Hierarchical Rights in Drupal

There's been a bit of noise about alternatives to the rather limited permissions system in Drupal. Here are a few of my thoughts about one proposal. Posted by Thomas Sutton on March 5, 2009

I discovered a blog post called More flexible rights management? by Larry Garfield at some point over the last three days (that being how long Safari has been running). Having a few thoughts about it and a pressing need to write a blog post for today, I’ll get them down “on paper” and call it a job done. Larry references Markus Wolff and his description (in a post called A pragmatic approach to rights management) of an permissions management system. Markus’ system (he in turn references a former boss, but I shall ascribe it to him anyway) looks like this:

  • Rights are denoted by dot-separated, reverse hierarchical names (e.g: ‘’Application.Component.Subcomponent.Right’’).

  • Permissions can specify rights with wild-cards (e.g. ’’Application.*’’).

  • Rights can also be negated (e.g. ’‘-Application.Shutdown’’).

Thus a user who can do anything except shut the application down might have a permissions list like:

As such schemes go this one is adequate, but as a replacement for Drupal’s current system it’s not that crash hot. In fact, all it brings to the table is a little more convenience: it is no more expressive than the current system. Now convenience is a pretty cool thing and the Drupal permissions system could really, really, really do with some more convenience, but if there’s to be a new system, I’d much rather see something genuinely more powerful.

My suggestion is this: rather than have a single hierarchy of rights which jumbles variously the rights, the objects, and the implementers of both into one great big messy tree, why not have rights permissions be a tuple of a right and an object specifier. This will result in two smaller, less complicated trees the paths of which can be clearly and easily interpreted. With this scheme, many of the permissions seen on most Drupal sites would be replaced with a much smaller collection of rights and a similarly small number of object specifiers.

The current system includes five permissions (create, delete own, delete any, edit own, and edit any) for each and every content type. In my suggested system, these would be replaces with just those five rights which would, when granted, be applied to particular object specifiers. The “edit any story content” permission might become “(Core.EditAny, Node.Story)”, for example.

One advantage such a scheme would have is in breaking down some of the super permissions like the various “administer …” permissions. Rather than creating large numbers of new permissions, it would be possible to grant “Core.Administer” right to a particular group of settings. Again, this will reduce the large number of permissions (approaching one per module) and replace them with a single reusable permission applied to a range of domains. The “administer menu” permission might be replaced with “(Core.Administer, Menu)” or, more excitingly, with “(Core.Administer, Menu.PrimaryLinks)”.

Having written a little about this, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a good idea or a good fit for Drupal. Such a flexible system would certainly have a smaller UI (in terms of screen real-estate) than the current approach, but it would be more complex. It would make core more powerful, but it wouldn’t obviate the need for third-party modules to augment or replace the system when it can’t implement a required policy. In fact it’s a stupid idea, so forget about it and lets all just pretend that I didn’t say anything.

This post was published on March 5, 2009 and last modified on September 4, 2020. It is tagged with: drupal, authorisation, permissions, ideas.