LDAP Access Control

The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol is commonly used to implement access control policies in organizations. Various methods are available, from Mandatory Access Control (MAC) policy which can define directly what entities have access to which services, through the Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) scheme which can be used to grant different levels of access to different entities.

This document describes various mechanisms which are available in the DebOps LDAP environment supported by the debops.ldap and debops.slapd Ansible roles. These mechanisms can be used in different services to implement access control to a varying degree, based on the application.


Not all rules defined here are implemented in various DebOps roles at the moment.

Controlling access to LDAP objects in the directory

The debops.slapd role implements a default LDAP Access Control List which can be used to define which LDAP objects have access to data and at what level. By default, read access is granted to almost entire LDAP directory by authorized users; role-based and group-based access control is used to limit read and/or write access to specific LDAP attributes.

Account-based access control

Applications can use the LDAP bind operation to check if a given username and password combination is valid. To accomplish that, applications can utilize either a Distinguished Name provided by the user, match the username to a personal LDAP entry with the uid attribute stored in ou=People,dc=example,dc=org directory subtree, or use a search query to find the LDAP entry of a person or a service account in the LDAP directory using their username (in the uid attribute) or the provided e-mail address (in the mail attribute). After finding the correct Distinguished Name, applications need to privde the plaintext password over the TLS connection to the LDAP directory which will then verify it and confirm the validity. Successful bind operations should grant access to the application.

This access method is good for services and applications which should be available to all legitimate users in an organization. Anonymous and external users will not be granted access without authenticating first.

Various applications also require their own account objects in the LDAP directory to access its contents. These accounts are usually stored under the host objects in the ou=Hosts,dc=example,dc=org LDAP subtree, or if the applications are external to the organization or are implemented as a cluster, under the ou=Services,dc=example,dc=org LDAP subtree. Application accounts are subject to the LDAP Access Control List rules defined by the OpenLDAP service and may not have access to all of the LDAP entries and/or attributes.

This authorization type is global - any LDAP entry with userPassword attribute can be used to authorize access to a resource.

Examples of LDAP search queries

Directly check existence of a LDAP entry:

ldapsearch -Z -b "uid=$value,ou=People,dc=example,dc=org" uid

Search for personal Distinguished Name based on username or e-mail address. Esure that only one LDAP entry is returned, more entries result in an error code from LDAP which needs to be handled by the application:

ldapsearch -Z -z 1 -b ou=People,dc=example,dc=org \
           "(& (objectClass=inetOrgPerson) (| (uid=$value) (mail=$value) ) )" dn

Search for service account Distinguished Name based on username and FQDN of the host. Only one LDAP entry is allowed, more entries should result in an error:

ldapsearch -Z -z 1 -b dc=example,dc=org \
           "(& (objectClass=account) (uid=$username) (host=$fqdn) )" dn

Access control based on group membership

The group LDAP objects, defined under the ou=Groups,dc=example,dc=org LDAP subtree, can be used to control access to resources. These objects usually use the groupOfNames object class with the member attribute which defines the group members. Optionally, these objects can define a corresponding POSIX group using the posixGroup and posixGroupId object classes which can then be used to define access control in an UNIX environment.

The groupOfNames object class enforces at least one group member at all times. Groups can also have defined owners or managers using the owner attribute; in the default LDAP Access Control List configuration group owners have the ability to add or remove group members from the groups they own.

Applications can check the member attribute of one or more groups to determine if a given user or application account belongs to a group and with that information grant or revoke access to resources. Alternatively, the memberOf attribute of the user or account LDAP object can be used to determine group membership and control resource access based on that information.

This authorization type can be either global, or scoped to a particular application with group entries located under the ou=Groups subtree under the application LDAP entry.

Examples of LDAP search queries

Get the Distinguished Names of LDAP entries which are members of the UNIX Administrators group:

ldapsearch -Z -b "cn=UNIX Administrators,ou=Groups,dc=example,dc=org" member

Get the list of group Distinguished Names a given user belongs to:

ldapsearch -Z -b "uid=$username,ou=People,dc=example,dc=org" memberOf

Find all members of the UNIX Administrators group:

ldapsearch -Z "(memberOf=cn=UNIX Administrators,ou=Groups,dc=example,dc=org)" dn

Role-based access control

The role LDAP objects, defined under the ou=Roles,dc=example,dc=org LDAP subtree, are similar to the group objects described above. They are usually defined using the organizationalRole object class, and use the roleOccupant attribute to determine the people and accounts which are granted a given role.

The organizationalRole object class does not require any particular members to be present, unlike the groupOfNames object class. This is a good choice to create various roles which don't have existing role occupants - different roles can then be granted to different people or accounts at a later date.

This authorization type can be either global, or scoped to a particular application with role entries located under the ou=Roles subtree under the application LDAP entry.

