Access Control Frameworks for a Distributed System

Access Control Frameworks for a Distributed System

Rajeev R. Raje (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, USA), Alex Crespi (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, USA), Omkar J. Tilak (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, USA) and Andrew M. Olson (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-855-0.ch021
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Component-based software development offers a promising technique for creating distributed systems. It does require a framework for specifying component properties, analyzing the behaviors of a system before composition, and validating them during operation. This chapter focuses on access control properties of a distributed system. It provides a framework that addresses the following issues: (a) specifying access control properties for individual components, (b) identifying components with required access control properties, and (c) formulating compositional models for predicting the access control properties of a composed system from those of its individual components.
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Although component-based software development is a valuable approach for creating a complex distributed system, it requires a framework for specifying component properties in order to analyze the system’s behavior before its assembly and, then, validate it during operation. Both functional and quality of service (QoS) features of components require specification. One common QoS characteristic is security, whose importance cannot be understated in many sensitive application domains, such as medical or military applications. A framework that supports composing and predicting a distributed system's security characteristics from the properties of its individual components would aid in the creation of more secure systems for such sensitive domains. Access control is an important type of security. Thus, any framework to specify and predict the security properties of a composed system from the properties of individual components should provide a means to model and predict the system’s access control properties. This chapter describes one such framework based on the principles of UniFrame (UniFrame Project, 2006)—an on-going research effort that aims to automate the creation of Distributed Computing Systems (DCS) from geographically scattered, heterogeneous software components.

The specific objectives of this chapter are to provide a means of:

  • Expressing the access control characteristics of individual software components within the UniFrame paradigm.

  • Identifying individual software components on a network that meet system access control requirements.

  • Predicting the access control behavior of an integrated system based on the properties of its individual components.



There have been many attempts made at modeling access control in computing systems. This section describes a few prominent efforts.

Access Matrix

The basic model for access control is the access control matrix, which consists of a two dimensional matrix relating subjects to objects. Each cell in the matrix contains the access privileges of one subject for accessing one object 
(Saunders, Hitchens, & Varadharajan, 2001). This matrix can be extremely large for large systems and may be sparsely populated, leading to great inefficiencies in implementation (Sandhu & Samarati, 1994). Therefore, most systems implement access control models that can be mapped back to the concept of the access control matrix while avoiding these inefficiencies.

Access Control Lists (ACL)

ACL are a means of implementing efficiently access control matrices. Each secured object has an ACL that consists of data from a column of the access control matrix. Only entries for subjects allowed to use the object are present in the ACL, thereby eliminating the access control matrix’s inefficiencies. Replacing the ACL for an object is easy, but determining all of the privileges for a single subject is difficult in such a system (Sandhu & Samarati, 1994). For instance, if all of the access privileges of a subject must be revoked, then all ACLs must be examined. This may still be more efficient than examining the whole matrix.

Discretionary Access Control (DAC)

In DAC, an owner of an object determines if a given subject may be allowed access to that object or not. Thus, a DAC policy consists of a subject’s identity, pertinent object identities, and a series of rules decided by the object’s owner. This policy specification determines whether or not a particular subject may perform a specific operation on an object. Closed DAC systems only allow access when the policy specifically allows the access, whereas an open DAC system only disallows access when the policy denies access. One weakness of DAC is that once a user gains access to information, potentially nothing prevents it from sharing the information with an unauthorized user (Sandhu & Samarati, 1994). In addition, with DAC systems, it can be difficult to represent and maintain complex access control policies for a large organization.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Protected Resource: A resource is a protected if the component that encapsulates that resource protects it via access control guards.

Guard: A guard is a logical condition that evaluates to true or false for protecting a resource within a component.

Access Control: An access control is a mechanism to enforce access privileges to different entities in a computing system.

Student Information System: It contains necessary information about students enrolled in a university. It serves here as a simplified case study for describing the proposed model of access control.

Prolog: Prolog is a logic programming language that acts as a theorem prover.

Contained Resource: A resource is contained in a component if the component encapsulates the resource and carries out operations on the resource.

Distributed Computing Systems (DCS): A distributed computing system consists of networked processors, each with its own memory, that communicate with each other by sending messages.

UniFrame: This is a unifying framework that supports a seamless integration of distributed and heterogeneous components.

Temporal Logic of Actions (TLA): TLA is a technique for specifying the behavior of concurrent systems.

UniFrame Resource Discovery System (URDS): URDS provides an infrastructure for proactively discovering components deployed over a network.

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