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Caveats: A Scalable Solution for Policy

November 17, 2022|7 min read

Every day, thousands of developers design and build permissions systems into their software. Without knowing it, these developers risk creating a legacy of a bespoke system with siloed data and minimal tooling for maintenance or ensuring correctness. To reduce this risk, Authzed is building every developer's dream suite of authorization tooling. At the core of this toolchain is SpiceDB, the premier solution for implementing fine-grained permissions. SpiceDB takes inspiration from state of the art internal systems at Google and Facebook. But unlike these proprietary systems, SpiceDB is built as an open source collaboration with our community.

When we open-sourced SpiceDB in 2021, it had already seen a year of production usage. Our team has a strong background of operating critical systems at companies like Google, Amazon, and Red Hat, so we knew the importance running the software you build and aiming for a high level of maturity early in a project's development. While that meant SpiceDB launched as a phenomenal solution for a wide variety of use cases, it also meant that it couldn't handle all of the use cases our community would eventually throw at us.

Taken ABAC

After engaging with the community for a few months, we began researching the ideal way to represent permission systems modeling ABAC in SpiceDB. Attribute-Based Access Control is a design pattern for permission systems that gates access by excluding or including entities based on the presence of particular label known as an attribute. Because SpiceDB is a relationship-based system, we could try to represent attributes as relationships using a schema such as this:

definition user {}
definition attribute { 
  relation haver: user

With these definitions, you could write a relationship that assigns user:emilia to be a haver of attribute:superadmin. An example of using these relationships could look like the following:

definition document {
  relation shared_with: user
  relation required_admin_attrs: attribute
  permission admin = shared_with & required_admin_attrs->haver

This definition of the admin permission performs an intersection between the users a document has been shared with and the users that have the attributes required. But there's a problem here and it's not just that intersections are slower than other operations: we've actually written an expression that returns the users that have any of the attributes and not all of the attributes. This limitation led to some interesting discussion (and hilarious syntax bike-shedding on the SpiceDB Discord) and a proposal on GitHub to add new syntax. As of the writing of this blog post, this proposal has not been implemented in SpiceDB. While we're exploring to implementing this proposal, we realized that this functionality alone isn't sufficient to completely implement all ABAC designs.

What's our policy on Policy?

Those diligent few that have already read Wikipedia's article on ABAC before proceeding may have already spoiled the big reveal. While assigning labels to objects is a convenient way to conceptualize ABAC, in actuality, attributes are formally defined as boolean functions. And, in practice, there are a variety of systems that need these boolean functions to be dynamic policies. Examples of dynamic policies include things like "during these hours", "with an IP addresses in this subnet", or "while the account balance is greater than 0".

If you're familiar with existing authorization tooling, your first intuition might be to see if you could leverage an existing policy engine alongside SpiceDB. While it is trivial to call SpiceDB's HTTP API from most policy engines, they are not a viable solution for every SpiceDB user. SpiceDB has a philosophy of being able to enforce data consistency when necessary in a truly horizontally scalable fashion. While not all applications require consistency or scalability, for the users that discover they have these requirements, SpiceDB's philosophy allows to avoid re-architecting their entire security critical authorization toolchain and instead simply adopt zedtokens only where appropriate.

In January of 2022, our co-founder Jake hit upon an idea: what if we could combine the best aspects of policies with the power of relationship-based access control. Shortly after, he opened a proposal for a scalable implementation of policy called "caveated relationships".

What's the caveat?

Caveats are functions that are defined in a SpiceDB schema using Google's CEL. CEL is a powerful and familiar-looking expression language that is, importantly, not Turing-complete. This limitation is actually a very desirable feature for not only our use case but others such as validating resources in Kubernetes. By using CEL, SpiceDB tooling can guarantee performance by statically evaluating a caveat definition and bounding its execution time. This avoids a common pitfall for large deployments of policy engines where it's difficult to discover and avoid introducing slow policies. I can almost already hear someone shouting "What about WebAssembly?" off in the distance... but while it's a promising emerging technology, it actually suffers from the same issues plaguing policy languages: too much rope with which to hang yourself.

A caveat is defined in a SpiceDB schema:

caveat only_on_tuesday(day_of_week string) {
  day_of_week == 'tuesday'

Requests that check permissions (e.g. CheckPermission, LookupResources, LookupSubjects) and write relationships can provide a context which is a set of key-value pairs that are the named parameters passed to the caveats encountered while processing the request. Here's an example of a CheckPermissionRequest providing such a context.

CheckPermissionRequest {
    resource: ObjectReference {
        object_type: 'document'
        object_id: 'somedocument'
    permission: 'view'
    subject: SubjectReference{
        object: ObjectReference {
            object_type: 'user'
            object_id: 'fred'

    context: google.protobuf.Struct {
        'day_of_the_week': 'thursday'

Requests that do not provide the required context yield a response that details which fields are missing to fully compute the permission. Admitting when a permission is unable to be determined is a testament to our dedication to safety by default -- remember we're here to develop security critical systems.

What's best of all is that caveats are designed leverage SpiceDB's distributed caching layer. SpiceDB caches the caveat expressions themselves, so that it can instantly determine what needs to be executed for a particular request. With this, our goal to maintaining properties of scale and latency is met for schemas using caveats.

Boldly Go

The team at Authzed couldn't be happier about where the community has landed with caveats. There's truly nothing else out there like it. We've got a bunch of ideas for how to use them to power our own services like SpiceDB Dedicated, which we, of course, secure by using SpiceDB.

I want to especially thank all those that collaborated in the design of caveats. We had a ton of fun conversations where folks described their use cases and requirements and each and perspective was carefully considered throughout the process of designing caveats. Without you there would not be caveats.

After so much discussion and design, we're crazy excited to get this functionality into the hands of our users. Our next step is to add support for caveats into all of our development tooling, so keep your eyes out for an updated playground. Caveats are a game-changer for those building secure, expressive permission systems that scale.

Additional Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about Authorization and Google Zanzibar, we recommend reading the following posts:

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