Access control is necessary for data platforms to securely share data. In order for users to confidently share their data resources with the intended parties, access control should be easy to understand and scalable, especially as more data objects and more users are added. Without a sensible access control model, users have a higher risk of inadvertently sharing data objects with the wrong parties and failing to realize incorrect permissions. Choosing the right access control model depends heavily on the use case, so it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of popular options.

In this post, we’ll cover three different access control models: access control lists (ACL), role-based access control (RBAC), and attribute-based access control (ABAC). We’ll discuss what they are, their pros and cons, and what to consider when choosing an access control model.

Access Control List (ACL)

An ACL is a list of permissions for a particular resource and is the simplest of the access control models that we’ll cover. When a user attempts an action on a resource, such as a read or write, the ACL associated with that resource is used to allow or deny the attempt. In order to add or remove permissions to a resource, an entry in the ACL is either added or deleted. ACLs are a simple model that are easy to understand and implement, however they can be difficult to manage when there are many users and resources as these lists can grow quickly.

To illustrate how ACLs work, let’s consider an example of a university with professors, teaching assistants, and students:

  • Students are able to submit assignments and view their grades
  • Teaching assistants are able to grade assignments
  • Professors are able to grade assignments and view student grades

As you can see from the diagram, each individual is given specific permissions for what they’re able to do. If another student were to join, the ACL would need to be updated to grant the new student privilege to submit assignments and view their grades.


  • Simple and easy to understand: User privileges for a particular resource are stated plainly in a list.
  • Allows for fine-grained access control to resources: ACLs typically allow different types of access to be defined (i.e. read, write, share).


  • Does not scale well: As more users, user groups, and resources are added, access must be individually specified in ACLs each time.
  • Low visibility on a user’s permissions: Checking a particular user’s privileges requires a lookup in every ACL in the organization.
  • Error-prone when used at scale: When ACLs are used at scale, it can be cumbersome to add the proper permissions for users, or detect if a user has been given permissions they shouldn’t have. The difficulty in managing ACLs at scale makes it more likely that errors will occur.

Role-based Access Control (RBAC)

RBAC manages permissions with roles, where roles act as an intermediary between users and resources. In this model, users are assigned a set of roles, and roles are given permissions on resources. This model works well when there are clear groups of users who need the same set of privileges and permissions. Compared to ACLs where every permission needs to be explicitly defined, RBAC scales well with new users and resources. New users can be assigned their relevant roles and adopt all the privileges associated with those roles. Similarly, permissions for new resources can be added to existing roles and users with those roles will automatically inherit the permissions for the new resource.

Using the example from earlier, we can see how RBAC might be applied to a university setting:

  • Students are able to submit assignments and view their grades
  • Teaching assistants are able to grade assignments
  • Professors are able to grade assignments and view student grades

As we can see, the relationships in this diagram are simpler than the diagram with ACLs. Instead of specifying direct access to resources, users are assigned roles which have privileges on resources. If a new student were to join the class, they would just need to be assigned the student role and all the permissions they need will be inherited through the “student” role.


  • Easy-to-manage policy enforcement: Updating a privilege for a role will automatically update apply for all users with that role, making it easier to enforce policies at a more granular level.
  • Scalable: New users can be granted the roles that apply for them and inherit all the privileges with those roles. As new resources are created, access to them can be granted to roles or additional roles can easily be created.
  • Better security and compliance: RBAC ensures that users only have access to the roles relevant for them, and by extension, only the privileges given to those roles. This results in users only having the necessary permissions and reduces the risk of unauthorized access.
  • Widely adopted: RBAC has been around for decades and is used in many popular databases and data products, including PostgreSQL, MySQL, MongoDB, and Snowflake.


  • Role explosion: While RBAC is generally quite scalable, creating too many roles can occur in cases where group privileges are not clearly differentiated. When too many roles get created, RBAC can become difficult to manage. Organizations should come up with and enforce best practices for defining roles to avoid role explosion.
  • Limited flexibility: For use cases where the privileges of roles are very dynamic, RBAC can feel rigid. For instance, if an organization restructures its team structure, new roles may need to be created and existing roles may need to change their permissions. The process of safely adding and removing permissions from roles, cleaning up any deprecated roles, and restructuring role hierarchy can be cumbersome, slow down productivity, and result in tech debt.

Attribute-based Access Control (ABAC)

ABAC gates access to resources based on attributes, as opposed to users or roles. Attributes, such as who the user is, what action they’re trying to perform, which environment they are performing the action in, and what resource they are trying to perform the action on, are all considered when deciding whether or not access should be permitted. Rules are set up such that access is only allowed when conditions, determined by attributes, are met. For example, a rule can be set up such that a teaching assistant can only view grades if they’re in the grading room and it’s between 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm.

Let’s see how ABAC might be applied to the university example:

In this diagram, we can see how the ABAC policy works for a student who is trying to submit their assignment. For a student to submit their assignment under this policy, the student needs to have specific attributes, such as being enrolled and not being suspended. There are also contextual constraints, such as the submission needing to be before the deadline. If all of the conditions in the policy are satisfied, then the student can successfully submit their assignment.


  • Highly scalable: New rules and attributes can easily be added as business needs evolve. As resources evolve, administrators can simply assign attributes to the resource, as opposed to creating a new role or changing an existing one.
  • Flexible custom policies: Rules are highly customizable, enabling administrators to easily set up access policies based on context, such as time of day and location.
  • Attributes to ensure compliance with data regulations: Administrators can add attributes to sensitive resources, allowing for labels to be added such as personally identifiable information (PII) or HIPAA for healthcare related information. This makes it easier to set up rules to ensure data privacy and data compliance with various regulations are met.


  • Complex to implement and maintain: Attributes and policies need to be carefully defined and governed. The initial designing and assigning of attributes for users and resources can be a time consuming and complex process. Then, continuing to maintain the attributes and access policies as business needs and applications change can require significant time and effort.
  • Difficult to assess risk exposure: Although it’s generally beneficial to be able to create highly customizable access policies, it can make it difficult to audit and assess risk exposure. For instance, understanding the full access a particular user has can be difficult since policies can be complex and contingent on context-specific conditions.

Choosing an Access Control Model

When it comes to choosing an access control model, users should consider how their organization may scale in the future, who will be responsible for maintaining the access control system, and if their needs actually require going with a more complex model. If there are a limited number of users and resources, ACLs may be the best approach as they are simple to understand and implement. If access policies need to be highly customized and dynamic, then ABAC may be a better approach. For something more scalable than ACLs but without the complexity of ABAC, then RBAC is probably sufficient. Organizations may also find that a hybrid approach of these models best serves their needs, such as RBAC and ABAC together.

At DeltaStream, we’ve taken the approach of adding RBAC to our platform. DeltaStream is a real-time stream processing platform that allows users to share, process, and govern their streaming data. In the data streaming space, Apache Kafka has been one of the leading open source projects for building streaming data pipelines and storing real-time events. However, access control with Kafka is managed through ACLs, and as the number of topics and users grow, managing these ACLs has been a pain point for Kafka users. As a data streaming platform that can connect to any streaming data source, DeltaStream allows users to manage and govern their streaming resources with RBAC. RBAC strikes the balance of improving on the scalability issues of ACLs without overcomplicating access control.

If you’re interested in discussing access control or learning more about DeltaStream, feel free to reach out or get a free trial.