Build an entitlement service for business applications using Amazon Verified Permissions
Amazon Verified Permissions is designed to simplify the process of managing permissions within an application. In this blog post, we aim to help customers understand how this service can be applied to several business use cases.
Companies typically use custom entitlement logic embedded in their business applications. This is the most common approach, and it involves writing custom code to manage user access permissions. We’ll explore the common challenges faced by application developers and access administrators when handling user access permissions in an application and how Verified Permissions can help you solve these challenges. We’ll provide an integration guide for incorporating Verified Permissions into an entitlement service, specifically for use cases such as payment management. Finally, we’ll discuss the advantages of using a granular, adaptable, and externally managed access control system.
This blog post will provide a comprehensive and centralized approach to managing access policies, reducing administrative overhead, and empowering line-of-business users to define, administer, and enforce application entitlement policies.
Challenges of building an entitlement system
Entitlements refer to the rules that determine what each user can or cannot do within an application. Figure 1 shows the architecture of a common entitlement system, with components embedded in applications and entitlements stored in multiple data stores.
Creating your own permissions management system can be resource-intensive, requiring time and expertise to ensure its effectiveness. Enterprises face many issues when building a custom entitlement management system, such as complexity, security risks, performance, and lack of scalability. Let’s delve into these issues in detail.
- Data complexity – Entitlement decisions are often based on complex data relationships, such as user roles, group membership, and product permissions. Managing this complexity can be challenging, especially in a large organization with a lot of users, groups, and products.
- Compliance and security – Building an entitlement system requires careful consideration of compliance regulations and security best practices. You need to protect user data, implement secure communication protocols, and handle potential security vulnerabilities.
- Scalability – Permissions management systems must scale to handle large number of users and transactions. This can be a challenge, especially if the service is used to control access to critical resources.
- Performance and availability – Entitlement services need to be performant, because they are often used to make real-time decisions. Additionally, they need to be reliable and consistent, so that users can be confident that their entitlements are accurate.
Architecting an entitlement service using Amazon Verified Permissions
Amazon Verified Permissions is a scalable permissions management and fine-grained authorization service that helps you build and modernize applications without relying heavily on coding authorization within your applications.
Let’s discuss how you can use Verified Permissions to manage entitlements.
Creating and deploying policies
Verified Permissions uses Cedar, a policy language that allows developers to express permissions as policies that permit users or forbid them from doing certain tasks. A central policy-based authorization system gives developers a consistent way to define and manage fine-grained authorization across applications, simplifies changing permission rules without a need to change code, and improves visibility by moving permissions out of the code.
By using Verified Permissions, you can create specific permission policies that incorporate characteristics of role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC). This approach enables you to implement granular controls while prioritizing the principle of least privilege.
Use case 1: Mary, who works as a clerk, can submit and view payments. Her role within the payment management system allows for multiple actions, and the policy for this role can be defined as follows.
In contrast, Shirley is an auditor, with access that only allows her to list payments. The policy for this role is as follows.
The payment system will pass the principal, action, resource, and the entity data to Verified Permissions. If the user information is not explicitly defined within the application, the payment system must retrieve it from data stores such as an identity provider or database.
Following that, Verified Permissions evaluates relevant policies by assembling policies that affect the calling principal and the resource in question to make a decision on whether the action should be permitted or denied. Once a decision is made, it is conveyed back to the application, which can then enforce the decision.
As you can see in Figure 2, Mary has access to submit a payment because she has the role of “clerk” and the policy shown earlier permits this action.
Shirley can’t submit a payment based on her role as an “auditor” and the action is denied, as shown in Figure 3.
However, she can list the payments, as the policy shown earlier permits this action, as shown in Figure 4.
Use case 2: Using the payment system application, CFO Jane delegates access for a high-value account, 111222333, to John, VP of Finance, during her vacation by creating a policy from a template. This gives John permission to approve payments on the account without Jane’s direct presence.
Policy template for approving payment: Figure 5 shows a sample policy template to approve payment. Policies created by using this template, like the one following, will provide the principal with the ability to approve payments for the resource.
Create the policy from the template: Figure 6 shows the policy created by using the preceding template. The parameters that you have to pass are the principal and resource information. For this use case, the principal is “John” and the resource is the account “111222333”, enabling John to approve payment for the account. (AWS recommends using a universally unique identifier (UUID) for the principal, but “John” is used in this blog post to make it more readable.)
Evaluate the policy: As expected, John is granted access to approve payment for the account 111222333, as shown in Figure 7.
Building an entitlement service with Verified Permissions
Verified Permissions enables you to build an entitlement service by externalizing authorization and centralizing policy management and administration. It allows you to tailor access control to your specific application requirements while leveraging the underlying entitlement management provided by Verified Permissions.
