What is role-based access control (RBAC)?

Role-based access control (RBAC) is an approach to identity and access management (IAM) where the user is given access to a resource according to their role at the organization. RBAC enables permissions on a need-to-use basis, ensuring staff members only have access to what is needed to complete their tasks.

Within the zero trust framework, role-based access control expands to consider user risk as one of the variables to define a user’s level of access.

Explore additional RBAC topics:

How does role-based access control work?

With role-based access control, the role of an individual user within an organization defines the permissions they have on the corporate network. This ensures employees can access only the information needed to do their jobs. 

These roles are predefined categories and are based on certain factors such as the level of authorization, what responsibilities the role entails, and what actions are performed. For example, the organization can define the role of end-user, accountant, administrator, or engineer. You can also limit what the user can do—view, edit, create, or modify—with the resources they have access to.

Another component of the role-based access control model is limiting network access. Organizations with a hybrid or remote workforce often have different parties that require access to computer resources, like employees, contractors, vendors, or customers. An RBAC system allows them to securely access sensitive data and applications. 

What is needed for role-based access control?

To implement RBAC, there are three primary rules to apply: 

  • Predefined roles: What roles will you assign to a user? A single user can have multiple roles, each with associated privileges. 
  • Authorized roles: The user’s role must be authorized for the tasks they perform. 
  • Permission authorization: The user can execute permissions only when it is authorized for the user’s role. 

Roles can be set hierarchically, with higher-level roles also containing user permissions owned by sub-roles. 


Gartner’s Market Guide for Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

See why role-based access control is a critical component of zero trust security—and how you can leverage ZTNA to secure your apps and data. 

Role-based access control examples

RBAC enables you to control what every user can and cannot do with organization data, applications, and resources. You can designate a user as an administrator or an end user, aligning the permissions with the positions in your organization. In most organizations, roles are predefined. 

If a user changes roles, you can add them to the new role group and remove them from their previous one. The user then has all the new group's permissions. Some examples of roles you may define in an RBAC model include: 

  • Management roles have access to core business resources, sensitive data, and applications. 
  • Software engineering roles have access to the development software they need to do their jobs.
  • Marketing roles have access to marketing tools such as Google Analytics, Hubspot, and Google Ads. They also have access to campaign data and resources.
  • Human resources roles have access to human resources programs and employees’ sensitive personal information. 
  • Finance roles have access to accounting and financial software and information.

You may assign a management tier, an end-user tier, and a tier for third-party collaborators for each of these roles. Of course, some applications and resources are shared by all users, such as communication chat rooms, documents, and desktop publishing.

What are the benefits of RBAC?

Monitoring and controlling who gets access to your applications and data is a vital part of network security. This process gets more complicated when an organization needs to manage many employees, with some or most of them working remotely. 

RBAC simplifies the process of limiting user access to sensitive information based on each user’s role in the organization. Benefits of implementing RBAC include reducing employee downtime, improving access control policy administration, and provisioning. Specifically, role-based access control:

  • Improves operational efficiency: RBAC streamlines processes with role assignments across the organizational structure. This saves the effort of managing low-level permissions. You can align the roles with the structure of your business so users have access to everything they need and can perform tasks more efficiently. 
  • Reduces IT and admin load: RBAC reduces paperwork and tedious tasks such as password changes every time a new hire joins your organization. An RBAC tool helps your IT team quickly add, change, and assign permissions to roles, saving time and preventing human error. 
  • Saves costs: Implementing RBAC can save costs by reducing employees’ downtime waiting for access approvals and increasing the efficiency of completing tasks. 
  • Reduces the risk of data breaches: When you have an RBAC in place, attackers that gain access to your system cannot move laterally beyond the permission limits of their role. This can reduce the impact of a compromised account. 
  • Enhances compliance: All organizations must comply with local, federal, and international regulations. A role-based access control system helps organizations meet regulatory requirements for data privacy and cybersecurity. RBAC enables organizations to manage how data is accessed and used. 

RBAC best practices

Role-based access control provides many benefits to organizations. However, leveraging those benefits depends greatly on careful implementation according to best practices. When you consider implementing RBAC, follow these best practices: 

Define your needs. Before starting with an RBAC implementation, take your time to map which job functions require what software and resources. This includes making a list of resources, hardware, software, and apps that require some type of security. List what roles need access to all these programs and note any regulatory requirements that apply. 

Understand your implementation scope. Decide where you will start with your RBAC implementation, beginning with the systems and applications that manage and store sensitive data.

Define and assign roles. Once you decide on the scope, you can design the roles and permissions assigned to them. Common mistakes to avoid including granting excessive user permissions, a lack of granularity, and roles that overlap. 

Write policies. Detail the security policies, outlining any potential changes. Clear documentation can help avoid potential issues. 

Start in stages. It can be overwhelming to try and roll out role-based access control across the entire organization. Consider implementing RBAC in stages. For instance, start with a core set of users that need more data protection, then expand to other sections. Monitor the implementation by analyzing business metrics. 

Types of role-based access control

There are access control techniques that complement RBAC. Here are some examples:

Discretionary access control (DAC): In this model, the owner of the system sets the policies that define who can access it. This system offers users complete control over their resources. You can use RBAC to implement DAC. 

Mandatory access control (MAC): In this model, a central authority regulates the access permissions according to multiple security levels. With MAC, only users with specific security clearance can access sensitive resources, as opposed to anyone in that role category. This model is popular in environments with varying levels of data classification, like government and military institutions. You can use RBAC to implement MAC.  

How are role-based access controls implemented?

Here are the steps you should follow to implement role-based access control: 

  1. Define what resources and services your users can access. This includes shared files, cloud applications, CRM systems, email, and chat. Define what resources users can access and what resources need to be protected. 
  2. Analyze the relationship between roles and resources. Connect functions to resources, maintaining the principle of least privilege. 
  3. Create security groups. Define roles and group them according to their security level. 
  4. Assign users to the predefined roles. Once you have roles defined and groups of users formed, start assigning users to roles by adding them to the role-based security groups. 
  5. Apply the groups to the access control lists (ACLs). The last step is to add groups to the access control lists of the resources that contain the protected data. 

Citrix solutions for secure access

Using adaptive authentication and SSO enables your staff to access the resources they need from anywhere while meeting strict security requirements. Citrix Secure Private Access provides zero trust network access to keep applications secure without impacting productivity.