Interview with Sam Scott
CTO, Oso - Declarative application authorization framework.
What is Oso? Why did you build it?
Before Oso I did a PhD in cryptography at Royal Holloway in London where I focussed on the applied use of cryptography. This involved solving hard problems with novel cryptography, for example, key management and password storage. When I came out of that PhD program, I had lofty ideas of how I was going to use my research in the industry!
When I started speaking to companies and engineers and understanding what problems they’re struggling with, I realized that the academic research was beyond what people were actually encountering on a day-to-day basis. I was seeing a lot of problems that are considered solved problems in academia. The problems developers were still facing basically came down to tooling.
One day I was trying to do something that on the surface was somewhat easy: I wanted an encrypted token in NodeJS. I went looking through the libraries and found four different crypto APIs. You needed a PhD to know which is the right one to use! I thought: ‘that’s terrible,’ which led me to Oso.
Oso is both the name of the company and the product. The company is focussed on putting security into the hands of developers. This has been our vision since day one – to build developer tooling for security that feels like an extension of how developers already think and work. The Oso product is a batteries-included framework for authorization. It allows you to express who can do what in your application, but we do most of the thinking and legwork for you.
My co-founder and I spoke to hundreds of engineering teams. Authorization came up again and again as the problem that people would reinvent themselves from scratch. Everyone would build it in their apps with custom code, and understandably would not make the best choices along the way. After a while, they’d end up having to refactor the system and redo the whole thing, becoming this incredibly time-consuming thing for engineering teams. A number of well-known engineering teams have actually started to write about their experiences doing this recently – like Airbnb, Slack, Carta and Intuit.
This is an important part of any product that gives people access to things and stops people from having access to stuff they’re not supposed to, but it’s not really anyone’s core business offering. No one makes money from having good authorization, but it can be an important thing to get right.
The Oso core is written in Rust but developers interact with the features via a library: currently Java, NodeJS, Python, Ruby, Go, or Rust. It’s super quick to get started with, giving you a very simple API for authorization. Immediately it tells you how to think about authorization: Who is the user, what are they trying to do, and what are they trying to do it to. In our latest 0.20 release we added built-in APIs for enforcing authorization at different layers in your app. And we bake in all the things you need to do when you’re building authorization into your app, which is more than most people think. This includes data modeling and implementing common patterns like roles, relationships, hierarchies, things like that. In our 0.20 release, we added built-in authorization primitives for all these patterns, so you can just apply them as needed to your app. The objective is that you shouldn’t have to think about how to set these things up.
All of this is built on a declarative policy language called Polar. The reason for this is to ensure that you can customize Oso. It is all very extensible. If you need anything that we don’t support out of the box, we have the policy language there for flexibility. One of the main things a lot of developers are worried about when choosing something like this is “How will it handle this or that scenario?” We spent a lot of time making sure we can be the “Forever Framework.”
As a developer it allows you to focus on building your application. What do I want my application to do? Who should have access to what? These are the fun problems like ‘This person needs to have this role in an organization, which allows them to see these resources.’
Why did you choose Rust for the core engine?
When we started, we wanted a consistent experience across any language, so we looked for something that could be embedded in other languages. At that point we were looking at something that supports a C-style API, which meant we had limited options.
The core benefits that Rust offers, whether security, speed and concurrency, are phenomenal and work very well for security-sensitive, performance-critical situations like authorization. It’s on every request and you don’t want it to have vulnerabilities.
Personally, I think Rust is a fantastic language. The learning curve is kind of steep but the developer experience is fantastic, especially around how it does things like package management, linting, and testing. All that is incredibly well done.
I started using Rust five or six years ago. When we started building the company two and a half years ago, picking Rust was a somewhat riskier choice than it would be today. The adoption it has since received from all the big companies (Amazon has gone huge in Rust), made me feel somewhat validated about the choice we made.
What does a “day in the life” look like?
As CTO I wear many different hats. Typically my time is split between leading and managing the team. I check-in with people, seeing where they’re at on their various projects, and help unblock them - reviewing code etc.. Otherwise, I’ll be in meetings with my co-founder or the team talking about where Oso is going.
We’re currently working on our next three month roadmap. I could be in meetings with potential customers, building demos for those customers, engaging with people from the community on Slack and helping troubleshoot problems. I’ve also given lots of meetup talks recently, trying to get the word out about Oso. There’s no one same day, but the themes are consistent.
