How to Design a Real-time Access Control System

As a SaaS company, you’ll more than likely need to handle valuable customer data. Unfortunately, no matter what you’re developing, this can make you a threat vector for attacks on your customers. While security is essential for all businesses, the stakes get even higher as your company scales.

SaaS data exposure puts companies at risk

The coronavirus pandemic shifted the rise of SaaS applications from small and mid-size businesses to enterprises. Subscriptions soared as companies had to quickly search for virtual collaboration and meeting tools.

According to Gartner, spending on SaaS solutions is forecasted to reach $122.6 billion in 2021 and more than $145.3 billion by 2022. However, although cloud-based applications dramatically boost effectiveness and productivity throughout a company, IT managers often underestimate a significant threatunchecked and unmanaged data access by SaaS providers. 

It’s essential to build infrastructure, products, and processes that meet your customers’ security needs. But more importantly, access control should be designed to meet the security requirements of your SaaS product that scales as it evolves.

SaaS user management and access control systems

You already know your product will be used in various ways by different customers, which requires different user roles. User management and permission handling is a crucial part of SaaS apps. 

However, you also need to think about access control: which users will be allowed to perform what actions and when. Most SaaS applications now use some kind of access control system as part of their product. 

SaaS businesses can follow different types of access control systems.

Let’s examine two of them here:

  • Role-Based Access Control model (RBAC)
  • Attribute-Based Access Control model (ABAC)

Overall, an access control system helps with:

  • Security and risk management
  • Straightforward interface
  • Efficient management of roles in large companies

What is a Role-Based Access Control model?

Most SaaS products use RBAC (Role-Based Access Control) to organize specific user group permissions. Even in basic products, some actions should not be available for all users, such as updating billing information or managing global passwords and settings. 

This is useful for managing multiple accounts with the same access level, such as group admins and moderators. For example, when updating policies and permissions for a role, the admin can update all the policies for all the user accounts that have this role at once.  

More: The Ultimate Manual For Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

What is an Attribute-Based Access Control model?

With an ABAC system, a user role can be one of several attributes:

  • User attributes (such as organization, user name, role, email, etc.)
  • Environment attributes (such as the user-browser agent or origin of a request, etc.)
  • Resource attributes (such as who created the resource in question, etc.)

ABAC can depend on various factors including location, time, department, etc.  For example, a manager might have specific access permissions, but only from inside the building during office hours.

Choosing the right access control system

Whichever access control system you choose, the critical components in this system should be defined and implemented according to its purpose:

  • User function: who is the user and what is their role.
  • Core actions: what actions the user needs to perform in order to do their role.
  • Permission: the ability to perform a specific action/set of actions or access certain information
  • Role: a set of permissions that can be assigned all at once and that define the user’s access level and function in the company.

Know your users when designing an access control system

It’s important to conduct user research when designing an access control system. If it doesn’t work for your users, then your product won’t be effective. 

User-focused points to think about: 

  • The level of granularity needed for each user.
  • How users typically structure their roles in the organization.
  • How to make sure users only access data that is essential to their jobs.
  • How to create an application interface that is smooth, enjoyable, and explicitly adjusted to user requirements.

Add real-time access control to your setup today

Designing and building an access control system is essential to ensuring stability, scalability, and security for your SaaS products. However, it can be a complex and very technical component. It’s difficult for developers and product design teams to make this system flexible and scalable. 

At Nira, our products are designed to help you overcome these challenges. Contact us for a demo, and we’ll review your current setup or help you implement a real-time access control system for the data you already have. 

Nira is a real-time access control system that provides visibility and management over who has access to company documents in Google Workspace, with more integrations coming soon.