Django Permissions System Issues

By | October 17, 2009

In a recent post I bashed Django’s url handling as being too complex. In this one I’m going to bash (with a great deal of respect) the permission system. Before I do this, I want to state one thing unequivocally:

I love Django. It’s incredibly powerful, and most of the time it makes complex stuff simple, and trivial stuff easy. I don’t believe there is a web framework out there that is more suitable for most of the tasks I need to do (I use extensively for some of those exceptions). But Django has issues (usually based in over-engineering: the primary pest of Python programming), and my goal is to remind people not to assume that just because something is the “proper” way to do things in Django does not mean it is the proper way to do it in Python.

The Django permissions system works extremely well in this scenario: You have a bunch of different tasks related to models (usually add, edit, and delete, which Django kindly automatically creates for every model you create) that you want to allow different people to be able to do, based on the type of model. You can classify permissions into groups, such that different groups have specific access to different types of models. Then you can add users to those groups. But if you want to fine-tune permissions on a user-by-user basis, you are free to do so.

This model is great for broadcast sites like blogs and news sites (the original problem domain for which Django was designed). But when you have interactive sites where users can log in, it fails drastically because it lacks row level permissions. I can’t use the Django permission system to ensure that a user can only modify posts they created, and not the posts of their mortal enemy on another account.

That’s a well-known beef with the Django permissions system, and there are various work-arounds available. In this case, however, Django fails to make a complex task simple.

But that’s not my main beef with Django’s permissions.

Most of the specs I receive seem to classify users into groups, similar to the Django concept of groups. Certain groups are able to do certain things. But my specs don’t generally define the permissions so well. They usually associate groups with views. Group A can access View B, Group B can access Views C and D. This is a much coarser grain of control than Django permissions.

The Django permission system supports this. All I have to do is figure out which permissions are active in any given view and ensure that those permissions are required (Django gives me a nice decorator to do this) to access the view. Then I just need to make sure each group of users have exactly the permissions they require to access those views.

What? That’s all I have to do? In practice, that is even more complicated than it sounds. I need to define fixtures for the groups (which sometimes fail since we’re dealing with content types here, and they don’t cooperate with fixtures) so that end users don’t have to go mucking with permissions. It’s easy to overlook a permission in a group or in a view, which makes it impossible for a group of users to access a view they’re supposed to be able to access. Worse, it’s also easy to add a permission to a group that shouldn’t have it. With n3 (n is the number of models) or more permissions, it’s really easy to get confused.

My solution to date has been to write a whole passel of tests to ensure that exactly the right people are accessing exactly the right views. That’s a good thing, of course. Lots of tests always is. The disturbing thing is how many of those tests fail when I write them. If I overlooked any tests, there are probably outstanding permission bugs. That could be a simple annoyance when a user can’t log in, or a blatant security hole when an anonymous user manages to access (or worse: modify) data meant to be private.

In this case, Django is failing to make a simple task trivial.

Over time, I’ve started “cutting corners” to save time. Instead of checking individual permissions, I set my views up to check which groups the user is in. This obviously doesn’t give me as much control, but it is working at an abstraction level suitable to the task. If I suddenly need more control over permissions, I can easily fall back on Django’s permissions system. I’ve realized that my “cutting corners” is actually “writing less complicated, easier to maintain, more Pythonic code.” Having realized this, I’ll probably write a few extra auth decorators like @group_required to simplify my code.

In summary, while the Django permissions system is best of class for it’s intended purpose, it does not extend adequately to more complicated tasks (row-level permissions), nor does it simplify elegantly to cover more trivial tasks (group-level permissions).

2 thoughts on “Django Permissions System Issues

  1. Rob

    > Over time, I’ve started “cutting corners” to save time. Instead of checking individual permissions, I set my views up to check which groups the user is in…
    > …I’ve realized that my “cutting corners” is actually “writing less complicated, easier to maintain, more Pythonic code.”

    I don’t really think that it’s cutting corners. From the docs []

    “Groups are a generic way of categorizing users so you can apply permissions, or some other label, to those users.”

    You’re just using the system the way that it was designed to be used


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