Are you still doing a lot of coding?
Given the busy nature of my schedule it’s hard for me to be a blocking concern on anything. If anything depends on me to happen, then it’s in massive risk of it not happening! I’m trying to do more speculative proof of concept work that doesn’t need to get shipped.
What is the team structure around Oso?
We’re ten people, soon to be eleven – growing to 30 over the next 12 to 18 months. Two co-founders, one person in community marketing, one in recruiting, and the remaining folks are all engineers. We actually just hired our first engineer who started out as an Oso user, so that’s cool. We’re pretty flat right now, although one of the engineers is moving into a manager role as we start growing. The thing I love about our engineering team is that we currently share all responsibilities - product management, product ideas, engagement with the community, getting feedback, it is all shared.
Building a developer-first product, it makes sense that the developers themselves are engaged in that process, because these are the peers that they’re interacting with and trying to get feedback on what to build. That’s a really nice thing about building a developer tool or developer-focused product, it’s effectively building something that you yourself would want. We’re growing a lot, and hiring for technical and non-technical roles.
How did you first get into software development?
I think this has got to be a common story across developers. I was fresh out of school and had a data-entry job that was super tedious. I’d spend my entire Monday basically copy and pasting Excel columns around. I thought, there’s got to be a better way and someone pointed me towards VB Macros. This was a way to get into programming, but maybe not the best one! I started automating my Monday, and it just became: click a button, let it run for an hour and go get a cup of coffee.
Luckily my employer didn’t fire me on the spot, because I had just made myself redundant. Instead, they suggested I talk to some of the engineers at the company who helped me get set up with SQL and things like that.
Why did you decide to do your PhD in cryptography?
I did maths as an undergraduate. It was an area that I always enjoyed. The problem solving nature of it appealed to me, but I was always looking to do something more practical or applied around it. I first started getting interested in number theory and then randomly got pointed in the direction of cryptography. I read a book by Simon Singh where he gives a nice history on cryptography. I was immediately hooked. I started doing cryptography coding challenges on the side, which ultimately pushed me down this path.
I ended up doing a master’s in cryptography and then following it with a PhD. I started out very much on the maths side of cryptography, focussed on post-quantum cryptography, lattice-based algorithms and number theoretical things, but my desire was to do something more applied. I want to solve problems, so I ended up moving towards that end of cryptography as part of my PhD. I ultimately ended up doing an internship at Mozilla and working on the TLS specification.
What is the most interesting development challenge you’ve faced working on Oso?
Some of the work I did at Mozilla on TLS involved formal proofs, so maybe one day we will build that into Oso. AWS is taking that approach to prove that their IAM system does the right thing, like ensuring that nobody can access your S3 buckets. But that’s more long term. Right now, what we’re solving is focussed on the developer’s experience, making the product as easy as possible to use. Many people aren’t aware that authorization is a problem that can be solved by a product. They’re used to it being built into an app as part of the regular code. Not many people are necessarily looking for something that solves it. In the same way that everyone knows you’re not going to build your own database, you’re going to immediately go and look for a database and find which one’s the right fit. You might not do that with authorization.
That being said, there are also some more challenging technical problems at Oso. We recently added support for filtering data down to what a user can see based on the policy. To make this happen, we made it possible for our language to return a set of constraints instead of just yes/no answers. We originally built this in a way that was tied to ORMs, but starting in Oso 0.20, you can hook up Oso to any data source to do this kind of authorization over collections.
Normally when we execute an Oso policy, we pass in a specific object from your
app – e.g., the thing you’re trying to access – and see if, based on the policy,
you have access. When running data filtering, we execute the policy, but instead
of passing in a specific object we pass in an unbound variable. When we evaluate
expressions with an unbound variable, we record all the logic that we need to
evaluate later. We translate these logical expressions into questions that we
can ask the app to get data that matches. We do this by building something
FilterPlan, which turns the logical expressions into a list of steps
that have to be done to resolve the query, kind of like how a SQL database turns
a SQL query into a QueryPlan.
We’ll be writing a bunch of internals posts this fall, but in the meantime, our data filtering docs give a decent description of the process.
What is the most interesting tech you are playing around with at the moment?
