[security-dev] IDM Realms and Applications - The Nitty Gritty

Shane Bryzak sbryzak at redhat.com
Tue Nov 13 19:26:49 EST 2012

I'd like to go through the proposed design for Realms and Applications 
in detail, as this is quite an important feature to get right and we all 
need to be on the same page with this before we proceed.

To start with the basics, let's look at the relationship between Realms 
and Applications:

Realms and Applications

Each realm is a totally segregated "island" of identity state, with no 
crossover of state between the realms.  Applications, Users, Groups and 
Roles only exist within the scope of their containing realm.  Realms are 
top level constructs, and due to reasons of complexity and practicality 
we don't support a Realm "hierarchy"; i.e. there are no Realms within 

Let's take a look next at how Users and Groups fit into this:

Users and Groups

All User and Group objects are first class citizens within a Realm. If 
we think of this in terms of the corporate model, a company may be 
represented by a single Realm, with its employees as Users.  Each 
department and sub-division could be represented as a Group, with Users 
(employees) belonging to one or more of these Groups.  There is also a 
hierarchy for Groups, which allows greater flexibility in defining the 
company structure.  Let's take a closer look at how this structure is 

User and Group Memberships

Each User can be a member of zero or more Groups, while each Group may 
be a subgroup of one parent Group.

Let's take a look at Roles next.  While both Users and Groups sit at the 
top level of the Realm, Roles are all application specific:


Each Application may define zero or more Roles, each of which may be 
used within the scope of the Application's authorization rules to 
determine the appropriate privilege levels for Users.  Roles may be 
granted to either a User or a Group, as illustrated by the following 

User and Group Roles

Each role may be granted as an Application Role (i.e. a Role membership 
that has no Group component) or as a "standard" Role (which does have a 
Group component).  An Application Role is used to grant broad 
application privileges to a select User or Group, for example you might 
wish to grant an Application-specific "admin" role to all members of the 
"/employees/itdepartment/managers" Group.  A standard role is used when 
you wish to grant a Group-specific privilege to either an individual 
User or a Group of Users, for example granting a User the Role 
"TechSupport" for the Group "/department/cardiology/doctors".

So in summary, PicketLink will support:

1) Realms, which represent top level boundaries of segregated identity 
state, and are arranged in a flat (rather than hierarchical) structure.

2) Applications, which essentially represent a group of services and 

3) Roles, which are specific to an Application and are defined for the 
purpose of controlling access to the services and resources provided by 
the Application.

4) Users, a top level construct within a Realm that represents an entity 
that may access the services and resources provided by one or more 

5) Groups, another type of top level construct within a Realm, arranged 
within a hierarchical structure and that may be used to define broader 
associations of Users and sub-Groups for the purpose of assigning 
coarse-grained privileges to an Application's services and resources.

Impact on Identity Management API
One of the most important factors in implementing support for Realms and 
Applications is the impact on the IDM API.  As a primary goal for 
PicketLink is to provide a simplified API for developers, this support 
must be provided in a manner that doesn't pollute the API with 
unnecessary complexity.  To that end, let's start by looking at the 
simplest use case, in which a developer embeds PicketLink into their own 

Default Realm and Application
To allow for a developer to use PicketLink in the simplest way possible, 
I propose that we introduce the concept of a "default" Realm and 
"default" Application.  By doing this, we can allow the developer to 
simply use the basic PicketLink API without having to be aware of these 
more advanced features.  For example, let's pretend that the developer 
wants to create a new User:

User user = new SimpleUser("jsmith");

If we were forcing the developer to deal with Realms and Applications, 
they would then have to write something like this to create the new User:


However by assuming that an unspecified Realm is the "default" realm, 
the code looks like this:


If the default Realm doesn't exist at the time, it will be created 
automatically (the same goes for the default Application).

Likewise, when creating a new Role:

Role role = new SimpleRole("admin");

The developer would have to write the following code if we didn't 
support a default application:


If we do support a default though, the code looks like this:


As a side note, the above examples are slightly contrived because the 
forRealm() and forApplication() methods wouldn't accept a String (rather 
they'd expect either a Realm or Application object) - this leads us into 
our next point.

Realm and Application Management
To properly support Realms and Applications we will require a number of 
management methods, similar to what we have for Users, Groups and 
Roles.  I propose the addition of the following methods to IdentityManager:

void createRealm(Realm realm);
Realm getRealm(String realm);
void removeRealm(Realm realm);
Collection<Realm> getRealms();

void createApplication(Application application);
Application getApplication(Realm realm, String application);
void removeApplication(Application application);
Collection<Application> getApplications(Realm realm);

This obviously requires the addition of two new classes to the model API 
also, Realm and Application:

public class Realm {
     private String name;
     public Realm(String name) {
         this.name = name;
     public String getName() {
         return name;

public class Application {
     private Realm realm;
     private String name;
     public Application(Realm realm, String name) {
         this.realm = realm;
         this.name = name;
     public Realm getRealm() {
         return realm;
     public String getName() {
         return name;

One other thing I'd like to discuss is usage scenarios, specifically in 
Java EE6 applications.  I'd like to propose that we provide a producer 
method that supports the following form of injection for the 

First of all, injecting an IdentityManager that uses the default Realm 
and default Application (the most common use case for embedded PicketLink):

@Inject IdentityManager identityManager;

Secondly, injecting an IdentityManager for a specific Realm:

@Inject @ForRealm("public") IdentityManager identityManager;

Lastly, injecting an IdentityManager for a specific Application:

@Inject @ForRealm("public") @ForApplication("forums") IdentityManager 

It would also be nice if we could provide support for "configure once", 
where the developer can configure a specific Realm and Application and 
any injected IdentityManager would default to using them.  There's 
probably a few different ways to achieve this, so if anyone has a 
preference please let me know.

This pretty much describes the entire proposal for Realms and 
Applications.  I'd like all stakeholders to please carefully review the 
design, in particular the 5 summary points that describe the 
restrictions of this model.  If we all agree on this, then we should be 
able to release a stable version of the API very shortly.  Some further 
work may be required the bring the configuration and some IdentityStore 
implementation details inline with the new design, but that won't affect 
the API.

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