Implied Roles - Assign one Role, get many

bp implied-roles

Allow role definitions to imply other role definitions, so that, with one superior role assignment, the user will inherit all subordinate roles.

Problem Description

OpenStack is attempting to solve problems of scale. The RBAC model needs to support improved delegation in order to scale.

Keystone roles map to a set of permissions to perform operations on resources. Today, there are relatively few roles defined, with each being mapped to a large number of APIs. This is very coarse grained access control. If deployers are going to provide a finer-grained model, the number of roles will quickly escalate. To minimize the burden on the administrators, it must be possible to grant a user all the privileges they need for a specific project with a single role assignment. This is not possible with the current role assignment mechanism.

As an organization increases in size, the amount of hierarchy must increase accordingly, or managers quickly become overwhelmed by the sheer number of requests by subordinates. A manager has responsibility for all of the operations performed by a subordinate, even if they never choose to perform those operations directly. The authority to perform those operations comes from the superior to the subordinate. If a superior cannot delegate appropriately, an organization cannot function.

When interacting with automated systems, a user should be able to delegate a subset of their capabilities. If a user is a system administrator, they are irresponsible delegating full administration to a user when the required operation is not a privileged operation or even if it affects only a subset of resources. Even casual users should be able to provide access to a subset of their resources without providing full access to all of them. In order to split apart permissions this way, the roles need to provide sufficient information to deduce that a larger and more powerful role implies a smaller and more limited role. This is also not possible with the current role assignment mechanism.

Proposed Change

Users are assigned to roles within a project to perform operations. In order to better model the typical hierarchical authority model of a large organization, we will allow relationships between roles to be defined where one (larger more powerful role) can imply that the user also obtains a set of smaller (less powerful) roles.

Often, those operations must be performed by users with different roles. As such, the roles can be viewed as a hierarchy; larger roles inherit the permissions assigned to smaller roles. In order to implement this hierarchy, the relationship between the roles must clearly indicate when a prior role implies another role.

In a persisted store, define a set of rules that state one prior role assignment implies additional role assignments.

For example, if a rule states that admin implies member any user assigned the admin role will automatically receive the member role as well.

First implementation is the SQL backend. Other backends will follow if requested. Add an additional implied_role table with two columns:

prior_role_id,  implied_role_id

This is often termed hierarchical roles, but this implementation avoids a strict hierarchy in favor of generating a directed-acyclic-graph (DAG): the same role may be implied by multiple prior roles. At enforcement time the required abstraction is a set of role assignments, not a tree or a graph.

An example set of implied roles:

  • The reader role is for people that need to be able to inspect the values of resources in a project, but not make any changes to those resources.
  • The editor role is for people that need to make standard changes, such as creating new virtual machines and allocating floating IP address. All users with editor roles should have access to the resources specified by the reader role.

Each of the services have their own admin roles defined. In addition, the two storage focused services have a joint role called storage_admin that implies both swift_admin and cinder_admin.

If a user is assigned all_admin in a project and requests a token for that project, the token will have all of the implied roles enumerated in it: cinder_admin, neutron_admin, glance_admin, swift_admin, editor, and reader.

Any form of admin is implicitly an editor. A reader can view standard data from any of the systems, but cannot affect any change. The editor role is superior to reader, there would be no reason to assign someone the editor role without assigning the reader role as well. We often want to assign the reader role without the editor role for audit and monitoring.

The role relationships are illustrated in this DAG diagram. The prior roles are above implied roles, with the arrows showing the direction of implication. The table below also explicitly shows these relationships:

     |              |             |         |          |
     |              |             |         V          |
     |              |             |    storage_admin   |
     |              |             |         +          |
     |              |             |   +-----+------+   |
     V              V             V   V            V   V
neutron_admin  glance_admin  swift_admin          cinder_admin
     |              |             |                    |

Note it is not a strict hierarchy. For example, both the neutron_admin and the glance_admin roles imply the editor role.

Here is an example implementation:

| prior_role_id   |  implied_role_id   |
| all_admin       | neutron_admin      |
| all_admin       | glance_admin       |
| all_admin       | swift_admin        |
| all_admin       | cinder_admin       |
| all_admin       | storage_admin      |
| storage_admin   | swift_admin        |
| storage_admin   | cinder_admin       |
| neutron_admin   | editor             |
| glance_admin    | editor             |
| swift_admin     | editor             |
| cinder_admin    | editor             |
| editor          | reader             |

Both explicitly assigned and implied roles will be included in the token validation response. With the above example, if a user was explicitly assigned the role editor on a project, the validation of a token for that user and scoped to the project would have the roles: editor and reader included in the response.

An initial configuration option of infer_roles in the [token] section of the configuration file will control whether to expand roles when issuing tokens.


Dispense with role hierarchies by simply assigning a user to the superior roles and all the subordinate roles. Then he inherits all the privileges assigned to all the roles. The advantage of role hierarchies is that the user does not need to carry all the subordinate roles around with himself as the system knows the role hierarchy.

Role implication rules can be fetched separately from the token, cached in auth_token middleware, and then roles can be inferred from the token prior to policy enforcement. This will be implemented if required.

A dynamic policy mechanism can use the implied roles to generate a section of the policy files.

Security Impact

  • Does this change touch sensitive data such as tokens, keys, or user data?
  • Yes: The token creation process will now be adding more roles on to a token, especially for roles high in the hierarchy. The ability to create implied roles is a very sensitive ability and should be tightly controlled.
  • Does this change alter the API in a way that may impact security, such as a new way to access sensitive information or a new way to login?
  • Yes. Role assignments now may have associated implicit assignments.

Notifications Impact

One notification will be sent out on each change of the implied roles rules.

Other End User Impact

Once this change is in place, role checks in policy files should be streamlined to check a smaller set of potential roles.

Performance Impact

  • Token validation responses will be larger.
  • If the role set gets too large, enforcing policy may take marginally longer.

Other Deployer Impact

  • Change takes effect immediately, but no implied roles will be defined by default.
  • Without a configuration option change, no role inference will be performed.

Developer Impact




Primary assignee:
Other contributors:

Work Items

All code changes must be in the Assignments backend.

  • Add parent field to entities
  • Expand the create and edit implied role APIs
  • Add notifications
  • Account for hierarchy on listing role assignments



Documentation Impact

Documentation of RBAC will need to cover hierarchies of roles.