4.0 Authentication information storage and retrieval

By: Kurt Seifried, [email protected], Copyright Kurt Seifried, 2001


All authentication systems depend on some type of shared secret or shared knowledge. This can be a password or the same X.509 public key of a root certificate.

4.1 Local methods

Data used to authenticate users can be stored locally on the machine, or provided from a network server. If all you have is one machine then using a local method is fine, however if you need to add another machine you will have to change things, so going with a server based solution can be much cheaper in the long run.

4.1.1 System username/passwd database

Most UNIX style systems contain a password file (/etc/passwd) and a shadow passwords file (/etc/shadow). You can authenticate a user against these, however the CGI must have some form of root access or access to setuid root program to do the authentication. This is not highly recommended. In addition having users use their "real" username and password to a site increases the chance of exposure somewhat and is probably not a good idea. I would not highly recommend this method.

4.1.2 WWW server username/password database

Apache and most other web servers can consult a flat text file consisting of username:hashed_password pairs (similar to an /etc/passwd style file) or a database file such as dbm (for increased speed). This is quite appropriate and workable for single server installations but does not scale easily (you must somehow keep files in synchronization across multiple servers), unless of course adding user accounts and changing passwords is not a priority (i.e. if the files are relatively static). This is a recommended method for single server installations.

4.2 Network based methods

Network based authentication systems scale much better then locally based methods (such as a password file). The other advantage is that almost all networks have some form of network based authentication going (for people to log into workstations, etc.) so it saves a significant amount of effort in maintaining another set of usernames and passwords if you can tie into the existing schemes. For future growth and scalability in general (as well as redundancy) I would generally recommend using a network based method over a locally based method.

4.2.1 NIS/NIS+ server

This is one of the original methods of sharing authentication data across networks. NIS and NIS+ essentially copy chunks of config files (such as /etc/passwd) to machines, typically one machine (the master) propagates copies of the config files to secondary servers (slaves) which the client machines actually query. NIS/NIS+ is relatively insecure in that the data moves around the network in an unprotected format, so sniffing the network and collecting a lot of user data is relatively simple. About the only advantage of NIS/NIS+ is that almost all UNIX operating systems have native support for it, and configuration is typically not to difficult (not much security is involved which simplifies things).

4.2.2 SMB server

SMB (Server Message Block) is the backbone of Microsoft file and print sharing services. Many networks run NT servers with NT and Windows clients, typically using Microsoft's built in authentication systems (as opposed to say NDS for NT). The primary reason to use SMB as your www authentication provider would be to tie www authentication into an existing NT framework. If running NT server with IIS this is as simple as placing directory permissions on the appropriate directories, users access the site (from Windows only of course) will be automatically logged in (assuming they logged in with the correct username and password). This can be very useful for company Intranets. Most UNIX systems support SAMBA, which provides Windows file and print sharing, as well as domain authentication services, so you can have the data locally on the server which reduces time to check username and passwords. The algorithms used however to move this data around are relatively weak (not as bad as NIS/NIS+ though), so be aware of that.

4.2.3 LDAP server

LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is an increasingly popular method for storing and sharing user data. There are several LDAP products (including OpenLDAP, an OpenSource implementation), and many current and future directory services products include an LDAP interface (such as Novell's NDS and Microsoft's ADS). Many UNIX server products now support LDAP internally (such as Apache, ProFTPD), as well as support in programming languages such as Perl (one of the dominant CGI languages). LDAP is also very extensible, if you want to add the user's home directory information to the information held and make it accessible you can do so (and then for example Apache can retrieve that data when it gets a request for /~username/). LDAP is probably going to be one of the dominant methods in the future due to it's portability and spreading usage for authentication in general.

4.2.4 Certificate authority server

If you plan to use digital certificates for authentication then you will need a certificate authority, to handle revocation, issuing of new certificates, and so on. The alternative is to use a third party (such as Verisign) and pay a yearly fee for each user, additionally giving up a certain degree of control to them. Using certificates, especially those based on smartcards (which is the only remotely secure option) will cost a large amount of money per user on an ongoing basis (maintenance costs are not cheap). Typical certificate authority software is $100,000 USD and up, smart cards and readers will cost around $50 USD and up per user, and there are significant administrative costs. If setup and maintained correctly however a digital certificate based authentication scheme can be significantly more secure then username and password based methods, as well as offering advantages in tracking and auditing user activity.

