Fossil: Differences Between Setup and Admin Users

Fossil SCM

This document explains the distinction between Setup users and Admin users. For other information about use types, see:

Philosophical Core

The Setup user "owns" the Fossil repository and may delegate a subset of that power to one or more Admin users.

The Setup user can grant Admin capability and take it away, but Admin users cannot grant themselves Setup capability, either directly via the Admin → Users UI page or via any indirect means. (If you discover indirect means to elevate Admin privilege to Setup, it's a bug, so please report it!)

It is common for the Setup user to have administrative control over the host system running the Fossil repository, whereas it makes no sense for Admin users to have that ability. If an Admin-only user had root access on a Linux box running the Fossil instance they are an Admin on, they could elevate their capability to Setup in several ways. (The fossil user command, the fossil sql command, editing the repository DB file directly, etc.) Therefore, if you wish to grant someone Setup-like capability on a Fossil repository but you're unwilling to give them a login on the host system, you probably want to grant them Admin capability instead.

Admin power is delegated from Setup. When a Setup user grants Admin capability, it is an expression of trust in that user's judgement.

Admin-only users must not fight against the policies of the Setup user. Such a rift would be just cause for the Setup user to strip the Admin user's capabilities. This may then create a fork in the project’s development effort as the ex-Admin takes their clone and stands it up elsewhere, so they may become that fork’s Setup user.

A useful rule of thumb here is that Admin users should only change things that the Setup user has not changed from the stock configuration. In this way, an Admin-only user can avoid overriding the Setup user's choices.

You can also look at the role of Admin from the other direction, up through the user power hierarchy rather than down from Setup. An Admin user is usually a “super-developer” role, given full control over the repository’s managed content: versioned artifacts in the hash tree, unversioned content, forum posts, wiki articles, tickets, etc.

We’ll explore these distinctions in the rest of this document.

No Granularity

Fossil doesn’t make any distinction between these two user types beyond this binary choice: Setup or Admin.

A few features of Fossil are broken down so that only part of the feature is accessible to Admin, with the rest left only to Setup users, but for the most part each feature affected by this distinction is either Admin + Setup or Setup-only.

We could add more capability letters to break down individual sub-features, but we’d run out of ASCII alphanumerics pretty quickly, and we might even run out of ASCII punctuation and symbols. Then would we need to shift to Unicode?

Consider the Admin → Settings page, which is currently restricted to Setup users only: you might imagine breaking this up into several subsets so that some settings can be changed by Admin users. Is that a good idea? Maybe, but it should be done only after due consideration. It would definitely be wrong to assign a user capability bit to each setting on that page.

Now consider the opposite sort of case, Admin → Skins. Fossil grants Admin users full access to this page so that the Admins can maintain and extend the skin as the repository evolves, not so Admins can switch the entire skin to another without consulting with the Setup user first. How would Fossil decide, using user capabilities only, which skin changes the Admin user is allowed to do, and which must be left to Setup? Do we assign a separate capability letter to each step in /setup_skin? Do we assign one more each to the five sections of a skin? (Header, Footer, CSS, JavaScript, and Details.) It quickly becomes unmanageable.

Capability Groups

We can break up the set of powers the Admin user capability grants into several groups, then defend each group as a coherent whole.


While establishing the Fossil repository's security policy is a task for the Setup user, maintaining that policy is something that Fossil allows a Setup user to delegate to trustworthy users via the Admin user capability:

  • Manage users: The only thing an Admin-only user cannot do on the Admin → Users page is grant Setup capability, either to themselves or to other users. The intent is that Admin users be able to take some of the load of routine user management tasks off the shoulders of the Setup user: delete accounts created by spammers, fix email alert subscriptions, reset passwords, etc.

  • Security audit: The Admin → Security-Audit page runs several tests on the Fossil repository's configuration, then reports potential problems it found and offers canned solutions. Those canned solutions do not do anything that an Admin-user could not do via other means, so this page offers the Admin-only user no more power than they otherwise had. For example, this page's "Take it Private" feature can also be done manually via Admin → Users. This page is a convenience, not a grant of new power to the Admin-only user.

  • Logging: Admin-only users get to see the various Fossil logs in case they need to use them to understand a problem they're empowered to solve. An obvious example is a spam attack: the Admin might want to find the user's last-used IP, see if they cloned the repository, see if they attempted to brute-force an existing login before self-registering, etc.

Some security-conscious people might be bothered by the fact that Admin-only users have these abilities. Think of a large IT organization: if the CIO hires a tiger team to test the company's internal IT defenses, the line grunts fix the reported problems, not the CIO.


It is perfectly fine for a Fossil repository to only have Setup users, no Admin users. The smaller the repository, the more likely the repository has no Admin-only users. If the Setup user neither needs nor wants to grant Admin power to others, there is no requirement in Fossil to do so. Setup capability is a pure superset of Admin capability.

As the number of users on a Fossil repository grows, the value in delegating administrivia also grows, because the Setup user typically has other time sinks they consider more important.

