyz
PermCustXyz_Edit o--> CustXyz
PermCustXyz_Delete o--> CustXyz
PermCustXyz_AddPackage o--> CustXyz
PermPackXyz00_View o--> PackXyz00
PermPackXyz00_Edit o--> PackXyz00
PermPackXyz00_Delete o--> PackXyz00
PermPackXyz00_AddUser o--> PackXyz00


Business-Object-Tables, Triggers and Views

To support the RBAC system, for each business-object-table, some more artifacts are created in the database:

  • a BEFORE INSERT TRIGGER which creates the related RbacObject instance,
  • an AFTER INSERT TRIGGER which creates the related *RbacRole*s, *RbacPermission*s together with their related *RbacReference*s as well as *RbacGrant*s,
  • a restricted view (e.g. customer_rv) through which restricted users can access the underlying data.

Not yet implemented, but planned are these actions:

  • an ON DELETE ... DO INSTEAD rule to allow SQL DELETE if applicable for the business-object-table and the user has 'delete' permission,
  • an ON UPDATE ... DO INSTEAD rule to allow SQL UPDATE if the user has 'edit' right,
  • an ON INSERT ... DO INSTEAD rule to allow SQL INSERT if the user has 'add-..' right to the parent-business-object.

The restricted view takes the current user from a session property and applies the hierarchy of its roles all the way down to the permissions related to the respective business-object-table.
This way, each user can only view the data they have 'view'-permission for, only create those they have 'add-...'-permission, only update those they have 'edit'- and only delete those they have 'delete'-permission to.

Current User

The current use is taken from the session variable hsadminng.currentUser which contains the name of the user as stored in the
*RbacUser*s table. Example:

SET LOCAL hsadminng.currentUser = 'mike@hostsharing.net';

That user is also used for historicization and audit log, but which is a different topic.

Assuming Roles

If the session variable hsadminng.assumedRoles is set to a non-empty value, its content is interpreted as a list of semicolon-separated role names.

SET LOCAL hsadminng.assumedRoles = 'customer#aab.admin;customer#aac.admin';

In this case, not the current user but the assumed roles are used as a starting point for any further queries.
Roles which are not granted to the current user, directly or indirectly, cannot be assumed.


A full example is shown here:

    SET LOCAL hsadminng.currentUser = 'mike@hostsharing.net';
    SET LOCAL hsadminng.assumedRoles = 'customer#aab.admin;customer#aac.admin';

    SELECT c.prefix, p.name as "package", ema.localPart || '@' || dom.name as "email-address"
      FROM emailaddress_rv ema
      JOIN domain_rv dom ON dom.uuid = ema.domainuuid
      JOIN unixuser_rv uu ON uu.uuid = dom.unixuseruuid
      JOIN package_rv p ON p.uuid = uu.packageuuid
      JOIN customer_rv c ON c.uuid = p.customeruuid;

Roles and Their Assignments for Certain Business Objects

To give you an overview of the business-object-types for the following role-examples,
check this diagram:

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entity EMailAddress

entity Domain
Domain o-- "*" EMailAddress

entity UnixUser
UnixUser o-- "*" Domain

entity Package
Package o.. "*" UnixUser

entity Customer
Customer o-- "*" Package


It's mostly an example hierarchy of business-object-types, but resembles a part of Hostsharing's actual hosting infrastructure.

The following diagrams show which roles are created for each business-object-type
and how they relate to roles from other business-object-types.

Customer Roles

The highest level of the business-object-type-hierarchy is the Customer.

