What are Administrative Rights, Anyway?

Installation and deployment discussions often use the term “admin rights”, as in, admin rights are required for this, or admin rights aren’t required for that. But what are admin rights, really?

The answer is, it depends. For most purposes, admin rights can be loosely defined as being the set of rights granted to either a root user (Linux, Mac OS) or an administrator account (Windows).

Still, that leaves plenty of gray areas. First of all, rights can also be divided topically. For example, an account might have rights to install software, but not alter the network settings. Does that account have admin rights? Some of them, I guess.

Second, access can be granted in other ways. For example, file permissions might be set on your Mac OS machine such that any user can install software to /Applications. Does this mean all users on the machine have admin rights? That they’re all admins on this machine? Or just that installing sofware on this machine isn’t considered an administrative task?

To further complicate matters, even the task at hand might not always require the same rights. For example, installing software into a user’s directory (i.e., Documents and Settings) might require a completely different set of permissions than installing it into a machine-wide location (i.e., Program Files). Or, the machine could be configured so that both operations require the same permissions.

The term gets used loosely because, most of the time, these gray areas can be safely ignored. But when someone asks if your software requires admin rights, well, it might pay to ask what they mean by that.