Centralized Authorization Using a Directory Service, Part II

by Alf Wachsmann

Authorization is the process of deciding if entity X is allowed to have access to resource Y. Determining the identity of X is the job of the authentication process. One task of authorization in computer networks is to define and determine which user has access to which computers in the network. A simple example would be one line in a computer's /etc/passwd file, joe:X:1234:56:/home/joe:/bin/bash, to allow user joe access to this computer. If you want to give user joe access to several computers, you have to add this line to every computer's /etc/passwd file.

On Linux, the tendency exists to create a local account for each single user who should be allowed to log in to a computer. This typically is the case, because a user needs not only login privileges but also access to additional resources, such as a home directory to do some work. Creating a local account on every computer takes care of all this.

The problem with this local account approach is that these accounts can be inconsistent with one another. The same user name could have a different user ID and/or group ID on different computers. Even more problematic is when two different accounts share the same user ID and group ID on different computers. User joe on computer1 could have user ID 1234 and group ID 56, and user jane on computer2 could have the same user ID 1234 and group ID 56. This is a big security risk in cases where shared resources are used. These two different accounts are the same for an NFS server, so these users can wipe out each other's files.

The solution to this inconsistency problem is to have only one central, authoritative data source for this kind of information and a means of providing all your computers with access to this central source. This is what a directory service does. The two directory services most widely used for centralizing authorization data are the network information service (NIS, formerly known as yellow pages or YP) and lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP).


A few things need to be considered when it comes to deciding which directory service to use, NIS or LDAP. If your company already maintains an LDAP server, it seems simple enough to add the authorization data to it. However, usually company LDAP servers are used for white pages and similar fairly lightweight tasks. Adding the authorization task puts a significant load on an LDAP server, because every single lookup for user name, UID, GID and so on done by programs needs to be answered by it. It usually makes sense to add an additional LDAP server dedicated solely to authorization. Also, due to the many different kinds of directory queries, it is rather hard to get the performance tuning right. You need to add all necessary LDAP index definitions in your slapd.conf file in order to speed up common lookups, but you don't want to add too many index definitions. Doing so makes the LDAP back-end database files large, and everything slows down again.

LDAP is the better choice in networks that have problems with many dropped UDP packets, because it uses TCP/IP where retransmits are built into the network protocol layer. NIS, on the other hand, uses remote procedure calls (RPCs) over UDP. Every dropped packet results in a non-answered NIS query, and the NIS client needs to repeat the query. Use the command netstat -s -u at different times on different machines on your network to see whether your network suffers from this problem. You should see very few errors reported by this command.

I concentrate on NIS in this article, because it is easier to start out with and there is a fairly simple migration path to LDAP in case you see problems. PADL Software Pty, Ltd., provides a set of open-source tools to help you convert all your NIS data files to LDAP (see the on-line Resources). You still have to do the performance-tuning part, however. You have to write migration tools yourself if you want to migrate from LDAP to NIS.

Configuring the NIS Servers

An NIS server does not require a lot of hardware resources. Any machine you have around should do the job. You might want to put this new functionality on a dedicated machine, though. At the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), we serve, without any problems, up to 500 Linux and Solaris clients with one old Sun Netra T1 server. We have four of these NIS servers for about 700 Solaris and Linux desktop computers and another six NIS servers for about 2,500 Solaris and Linux compute servers. Our clients are spread out somewhat unevenly over the servers.

Master Server Configuration

Log on to the machine where you want to install your master NIS server, and make sure the latest portmap, ypserv and yp-tools RPMs are installed. If not, download and install them now. All following commands have to be issued as root. Start the portmapper dæmon with:

# service portmap start

The next step is to define the name of your new NIS domain. This name can be anything you like, but it probably makes sense to pick one that represents your department inside your company; nis.example.com for an NIS domain for all of Example.Com or eng.example.com for the Engineering department inside of Example.Com would be good choices.

Set the NIS domain name on your master server with the command:

# domainname nis.example.com

You also have to add the line:


to the file /etc/sysconfig/network.

Restrict access to your new NIS server by creating a file /var/yp/securenets with the content:

# netmask       # network

This is a crucial security step. The world is able to query your NIS server if you don't have this file.

The next step is to define the things you would like to put into NIS. For the purpose of authorization, the /etc/group and /etc/passwd files as well as something called netgroup are sufficient. However, many more things are possible. To get an idea, have a look at the file /var/yp/Makefile on your NIS server.

Below, I show how the three files I've mentioned are configured to be distributed by way of NIS.