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' needs PlantUML 1.2021.14 as Markdown plugin

entity "BObj customer#xyz" as boCustXyz

together {
    entity "Perm customer#xyz *" as permCustomerXyzAll
    permCustomerXyzAll --> boCustXyz
    entity "Perm customer#xyz add-package" as permCustomerXyzAddPack
    permCustomerXyzAddPack --> boCustXyz

    entity "Perm customer#xyz view" as permCustomerXyzView
    permCustomerXyzView --> boCustXyz

entity "Role customer#xyz.tenant" as roleCustXyzTenant 
roleCustXyzTenant --> permCustomerXyzView

entity "Role customer#xyz.admin" as roleCustXyzAdmin
roleCustXyzAdmin --> roleCustXyzTenant
roleCustXyzAdmin --> permCustomerXyzAddPack

entity "Role customer#xyz.owner" as roleCustXyzOwner
roleCustXyzOwner ..> roleCustXyzAdmin
roleCustXyzOwner --> permCustomerXyzAll

actor "Customer XYZ Admin" as actorCustXyzAdmin
actorCustXyzAdmin --> roleCustXyzAdmin

entity "Role administrators" as roleAdmins
roleAdmins --> roleCustXyzOwner

actor "Any Hostmaster" as actorHostmaster
actorHostmaster --> roleAdmins


As you can see, there something special:
From the 'Role customer#xyz.owner' to the 'Role customer#xyz.admin' there is a dashed line, whereas all other lines are solid lines.
Solid lines means, that one role is granted to another and automatically assumed in all queries to the restricted views.
The dashed line means that one role is granted to another but not automatically assumed in queries to the restricted views.

The reason here is that otherwise simply too many objects would be accessible to those with the 'administrators' role and all queries would be slowed down vastly.

Grants which are not automatically assumed are still valid grants for hsadminng.assumedRoles.
Thus, if you want to access anything below a customer, assume its role first.

There is actually another speciality in the customer roles:
For all others, a user defined by the customer gets the owner role assigned, just for the customer, the owner's role is assigned to the 'administrators' role.

Package Roles

One example of the business-object-type-level right below is the Package.

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entity "BObj package#xyz00" as boPacXyz00

together {
    entity "Perm package#xyz00 *" as permPackageXyzAll
    permPackageXyzAll --> boPacXyz00
    entity "Perm package#xyz00 add-unixuser" as permPacXyz00AddUser
    permPacXyz00AddUser --> boPacXyz00

    entity "Perm package#xyz00 edit" as permPacXyz00Edit
    permPacXyz00Edit --> boPacXyz00

    entity "Perm package#xyz00 view" as permPacXyz00View
    permPacXyz00View --> boPacXyz00

package {
    entity "Role customer#xyz.tenant" as roleCustXyzTenant
    entity "Role customer#xyz.admin" as roleCustXyzAdmin    
    entity "Role customer#xyz.owner" as roleCustXyzOwner

package {
    entity "Role package#xyz00.owner" as rolePacXyz00Owner
    entity "Role package#xyz00.admin" as rolePacXyz00Admin
    entity "Role package#xyz00.tenant" as rolePacXyz00Tenant

rolePacXyz00Tenant --> permPacXyz00View
rolePacXyz00Tenant --> roleCustXyzTenant

rolePacXyz00Owner --> rolePacXyz00Admin
rolePacXyz00Owner --> permPackageXyzAll
roleCustXyzAdmin --> rolePacXyz00Owner
roleCustXyzAdmin --> roleCustXyzTenant

roleCustXyzOwner ..> roleCustXyzAdmin
rolePacXyz00Admin --> rolePacXyz00Tenant
rolePacXyz00Admin --> permPacXyz00AddUser
rolePacXyz00Admin --> permPacXyz00Edit

actor "Package XYZ00 Admin" as actorPacXyzAdmin
actorPacXyzAdmin -l-> rolePacXyz00Admin

actor "Customer XYZ Admin" as actorCustXyzAdmin
actorCustXyzAdmin --> roleCustXyzAdmin

entity "Role administrators" as roleAdmins
roleAdmins --> roleCustXyzOwner

actor "Any Hostmaster" as actorHostmaster
actorHostmaster --> roleAdmins


Initially, the customer's admin role is assigned to the package owner role.
They can use the package's admin role to hand over most management functionality to a third party.
The 'administrators' can get access through an assumed customer's admin role or directly by assuming the package's owner or admin role.


We did not define maximum response time in our requirements,
but set a target of 7.000 customers, 15.000 packages, 150.000 Unix users, 100.000 domains and 500.000 email-addresses.

