The joys of Microsoft Exchange 2010's RBAC

Role-based access control offers enterprises flexible security settings for customized access

It's a great new day for access control management in Microsoft Exchange 2010. Older versions of Microsoft Exchange worked off the Windows access control model, which uses access control lists (ACLs) and a permission structure with hierarchal levels. ACLs are made up of access control entries and security identifiers (SIDs), and really, if you've been in IT for more than a day, you know how all of these combine in Windows to provide object access control. The combination of allow/deny access with a combination of permission settings on object -- or in this case, on mailboxes and public folders and so forth -- is all part of the Windows world.

Older versions of Exchange combined that concept with predefined administration groups you could assign. For example, in Exchange 2003 you can assign one of these three: Full Administrator, Administrator, and View Administrator. Exchange 2007 SP1 provides four administration groups: Organization Administrators, Recipient Administrators, View-Only Administrators, and Public Folder Administrators.

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In smaller environments, these few administration groups might be just what you need. But in more complex environments, where people have specific job functions (or roles) to perform, there is a need for a more granular approach to access control. Where Exchange 2010's role-based access control (RBAC) comes in is that the permissions are assigned to specific operations, not necessarily to objects themselves at the lower levels.

Looking at how RBAC is used in Exchange 2010, you can see the thinking shift from the ACLs-on-objects approach and more to the operations a person can perform or, more appropriately, the role a person has in the organization.

For starters, there are 11 built-in role groups. These appear in Active Directory as Universal Security Groups, but assigning folks into these groups is actually handled through the Exchange Management Shell (EMS) via PowerShell cmdlets or the Exchange Control Panel, which is a new Web-based method of administration for Exchange 2010. Whereas the 3 or 4 administration groups were fitting for their time, these 11 groups make greater sense when you think about the complexity that Exchange brings with it. In some cases, these groups are not for admins only but can be delegated to users who can perform job functions or roles within Exchange as a result.

One example is the Discovery Management role group. Assigning users into this group allows them to use the Exchange Control Panel to perform searches through mailboxes for specific criteria, such as to assist with litigation that would call for discovery compliance.

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