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Setting up and understanding LDAP is not easy. In my opinion, nothing is obfuscated more and unnecessarily so than LDAP. There are a number of tips that can help you to understand LDAP.

LDAP is not authentication. This was the number one problem I had when I started (a while back). The first time user might search for documents on setting up LDAP when in fact they are looking for documents on how to set up UNIX and Linux authentication using LDAP. An LDAP server at its most basic doesn’t understand UNIX uids, doesn’t understand GECOS fields, doesn’t understand UNIX gids, and doesn’t understand Linux shadow files. Support for all of this must be added.

Support for UNIX authentication must be added. You would think that the most common usage for LDAP would come bundled and ready to go with the server; however, often this is not the case. Even if it is the case, you may find that for certain capabilities you are expected to add new LDIF files to support the fields in LDAP.

LDAP is not just another database server. Virtually everything in LDAP has a different name; it is unlike anything you’ve done before. Take heart: X.500 (where LDAP comes from) was worse. You’ll have to slog through a pile of new terms, but after a while it will become easier to understand.

OpenLDAP is not synonymous with LDAP. There are other servers out there. OpenLDAP does come with virtually every Linux platform; there are however, many others – many of which may be easier to use. There is the 389 Directory Server from Red Hat, the ApacheDS (part of the Apache Directory Project) from Apache, and OpenDJ from ForgeRock. OpenDJ itself is a spin-off from OpenDS, originally from Sun.

OpenLDAP is known for making non-backwards-compatible changes. The most recent example is the complete replacement of the configuration system.

OpenLDAP no longer uses slapd.conf. This will cause you no end of problems: there are a lot of people trying to explain how to set up OpenLDAP, and with a single strike (as of version 2.3) OpenLDAP made all of that documentation obsolete and useless. This is incomprehensible, but it is a fact.

Using and administering LDAP requires command line expertise. This is basically true, but like many things, it is not the complete truth. There are many programs designed to make it easy to browse LDAP stores, along with editing capabilities. Some of the more interesting products include Jxplorer, Luma, and the Apache Directory Studio. Of these, the Apache Directory Studio is the most capable, robust, and actively developed – and by far the largest.

Some LDAP entries can be present more than once or have more than one value. If you are comparing LDAP to a database, then this will come as a surprise. One valuable example is UNIX groups: the original UNIX systems only had one group per user; later, secondary groups were added – thus presenting a single user with multiple groups. This is handled in LDAP in a variety of ways, but they all amount to having multiple entries with different values.

Limiting user logins by host is not available in LDAP. This capability is most likely to be done by using the client host. There are a number of ways to do it, but all require LDAP client configuration, and all are limited in their application. Without client configuration, all LDAP users will have authenticated access to the host.

Be prepared to do a lot of web searches for documentation and solutions. The best places to go for searches are: Google (of course) and Ubuntu Documentation.

There are also very good articles and documents on using LDAP for authentication. There is an article about OpenLDAP authentication on FreeBSD (FreeBSD articles tend to be very well-written). Similarly, Ubuntu documentation is well-written as well; each of the Ubuntu versions has a section in the documentation on using and configuring OpenLDAP for authentication. Ubuntu 11.04 documentation has a good article on OpenLDAP for example.

Ubuntu documentation also includes a lot of well-written (and current) articles. For example, there are articles on OpenLDAP Server (a general article), LDAP Client Authentication, Samba and LDAP (from the 10.04 Server documentation), and Securing OpenLDAP Conenctions. If you plan to use 389 Server instead, there are even a couple of articles on using it with Ubuntu: Fedora Directory Server (the original name of 389 Server) and Fedora Directory Server Client Howto.

A nice overview of LDAP comes from Brian Jones at O’Reilly: specifically, his 2006 articles on Demystifying LDAP and Demystifying LDAP Data. Linux Journal also has myriad different articles on LDAP (not to mention an OpenLDAP theme for the December 2002 issue). Linux Journal also has an article from 2007 on Fedora Directory Server (now 389 Server).

Lastly, an excellent resource is the “book” LDAP for Rocket Scientists from Zytrax.com. You simply must go and read portions of this book. One very apt quote from the introduction to the book which sums up the state of LDAP documentation generally:

The bad news is that [in our humble opinion] never has so much been written so incomprehensibly about a single topic with the possible exceptions of BIND and … and …

(It should be noted that the other book at Zytrax is about DNS. Is it any surprise?)

UPDATE:

Yet another trick to LDAP:

The cn= attribute is not solely a leaf attribute. This can be seen in OpenLDAP’s cn=config tree with OpenLDAP configuration. For example, a typical admin user can be designated like so:

cn=admin,dc=bigcorp,dc=com

However, when you use OpenLDAP’s configuration, the designation for the admin user is this:

cn=admin,cn=config

When you look into the configuration tree, there are more cn= entries – like this:

cn={4}misc,cn=schema,cn=config