XACML - why it is so important

XACML (eXtensible Access Control Markup Language) gains an increasing attention as one of the core standards in the field of information security and thus IT security. Whilst standards like SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) address the problem of authentication, XACML is about authorization - the more complex threat. XACML allows the definition and exchange of authorization policies in a heterogeneous environment. Whether it is about cloud security and controlling the authorization policies of cloud services or about SOA security for internal applications: XACML supports the authorization management in such use cases.

However, there is no such thing as a free lunch: XACML not only tools like XML/SOA Security Gateways which support that standard or cloud services with XACML support. There are two other important aspects:

  • XACML in fact means a shift from a more static security approach like with ACLs (Access Control Lists) towards a dynamic approach, based on policies which are applied at runtime. These dynamic security concepts are more difficult to understand, to recertify, to audit and analyze in their real-world implications. Thus, the use of XACML requires not only the right tools but well-thought concepts for policy creation and management.
  • XACML is just a foundation to express policies. Within a use case, policy concepts have to be defined. Over time, there should be higher level standards or defined use cases building on XACML and focusing on a standardization of the content of these policies.
Anyway, XACML is very useful. One of the most interesting areas for XACML is SOA Security. Currently, many SOA-based applications still lack a valid concept for authorization. Authorization still frequently is built into these applications. XACML can provide the policies to externalize the authorization management and thus add flexibility to SOA-based applications.

Overall, it is - from my perspective - definitely worth to spend some time exploiting the potentials for XACML to improve the security of systems and applications. There are many areas where XACML can be used successfully today. However, like with any emerging technology, there will be a lot of improvements in the managing and consuming applications (and, hopefully, around the standards ore use cases building on XACML) over the next few years. Thus the step to XACML has to be considered carefully. The good thing is: It is about standards, thus the risk of lock-in isn't that big.

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