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Applies to SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 15 SP5

6 Network authentication with Kerberos

Kerberos is a network authentication protocol which also provides encryption. This chapter describes how to set up Kerberos and integrate services like LDAP and NFS.

6.1 Conceptual overview

An open network provides no means of ensuring that a workstation can identify its users properly, except through the usual password mechanisms. In common installations, the user must enter the password each time a service inside the network is accessed. Kerberos provides an authentication method with which a user registers only once and is trusted in the complete network for the rest of the session. To have a secure network, the following requirements must be met:

  • Have all users prove their identity for each desired service and make sure that no one can take the identity of someone else.

  • Make sure that each network server also proves its identity. Otherwise an attacker might be able to impersonate the server and obtain sensitive information transmitted to the server. This concept is called mutual authentication, because the client authenticates to the server and vice versa.

Kerberos helps you meet these requirements by providing strongly encrypted authentication. Only the basic principles of Kerberos are discussed here. For detailed technical instruction, refer to the Kerberos documentation.

6.2 Kerberos terminology

The following glossary defines Kerberos terminology.


Users or clients need to present credentials that authorize them to request services. Kerberos knows two kinds of credentials—tickets and authenticators.


A ticket is a per-server credential used by a client to authenticate at a server from which it is requesting a service. It contains the name of the server, the client's name, the client's Internet address, a time stamp, a lifetime, and a random session key. All this data is encrypted using the server's key.


Combined with the ticket, an authenticator is used to prove that the client presenting a ticket is really the one it claims to be. An authenticator is built using the client's name, the workstation's IP address, and the current workstation's time, all encrypted with the session key known only to the client and the relevant server. An authenticator can only be used once, unlike a ticket. A client can build an authenticator itself.


A Kerberos principal is a unique entity (a user or service) to which it can assign a ticket. A principal consists of the following components:

  • primary: The first part of the principal. For users, this is usually the same as the user name.

  • instance (optional): Additional information characterizing the primary. This string is separated from the primary by a /.

    tux@example.org and tux/admin@example.org can both exist on the same Kerberos system and are treated as different principals.

  • realm: Specifies the Kerberos realm. Normally, your realm is your domain name in uppercase letters.

mutual authentication

Kerberos ensures that both client and server can be sure of each other's identity. They share a session key, which they can use to communicate securely.

session key

Session keys are temporary private keys generated by Kerberos. They are known to the client and used to encrypt the communication between the client and the server for which it requested and received a ticket.


Almost all messages sent in a network can be eavesdropped, stolen and resent. In the Kerberos context, this would be most dangerous if an attacker manages to obtain your request for a service containing your ticket and authenticator. The attacker could then try to resend it (replay) to impersonate you. However, Kerberos implements several mechanisms to deal with this problem.

server or service

Service is used to refer to a specific action to perform. The process behind this action is called a server.

6.3 How Kerberos works

Kerberos is often called a third-party trusted authentication service, which means all its clients trust Kerberos's judgment of another client's identity. Kerberos keeps a database of all its users and their private keys.

To ensure Kerberos is working correctly, run both the authentication and ticket-granting server on a dedicated machine. Make sure that only the administrator can access this machine physically and over the network. Reduce the (networking) services running on it to the absolute minimum—do not even run sshd.

6.3.1 First contact

Your first contact with Kerberos is similar to any login procedure at a normal networking system. Enter your user name. This piece of information and the name of the ticket-granting service are sent to the authentication server (Kerberos). If the authentication server knows you, it generates a random session key for further use between your client and the ticket-granting server. Now the authentication server prepares a ticket for the ticket-granting server. The ticket contains the following information—all encrypted with a session key only the authentication server and the ticket-granting server know:

  • The names of both, the client and the ticket-granting server

  • The current time

  • A lifetime assigned to this ticket

  • The client's IP address

  • The newly generated session key

This ticket is then sent back to the client together with the session key, again in encrypted form, but this time the private key of the client is used. This private key is only known to Kerberos and the client, because it is derived from your user password. Now that the client has received this response, you are prompted for your password. This password is converted into the key that can decrypt the package sent by the authentication server. The package is unwrapped and password and key are erased from the workstation's memory. As long as the lifetime given to the ticket used to obtain other tickets does not expire, your workstation can prove your identity.

6.3.2 Requesting a service

To request a service from any server in the network, the client application needs to prove its identity to the server. Therefore, the application generates an authenticator. An authenticator consists of the following components:

  • The client's principal

  • The client's IP address

  • The current time

  • A checksum (chosen by the client)

All this information is encrypted using the session key that the client has already received for this special server. The authenticator and the ticket for the server are sent to the server. The server uses its copy of the session key to decrypt the authenticator, which gives it all the information needed about the client requesting its service, to compare it to that contained in the ticket. The server checks if the ticket and the authenticator originate from the same client.

Without any security measures implemented on the server side, this stage of the process would be an ideal target for replay attacks. Someone could try to resend a request stolen off the net some time before. To prevent this, the server does not accept any request with a time stamp and ticket received previously. A request with a time stamp differing too much from the time the request is received is ignored.