Examples of LDAP search queries

Get the Distinguished Names of LDAP entries which are included in the LDAP Administrator role:

ldapsearch -Z -b "cn=LDAP Administrator,ou=Roles,dc=example,dc=org" roleOccupant

Attribute-based access control

LDAP entries can include the authorizedServiceObject object class which provides the authorizedService attribute. This attribute is a multi-valued string which can be used to define the access permissions to a particular resource. Only "equal" match for this attribute is defined in the LDAP schema, which limits its capabilities to a degree - searching for partial string matches is not supported.

This authorization type is scoped to an LDAP entry, which results in less LDAP queries needed to find out particular access permissions. It can be used to implement Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) authorization scheme.

In DebOps, applications should standardize on a structured format of the attribute values, either all, <service>, <system>, or <system>:<type>.

Global permissions

The all value grants access to all services and systems and if present, should be the only value of the authorizedService attribute. Any additional values present are nullified by it, therefore if more fine-grained access control is desired, the all value should be removed from the LDAP entry entirely. Client applications are free to implement the meaning of the all value as they choose, however usually the usage in the LDAP search filter will most likely be either all or some specific set of values.

Service permissions

The <service> value usually means a specific network service daemon, for example sshd, slapd, vsftpd and so on. Since web applications are accessed via a web server, they should use their own separate service or system names to allow more fine-grained access control to each web application. The value grants blanket access to a particular service without fine-grained control over capabilities of the user.

System permissions

The <system> value is an agnostic name for a set of various services that work together as a whole to accomplish a task. For example, mail would define an access control parameter for the SMTP server, IMAP server, mail filtering software, and the shell string would define access control parameter for the SSH service, sudo access, NSS database service, etc.

Similarly to the <service> value, this value grants blanket access to a particular system as a whole. It means that the system cannot define "global" access and "partial" access at the same time (see below). It might be hard to convert a "global" access permissions to "partial" access permissions, therefore the choice of how to define the access should be selected early on during development.

Partial system permissions

The <system>:<type> value is a definition of a system access permissions which are split into "parts" of the whole, each part defined by the permission <type>. The partial permissions shouldn't overlap (two or more permissions controlling the same resource access) or be additive (a permission type implying presence of another permission type). There shouldn't be a <system>:all permission as well, since it would nullify partial permissions for a given system.

Each system can define its own set of permission types, however the type names should be as precise and descriptive as possible. A good example is the "mail" system, with the mail:receive permission allowing incoming messages to be received by the e-mail account, the mail:send permission allowing outgoing messages to be sent by the e-mail account, and the mail:access permission granting read-write access to the e-mail account by its user.

It's easy to create additional permission types once the system is implemented, therefore in larger systems this should be a preferred method of access control. The partial permissions shouldn't be mixed with the "global" permission for a given system because that would nullify the partial permissions.

Examples of LDAP search queries

Get list of access control values of a given user account:

ldapsearch -Z -b 'uid=$username,ou=People,dc=example,dc=org' authorizedService

Find all personal accounts which have shell access or global access:

ldapsearch -Z -b "ou=People,dc=example,dc=org" \
           "(& (objectClass=inetOrgPerson) (| (authorizedService=all) (authorizedService=shell) ) )" dn

Find all LDAP entries which can send e-mail messages or have global access:

ldapsearch -Z -b "dc=example,dc=org" \
           "(| (authorizedService=all) (authorizedService=mail:send) )" dn

Host-based access control

The hostObject LDAP object class gives LDAP entries access to the host attribute which is used to store hostnames and Fully Qualified Domain Names of the LDAP entries. The attribute type supports substring (wildcard) matches and can be used to create host-based access rules.

Various services and systems can check for the presence of the host attribute with specific value patterns. The preferred value format in this case should be: <service|system>:<host>, where the <host> can be a FQDN hostname, or a woldcard domain (*.example.org), or just a hostname, or the value all for all hosts in the cluster.

Examples of LDAP search queries

Get list of POSIX accounts which should be present on a given host and have access to shell services:

ldapsearch -Z -b "dc=example,dc=org" \
           "(& (objectClass=posixAccount) (| (host=shell:host.example.org) (host=shell:all) ) )"

Get list of POSIX accounts which should be present on any host in a specific domain. This uses the substring match to get all entries with a specific domain:

ldapsearch -Z -b "dc=example,dc=org" \
           "(& (objectClass=posixAccount) (| (host=shell:*.example.org) (host=shell:all) ) )"

Get list of POSIX accounts which should be present on all hosts in a specific domain. This query looks for all entries with a wildcard (*.example.org) domain defined as the value:

ldapsearch -Z -b "dc=example,dc=org" \
           "(& (objectClass=posixAccount) (| (host=shell:\2a.example.org) (host=shell:all) ) )"