Adjust the Makefile generating the NIS map database files:

# cp /var/yp/Makefile /var/yp/Makefile.save
# vi /var/yp/Makefile

Change the following two entries from true to false to prevent the merging of passwd and shadow files as well as group and gshadow files:


Change the directory name where NIS should look for its data sources:


Comment all files from which the NIS databases should not be built. I left only these three files:

GROUP       = $(YPPWDDIR)/group
PASSWD      = $(YPPWDDIR)/passwd
NETGROUP    = $(YPSRCDIR)/netgroup

Comment the line starting with all: that contains the list of all potential NIS maps. Add the new line:

all:	passwd group netgroup

Watch out for TAB characters. In a Makefile, you must use only TAB characters, not spaces, to indent commands.

Now, create the data source directory defined in the Makefile:

# mkdir /etc/NIS/
# chmod 700 /etc/NIS

and put a passwd file in there:

# grep -v '^root' /etc/passwd > /etc/NIS/passwd

You should remove not only the root account but all system accounts from this file and leave only the real user accounts.

If you still are using /etc/passwd with encrypted passwords, it now is time to convert them to Kerberos 5, as described in the previous article [LJ, February 2005]. If you don't do this, your encrypted passwords are exposed on the network when the passwd file is distributed to the slave NIS servers or to the NIS clients.

Now, collect the local /etc/passwd files from all the machines that are to be members of your new NIS domain. Remove all system accounts and then merge them together with:

% cat passwd_1 passwd_2 passwd_3 ... > passwd_merge

Remove all duplicate entries with this command:

% sort passwd_merge | uniq > passwd_uniq

Check the consistency of the remaining entries with:

% cut -d':' -f1 passwd_uniq | sort | uniq -c | \
egrep -v "\s*1"

If this produces any output, you have two different entries with the same account name. If the difference is not in the UID or GID field, simply decide on one of the entries and remove the other one. If the difference is the UID or GID field, you need to resolve this conflict, which can be rather complex.

Another consistency check is to see whether any two different accounts have the same UID, which is the case if this command:

% cut -d':' -f3 passwd_uniq | sort | uniq -c | \
egrep -v "\s*1"

produces any output; the second number in the output is the duplicate UID. Resolving this conflict again can be rather complex. Do the same kind of merging and checking for all your /etc/group files.

Copy the resulting files to /etc/NIS/passwd and /etc/NIS/group. I will return to the netgroup file later. Leave it out for now.

Now, start your master NIS server with:

# service ypserv start

Initialize the NIS maps with the command:

# /usr/lib/yp/ypinit -m

and follow the printed instructions.

In order to have all the NIS maps available to your NIS master server, you probably want to set up this machine as an NIS client as well. Make sure this NIS client can bind only to the NIS master as server in order to prevent circular dependencies when booting all your machines, as after a power outage.

Slave Server Configuration

NIS slave servers are NIS clients that redistribute the maps they receive from the NIS master server to other NIS clients. Make sure the newest portmap, ypserv, ypbind and yp-tools RPMs are installed on all your slave server machines. The first step in configuring an NIS slave server is to configure it as an NIS client. See the next section for how to do this.

Once the NIS client is configured, start it with:

# service ypbind start

On your NIS master server, add the name of the new NIS slave server to the file /var/yp/ypservers and run the following commands:

# cd /var/yp
# /usr/lib/yp/makedbm ypservers

You also need to change the definition of NOPUSH in the file /etc/YP/Makefile on your NIS master server from true to false in order to get updated NIS maps pushed from your master server to your slave server(s).

Back on your new NIS slave server, initialize the slave server with:

# /usr/lib/yp/ypinit -s nismaster

where nismaster is the name of your NIS master server. This needs to be the fully qualified domain name (FQDN) if your DNS returns the FQDN for a name lookup. Copy the file /var/yp/securenets from your NIS master server over to the new slave server, and start the new NIS slave server with:

# service ypserv start

Remember to update your disaster recovery plan to reflect the new dependency of your NIS slave server on your NIS master server.

Client Configuration

Install the latest ypbind, yp-tools and portmap RPMs on all your clients. Edit the file /etc/yp.conf to tell the client about your NIS server:

ypserver nismaster.example.com

Add a line for each of your slave servers as well, if you have some. Use a random order for these servers on your clients to get somewhat even load balancing over all available servers.

Add a line to /etc/sysconfig/network to define the NIS domain of the client:


and set the NIS domainname with the command:

# domainname nis.example.com

Start the portmapper with:

# service portmap start

and the NIS client with:

# service ypbind start

on each client.

The command ypwhich should now output the NIS server to which this client has bound.