6.3.3 Mutual authentication

Kerberos authentication can be used in both directions. It is not only a question of the client being the one it claims to be. The server should also be able to authenticate itself to the client requesting its service. Therefore, it sends an authenticator itself. It adds one to the checksum it received in the client's authenticator and encrypts it with the session key, which is shared between it and the client. The client takes this response as a proof of the server's authenticity and they both start cooperating.

6.3.4 Ticket granting—contacting all servers

Tickets are designed to be used for one server at a time. Therefore, you need to get a new ticket each time you request another service. Kerberos implements a mechanism to obtain tickets for individual servers. This service is called the ticket-granting service. The ticket-granting service is a service (like any other service mentioned before) and uses the same access protocols that have already been outlined. Any time an application needs a ticket that has not already been requested, it contacts the ticket-granting server. This request consists of the following components:

  • The requested principal

  • The ticket-granting ticket

  • An authenticator

Like any other server, the ticket-granting server now checks the ticket-granting ticket and the authenticator. If they are considered valid, the ticket-granting server builds a new session key to be used between the original client and the new server. Then the ticket for the new server is built, containing the following information:

  • The client's principal

  • The server's principal

  • The current time

  • The client's IP address

  • The newly generated session key

The new ticket has a lifetime, which is either the remaining lifetime of the ticket-granting ticket or the default for the service. The lesser of both values is assigned. The client receives this ticket and the session key, which are sent by the ticket-granting service. But this time the answer is encrypted with the session key that came with the original ticket-granting ticket. The client can decrypt the response without requiring the user's password when a new service is contacted. Kerberos can thus acquire ticket after ticket for the client without bothering the user.

6.4 User view of Kerberos

Ideally, a user only contact with Kerberos happens during login at the workstation. The login process includes obtaining a ticket-granting ticket. At logout, a user's Kerberos tickets are automatically destroyed, which makes it difficult for anyone else to impersonate this user.

The automatic expiration of tickets can lead to a situation when a user's login session lasts longer than the maximum lifespan given to the ticket-granting ticket (a reasonable setting is 10 hours). However, the user can get a new ticket-granting ticket by running kinit. Enter the password again and Kerberos obtains access to desired services without additional authentication. To get a list of all the tickets silently acquired for you by Kerberos, run klist.

Here is a short list of applications that use Kerberos authentication. These applications can be found under /usr/lib/mit/bin or /usr/lib/mit/sbin after installing the package krb5-apps-clients. They all have the full functionality of their common Unix and Linux brothers plus the additional bonus of transparent authentication managed by Kerberos:

  • telnet, telnetd

  • rlogin

  • rsh, rcp, rshd

  • ftp, ftpd

You no longer need to enter your password for using these applications because Kerberos has already proven your identity. ssh, if compiled with Kerberos support, can even forward all the tickets acquired for one workstation to another one. If you use ssh to log in to another workstation, ssh makes sure that the encrypted contents of the tickets are adjusted to the new situation. Simply copying tickets between workstations is not sufficient because the ticket contains workstation-specific information (the IP address). XDM and GDM offer Kerberos support, too. Read more about the Kerberos network applications in Kerberos V5 UNIX User's Guide at https://web.mit.edu/kerberos.

6.5 Kerberos and NFS

Most NFS servers can export file systems using any combination of the default trust the network form of security, known as sec=sys, and three different levels of Kerberos-based security, sec=krb5, sec=krb5i, and sec=krb5p. The sec option is set as a mount option on the client. It is often the case that the NFS service is configured first and used with sec=sys, and then Kerberos can be imposed afterwards. In this case it is likely that the server is configured to support both sec=sys and one of the Kerberos levels, and then after all clients have transitioned, the sec=sys support is removed, thus achieving true security. The transition to Kerberos should be transparent if done in an orderly manner. However there is one subtle detail of NFS behavior that works differently when Kerberos is used, and the implications of this need to be understood and addressed. See Section 6.5.1, “Group membership”.

The three Kerberos levels indicate different levels of security. With more security comes a need for more processor power to encrypt and decrypt messages. Choosing the right balance is an important consideration when planning a roll-out of Kerberos for NFS.

krb5 provides only authentication. The server can know who sent a request, and the client can know that the server sent a reply. No security is provided for the content of the request or reply, so an attacker with physical network access could transform the request or reply, or both, in various ways to deceive either server or client. They cannot directly read or change any file that the authenticated user could not read or change, but almost anything is theoretically possible.

krb5i adds integrity checks to all messages. With krb5i, an attacker cannot modify any request or reply, but they can view all the data exchanged, and so could discover the content of any file that is read.

krb5p adds privacy to the protocol. As well as reliable authentication and integrity checking, messages are fully encrypted so an attacker can only know that messages were exchanged between client and server, and cannot extract other information directly from the message. Whether information can be extracted from message timing is a separate question that Kerberos does not address.

