Manage permissions with zend-permissions-rbac

In our previous post, we
covered authentication of a user via Expressive middleware. In that post, we
indicated that we would later discuss authorization, which is the activity of
checking if an authenticated user has permissions to perform a specific
action, from within the context of a middleware application.

Before we do that, however, we thought we’d introduce
our lightweight role-based access control (RBAC) implementation.

Installing zend-permissions-rbac

Just as you would any of our components, install zend-permissions-rbac via

$ composer require zendframework/zend-permissions-rbac

The component has no requirements at this time other than a PHP version of at
least 5.5.


In RBAC systems, we have three primary items to track:

  • the RBAC system composes zero or more roles.
  • a role is granted zero or more permissions.
  • we assert whether or not a role is granted a given permission.

zend-permissions-rbac supports role inheritance, even allowing a role to inherit
permissions from multiple other roles. This allows you to create some fairly
complex and fine-grained permissions schemes!


As a basic example, we’ll create an RBAC for a content-based website. Let’s
start with a "guest" role, that only allows "read" permissions.

use ZendPermissionsRbacRbac;
use ZendPermissionsRbacRole;

// Create some roles
$guest= new Role('guest');

$rbac = new Rbac();

We can then assert if a given role is granted specific permissions:

$rbac->isGranted('guest', 'read'); // true
$rbac->isGranted('guest', 'write'); // false

Unknown roles

One thing to note: if the role used with isGranted() does not exist, this
method raises an exception, specifically a
ZendPermissionsRbacExceptionInvalidArgumentException, indicating the
role could not be found.

In many situations, this may not be what you want; you may want to handle
non-existent roles gracefully. You could do this in a couple ways. First, you
can test to see if the role exists before you check the permissions, using

if (! $rbac->hasRole($foo)) {
    // failed, due to missing role
if (! $rbac->isGranted($foo, $permission)) {
    // failed, due to missing permissions

Alternately, wrap the isGranted() call in a try/catch block:

try {
    if (! $rbac->isGranted($foo, $permission)) {
        // failed, due to missing permissions
} catch (RbacInvalidArgumentException $e) {
    if (! strstr($e->getMessage(), 'could be found')) {
        // failed, due to missing role

    // some other error occured
    throw $e;

Personally, I don’t like to use exceptions for application flow, so I
recommend the first solution. That said, in most cases, you will be working
with a role instance that you’ve just added to the RBAC.

Role inheritance

Let’s say we want to build on the previous example, and create an "editor" role
that also incorporates the permissions of the "guest" role, and adds a "write"

You might be inclined to think of the "editor" as inheriting from the "guest"
role — in other words, that it is a descendent or child of it.
However, in RBAC, inheritance works in the opposite direction: a parent
inherits all permissions of its children. As such, we’ll create the role as

$editor = new Role('editor');


$rbac->isGranted('editor', 'write'); // true
$rbac->isGranted('editor', 'read');  // true
$rbac->isGranted('guest',  'write'); // false

Another role might be a "reviewer" who can "moderate" content:

$reviewer = new Role('reviewer');


$rbac->isGranted('reviewer', 'moderate'); // true
$rbac->isGranted('reviewer', 'write');    // false; editor only!
$rbac->isGranted('reviewer', 'read');     // true
$rbac->isGranted('guest',    'moderate'); // false

Let’s create another, an "admin" who can do all of the above, but also has
permissions for "settings":

$admin= new Role('admin');


$rbac->isGranted('admin',    'settings'); // true
$rbac->isGranted('admin',    'write');    // true
$rbac->isGranted('admin',    'moderate'); // true
$rbac->isGranted('admin',    'read');     // true
$rbac->isGranted('editor',   'settings'); // false
$rbac->isGranted('reviewer', 'settings'); // false
$rbac->isGranted('guest',    'write');    // false

As you can see, permissions lookups are recursive and collective; the RBAC
examines all children and each of their descendants as far down as it needs to
determine if a given permission is granted!

Creating your RBAC

When should you create your RBAC, exactly? And should it contain all roles and

In most cases, you will be validating a single user’s permissions. What’s
interesting about zend-permissions-rbac is that if you know that user’s role,
the permissions they have been assigned, and any child roles (and their
permissions) to which the role belongs, you have everything you need. This means
that you can do most lookups on-the-fly.

As such, you will typically do the following:

  • Create a finite set of well-known roles and their permissions as a global RBAC.
  • Add roles (and optionally permissions) for the current user.
  • Validate the current user against the RBAC.

