Authenticate users on your Linux system by the numbers with the versatile LDAP.

On the Internet, one can find a mass of information that is often organized into very different kinds of directories. The first attempt to establish a standard for directories was made by X.500, an address book designed to provide mail addresses for the X.400 mail application. To retrieve data from this directory, the directory access protocol (DAP) was used, but it was something of a heavyweight.

Other directories were later developed, and although often quite different, most had in common a base in the X.500 standard. There also came a new protocol to retrieve data, the lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP), which nowadays can be used on almost any computer platform to get data out of almost every X.500-compatible directory.

The use of this lightweight directory access protocol will be examined in this article. First we'll take a look at the composition of the directory from which one can access data using LDAP, then we will take a look at how this protocol can be used for Linux. Finally, I will explain how you can even use an LDAP directory to authenticate users on your system, which can be an interesting alternative to network information service (NIS).


LDAP can be used to get information from an X.500-compatible directory. This directory is a hierarchically organized database in which different kinds of data are made accessible. Often it is used to store names and mail addresses, but you can also keep information about resources on the network or everything needed to authenticate users on your Linux computers. The hierarchy of the directory is created by the use of container objects, which are also referred to as directory components (DCs). These DCs can be compared to the domains used in the DNS hierarchy. The LDAP containers even can be linked to DNS domains; so if your company has a registered DNS domain name, like, you can make LDAP organizational units to obtain names, such as ou=training, dc=azlan, dc=com.

In the container objects are the leaf objects, also referred to as entries because they are actually nothing more than entries in the LDAP database. An example of such a leaf object is a user with his or her associated mail address and, if you like, all the other information needed to authenticate this user on your system. Each of these entries has a unique name, called the distinguished name (DN). For example, the user Paul in the training department at Azlan, which has a registered .com domain, gets the distinguished name of cn=Paul, ou=training, dc=azlan, dc=com. Besides that, the entry has a common name (CN), a unique identifier of the object in its container; you can compare that to a person's surname.

All these objects have attributes that define the information associated with the object; a user object, for example, can have such attributes as an e-mail address and a password. If you want to use LDAP to authenticate Linux users, it is important that these attributes have the proper values. That is, you need an attribute that represents the UID field from /etc/passwd if you want to be able to use your Linux resources. The exact definition of the entries, the place where they can occur in the directory and the attributes associated with them, is done in the schema. In Linux, the entries are defined in the file slapd.oc.conf and the attributes in

The common data format used to get information into the LDAP database is the LDAP data interchange format (LDIF). If you want to use it, it is very important that mandatory attributes for each of the entries are specified; if not, you get some nasty error codes when you try to define the objects. Mandatory attributes are defined in spad.oc.conf.


In Linux, probably the most used LDAP implementation is OpenLDAP ( Proprietary directories are available that are LDAP-compatible, such as Novell's eDirectory or Netscape's directory. After installation of OpenLDAP on Linux, (often part of a default server installation) some files are copied to your system. Before we take a look at the actual configuration, let's get an overview of the different files copied.

The most important program file that is part of your LDAP installation is the dæmon slapd, the standalone LDAP dæmon. This is the process you need to activate if you want all the goods of LDAP on your system. If you use more than one LDAP server on your network, and you want to replicate data between these servers, you also need slurpd. slurpd is the process that replicates data from an LDAP master server to one or more LDAP slave servers.

To configure your LDAP server, of course, you need to edit some configuration files. Most of them are in /etc/openldap, but pay attention. Sometimes the same files are also in other directories, such as /etc, which can make it hard to get a good configuration. If the files in /etc/openldap exist in more than one location, I personally prefer to keep only the files in /etc/openldap and make links to them at all other locations.

The most important configuration file is slapd.conf; you can specify almost all the behavior of slapd in it, and it is the file you want to edit before you run slapd. Besides slapd.conf, there are two files in which the schema is kept: slapd.oc.conf and In most cases you don't need to do anything with these; they are good as they are. In some cases, however, you do need to edit them in order for an application to work. The last configuration file is ldap.conf; it is a small but important file used on an LDAP client to identify the server from which the client needs to get its data.

Besides these configuration files, there are some commands you can use to get data in your directory and to test if there's actually anything in it. ldapadd is used to add data to the directory, ldapmodify to modify attributes of existing entries and ldapsearch to find some specific entries. With these and a few other commands, you can manipulate data in your directory by means of LDIF files.

The last files we'll talk about are the modules that are used if you want to get your system to authenticate on an LDAP server. They are part of other software packages, so they are not always installed on your system. The module that's used by the nameservice switch is called nss_ldap. You need to specify in /etc/nsswitch.conf that you want to retrieve information from an LDAP directory instead of, for example, /etc/passwd. Another important module is pam_ldap. This is the module you need in Linux to let your users authenticate on an LDAP database, by means of the pluggable authentication modules (PAM). In fact, it's not difficult to configure an LDAP directory on your system. Only four steps are needed to complete setup.



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Re: indepth and pam_mkhomedir

Anonymous's picture

There is better alternative to using pam_mkhomedir which suffers following limitations. Check this at

1) There are some applications which never need to authenticate users
But they need home dirs. -- for example smtp servers which deliver mail to home.

2) Some do use other ways to authenticate, bypassing pam all together.

3) Servers must be root so that pam can creates home dirs. Otherwise
make /home silimiar in permissions to /tmp -- famous sshd problem

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