Use the ypcat command to check the content of your NIS maps. For example:

% ypcat passwd

Next, you have to tell all lookups on your client to use NIS. This is done in the name service switch configuration file /etc/nsswitch.conf(5). Change the passwd, group and netgroup entries to:

passwd:       compat
group:        files nis
netgroup:     nis

This defines the search order for group lookups: start with the local /etc/group file and then try an NIS lookup. Netgroups come only from NIS. I return to the compat entry for passwd later.

The name service caching dæmon nscd(8) sometimes has problems updating its internal cache. The effect is that changes in an NIS map are not visible on a particular client. Restarting nscd on that machine is the only solution to this problem.

Typical Usages

Two commands you should be familiar with to query information from NIS are ypcat(1) and ypmatch(1). ypcat prints values of all keys in an NIS map. The command ypcat passwd prints all entries in your NIS passwd map. ypmatch prints the values of one or more keys from an NIS map; ypmatch jane passwd outputs the passwd entry for account jane.

NIS Group Map

A typical use of the NIS group map is to allow file sharing between multiple users. This works with local files as well as with files in NFS. Here is how to set it up. Let's say you have two users (this technique works for any number of users) with the following passwd map entries:


This defines the primary group IDs for jane to be 42 and for joe to be 57.

With the NIS group map you can add additional, secondary group memberships for accounts. The group entry:


defines a new group projectX with no password (*), group ID 127 and two members. No comments are allowed in the group file.

If you now set up a directory with read/write/execute permissions for group projectX:

# mkdir /projects/X/
# chgrp projectX /projects/X/
# chmod g+wrx /projects/X/

every member in the projectX group has permission to read/write/execute files inside that file space. The user might need to do a newgrp projectX first.

Whenever you need to add or remove accounts to or from the group map, do it on your NIS master server by editing the /etc/NIS/group file and executing the commands:

% cd /var/yp
% sudo make group

These generate a new group map that makes the changes visible instantaneously on all clients. There is no need to touch any client to make these changes. Everything now is centralized in one place on your NIS master server.

NIS Netgroups

Netgroups are very different from groups. Netgroups come in two flavors, user netgroups and host netgroups. Both types of netgroups can contain netgroups as members, so netgroup definitions can be hierarchical. Both types of netgroups are defined in the same netgroup file. Comments are allowed in the netgroup file.

Host netgroup definitions in /etc/NIS/netgroup look like this:

# Group of project groups:
projects \
      projectA \
      projectB \

# Group of hosts for Project X
projectX \
        (host1.example.com,-,) \
        (host2.example.com,-,) \

These host netgroup definitions now allow you to, for example, export NFS space only to subsets of your machines. In your NFS server's /etc/exports file, you can use constructs like these:

# export the /projects directory to all machines
# in the "projects" netgroup
/projects    @projects(rw,root_squash)

# export Project X' space only to machines
# in the "projectX" netgroup
/projects/X           @projectX(rw,root_squash)

Again, adding or removing hosts or adding/deleting netgroups is a simple edit of the /etc/NIS/netgroup file on your NIS master server. Execute cd /var/yp; sudo make netgroup to update the NIS map, and the changes are visible everywhere instantly.

User Netgroups

User netgroups, which are netgroups with accounts as members, typically are used to restrict login to computers. User netgroup definitions look slightly different from host netgroup definitions:

# Group of project user groups
u-projects \
        u-projectA \
        u-projectB \

# Group of users in Project X
u-projectX \
        (-,jane,) \
        (-,joe,) \

The prefix u- in the names is a convention to distinguish user netgroups from host netgroups.

With these definitions in place, you now can grant or restrict login access to your computers with these kinds of entries in a machine's local /etc/passwd file. Remove a + at the very end of the passwd files if present:

  • Allow access for all accounts in the u-projects netgroup and no one else:

  • Allow access for only the u-projectX netgroup members and no one else:

  • Allow access to everybody in u-projects but not in u-projectX:


    Order here is important. The first match determines what happens.

  • Allow everybody in u-projectA and also account nick


The information about nick (home directory, login shell and so on) comes out of the NIS passwd map. It is better to avoid putting explicit account names in here, because management of these entries is not centralized.

To make this +/- syntax work, your clients need to have the entry

passwd:         compat

in their /etc/nsswitch.conf files.


Once you are over the initial hurdle of installing an NIS server and making your authorization data consistent, you can start enjoying the centralization. Netgroups allow for complex and fine-grained access control from one central place.

Resources for this article: www.linuxjournal.com/article/7967.

Alf Wachsmann, PhD, has been at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) since 1999. He is responsible for all areas of automated Linux installation, including farm nodes, servers and desktops. His work focuses on AFS support, migration to Kerberos 5, a user registry project and user consultants.

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