Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Simplified user roles in Rails

Usually, the discussion around user authentication and authorization in Rails revolves around an authentication plugin, engine or a login generator. Next, you might get into the types of users and this is where you might see a discussion about Roles, UserRoles and Users. There is plenty of tutorials about this usually describing an example of HABTM or has_many :through. But for simple cases, you can get the effect of user roles without much effort at all, just through normal Rails associations.

In addition to your 'users' table, create tables for each type of role. These can contain attributes specific to that type of user. For instance, you can have a admin type of user with specific flags allowing different types of CRUD access. A business contact user might have additional ways to be contacted (phone extension, cell phone, mail stop, etc.) For each table, add a user_id foreign key. In the models, make sure these all 'belongs_to :user'.

Then in the User model, add a 'has_one :admin' and 'has_one :business_contact' etc. for each associated table. The has_one association adds methods to the model to make it easy to query the relation:

user = User.find 1
if user.admin
# do admin stuff
end
...
details.save unless user.business_contact.nil?


Each user can participate in more than one role. This keeps the user login centralized and the authorization stuff very readable. Adding a new type only requires adding a new table and updating app/models/user.rb to add the has_one associtation.


This simple strategy might not be enough for your needs. It doesn't work if you anticipate adding user roles on the fly to a running system. In this case, you'd probably want to look into a permissions system tied to a HABTM based Role and UserRole model. I've only described a solution for a fixed amount of user types, more or less hard coded into the models.

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