Admin users can take over the following routine tasks on behalf of the Setup user:

  • Shunning: After user management, this is one of the greatest powers of an Admin-only user. Fossil grants access to the Admin → Shunned page to Admin users rather than reserve it to Setup users because one of the primary purposes of the Fossil shunning system is to clean up after a spammer, and that's exactly the sort of administrivia we wish to delegate to Admin users.

    Coupled with the Rebuild button on the same page, an Admin user has the power to delete the repository's entire hash tree! This makes this feature a pretty good razor in deciding whether to grant someone Admin capability: do you trust that user to shun Fossil artifacts responsibly?

    Realize that shunning is cooperative in Fossil. As long as there are surviving repository clones, an Admin-only user who deletes the whole hash tree has merely caused a nuisance. An Admin-only user cannot permanently destroy the repository unless the Setup user has been so silly as to have no up-to-date clones.

  • Moderation: According to the user power hierarchy, Admins are greater than Moderators, so control over what Moderators can do clearly belongs to both Admins and to the Setup user(s).

  • Status: Although the Fossil /stat page is visible to every user with Read capability, there are several additional things this page gives access to when a user also has the Admin capability:

    • Email alerts and backoffice status. Admin-only users cannot modify the email alerts setup, but they can see some details about its configuration and current status.

    • The /urllist page, which is a read-only page showing the ways the repository can be accessed and how it has been accessed in the past. Logically, this is an extension to logging, covered above.

    • The Fossil repository SQL schema. This is not particularly sensitive information, since you get more or less the same information when you clone the repository. It's restricted to Admin because it's primarily useful in debugging SQL errors, which happen most often when Fossil itself is in flux and the schema isn't being automatically updated correctly. That puts this squarely into the "administrivia" category.

    • Web cache status, environment, and logging: more administrivia meant to help the Admin debug problems.

  • Configure search


While the Setup user is responsible for setting up the initial "look" of a Fossil repository, the Setup user entrusts Admin users with maintaining that look. An Admin-only user therefore has the following special abilities:

  • Modify the repository skin

  • Create and modify URL aliases

  • Manage the "ad units" feature, if enabled.

  • Adjust the /timeline display preferences.

  • Change the "logo" element displayed by some skins.

These capabilities allow an Admin-only user to affect the branding and possibly even the back-end finances of a project. This is why we began this document with a philosophical discussion: if you cannot entrust a user with these powers, you should not grant that user Admin capability.

Clones and Backups

Fossil is a distributed version control system, which has direct effects on the “Setup user” concept in the face of clones. When you clone a repository, your local user becomes a Setup user on the local clone even if you are not one on the remote repository. This may be surprising to you, but it should also be sensible once you realize that your operating system will generally give you full control over the local repository file. What use trying to apply remote restrictions on the local file, then?

The distinctions above therefore are intransitive: they apply only within a single repository instance.

Fossil behaves differently when you do a clone as a user with Setup capability on the remote repository, which primarily has effects on the fidelity of clone-as-backup, which we cover elsewhere. We strongly encourage you to read that document if you expect to use a clone as a complete replacement for the remote repository.

The All-Powerful Setup User

Setup users get every user capability of Fossil except for two exceptionally dangerous capabilities, which they can later grant to themselves or to others.

In addition, Setup users can use every feature of the Fossil UI. If Fossil can do a thing, a Setup user on that repo can make Fossil do it.

Setup users can do many things that Admin users cannot. They may not only use all of the Admin UI features, they may also:

The “Admin” feature of Fossil UI is so-named because Admin users can use about half of its functions, but only Setup can use these pages:

  • Access: This page falls under the Security category above, but like Configuration, it's generally something set up once and never touched, so only Setup users should change it.

  • Configuration: This page nominally falls under Cosmetics above, but it's such a core part of the Fossil configuration — something every Setup user is expected to fully specify on initial repository setup — that we have trouble justifying any case where an Admin-only user would have good cause to modify any of it. This page is generally set up once and then never touched again.

  • Email-Server: This is an experimental SMTP server feature which is currently unused in Fossil. Should we get it working, it will likely remain Setup-only, since it will likely be used as a replacement for the platform’s default SMTP server, a powerful position for a piece of software to take.

  • Login-Group: Login groups allow one Fossil repository to delegate user access to another. Since an Admin-only user on one repo might not have such access to another repo on the same host system, this must be a Setup-only task.

  • Notification: This is the main UI for setting up integration with a platform’s SMTP service, for use in sending out email notifications. Because this screen can set commands to execute on the host, and because finishing the configuration requires a login on the Fossil host system, it is not appropriate to give Admin users access to it.

  • Settings: The repository settings available via Admin → Settings have too wide a range of power to allow modification by Admin-only users:

    • Harmless: Admin-only users on a repository may well have checkin rights on the repository, so the fact that versionable settings like crlf-glob can also be set at the repository level seems like a thing we might want to allow Admin-only users the ability to change. Since Fossil currently has no way to allow only some settings to be changed by Admin-only users and some not, we can't just show these harmless settings to Admin-only users.

