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Blueprint: Using MIT-Kerberos with IBM Tivoli Directory Server backend

by Klaus Heinrich Kiwi, IBM LTC Security Team.

In the Information Security world, authentication and authorization are orthogonal concepts:

  • Authentication refers to the act of correctly identifying an user or other entity, e.g.: making sure a user is who he really say he is. This is often done by associating passwords or keys to user accounts.
  • Authorization refers to the act of granting access from certain users to certain services or resources, e.g.: allowing the user john_doe to read the file /foo/bar. This is usually done by mapping users and groups to resources through the use of permissions.

Kerberos is a network authentication protocol aimed at providing secure and reliable authentication semantics over an insecure (open) network. In a glimpse, it relies on symmetric key cryptography and in a trusted third-party to provide mutual authentication between two entities (called Principals in Kerberos nomenclature). This means that in a scenario where a user is authenticated against a network service, not only the service can be sure of the user identity, but the user can also be sure that he is communicating with the right server. All of this is done without exposing clear passwords or keys in the network.

The Kerberos Protocol is a standard (RFC 4120) with different implementations such as Microsoft’s Active Directory, Heimdal, the AFS kaserver and the Open Source MIT-Kerberos implementation.

LDAP, on the other hand, is an information retrieval protocol for accessing special purpose databases, called Directories. Directories are usually optimized for reading (queries) as opposed to writing operations (inserts), thus they are often used in write once, read many scenarios. This optimization aspect, associated with the hierarchical manner the objects are organized in the database makes LDAP an ideal choice for performing the mapping operations an authorization system needs.

LDAP is also a standard (RFC 4510, RFC 3494 among others) with numerous implementations such as the Open Source OpenLDAP and the IBM Tivoli Directory Server, aimed at enterprise use.

Since release 1.6 of the Open Source MIT-Kerberos (krb5) implementation, it is possible to combine the powerful authentication aspects of the Kerberos Protocol with the reliability and scalability provided by LDAP authorization. Such feature is included in recent enterprise distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 series and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 and later, giving those platforms the possibility to benefit from combining the Open Source MIT-Kerberos implementation with the enterprise features of IBM Tivoli Directory Server.

It was with the intention of demonstrating how the above scenario can be achieved that I wrote a Blueprint covering the subject of Using MIT-Kerberos fo IBM Tivoli Directory Server backend.

Blueprints are documents describing the detailed plan of action for a specific task involving IBM hardware or technology. Blueprints bring a step-by-step description showing the exact actions needed to perform a certain task. Those steps are written with the expertise from the Software Engineers who actually work on development, but are also tested for correctness inside IBM labs – an IBM-branded HOWTO.

Besides the above Blueprint, please check-out the other publications I’ve authored or co-authored, including the Enterprise Multiplatform Auditing Redbook and  my Logical Volume Management developerWorks article.

And as always, feedback is greatly appreciated!

Klaus Kiwi

4 Responses

  1. […] first post brings a little introduction to concepts such as authentication and authorization, and how Kerberos […]

  2. Bryan Jacobson

    Klaus, wow! I was surprised how much I learned from your post, Thanks!

  3. George Wilson

    Thanks for the all the background material, Klaus. I’ve bookmarked a couple of the links I didn’t previously know about. Very useful post for me.

  4. Thanks Klaus for explaining Authentication and authorization in simple terms. I would like to read more on kereros from you.