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LDAP Authentication and Authorization

Cumulus Linux uses Pluggable Authentication Modules (PAM) and Name Service Switch (NSS) for user authentication.

NSS specifies the order of information sources used to resolve names for each service. Using this with authentication and authorization, it provides the order and location used for user lookup and group mapping on the system. PAM handles the interaction between the user and the system, providing login handling, session setup, authentication of users and authorization of a user actions.

NSS enables PAM to use LDAP for providing user authentication, group mapping and information for other services on the system.

Configuring LDAP Authentication

There are 3 common ways of configuring LDAP authentication on Linux:

  • libnss-ldap
  • libnss-ldapd
  • libnss-sss

This chapter covers using libnss-ldapd only. From internal testing, this library worked best with Cumulus Linux and was the easiest to configure, automate and troubleshoot.

Installing libnss-ldapd

The libpam-ldapd package depends on nslcd, so to install libnss-ldapd, libpam-ldapd and ldap-utils, you must run:

cumulus@switch:~$ sudo apt-get install libnss-ldapd libpam-ldapd ldap-utils nslcd

This brings up an interactive prompt asking questions about the LDAP URI, search base distinguished name (DN) and services that should have LDAP lookups enabled. This creates a very basic LDAP configuration, using anonymous bind, and initiating the search for a user under the base DN specified.

Alternatively, these parameters can be pre-seeded using the debconf-utils. To use this method, run apt-get install debconf-utils and create the pre-seeded parameters using debconf-set-selections with the appropriate answers. Run debconf-show <pkg> to check the settings.

Once the install is complete, the name service LDAP caching daemon (nslcd) will be running. This is the service that handles all of the LDAP protocol interactions, and caches the information returned from the LDAP server. In /etc/nsswitch.conf, ldap has been appended and is the secondary information source for passwd, group and shadow. The local files (/etc/passwd, /etc/groups and /etc/shadow) are used first, as specified by the compat source.

passwd: compat ldap
group: compat ldap
shadow: compat ldap

You are strongly advised to keep compat as the first source in NSS for passwd, group and shadow. This prevents you from getting locked out of the system.

Configuring nslcd.conf

You need to update the main configuration file (/etc/nslcd.conf) after installation to accommodate the expected LDAP server settings. The nslcd.conf man page details all the available configuration options. Some of the more important options are related to security and how the queries are handled.


The LDAP client starts a session by connecting to the LDAP server, by default, on TCP and UDP port 389, or on port 636 for LDAPS. Depending on the configuration, this connection may be unauthenticated (anonymous bind); otherwise, the client must provide a bind user and password. The variables used to define the connection to the LDAP server are the URI and bind credentials.

The URI is mandatory, and specifies the LDAP server location using the FQDN or IP address. It also designates whether to use ldap:// for clear text transport, or ldaps:// for SSL/TLS encrypted transport. Optionally, an alternate port may also be specified in the URI. Typically, in production environments, it is best to utilize the LDAPS protocol. Otherwise all communications are clear text and not secure.

After the connection to the server is complete, the BIND operation authenticates the session. The BIND credentials are optional, and if not specified, an anonymous bind is assumed. This is typically not allowed in most production environments. Configure authenticated (Simple) BIND by specifying the user (binddn) and password (bindpw) in the configuration. Another option is to use SASL (Simple Authentication and Security Layer) BIND, which provides authentication services using other mechanisms, like Kerberos. Contact your LDAP server administrator for this information since it depends on the configuration of the LDAP server and what credentials are created for the client device.

# The location at which the LDAP server(s) should be reachable.
uri ldaps://
# The DN to bind with for normal lookups.
binddn cn=CLswitch,ou=infra,dc=example,dc=com
bindpw CuMuLuS

Search Function

When an LDAP client requests information about a resource, it must connect and bind to the server. Then it performs one or more resource queries depending on what it is looking up. All search queries sent to the LDAP server are created using the configured search base, filter, and the desired entry (uid=myuser) being searched for. If the LDAP directory is large, this search may take a significant amount of time. It is a good idea to define a more specific search base for the common maps (passwd and group).

# The search base that will be used for all queries.
base dc=example,dc=com
# Mapped search bases to speed up common queries.
base passwd ou=people,dc=example,dc=com
base group ou=groups,dc=example,dc=com

Search Filters

It is also common to use search filters to specify criteria used when searching for objects within the directory. This is used to limit the search scope when authenticating users. The default filters applied are:

filter passwd (objectClass=posixAccount)
filter group (objectClass=posixGroup) 

Attribute Mapping

The map configuration allows for overriding the attributes pushed from LDAP. To override an attribute for a given map*, specify the attribute name and the new value. One example of how this is useful is ensuring the shell is bash and the home directory is /home/cumulus:

map    passwd homeDirectory "/home/cumulus"
map    passwd shell "/bin/bash"

*In LDAP, the map refers to one of the supported maps specified in the manpage for nslcd.conf (such as passwd or group).


