Jumpstart Lab Curriculum

Authentication & Authorization

Authorization with CanCan

Authorization is an important aspect to most any application. As a system, it is put in place to determine whether the current user has the permission to perform the requested action. Based on this, it typically happens after a user is authenticated, but before a request is processed.

The important question to ask is, is the user allowed to do what they’re trying to do?

Getting Started

When considering implementing an authorization system in Rails, there are two popular libraries.

The first, Declarative Authorization has been around since 2008. It introduced the idea of a centralized permissions file and a clean DSL for referring to those permissions.

Later, CanCan, was inspired by DeclarativeAuthorization and created by Ryan Bates of Railscasts. It provides an intuitive interface to define your authorization rules and integrates into Rails seamlessly.

They’re both great choices, but let’s look at implementing CanCan.

Setup

To get started, add cancan to the Gemfile.

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gem "cancan"

Then run bundle from the command line.

The Current User

It is conventional to implement a helper method named current_user in your controllers. It should return an instance of the User model that is currently active in the session.

CanCan is expecting current_user to be available for its controller includes to work, which are setup automatically in descendants of ActionController::Base once the CanCan gem is required.

Creating Abilities

To define an application’s authorization rules, we’ll think in terms of abilities. For example, is the current_user able to update their own information?

Generate the Ability File

As of version 1.5, CanCan includes a generator to create our Ability file for Rails 3 applications. It is placed in the app/models directory and is where all of your ability definitions will live. To execute the generator, run the following from the command line:

Terminal

$
rails generate cancan:ability

Defining Abilities

CanCan provides a succinct DSL for defining abilities. Let’s dive in and look at a simple example:

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# app/models/ability.rb
class Ability

  # Add in CanCan's ability definition DSL
  include CanCan::Ability

  def initialize( user )

    # Handle the case where we don't have a current_user i.e. the user is a guest
    user ||= User.new

    # Define a few sample abilities
    can    :manage , Article
    cannot :manage , Comment
    can    :read   , Tag , released: true
  end
end

The CanCan generator will provide the structure for your Ability class. At a basic level then, all you need to do is implement the constructor. Here we can see a few things…

  • As is recommended in the CanCan documentation, the case where a current_user is nil is handled.
  • A user can perform all actions (:manage) the Article model
  • Users cannot perform any actions on the Comment model.
  • Users can read instances of the Tag model where baz.released is true

Building Roles

By default, CanCan does not make any assumptions about whether you will need roles in your application and what they might be. At their most basic, we could implement administrators and non-administrators.

To begin implementing roles, let’s consider a simple User model.

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# app/models/user.rb

class User < ActiveRecord::Base
  attr_accessible :name , :email

  # User::Roles
  # The available roles
  Roles = [ :admin , :default ]

  def is?( requested_role )
    self.role == requested_role.to_s
  end
end

As you can see, the User::Roles array lists the different roles that a User might be. Since we want to persist a user’s role, we would add a String field called role to the User model via a database migration.

Admin Abilities

Now, to define the abilities of an :admin, we should revisit the previously created Ability class.

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# app/models/ability.rb
class Ability
  include CanCan::Ability

  def initialize( user )
    user ||= User.new

    # Define User abilities
    if user.is? :admin
      can :manage, Article
    else
      can :read, Article
    end
  end

end

If a user is an :admin, they’re allowed to manage any Article. Otherwise, users can only read articles. By using the simple User#is? method, we can expressively determine the role of a user.

See the CanCan wiki for more information on Defining Abilities and Role Based Authorization.

Checking Abilities

Once your application’s abilities are defined, they can be checked throughout the app.

Can?

The can? check uses your ability definitions to determine whether a user action is allowed.

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<%= link_to "New User" , new_user_path if can? :create, User %>

Cannot?

Alternatively, the cannot? helper is available and checks whether a user action is NOT allowed.

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<% if cannot? :destroy , @user %>
  <span class="permission-message">You aren't allowed to delete this user.</span>
<% end %>

Load and Authorize Resource

CanCan provides numerous helpers for use at the controller level. One that is particularly useful is load_and_authorize_resource. Calling this at a class level in a controller will automatically load the model and authorize the requested action.

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# app/controllers/users_controller.rb

class UsersController < ApplicationController
  load_and_authorize_resource
end

Handling Authorization Failure

When using load_and_authorize_resource manually, an authorization failure will raise a exception. The way to handle these exceptions is by writing a rescue_from block in your base controller.

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# app/controllers/application_controller.rb

class ApplicationController < ActionController::Base

  # Catch all CanCan errors and alert the user of the exception
  rescue_from CanCan::AccessDenied do | exception |
    redirect_to root_url, alert: exception.message
  end

end

The exception passed in to the rescue_from block will contain the data necessary to inform the user of the error.

Usage Patterns

Dealing with Complexity

As your application grows beyond a few models, ability definitions can quickly become complex. At first, a solution such as the one described in the last section of the CanCan Role Based Authorization wiki page can be useful. Even then, the ability.rb file can grow unruly at fast pace.

At a certain point, there are few options to keep ability definitions under control:

  • Roll your own solution to split ability definitions in to multiple files by role or model.
  • Use a CanCan extension gem such as cantango or role_up

Testing Abilities

Writing tests against your ability definitions at the unit level, as opposed to through functional or integration tests, can be a huge benefit for your codebase. There are wonderful matchers available for RSpec in CanCan. Check out the testing wiki page for code examples.

Exercises

Use the Blogger sample application to complete the exercises in this section. See the Setup Instructions for help.

  1. Follow the instructions above to install CanCan and generate the abilities file.
  2. Follow the previous Local Authentication tutorial to build authentication using Devise.
  3. Define a role attribute in your users table. Create one admin and one non-admin user.
  4. Define abilities such that the admin can manage an Article and a normal user can only read them (using index and show).
  5. Add checks in the view templates to hide links when the user is not permitted to execute the associated action.
  6. Use load_and_authorize_resource in the ArticlesController and remove any unnecessary code in the actions.

References

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