For such a dataset the response time for typical queries from a UI should be acceptable.
Also, when adding data beyond these quantities, increase in response time should be roughly linear or below.
For this, we increased the dataset by 14% and then by another 25%, ending up with 10.000 customers, almost 25.000 packages, over 174.000 unix users, over 120.000 domains and almost 750.000 email-addresses.

The performance test suite comprised 8 SELECT queries issued by an administrator, mostly with two assumed customer owner roles.
The tests started with finding a specific customer and ended with listing all accessible email-addresses joined with their domains, unix-users, packages and customers.

Find the SQL script here: 28-hs-tests.sql.

Two View Query Variants

We have tested two variants of the query for the restricted view,
both utilizing a PostgreSQL function like this:

FUNCTION queryAccessibleObjectUuidsOfSubjectIds(
        requiredOp RbacOp,
        forObjectTable varchar,
        subjectIds uuid[],
        maxObjects integer = 16000)

The function returns all object uuids for which the given subjectIds (user o assumed roles) have a permission or required operation.

Let's have a look at the two view queries:

Using WHERE ... IN

    SELECT DISTINCT target.*
      FROM customer AS target
     WHERE target.uuid IN (
        SELECT uuid
          FROM queryAccessibleObjectUuidsOfSubjectIds( 
            'view', 'customer', currentSubjectsUuids()));

This view should be automatically updatable.
Where, for updates, we actually have to check for 'edit' instead of 'view' operation, which makes it a bit more complicated.

With the larger dataset, the test suite initially needed over 7 seconds with this view query.
At this point the second variant was tried.

But after the initial query, the execution time was drastically reduced,
even with different query values.
Looks like the query optimizer needed some statistics to find the best path.

Using A JOIN

    SELECT DISTINCT target.*
      FROM customer AS target
      JOIN queryAccessibleObjectUuidsOfSubjectIds( 
            'view', 'customer', currentSubjectsUuids()) AS allowedObjId
        ON target.uuid = allowedObjId;

This view cannot is not updatable automatically,
but it was quite fast from the beginning.

Performance Results

The following table shows the average between the second and the third repeat of the test-suite:

Dataset using JOIN using WHERE IN
7000 customers 670ms 1040ms
10000 customers 1050ms 1125ms
+43% +57% +8%

The JOIN-variant is still faster, but the growth in execution time exceeded the growth of the dataset.

The WHERE-IN-variant is about 50% slower on the smaller dataset, but almost keeps its performance on the larger dataset.

Both variants a viable option, depending on other needs, e.g. updatable views.

Access Control to RBAC-Objects

Access Control for business objects checked according to the assigned roles.
But we decided not to create such roles and permissions for the RBAC-Objects itself.
It would have overcomplicated the system and the necessary information can easily be added to the RBAC-Objects itself, mostly the RbacGrants.


Users can self-register, thus to create a new RbacUser entity, no login is required.
But such a user has no access-rights except viewing itself.

Users can view themselves.
And any user can view all other users as long as they have the same roles assigned.
As an exception, users which are assigned to global roles are not visible by other users.

At least an indirect lookup of known user-names (e.g. email address of the user) is possible
by users who have an empowered assignment of any role.
Otherwise, it would not be possible to assign roles to new users.


All roles are system-defined and cannot be created or modified by any external API.

Users can view only the roles to which they are assigned.


Grant can be empowered, this means that the grantee user can grant the granted role to other users
and revoke grants to that role.
(TODO: access control part not yet implemented)

Grants can be managed, which means they are created and deleted by system-defined rules.
If a grant is not managed, it was created by an empowered user and can be deleted by empowered users.

Grants can be assumed, which means that they are immediately active.
If a grant is not assumed, the grantee user needs to use assumeRoles to activate it.

Users can see only grants of roles to which they are (directly?) assigned themselves.

TODO: If a user grants an indirect role to another user, that grant would not be visible to the user.
But if we make indirect grants visible, this would reveal too much information.
We also cannot keep the granting user in the grant because grants must survive deleted users,
e.g. if after an account was transferred to another user.