Using nslcd Debug Mode

When setting up LDAP authentication for the first time, Cumulus Networks recommends you turn off this service using systemctl stop nslcd.service and run it in debug mode. Debug mode works whether you are using LDAP over SSL (port 636) or an unencrypted LDAP connection (port 389).

cumulus@switch:~$ sudo systemctl stop nslcd.service
cumulus@switch:~$ sudo nslcd -d

Once you enable debug mode, run the following command to test LDAP queries:

cumulus@switch:~$ sudo getent myuser

If LDAP is configured correctly, the following messages appear after you run the getent command:

nslcd: DEBUG: accept() failed (ignored): Resource temporarily unavailable
nslcd: [8e1f29] DEBUG: connection from pid=11766 uid=0 gid=0
nslcd: [8e1f29] <passwd(all)> DEBUG: myldap_search(base="dc=example,dc=com", filter="(objectClass=posixAccount)")
nslcd: [8e1f29] <passwd(all)> DEBUG: ldap_result(): uid=myuser,ou=people,dc=example,dc=com
nslcd: [8e1f29] <passwd(all)> DEBUG: ldap_result(): ... 152 more results
nslcd: [8e1f29] <passwd(all)> DEBUG: ldap_result(): end of results (162 total)

In the output above, <passwd(all)> indicates that the entire directory structure was queried.

A specific user can be queried using the command:

cumulus@switch:~$ sudo getent passwd myuser

You can replace myuser with any username on the switch. The following debug output indicates that user myuser exists:

nslcd: DEBUG: add_uri(ldap://
nslcd: version 0.8.10 starting
nslcd: DEBUG: unlink() of /var/run/nslcd/socket failed (ignored): No such file or directory
nslcd: DEBUG: setgroups(0,NULL) done
nslcd: DEBUG: setgid(110) done
nslcd: DEBUG: setuid(107) done
nslcd: accepting connections
nslcd: DEBUG: accept() failed (ignored): Resource temporarily unavailable
nslcd: [8b4567] DEBUG: connection from pid=11369 uid=0 gid=0
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: myldap_search(base="dc=cumulusnetworks,dc=com", filter="(&(objectClass=posixAccount)(uid=myuser))")
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_initialize(ldap://<ip_address>)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_rebind_proc()
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_PROTOCOL_VERSION,3)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_DEREF,0)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_TIMELIMIT,0)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_TIMEOUT,0)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_NETWORK_TIMEOUT,0)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_REFERRALS,LDAP_OPT_ON)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_set_option(LDAP_OPT_RESTART,LDAP_OPT_ON)
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_simple_bind_s(NULL,NULL) (uri="ldap://<ip_address>")
nslcd: [8b4567] <passwd="myuser"> DEBUG: ldap_result(): end of results (0 total)

Notice how the <passwd="myuser"> shows that the specific myuser user was queried.

Common Problems


  • The FQDN of the LDAP server URI does not match the FQDN in the CA-signed server certificate exactly.
  • nslcd cannot read the SSL certificate, and will report a “Permission denied” error in the debug during server connection negotiation. Check the permission on each directory in the path of the root SSL certificate. Ensure that it is readable by the nslcd user.


  • If the nscd cache daemon is also enabled and you make some changes to the user from LDAP, you may want to clear the cache using the commands:

      nscd --invalidate = passwd 
      nscd --invalidate = group
  • The nscd package works with nslcd to cache name entries returned from the LDAP server. This may cause authentication failures. To work around these issues:

    1. Disable nscd by running:

        cumulus@switch:~$ sudo nscd -K
    2. Restart the nslcd service:

        cumulus@switch:~$ sudo systemctl restart nslcd.service
    3. Try the authentication again.


  • The search filter returns wrong results. Check for typos in the search filter. Use ldapsearch to test your filter.

  • Optionally, configure the basic LDAP connection and search parameters in /etc/ldap/ldap.conf.

      # ldapsearch -D 'cn=CLadmin' -w 'CuMuLuS' "(&(ObjectClass=inetOrgUser)(uid=myuser))"
  • When a local username also exists in the LDAP database, the order of the information sources in /etc/nsswitch can be updated to query LDAP before the local user database. This is generally not recommended. For example, the configuration below ensures that LDAP is queried before the local database.