As an example, let’s say I have a user Mario who has the role "editor", and also
adds the permission "update". If our RBAC is already populated per the above
examples, I might do the following:

$mario= new Role('mario');


$rbac->isGranted($mario,   'settings'); // false; admin only!
$rbac->isGranted($mario,   'update');   // true; mario only!
$rbac->isGranted('editor', 'update');   // false; mario only!
$rbac->isGranted($mario,   'write');    // true; all editors
$rbac->isGranted($mario,   'read');     // true; all guests

Assigning roles to users

When you have some sort of authentication system in place, it will return some
sort of identity or user instance generally. You will then need to map this
to RBAC roles. But how?

Hopefully, you can store role information wherever you persist your user
information. Since roles are essentially stored internally as strings by
zend-permissions-rbac, this means that you can store the user role as a discrete
datum with your user identity.

Once you have, you have a few options:

  • Use the role directly from your identity when checking permissions: e.g.,
    $rbac->isGranted($identity->getRole(), 'write')
  • Create a ZendPermissionsRbacRole instance (or other concrete class) with
    the role fetched from the identity, and use that for permissions checks:
    $rbac->isGranted(new Role($identity->getRole()), 'write')
  • Update your identity instance to implement
    ZendPermissionsRbacRoleInterface, and pass it directly to permissions
    checks: $rbac->isGranted($identity, 'write')

This latter approach provides a nice solution, as it then also allows you to
store specific permissions and/or child roles as part of the user data.

The RoleInterface looks like the following:

namespace ZendPermissionsRbac;

use RecursiveIterator;

interface RoleInterface extends RecursiveIterator
     * Get the name of the role.
     * @return string
    public function getName();

     * Add permission to the role.
     * @param $name
     * @return RoleInterface
    public function addPermission($name);

     * Checks if a permission exists for this role or any child roles.
     * @param  string $name
     * @return bool
    public function hasPermission($name);

     * Add a child.
     * @param  RoleInterface|string $child
     * @return Role
    public function addChild($child);

     * @param  RoleInterface $parent
     * @return RoleInterface
    public function setParent($parent);

     * @return null|RoleInterface
    public function getParent();

The ZendPermissionsRbacAbstractRole contains basic implementations of most
methods of the interface, including logic for querying child permissions, so we
suggest inheriting from that if you can.

As an example, you could store the permissions as a comma-separated string and
the parent role as a string internally when creating your identity instance:

use ZendPermissionsRbacAbstractRole;
use ZendPermissionsRbacRoleInterface;
use ZendPermissionsRbacRole;

class Identity extends AbstractRole
     * @param string $username
     * @param string $role
     * @param array $permissions
     * @param array $childRoles
    public function __construct(
        string $username,
        array $permissions = [],
        array $childRoles = []
    ) {
        // $name is defined in AbstractRole
        $this->name = $username;

        foreach ($this->permissions as $permission) {

        $childRoles = array_merge(['guest'], $childRoles);
        foreach ($this->childRoles as $childRole) {

Assuming your authentication system uses a database table, and a lookup returns
an array-like row with the user information on a successful lookup, you might
then seed your identity instance as follows:

$identity = new Identity(
    explode(',', $row['permissions']),
    explode(',', $row['roles'])

This approach allows you to assign pre-determined roles to individual users,
while also allowing you to add fine-grained, individual permissions!

Custom assertions

Sometimes a static assertion is not enough.

As an example, we may want to implement a rule that the creator of a content
item in our website always has rights to edit the item. How would we implement
that with the above system?

zend-permissions-rbac allows you to do so via dynamic assertions. Such
assertions are classes that implement
ZendPermissionsRbacAssertionInterface, which defines the single method
public function assert(Rbac $rbac).

For the sake of this example, let’s assume:

  • The content item is represented as an object.
  • The object has a method getCreatorUsername() that will return the same
    username as we might have in our custom identity from the previous example.

Because we have PHP 7 at our disposal, we’ll create the assertion as an
anonymous class:

use ZendPermissionsRbacAssertionInterface;
use ZendPermissionsRbacRbac;
use ZendPermissionsRbacRoleInterface;

$assertion = new class ($identity, $content) implements AssertionInterface {
    private $content;
    private $identity;

    public function __construct(RoleInterface $identity, $content)
        $this->identity = $identity;
        $this->content = $content;

    public function assert(Rbac $rbac)
        return $this->identity->getName() === $this->content->getCreatorUsername();

$rbac->isGranted($mario, 'edit', $assertion); // returns true if $mario created $content

This opens even more possibilities than inheritance!


zend-permissions-rbac is quite simple to operate, but that simplicity hides a
great amount of flexibility and power; you can create incredibly fine-grained
permissions schemes for your applications using this component!

Next week, Enrico will cover using the component within a middleware stack; stay

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