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The Differences Between the Setup and Admin User Capabilities

Several of the Fossil user capabilities form a clear power hierarchy. Mathematically speaking:

Setup > Admin > Moderator > User > Subscriber > Anonymous > Nobody

This document explains the distinction between the first two. For the others, 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 admin 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 full control over 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, for the ex-Admin to fork the repository, and for both to go their separate ways.

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.

This rule is not enforced by the Fossil permission system for a couple of reasons:

  1. There are too many exceptions to encode in the remaining user capability bits. As of this writing, we've already assigned meaning to all of the lowercase letters, most of the decimal digits, and a few of the uppercase letters. We'd rather not resort to punctuation and Unicode to express future extensions to the policy choices Fossil offers its power users.

  2. Even if we had enough suitable printable ASCII characters left to assign one to every imaginable purpose and policy, we want to keep the number of exceptions manageable. 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 subsets are available to non-Setup users, each controlled by a user capability bit. 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.

Let's consider a concrete application of this rule: Admin → Skins. Fossil grants Admin-only 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. If, during a forum discussion one of the mere users notices a problem with the skin, an Admin-only user should feel free to correct this without bothering the Setup user.

Another common case is that the Setup user upgrades Fossil on the server but forgets to merge the upstream skin changes: Admin users are entrusted to do that work on behalf of the Setup user.

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:

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 capabilty 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:


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:

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

Keep in mind that Fossil is a distributed version control system, which means that a user known to Fossil might have Setup capability on one repository but be a mere "user" on one of its clones. The most common case is that when you clone a repository, even anonymously, you gain Setup power over the local clone.

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

The exception to this is when the clone is done as a Setup user, since this also copies the user table on the initial clone. A user with Setup capability can subsequently say fossil conf pull all to update that table and everything else not normally synchronized between Fossil repositories. In this way, a Setup user can create multiple interchangeable clones. This is useful not only to guard against rogue Admin-only users, it is a useful element of a load balancing and failover system.

Setup-Only Features

Some features are now and must always be restricted to Setup users only.