      # /etc/nsswitch.conf
      passwd:         ldap compat

Configuring LDAP Authorization

Linux uses the sudo command to allow non-administrator users - like the default cumulus user account - to perform privileged operations. To control the users authorized to use sudo, the /etc/sudoers file and files located in the /etc/sudoers.d/ directory have a series of rules defined. Typically, the rules are based on groups, but can also be defined for specific users. Therefore, sudo rules can be added using the group names from LDAP. For example, if a group of users were associated with the group netadmin, a rule can be added to give those users sudo privileges. Refer to the sudoers manual (man sudoers) for a complete usage description. Here’s an illustration of this in /etc/sudoers:

# The basic structure of a user specification is "who where = (as_whom) what ".
%netadmin ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL

Active Directory Configuration

Active Directory (AD) is a fully featured LDAP-based NIS server created by Microsoft. It offers unique features that classic OpenLDAP servers lack. Therefore, it can be more complicated to configure on the client and each version of AD is a little different in how it works with Linux-based LDAP clients. Some more advanced configuration examples, from testing LDAP clients on Cumulus Linux with Active Directory (AD/LDAP), are available in our knowledge base.

LDAP Verification Tools

Typically, password and group information is retrieved from LDAP and cached by the LDAP client daemon. To test the LDAP interaction, these command line tools can be used to trigger an LDAP query from the device. This helps to create the best filters and verify the information sent back from the LDAP server.

Identifying a User with the id Command

The id command performs a username lookup by following the lookup information sources in NSS for the passwd service. This simply returns the user ID, group ID and the group list retrieved from the information source. In the following example, the user cumulus is locally defined in /etc/passwd, and myuser is on LDAP. The NSS configuration has the passwd map configured with the sources compat ldap:

cumulus@switch:~$ id cumulus
uid=1000(cumulus) gid=1000(cumulus) groups=1000(cumulus),24(cdrom),25(floppy),27(sudo),29(audio),30(dip),44(video),46(plugdev)
cumulus@switch:~$ id myuser 
uid=1230(myuser) gid=3000(Development) groups=3000(Development),500(Employees),27(sudo)

Using getent

The getent command retrieves all records found via NSS for a given map. It can also get a specific entry under that map. Tests can be done with the passwd, group, shadow or any other map configured in /etc/nsswitch.conf. The output from this command is formatted according to the map requested. Thus, for the passwd service, the structure of the output is the same as the entries in /etc/passwd. The same can be said for the group map will output the same as /etc/group. In this example, looking up a specific user in the passwd map, the user cumulus is locally defined in /etc/passwd, and myuser is only in LDAP.

cumulus@switch:~$ getent passwd cumulus
cumulus@switch:~$ getent passwd myuser 
myuser:x:1230:3000:My Test User:/home/myuser:/bin/bash

In the next example, looking up a specific group in the group service, the group cumulus is locally defined in /etc/groups, and netadmin is on LDAP.

cumulus@switch:~$ getent group cumulus
cumulus@switch:~$ getent group netadmin

Running the command getent passwd or getent group without a specific request, returns all local and LDAP entries for the passwd and group maps, respectively.

The ldapsearch command performs LDAP operations directly on the LDAP server. This does not interact with NSS. This command helps display what the LDAP daemon process is receiving back from the server. The command has many options. The simplest uses anonymous bind to the host and specifies the search DN and what attribute to lookup.

cumulus@switch:~$ ldapsearch -H ldap:// -b dc=example,dc=com -x uid=myuser
Click to expand the command output ...
# extended LDIF
# LDAPv3
# base <dc=example,dc=com> with scope subtree
# filter: uid=myuser
# requesting: ALL
# myuser, people,
dn: uid=myuser,ou=people,dc=example,dc=com
cn: My User
displayName: My User
gecos: myuser
gidNumber: 3000
givenName: My
homeDirectory: /home/myuser
initials: MU
loginShell: /bin/bash
objectClass: inetOrgPerson
objectClass: posixAccount
objectClass: shadowAccount
objectClass: top
shadowExpire: -1
shadowFlag: 0
shadowMax: 999999
shadowMin: 8
shadowWarning: 7
sn: User
uid: myuser
uidNumber: 1234
# search result
search: 2
result: 0 Success
# numResponses: 2
# numEntries: 1

LDAP Browsers

There are some GUI LDAP clients that help to work with LDAP servers. These are free tools to help graphically show the structure of the LDAP database.