I’ve been having lots of fun with GraphQL and the surrounding ecosystem. GraphQL is a schema specification tool to expose an API to various services or front ends. It has a declarative language (a schema language) to query that API and allow you to get just the data you care about, and choose precisely what fields, and what data you want to get back from it.
Oso and GraphQL are like peanut butter and chocolate because of how easily you can plug them together. GraphQL is really just another API, like REST or a RPC API might be. Authorization is a business logic concern that fits in the middle between something like a SQLAlchemy ORM and the output in the form of GraphQL.
There’s no GraphQL-native solution to authorization, but if you put Oso in the middle, now you now have this rich, expressive API where all data is filtered by what permissions the user has, and the user can only get precisely what data they are allowed to get. You end up with this incredibly powerful, expressive API with strong authorization and fine-grained authorization. It’s a very nice interplay of some of those technologies.
Describe your hardware setup
I had a desktop at home that I’d always SSH into from my laptop so I could work from anywhere. Now, I work generally on my desktop.
My laptop is a Dell XPS, dual-booted - Windows and Linux. I used to be a ThinkPad fan. I had a lovely ThinkPad that was my best friend, but after it broke, I didn’t want to carry around three tonnes of laptop anymore.
Lastly, I have to have some form of tiling window manager. On Linux it was xmonad. I feel someone dared me to install it because I told them how Haskell was impractical. Nothing uses Haskell in real life. I was young and naive and they were like, “What do you mean? There’s a window manager.” I installed it as a joke then fell in love with it.
Windows has reasonable support built-in. If you have multiple desktops and then Windows’ Tab and arrow keys will switch you between desktops. Desktop one is browser, desktop two is editor, desktop three is terminal. Switching between them is super fast. That is important for me as I have so many windows open. I hate alt-tabbing between things trying to find which one’s up. Knowing I need to go right to get to my editor, right twice gets my terminal and it will be there. That’s a must have for me.
Mouse: The mouse I use is a Roccat. Again, I got it because they had nice Linux driver support, though this is not much of an issue now.
Keyboard: It’s a standard Logitech K120 keyboard, that is halfway between a laptop and a mechanical keyboard. It’s a softer press, but it still has proper keys. I bounce between desktop and laptop a lot, and it acts as a good middle ground switching between the two. If you go from a proper mechanical keyboard to a laptop with no give at all, it’s horrible. This kind of gives me a proper keyboard, but I’m not going to become useless on my laptop afterwards.
Describe your software setup
OS: I am somewhat begrudgingly on Windows as my main operating system. Although, I mostly did that for compatibility with various video communication tools that wouldn’t have worked from my Linux machine in the past. I’ve found that the Windows development experience with the Windows Subsystem Linux 2, and with VS Code is pretty amazing. I’m a bit of a convert to that setup.
If I’m full-time Linux, Arch is my go-to. I fell in love with Arch because whenever I was doing anything Linux related, ArchWiki would be where I’d go for any troubleshooting. I decided it would be easier to be on Arch. I loved Arch with its rolling updates, and enjoyed always having the cutting edge version of things. It was a nice balance of customization. They give you a fairly bare bones set-up, but not Linux from scratch. You get to build up what you want on top of it.
IDE: VS Code.
Source control: Git and GitHub.
Describe your desk setup
My desk setup is a little monitor propped up on a box. I got myself a nice Herman Miller chair a few months ago, because I was getting some terrible shoulder and neck pain. The chair has really helped with this. My current work from home hack has been moving our dining table right up to the window and working on my laptop there, so I get plenty of sunlight in the winter.
Daytime or nighttime? Nighttime. I love coding between midnight and 4:00 AM but rarely do this any more because it ruins my sleep patterns!
Tea or coffee? Both. Coffee in the morning and then multiple cups of tea during the day.
Silence or music? Music.
What non-tech activities do you like to do?
I stopped doing it recently because quarantine got too bad in New York, but I love climbing. It seems I share that hobby with a lot of other programmers. I enjoy indoor climbing and bouldering.
Find out more
Oso is a declarative application authorization framework. It was originally featured as an “Interesting Tool” in the Console newsletter on 18 Feb 2021. The 0.20 release was featured again on 15 Sep 2021. This interview was originally conducted on 23 Feb 2021, but updated on 15 Sep 2021.
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