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Role-based access control on a roll

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SAN DIEGO - Provisioning network and application resources for employees can be a time-consuming task, but large corporations are starting to simplify the process by centralizing network user information and assigning users to role-based groups.

Chevron, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield and State Farm Insurance are among the companies taking steps to do this by investing in commercial software or developing systems internally. By working with upper management, in particular the human resources department, to assign each employee at least one "role," such as sales or engineering, the process of granting or terminating predefined network privileges promises to become more automated and much faster.

"We need to ease the burden on IT managers," said David Everett, a systems specialist who detailed how Chevron is moving to role-based access control in the presentation he gave at last week's Catalyst Conference, an event put on by The Burton Group. Chevron will use Business Layers' Day One software, which can take input directly from human resources applications to generate requests for new user accounts for application resource access.

As part of a workflow process that involves approving the new user for certain mail or server resources across Chevron's intranet, the Business Layers software will send an instruction to a separate repository - in this case, an IBM SecureWay Meta-Directory - to activate accounts at Windows NT, Exchange or Lotus Notes servers. For the first time, those accounts will be defined by assigning the user to a "role" that assumes people with different jobs can be neatly assigned predetermined types of access based on business need.

"It takes a long time to get users provisioned, and we see role-based access control as a real productivity enhancement," Everett said. Chevron will start testing the process this fall at its lubricants division with help from systems integrator ePresence.

Meanwhile, Anthem has already begun implementing role-based access control using OpenNetworks' Directory Smart provisioning software in conjunction with Microsoft's Active Directory (see www.nwfusion.com, DocFinder: 5355).

Anthem will use role-based access control for 13,000 internal end users and to put corporate business partners, such as contractors or trading partners, into specific groups defined for network access. Anthem sees automation of end-user provisioning on its intranet as crucial to meeting tough new data security guidelines outlined by the federal government.

The move to centralized role-based user access control has brought about the need for new and more coordinated efforts with the Anthem human resources department, which has put restrictions on how far IT can go with its role-based assignment system, said John Reynolds, director and technical architect for e-commerce. The human resources department has a strong sense that it "owns" this employee data, he said, and it took Anthem's IT department some time to convince human resources that combining data from across Anthem's offices into one metadirectory was acceptable.

Access control graphic

One drawback to role-based access-control systems is that they can be expensive, Reynolds said. It's costing Anthem $400,000 for the enterprise license for Microsoft's Active Directory alone, although that is far less than the $4 million Novell wanted to charge based on per-entry pricing to use its eDirectory, he said.

In fact, cost played a role in the decision by another insurer - State Farm - to design its own technology for handling role-based access control before venturing into commercial software and beyond pilot tests. State Farm is looking at an automated access-control system for the company's more than 75,000 employees and agents, said Neal Shah, a security specialist with the company.

Cost has to be a concern because the typical price for role-based provisioning software, such as that from competitors such as Business Layers and Access360, runs from $600,000 to $800,000, said Christy Hudgins, an analyst with The Burton Group.

Another obvious problem with these new systems, she noted, is that some individuals are just not going to fit neatly into "roles" and have to be assigned as exceptions.

As customer interest in these new access-control systems increases, more vendors are responding.

Siemens and iPlanet last week separately announced that their online directory products will support role-based access control. Siemens is the first to build its directory on a role-based specification developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. iPlanet will have a beta version of role-based access in its iPlanet Directory in a few weeks.

Microsoft and Sun will add role-based access-control support in their operating systems.

Role-based access control is still an experimental idea for commercial systems, though the Defense Department developed something similar in trusted operating systems more than a decade ago. But with customer interest now on the rise, software vendors are hoping it's an idea whose time has come.

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