Integrating an existing entitlement service with Verified Permissions
Let’s look at how you can integrate an existing entitlement service with Verified Permissions, as shown in Figure 8. In this diagram, the underlying implementation of the entitlement service uses the standard enterprise technology stack. Amazon DynamoDB is used to store the user and role information.
Here’s an approach you can use to seamlessly integrate your existing entitlement service with Verified Permissions:
- Identify permissions: Begin by assessing your existing entitlement service to identify the permissions it currently uses, different roles, actions, and resources. Compile a detailed list of the permissions along with their respective purposes.
- Formulate policies: Map the permissions identified for each use case in the previous step into policies. You can use both inline policies and policy templates. In the AWS Management Console, use the Verified Permissions test bench to evaluate the policies you’ve drafted.
- Create policies: Depending on your business needs, create one or more policy stores within Verified Permissions. Create the policies within these policy stores. This is a one-time task and we recommend using automation to accomplish it.
- Update entitlement service: Use your entitlement service’s existing interface to create a logic that transforms the current request payload into the format that Verified Permissions’ authorization request expects. You might need to identify and incorporate missing parameters into the existing interfaces. Apply this same transformation logic to the response payload. Refer to this documentation for the Verified Permissions authorization request and response format.
- Integrate with Verified Permissions: Use the Verified Permission API or AWS SDK to integrate the entitlements service with Verified Permissions. This involves tasks such as fetching the user role from Amazon DynamoDB, making authorization requests to Verified Permissions, and processing the resulting responses.
- Testing: Thoroughly test your service after making the permission changes. Verify that all functionalities are working as expected and that the policies in Verified Permissions are being utilized correctly.
- Deployment: After your service passes the review process, roll out the updated entitlement service along with the integrated Verified Permissions functionality.
- Monitor and maintain: Following deployment, continuously monitor the performance and gather feedback. Be prepared to make further adjustments if necessary.
- Documentation and support: Provide comprehensive documentation for developers who will use your entitlement service. Clearly explain the available endpoints, the request and response formats, and the authorization requirements.
You can use a similar approach to integrate your existing entitlement service with other third-party permission management systems.
Building a new entitlement service in AWS using Amazon Verified Permissions
The reference architecture in Figure 9 shows how to build a new entitlement service using Verified Permissions. AWS customers already use Amazon Cognito for simple, fast authentication. With Amazon Verified Permissions, customers can also add simple, fast authorization to their applications by adding user profile attributes to the identity token generated by Amazon Cognito.
The workflow in the diagram is as follows:
- The user signs in to the application by using Amazon Cognito.
- If the authentication is successful, the pre-token generation Lambda function will be invoked.
- You can use the pre-token generation Lambda function to customize an identity token before Amazon Cognito generates it. In this case, the trigger is used to add the user profile attributes as new claims in the identity token.
- The user profile attributes are retrieved from Amazon Dynamo DB.
- The attributes are then added as new claims in the identity token.
- After the user is signed in, they request access to the protected resource in the application through Amazon API Gateway.
- Amazon API Gateway initiates an authorization check using a Lambda authorizer. A Lambda authorizer is a feature of the API Gateway that allows you to implement a custom authorization scheme using the identity token generated by Amazon Cognito.
- The Lambda authorizer validates, decodes, and retrieves the user profile attributes from the identity token.
- The Lambda authorizer calls the Verified Permission authorization API and passes the principal, action, resource, and user profile attributes as entities.
- Based on the decision returned by Verified Permissions, the user is permitted or denied access to the resource.
Common pitfalls of using an entitlement service
Entitlement services can be tricky, but there are a few common mistakes you can avoid to make them more secure and simpler to use:
- Entitlement service misconfigurations can create security vulnerabilities and lead to data breaches. It is important to carefully configure the entitlement service and to regularly review policies to verify that they are correct and up-to-date.
- When you first start using an entitlement service, it’s easy to give users too many permissions. This can make your application less secure and harder to manage. It’s important to give users only the permissions they need to do their jobs.
- Users need to be trained on how to use the entitlement service correctly, especially when it comes to requesting and managing permissions. If users don’t know how to do these tasks appropriately, they could make mistakes that could leave your system vulnerable.
Amazon Verified Permissions is a comprehensive solution for businesses looking to manage granular access control, flexible authorization, and externalized access control. With this service, organizations can quickly and conveniently apply new policies across their environment, streamlining user management processes and helping to improve overall security. This post has highlighted the many benefits of using Verified Permissions for entitlement management within an application. We hope it has been helpful in understanding how you can apply this service to your business use cases.
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