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Q: How does one assign access/viewing rights to specific sets of data?

For example: User A is a member of the HR department. Users in the HR Department are allowed to see all employees, and their details, but not any of the salary information. User B is a manager of the development department. User B is permitted to see salary information for all users that work for her, but is not permitted to see salary information for her bosses or anyone in another department and can't see HIPAA information under any circumstances. Both receive a link to the report to view, and each sees different information.

BIRT provides several features to support such a security model. The first step is to define your security key. BIRT is designed to be part of a J2EE server. Let's suppose that your J2EE session provides a user ID and security group. You'd access these in BIRT through scripting. (We're working out the exact details of how scripting will gain access to the J2EE session.) Let's call these userID and groupID.

Next, we have to implement the actual security. There are a number of choices.

  • The easiest is run-time row-level security. Use the userID or groupID to parameterize your WHERE clause. The report would only show those rows to which the user has access.
  • The next case is column-level security: hide certain columns from certain users. This is the kind of security in your use case.

There are two ways to implement column security: run time or view time.

  • Run-time security works well for on-demand reports, or reports that only one user will see. We control the data that goes into the report, then we show that data at view time.
  • View-time security let's us create one report shared by all users, then tailor the display depending on who is viewing the report.

Let's tackle run-time security. BIRT supports the idea of a computed column. The value of the column can be computed using any arbitrary JavaScript expression. We create a computed column whose value is either the column you want to show (if the userID or groupID matches some attribute of the row) or null if the user does not have permission. Null values will appear blank in the report.

For the salary, suppose that each employee is assigned to a department (deptID) and the user session identifies the department (if any) that the user manages: mgrDept. Your computed column contains the salary if deptID == mgrDept, and null otherwise.

To implement view-time security, associate the security with the report item that shows the column. In your use case, associate the data item with the report item that shows the salary column. BIRT has a visibility expression that determines when the item should appear. Use the user information to determine whether the salary report item should be visible or not for any given user.

Release 1 supports only on-demand reports: the person who runs the report is the only person who can view the report. Hence, both run-time and view-time security produce the same visual result. Later, when reports can be stored, the difference between run-time and view-time security will be critical.

You can expand these techniques for other kinds of customization. You can include entire subreports based on the run-time user. For example, a boss gets a salary history for each employee in his department, but not for employees in other departments.

And, these techniques work for non-security cases. For example, perhaps you have a bug report that has options for "summary", "normal" and "detailed". The user sets a report parameter with one of these choices. Based on this parameter, your bug report shows different kinds of information. If summary, only bug numbers & titles appear. If normal, then, say, bug number, title, description, owner and status appear. If detailed, then the report also includes comments, change history, and so on.

If you really want to go wild, you can even completely customize the report before it runs. You can implement a method that will rewrite the XML file. For example, the bug report above could provide lots of parameters for "include owner?", "include history?", "include comments?", "layout type" and so on. Based on this, you can generate a new XML design file on-the-fly for a customized report. This is the file that the Engine will run. Sounds complicated, but it can be a handy way to implement a highly customizable report.

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