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Authorization in Rails: Gems and Best Practices

Authorization in the context of web applications can be defined as the process of determining what actions a particular user is allowed to perform and what data they are allowed to interact with. This holds true for applications built using Ruby on Rails, a popular web development framework.

Armed with robust features, Rails provides a suitable environment to enforce different levels of authorization, making it a secure choice for web application development.

The Role of Ruby Gems in Rails Authorization

Ruby gems play an essential role in Rails authorization. Gems like Devise, OmniAuth, Pundit, CanCanCan, and JWT are commonly used tools to implement and manage authorization. These gems provide developers with ready-made solutions that help reduce the complexity involved in creating an authorization system from scratch.

Devise and OmniAuth for Multi-provider Authentication

Devise is a widely-used gem that offers an MVC (Model, View, Controller) solution, providing a framework to add authentication to multiple models, make controller actions for login and logout, and generate all necessary routes related to sign-in/sign-out functionality.

On the other hand, OmniAuth works as a flexible authentication tool that enables multi-provider authentication, like login through Google or Facebook. Deciding between the two largely depends on the individual use case of your application.

JWT for Secure Information Transfer

JWT (JSON Web Token) connects comfortably with authorization, offering a compact and secure way to transmit data between parties as a JSON object.

Commonly used in combination with Devise and Pundit/CanCanCan, it provides a robust schema for handling authorization in Rails.

Applying Authorization in Rails Applications

Having discussed the tools at your disposal for Rails authorization, let’s break down how you may apply these tools to your Rails application. Emphasis will be on real-world application, with practical examples showcasing the application of these concepts.

Implementing Role-based Authorization

The idea behind role-based authorization is quite straightforward: you assign roles to users (e.g., admin, editor, viewer) and define the resources each role can access. By checking the user’s assigned role when a request is made, the application can decide whether to grant or deny access.

You may refer to the RailsApps tutorial on authorization (railsapps.github.io) for detailed examples.

Implementing Pundit and CanCanCan

Besides authentication, ensuring appropriate authorization is crucial. Gems like Pundit and CanCanCan can be handy here.

Pundit adopts the notion of policy classes (a list of methods specifying who can do what). For example, for a Post object, you would have a PostPolicy.

On the other hand, CanCanCan restricts the resources a user can access, effectively managing all authorizations. It is based on Ability classes where all the access rules are defined.

Both these gems are simple and straightforward to use, especially when dealing with a small number of domain objects.

Dealing with Complexity

If you’re building an application with complex authorization requirements, it’s a good idea to consult with experienced developers. It would be advisable not to rely solely on role-based authorization for complex applications. Using Pundit and CanCanCan can help organize and centralize access rules.

Best Practices and Potential Pitfalls

While implementing Rails authorization, one must adhere to certain best practices to ensure an optimal level of security for user data.

The Principle of Least Privilege

This principle states that a user should have the minimum levels of access needed to perform their functions. This reduces the potential damage that can be caused by accidents, errors, or malicious actions.

Data Leakage

Failure to properly implement authorization can lead to “data leakage,” where unauthorized users gain access to sensitive information. Always triple-check the permission levels to avoid this potential pitfall.

Maintaining User Sessions Securely

Sessions are used in web applications to persist the user’s identity. However, if poorly managed, malicious users can hijack these sessions, gaining unauthorized access to a user’s account.

Session cookies should be marked ‘secure’ to reduce this risk. You can check out this previous article on Implementing Authentication in Rails for more information.


In summary, we discussed the importance of implementing proper authorization in Rails applications, the tools you can deploy in the form of Ruby gems, best practices, and potential pitfalls to avoid when dealing with Rails authorization.

Understanding and implementing these concepts properly will help you build a secure and efficient web application in Rails.

Stay tuned for the next article in this series, to delve even further into the world of Ruby on Rails.


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