6.5.1 Group membership

The one behavioral difference between sec=sys and the Kerberos security levels that might be visible is related to group membership. In Unix and Linux, each file system access comes from a process that is owned by a particular user and has a particular group owner and several supplemental groups. Access rights to files can vary based on the owner and the groups.

With sec=sys, the user-id, group-id, and a list of up to 16 supplementary groups are sent to the server in each request.

If a user is a member of more than 16 supplementary groups, the extra groups are lost and files may not be accessible over NFS that the user would normally expect to have access to. For this reason, most sites that use NFS find a way to limit all users to at most 16 supplementary groups.

If the user runs the newgrp command or runs a set-group-id program, either of which can change the list of groups they are a member of, these changes take effect immediately and provide different accesses over NFS.

With Kerberos, group information is not sent in requests. Only the user is identified (using a Kerberos principal), and the server performs a lookup to determine the user ID and group list for that principal. This means that if the user is a member of more than 16 groups, these group memberships are used in determining file access permissions. However it also means that if the user changes a group-id on the client, the server does not notice the change and does not take it into account in determining access rights.

Usually the improvement of having access to more groups brings a real benefit, and the loss of not being able to change groups is not noticed as it is not widely used. A site administrator considering the use of Kerberos should be aware of the difference though and ensure that it does not cause problems.

6.5.2 Performance and scalability

Using Kerberos for security requires extra CPU power for encrypting and decrypting messages. How much extra CPU power is required and whether the difference is noticeable varies with different hardware and different applications. If the server or client are already saturating the available CPU power, it is likely that a performance drop is measurable when switching from sec=sys to Kerberos. If there is spare CPU capacity available, it is possible that the transition does not result in any throughput change. The only way to be sure how much impact the use of Kerberos has is to test your load on your hardware.

The only configuration options that might reduce the load also reduce the quality of the protection offered. sec=krb5 should produce noticeably less load than sec=krb5p but, as discussed above, it does not produce strong security. Similarly it is possible to adjust the list of ciphers that Kerberos can choose from, and this might change the CPU requirement. However the defaults are carefully chosen and should not be changed without similar careful consideration.

The other possible performance issue when configuring NFS to use Kerberos involves availability of the Kerberos authentication servers, known as the KDC or Key Distribution Center.

The use of NFS adds load to such servers to the same degree that adding the use of Kerberos for any other services adds some load. Every time a given user (Kerberos principal) establishes a session with a service, for example by accessing files exported by a particular NFS server, the client needs to negotiate with the KDC. Once a session key has been negotiated, the client server can communicate without further help for many hours, depending on details of the Kerberos configuration, particularly the ticket_lifetime setting.

The concerns most likely to affect the provisioning of Kerberos KDC servers are availability and peak usage.

As with other core services such as DNS, LDAP or similar name-lookup services, having two servers that are reasonably close to every client provides good availability for modest resources. Kerberos allows for multiple KDC servers with flexible models for database propagation, so distributing servers as needed around campuses, buildings and even cabinets is straightforward. The best mechanism to ensure each client finds a nearby Kerberos server is to use split-horizon DNS with each building (or similar) getting different details from the DNS server. If this is not possible, then managing the /etc/krb5.conf file to be different at different locations is a suitable alternative.

As access to the Kerberos KDC is infrequent, load is only likely to be a problem at peak times. If thousands of people all log in between 9:00 and 9:05, then the servers will receive many more requests-per-minute than they might in the middle of the night. The load on the Kerberos server is likely to be more than that on an LDAP server, but not orders of magnitude more. A sensible guideline is to provision Kerberos replicas in the same manner that you provision LDAP replicas, and then monitor performance to determine if demand ever exceeds capacity.

6.5.3 Master KDC, multiple domains, and trust relationships

One service of the Kerberos KDC that is not easily distributed is the handling of updates, such as password changes and new user creation. These must happen at a single master KDC.

These updates are not likely to happen with such frequency that any significant load is generated, but availability could be an issue. It can be annoying to create a new user or change a password, and the master KDC on the other side of the world is temporarily unavailable.

When an organization is geographically distributed and has a policy of handling administration tasks locally at each site, it can be beneficial to create multiple Kerberos domains, one for each administrative center. Each domain would then have its own master KDC which would be geographically local. Users in one domain can still get access to resources in another domain by setting up trust relationships between domains.

The easiest arrangement for multiple domains is to have a global domain (for example, EXAMPLE.COM) and local domains (for example, ASIA.EXAMPLE.COM, EUROPE.EXAMPLE.COM). If the global domain is configured to trust each local domain, and each local domain is configured to trust the global domain, then fully transitive trust is available between any pair of domains, and any principal can establish a secure connection with any service. Ensuring appropriate access rights to resources, for example files provided by that service, depends on the user name lookup service used, and the functionality of the NFS file server, and is beyond the scope of this document.

6.6 More information

The official site of MIT Kerberos is https://web.mit.edu/kerberos. There, find links to any other relevant resource concerning Kerberos, including Kerberos installation, user, and administration guides.

The book Kerberos—A Network Authentication System by Brian Tung (ISBN 0-201-37924-4) offers extensive information.