IAM Myth: Everything in LDAP

Last modified 18 Mar 2024 11:02 +01:00

Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) is a not just a good idea, it is a law. Every piece of information in a computer system should reside at exactly one place. This applies to identity management as well. All modern applications have a support for LDAP anyway. So let’s just move all the accounts to LDAP, let’s connect all applications to that LDAP and we are done. Simple, easy, cheap.

Indeed, it would be simple, easy and cheap, if it can be done. However, it is usually not feasible. Not in this simple form, anyway.

Directory Service

LDAP is a protocol that connects applications to directory service. Directory service is very like a phone book: it is just a database. It is designed to be scalable, distributed, standardized …​ but it is still just a database. And it is a very simplified database. Its job is to store, search and retrieve the data (and actually the "search" part is also very simple). The design decisions of directory services prefer scalability and availability and sacrifice features and hard data consistency.

Directory services are currently being used for two primary purposes: user account database and authentication. Storing data such as user accounts - that’s what the directory service was designed to do and it does it reasonably well. But authentication is just a side effect. Applications that use LDAP as an authentication service are actually abusing the internal LDAP authentication mechanism which was not designed to be used externally. LDAP was not built for this, therefore it only provides very basic authentication "services": verification of credentials. And by credentials I mean password. The original LDAP authentication was not very flexible to support much more than just password and therefore it is currently being replaced by more flexible mechanisms such as SASL. But even that will not change the fact that directory service is not an authentication service. E.g. it does not maintain user session and therefore there is no possibility for single-sign on, it does not store historical data therefore there is no possibility for login time reports, it does not know anything about logouts, etc.

Data Model

LDAP’s data model is designed to be standardized. And this is one of the most widely accepted standard in the whole identity and access management (IAM) field. While there is undeniable benefit to standardization there are also some drawbacks. The LDAP data model creates an interface to which all the clients must adapt. This is OK for a new and simple application that only needs the very basic data from user profile. The uid, cn, sn and givenName will be more than enough for such trivial applications. But what if the application also needs more data? Such as user’s timezone which is needed to correctly display local time information. Fortunately LDAP is extensible and it is easy to add new timezone attribute. However, one application expects that the timezone will be in "+0200" format, the other expects "CEST" and yet another "Europe/Bratislava". Houston, we have a problem. This just won’t work with a single attribute. But let’s image that we persuade these applications to use three different attributes for time zone. But now we have three places where we store a single piece of data and that means that the DRY principle went down the drain. And simplicity went south with it. Now we need a component that will keep these three values consistent. Many modern directory servers have a plugin ability that can be used to do it. But this is not an easy way to do this kind of things. The things start to go the DIY way.

And it all gets worse. There at least two standardized but mutually incompatible LDAP grouping mechanisms: groupOfNames and groupOfUniqueNames. Some applications support the former, some the latter. But for the directory service to be really a universal database the accounts needs to be placed in both types of groups. And again we need something to keep that consistent. Also many applications are not happy with just a simple grouping mechanism. Sophisticated applications need sophisticated ways of authorization. They need roles, ACLs, privileges …​. and there is no standardized way how to do this in LDAP. And the real killer is organizational structure. LDAP has a hierarchical structure of organizationalUnit objects. But it is so inflexible that it fails to model the flexible multi-dimensional organizational structures used in 21st century companies. Also there are many incompatible ways how to represent it and each application expects something slightly different. Bye bye DRY.

Data Consistency

Data duplication is not limited just to duplicating values over several LDAP attributes. There is a more serious problem. Very often the data need to be copied out of LDAP and stored in application databases. There are many reasons for this. One of the reason is application simplicity. Most applications were not built to support LDAP. The LDAP support was only added later. Therefore the application is hardcoded to read the account data from its own database. The easiest way how to integrate this with LDAP is to copy the data from LDAP to the application database on first login. And that’s exactly what many applications do. Other applications just need the data to be stored locally. You cannot do a join between database table and directory server. Therefore if the application needs to create a report that contains full names of the users it must replicate this information from LDAP to database tables.

It is relatively easy to copy the data once. But how to keep the copies up to date? That’s much harder. But, do we really need that? The account data are quite static, right? Well, they are much less static that one would expect. Approximately half of the population changes a name at least once per life. Because people have that annoying habit of getting married. And as the marriage usually happens during a productive age the renames of user accounts are surprisingly frequent. Mix in changes in organizational structure, job positions, responsibilities …​. and what you get is a user management nightmare.

There is one more thing that LDAP just cannot do efficiently: deprovisioning. LDAP-enabled applications usually work like this: user goes to the application, enters username and password. Application transforms username to LDAP DN and attempts to "login" to LDAP. If that succeeds then a local record for the user is created in the application and the user is allowed access to the application. User works inside the application, creates new data, files, history records and so on. A few years later the user leaves the company and his account is deleted from the LDAP. But the application does not know anything about this. It gets no signal. The user just stops accessing the application. If someone tries to access it then the authentication would fail (no LDAP account) but nobody bothers to try the authentication any more. So the useless data just lies around in the application forever. This is especially interesting if the data are in form of home directories full of big files. Simply speaking there is nobody that would clean up. And this may even be a security risk especially if the application has a secondary non-LDAP authentication mechanism (e.g. SSH key pair) which remains valid even after LDAP account is removed.

But perhaps the most pressing practical issues is the how the user accounts get into the directory server in the first place. Usually the directory service is not a primary source of the data. The source is Human Resource (HR) system, CRM, self-registration system or something similar. But most frequently it is a combination of several sources. How do we get the data from these sources to the directory server? Well, there is always the DIY way. This may be a good start but it breaks down surprisingly quickly.

The Solution

The key is to realize that directory service is just a database. It is not a complete IDM solution, just one component of that solution. It may a good first step but then it needs to be followed by other steps. Specifically these two steps:

  • Deploy a provisioning system to synchronize data from the sources (HR, CRM) to LDAP. This does not need to be anything complex and expensive. A simple open source solution will do well enough. The same provisioning system can also take care of deprovisioning accounts from applications, synchronizing account data, manage group membership, keep directory data consistent and so on.

  • Use an access management solution to get full authentication functionality, SSO and so on.

The practical solution usually has three components: directory service, identity management and access management.

But that does not mean that directory service is not needed any more. Quite the contrary! You cannot integrate an application in any cheaper way than by connecting it to LDAP. If you can use LDAP then do not hesitate and do it. Especially if the application is simple and mostly stateless. This keeps the price of the solution acceptable. But you need to have a "plan B" for applications that are more heavyweight. Provisioning system will do that very well. And when it comes to access management that is usually the last piece in the puzzle. There is enough time to figure out how to do this well. It may come later. LDAP authentication will work very well for quite a long time. People will cope with entering the password many times as long as it is the same password and they do not need to remember 10 different passwords. LDAP will do that quite well and provisioning system will help to reach system that do not support LDAP. And you can plan deployment of access management for later.

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