Jon Allured

Computer Programmer, Whiskey Drinker, Comic Book Reader

Using Devise for Admin Accounts

published Saturday, April 30, 2011

I use Devise on almost every Rails project I work on and wanted to share some things I've learned about using it - specifically, how I use it for Admin accounts. Devise is a gem that creates user models and handles all the authentication that goes along with them. It also does things like password retrieval and account confirmations and it does all this in a very friendly, modular way where you can pick which parts your app needs. The team working on it has done a fabulous job with not only the code but also the documentation. I can't recommend it highly enough or thank them enough for what they've contributed to the Rails community.

One thing you'll probably run into while building a typical app using this gem is needing a way to protect screens so that only administrators can get to them. Many CRUD screens, reports and anything related to the content are all prime candidates to get some admin love. There's a page on the Devise wiki explaining two techniques you can use to create Admin accounts and you should start by reading that.

You Really Need an Admin Model

The two techniques described are:

There are always exceptions and I'm glad they mention the second approach, but I find it completely unrealistic. Your project doesn't have to get very complicated before you'll wish that you had your own model.

Its clean to start with something like if current_user.admin? and I think that clarity and the ease of just running a quick migration could be attractive to someone starting out, but its not long before you find yourself with a mess like this:

if current_user.admin? and !current_user.reports_only? and current_user.edit_content?

My advice is to take the plunge and do an Admin model right off the bat. You might feel like its a waste, like its more than you need, but if requirements change (don't they always?) and a little more complexity is introduced, you'll be glad you have a separate model.

You Might Need a Permission Library

This piece talks about light permission needs - I'm talking about like three cases here, nothing crazy. If you have really complicated permission needs, you'll want to pursue other options, something like CanCan. There's even a page on the Devise wiki to help you get started, so check that out.

But here, we're just talking about basic permission needs.

Different Kinds of Admin

Its just going to happen, you're going to end up with different kinds of Admin accounts. It happens because there will be people that should have access to one thing but not another. You'll have people in the Marketing department that need to edit content, but they shouldn't see your CRUD screens for managing User objects or maybe you've got raw scaffold pages for some objects that expose ids or something like that.

You'll have someone from Accounting that just needs to run a report every month or a manager that wants to see a list of new accounts and they shouldn't be let anywhere near content, not to mention your screens.

You'll continue to create screens that are easier than the command line for things you do frequently and you aren't going to want anyone messing around in there besides people that know what they are doing.

You could create a different Devise user type of each of these, but I find that approach ends up being too much. And when there are overlaps about who can see what, its weird to code. Before we move on, lets summarize:

Generating Your Admin

This is the Rails Generator command I use:

$ rails g devise Admin god_mode:boolean reports_only:boolean

I use god_mode to indicate that its me or another programmer and I use reports_only to indicate a user that shouldn't be editing stuff, just running reports. If an Admin has false for both of these then they are the normal Admin that can edit content and run reports but don't have access to programmer stuff. Easy.

The Admin Model

The suggestion from the wiki is to use the :trackable, :timeoutable and :lockable modules, which I think its too much, but review each and see what's right for your project. Choices like this are what's great about Devise - if you have a need for these things, then you can easily mix them in.

But for me, I end up with a model that looks like this:

class Admin < ActiveRecord::Base
  devise :database_authenticatable, :rememberable
  attr_accessible :email, :password, :password_confirmation, :god_mode, :reports_only

So, I do add the :rememberable module because I like it and more importantly the Marketing and Accounting people like it.

I think its important to point out something here: we're not including the :registerable module, which means routes like /admins/sign_up aren't going to work. This is one of the ways you are protecting yourself. Admin accounts can only be created from the command line with a command like:

>> Admin.create(:email => '', :password => 'shhhhh', :god_mode => true, :reports_only => false)</code></pre>

The Admin Migration

Almost there, but before we run the migration that the Generator created for us, the wiki guides us to remove a few things. I like to add defaults for the two booleans, so my migration looks like this:

class DeviseCreateAdmins < ActiveRecord::Migration
  def self.up
    create_table(:admins) do |t|
      t.database_authenticatable :null => false
      t.boolean :god_mode, :default => false
      t.boolean :reports_only, :default => false

  def self.down
    drop_table :admins

With your migration updated, you should be all set to run a rake db:migrate and then go to the console and create an Admin account for yourself.

You Will Need Views

Just a couple more things to finish. I like to go verify that Devise added the route correctly and actually I usually end up shifting things around because I like to see the Admin route right next to the User route. Not a big deal, just make sure everything's cool in your routes.rb file.

Next its time to talk about views. Lets assume you're reading this before you implement, that'll mean that you haven't generated any views yet and you can issue a command like this:

$ rails g devise:views admins

The Devise README covers this under the aptly named Configuring Views heading - go read all the juicy details. What you want is for all your User views to live under /app/views/users and all your Admin views to live under /app/views/admins.

If you are reading this while in the middle of development and you've already generated views for your User model, they will be under /app/views/devise, but that's ok, you can still issue the above command and you'll get your Admin views under /app/views/admins - just remember where each set of views lives and you'll be all good.

Now Use It

The obvious way to use all this is to add the default Devise before filter:

before_filter :authenticate_admin!

Any controller protected that way will redirect to the sign in page unless an Admin is logged in. You can always use either the only or the except keywords to pick out controller actions that aren't Admin only. This level of protection lets Marketing, Accounting and you all in.

For your stuff you could add another before filter like this:

before_filter :ensure_god_mode

def ensure_god_mode
  redirect_to admin_root_path unless current_admin.god_mode?

That'll make sure only you and your fellow programmers have access.

For the Accounting people, I tend to use a different approach. For them, I end up blocking things at the view level. I'll have an Admin dashboard kind of page that lists things Admin can do and this is how I block them:

<p>Here are the things you can do:</p>
  <li>[something every admin can do]</li>
  <% unless current_admin.reports_only %>
  <li>[something business people shouldn't mess with, maybe a link to edit content?]</li>
  <% end %>
  <li>[another thing any admin can do, maybe a report?]</li>

There are lots of ways to use your Admin model and the booleans, theses are just a couple patterns I've seen myself using.

One Last Fun Thing

Hopefully these notes will help someone figure out how to create Admin accounts that work for their project, I know I've been happy with this approach. I like to keep things fun with my code, so the last thing I wanted to share is an addition I make to the application layout file:

<%= "<p id=\"godModeNotice\">GOD MODE ACTIVE!</p>".html_safe if current_admin.god_mode? %>

You'll need to tuck it into an if admin_signed_in? block, but it should get a snort of appreciation from the programmer sitting next to you when he sees it. And its fun when normal Admins see it too.