Building a Scalable High-Availability E-Mail System with Active Directory and More

A large-scale implementation of a scalable Linux e-mail system with Active Directory.
Integration with Active Directory

One of the requirements of our new e-mail system is to integrate user identities with the university directory service. Because Microsoft Active Directory services have been made a standard within our centralized campus IT environment, Cyrus (IMAP/POP3) and Postfix (SMTP) are architected to obtain user authentication/authorization from AD. After the integration, all e-mail user credentials can be managed from AD. Most directory services are constructed based on LDAP. AD uses LDAP for authorization, and it has its own Kerberos implementation for authentication. The goal of an integrated AD authentication is to allow the Linux e-mail servers to use AD to verify user credentials. The technology used to support the AD integration scheme is based mainly on the Kerberos and LDAP support, which come with native Linux components, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Linux Authentication and Authorization Against AD

Here is how it works. First, we use AD Kerberos to authenticate Linux clients. Pluggable Authentication Module (PAM) is configured to get the user credentials and pass them to the pam_krb5 library, which is then used to authenticate users using the Linux Kerberos client connection to the Key Distribution Center (KDC) on Active Directory. This practice eliminates the need for authentication administration on the Linux side. However, with only the Kerberos integration, Linux has to store authorization data in the local /etc/passwd file. To avoid managing a separate user authorization list, LDAP is used to retrieve user authorization information from AD. The idea is to let authorization requests processed by Name Service Switch (NSS) first. NSS allows the replacement of many UNIX/Linux configuration files (such as /etc/passwd, /etc/group and /etc/hosts) with a centralized database or databases, and the mechanisms used to access those databases are configurable. NSS then uses the Name Service Caching Dæmon (NSCD) to improve query performance. (NSCD is a dæmon that provides a cache for the most common name service requests.) This can be very important when used against a large AD user container. Finally, NSS_LDAP is configured to serve as an LDAP client to connect to Active Directory to retrieve the authorization data from the AD users container. (NSS_LDAP, developed by PADL, is a set of C library extensions that allow LDAP directory servers to be used as a primary source of aliases, ethers, groups, hosts, networks, protocol, users, RPCs, services and shadow passwords.) Now, with authorization and authentication completely integrated with AD using both LDAP and Kerberos, no local user credentials need to be maintained.

In order to support LDAP authorization integration with Linux, Windows Server 2003 Release 2 (R2), which includes support for RFC 2307, is installed on each of the AD domain controllers. R2 introduces new LDAP attributes used to store UNIX or Linux user and group information. Without an extended AD LDAP schema, like the one used by R2, the Linux automatic authorization integration with AD is not possible. It is also important to mention that the SASL Authentication layer shown in Figure 3 is using Cyrus-SASL, which is distributed as a standard package by Carnegie Mellon University. The actual setup uses PAM for authenticating IMAP/POP3 users. It requires the use of a special Cyrus dæmon, saslauthd, which the SASL mechanism uses to communicate via a Linux-named socket.


Our new e-mail system is mostly based on open-source software. The incorporation of Postfix, Cyrus-IMAP and MySQL helped fulfill most of the system requirements. From the hardware perspective, the technologies used, such as Storage Area Network (SAN), blade server and the Intel x86_64 CPUs, helped to meet the requirements of fast access, system scalability and high availability. However, the use of open-source software and new hardware technologies may introduce new management overhead. Although all the open-source software packages used on the new system are mature products, compared with commercial software, they typically lack a GUI for system management. Their configuration and customization are completely based on a set of plain-text configuration files. Initially, this may present a learning curve, as the syntax of these configuration files must be studied. But, once the learning curve is passed, future management easily can be automated, as scripts can be written to manage the configuration parameters and store them in a centralized location. On the hardware side, complex settings also may imply complex network and server management settings, which also may introduce overhead during system management. However, the benefits of using the technologies discussed outweigh the complexities and learning curves involved. It is easy to overcome the drawbacks through proper design, configuration management and system automation.

At the time of this writing, our new Linux e-mail system (MUMAIL) has been running in production for ten months. The entire system has been running in a stable state with minimal downtime throughout this period. All user e-mail messages originally on HOBBIT were moved successfully to MUMAIL in a three-day migration window with automated and non-disruptive migration processes. Users now experience significantly faster IMAP/POP3 access speed. Their e-mail storage quota is raised from 20MB to 200MB, and there is potential to increase the quota to a higher number (1GB). With the installation of gateway-level spam/virus firewalls as well as increased hardware speed, no e-mail backlog has been experienced on MUMAIL during recent spam/virus outbreaks. With an Active Directory integrated user authentication setup, user passwords or other sensitive information are no longer stored on the e-mail system. This reduces user confusion and account administration overhead and increases network security. Mail store backup speed is improved significantly with faster disk access in the SAN environment. Finally, the new system has provided a hardware and software environment that supports future growth with the adoption of a scalable design. More server nodes—both front end and back end—and storage can be added when system usage grows in the future.



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Bulk import

Viet Tran's picture

How did you handle the bulk mail box creation? Our users already in AD, we would like to know how we can enable their mailbox in Cyrus. Any help is greatly appreciated.


This Cyrus-IMAP adresses are

Cristiano's picture

This Cyrus-IMAP adresses are useful for me. I will use it.

Best regards,