    • Low-Risk: The admin-log setting controls whether the Fossil admin log is generated. Since we've already decided that Admin-only users can see this log, it seems fine that the Admin users can choose whether this log gets generated in the first place.

      There's a small risk that a rogue Admin user could disable the log before doing something evil that the log would capture, so ideally, we'd want to restrict changing this setting from 1 to 0 to Setup only while allowing Admin-only users to change it from 0 to 1. Fossil doesn't currently allow that.

    • Risky: The https-login setting falls under the "Security" section above, but it should probably never be adjusted by Admin-only users. Sites that want it on will never want it to be disabled without a very good reason.

      There is also an inverse risk: if the site has a front-end HTTPS proxy that uses HTTP to communicate over localhost to Fossil, enabling this setting will create an infinite redirect loop! (Ask me how I know.)

    • Dangerous: The email-send-command setting could allow a rogue Admin to run arbitrary commands on the host system, unless it's prevented via some kind of host-specific restriction. (chroot, jails, SELinux, VMs, etc.) Since it makes no sense to trust Admin-only users with root level access on the host system, we almost certainly don't want to allow them to change such settings.

  • SQL: The Admin → SQL feature allows the Setup user to enter raw SQL queries against the Fossil repository via Fossil UI. This not only allows arbitrary ability to modify the repository hash tree and its backing data tables, it can probably also be used to damage the host such as via PRAGMA temp_store = FILE.

  • Tickets: This section allows input of arbitrary TH1 code that runs on the server, affecting the way the Fossil ticketing system works. The justification in the TH1 section below therefore applies.

  • TH1: The TH1 language is quite restricted relative to the Tcl language it descends from, so this author does not believe there is a way to damage the Fossil repository or its host via the Admin → TH1 feature, which allows execution of arbitrary TH1 code within the repository's execution context. Nevertheless, interpreters are a well-known source of security problems, so it seems best to restrict this feature to Setup-only users as long as we lack a good reason for Admin-only users to have access to it.

  • Transfers: This is for setting up TH1 hooks on various actions, so the justification in the TH1 section above applies.

  • Wiki: These are mainly cosmetic and usability settings. We might open this up to Admin users in the future.

Just remember, user caps affect Fossil’s web interfaces only. A user is a Setup user by default on their local clone of a repo, and Fossil’s ability to protect itself against malicious (or even simply incorrect) pushes is limited. Someone with clone and push capability on your repo could clone it, modify their local repo, and then push the changes back to your repo. Be careful who you give that combination of capabilities to!

When you run fossil ui, you are the Setup user on that repo through that UI instance, regardless of the capability set defined in the repo’s user table. This is true even if you cloned a remote repo where you do not have Setup caps. This is why ui always binds to localhost without needing the --localhost flag: in this mode, anyone who can connect to that repo’s web UI has full power over that repo.

Dangerous Capabilities Initially Denied to Everyone

There are two capabilities that Fossil doesn’t grant by default to Setup or Admin users automatically. They are exceptionally dangerous, so Fossil makes these users grant themselves (or others) these capabilities deliberately, hopefully after careful consideration.

Write Unversioned

Fossil currently doesn’t distinguish the sub-operations of fossil uv; they’re all covered by WrUnver (“y”) capability. Since some of these operations are unconditionally destructive due to the nature of unversioned content, and since this goes against Fossil’s philosophy of immutable history, nobody gets cap “y” on a Fossil repo by default, not even the Setup or Admin users. A Setup or Admin user must grant cap “y” to someone — not necessarily themselves! — before modifications to remote unversioned content are possible.

Operations on unversioned content made without this capability affect your local clone only. In this way, your local unversioned file table can have different content from that in its parent repo. This state of affairs will continue until your user either gets cap “y” and syncs that content with its parent or you say fossil uv revert to make your local unversioned content table match that of its parent repo.

Private Branch Push

For private branches to remain private, they must never be accidentally pushed to a public repository. It can be difficult to impossible to recover from such a mistake, so nobody gets Private (“x”) capability on a Fossil repo by default, not even Admin or Setup users.

There are two common uses for private branches.

One use is part of a local social contract allowing individual developers to work on some things in private until they’re ready to push them up to the parent repository. This goes against a core tenet of Fossil’s design philosophy, but Fossil allows it, so some development organizations do this. If yours is one of these, you might give cap “x” to the “developer” category.

The other use is in development organizations that follow the Fossil philosophy, where you do not work in private unless you absolutely must. You may have a public-facing project — let’s call it “SQLite” for the sake of argument — but then someone comes along and commissions a custom modification to your project which they wish to keep proprietary. You do your work on a private branch, which you absolutely must never push to the public repo, because that would be illegal. (Breach of contract, copyright violation on a work-for-hire agreement, etc.) If you are using Fossil in this way, we recommend that you give “x” capability to a special developer account only, if at all, to minimize the chance of an accidental push.