Drupal Role Hierarchy

Drupal has a robust and modular permission system. You create roles, give permissions to roles and assign users one or more roles. The modules that give the site different functionalities define the permissions and use the user_access() function to ask Drupal if the current user has a specific permission. To clarify how Drupal manages permissions lets set an example:

We have a very basic site that uses the taxonomy module, this module lets users categorize the content.  Lets say we have a user called john assigned a role called Editor. Drupal uses a static variable called $perm, this variable is an array of the different permissions the current logged in user has. When we execute user_access Drupal only checks if the $perm array contains the permission we send as a parameter.

The taxonomy module only defines one permission called “Administer taxonomy”, if the Editor role has this permission then john’s $perm variable will include the string “Administer taxonomy”.  When we try to access the administer taxonomy page the taxonomy module will call the user_access function sending ‘Administer taxonomy’ as the parameter. If we log in as john the function will return true and we will be able to access that page. This is a very simple example and will meet all the requirements a basic site needs because these kind of sites usually just have one or two editors.

When developing sites that are managed by more people the permissions need to be handled in a more complex way. We wish we could have a hierarchy of roles so that permissions can be inherited and we can move roles around the hierarchy tree just like we can with taxonomy terms. This is not a feature that Drupal has out of the box. Drupal only has two levels in their core role hierarchy and the permissions are inherited throughout these roles. Some of you that have used Drupal long enough know this already. The first level of Drupal roles are the default core Drupal roles that cannot be edited or removed: Anonymous and Authenticated. Any new role created will be created as child of the authenticated role and permissions given to this role will be inherited automatically by any new role created.

I’m yet to find a module that lets the administrator handle the roles in a hierarchical way and I believe the reason for this is because Drupal does not implement the db_sql_rewrite function when pulling permissions. This means that no other modules can rewrite the query that Drupal uses when loading the permissions. Want this in your site?? A module is on its way with it’s corresponding patch file.

This just started development and it will be available in the community in a short time. But just so you know, this change has also been suggested for Drupal 7 tho I am not sure if its going to be considered.

Download the Performance Tuning Drupal ebook.