4.2.5 Network database server

One method that is quite effective, but often ignored is the use of a database to store user credentials. Most moderns databases support ODBC connectivity, making access via CGI scripts and so on very easy. Database's also lend themselves to ease of administration and management, especially with large numbers of users, additionally you can typically tie other user information in, such as HR would keep on employees. One major issue however is the security of data moving to and from the database, in most cases it will not be protected so you should use a VPN solution (such as IPSec) to protect it or use SSL to encrypt it (with a utility such as sslwrap or stunnel). One advantage of using a database is that languages such as Perl support persistent database connections, so if you use mod_perl or fast CGI you can get extremely high performance out of a CGI and a good database.

4.2.6 Radius

Radius is a very popular protocol for authenticating users for dial-in and a variety of other network services. Tying your www based authentication into an existing system like Radius can save a lot of money (especially in administrative costs). There are Perl modules for Radius (actually there are Perl modules for just about everything), making integration relatively simple. Radius does encrypt the password before sending it to the server typically, however you may wish to use some sort of VPN (I recommend IPSec) to properly protect the entire transaction (and prevent someone from pretending to be the Radius server for example).


TACACS, and the newer TACACS+ are Cisco's authentication protocol for allowing users access to terminals servers and routers. Just as with Radius, tying your www authentication into an existing system can save a significant amount of money and administrative overhead. Perl has modules for TACACS/TACACS+ allowing you to authenticate users easily, one minor caveat, as with Radius the protection on the username and password is less then optimal, I would advise using a VPN (I recommend IPSec) to properly protect the entire transaction (and prevent someone from pretending to be the TACACS/TACACS+ server for example).

4.2.8 Novell

Novell has been making directory service products for a long time, and has recently started to shift from being Novell centric to service centric. By this I mean that Novell has ported NDS (now available in a "full strength" and a "lite" version) to various platforms, including Linux and FreeBSD. This allows you to store a considerable number of users efficiently, it ties in well with any existing Novell infrastructure, and can of course be used as the backbone of your corporate authentication system. NDS is quite mature and allows for many objects (Novell says they tested it to 10 billion in their laboratory), and is now platform independent. Current version of NDS support an LDAP interface so tying support for your CGI programs into NDS is relatively easy. See the LDAP section for more details. NDS eDirectory, formerly Corporate Edition

This is a "full strength" NDS suitable for corporate environments.

http://www.novell.com/products/nds/ NDS Authentication Services

This is NDS "lite", suitable for www authentication and storing data on users.

http://www.novell.com/products/ndsas/quicklook.html Novell iChain

A complete “identity-based web security services” package.


4.2.9 ADS

ADS (Active Directory Services) is Microsoft's answer to NDS, and ships with Windows 2000. ADS is a newcomer, but chances are many organizations will deploy it so chances are you will need to use it for web based authentication at some point. Like NDS, ADS supports and LDAP interface, making programming support for it relatively simple. See the LDAP section for more details.

4.2.10 DCE

DCE (Distributed Computing Environment) allows you to access applications and files by name without having to know their location via RPC (Remote Procedure Call, the same system used for NIS and so on). Generally speaking a DCE based web authentication solution will only be of interest to people with an existing DCE infrastructure. There is a set of Perl modules, and Apache modules to provide DCE capabilities and access to DFS (Distributed Filesystem) available for free at:


A commercial packaged called Gradient DCE is available from:


4.2.11 WebSEAL

WebSEAL appears to be a framework for building authentication solutions using pretty much anything (PKI, username and passwords, etc.). It is capable of using DCE, Kerberos 5, SSL Entrust and a variety of other protocols and encryption methods. IBM is currently in the process of acquiring DASCOM.

http://www.dascom.com/prod/webseal/index.html [site unavailable]

4.2.12 Kerberos

Kerberos is a strong authentication framework available for most UNIX platforms and there are some Windows clients. Most modern BSD and Linux distributions for example ship with support for Kerberos clients and servers. With some effort you can also integrate UNIX Kerberos and Windows 2000 Kerberos making for a homogenous authentication environment.


4.3 Others

Other products and packages that I haven't had time to look into. If you want to be added please send me links.


[ Index | Back | Next ]