SASL Authentication Mechanisms


Authentication is used in many protocols (such as LDAP binding) and it usually involves sending password. Given the nature of authentication protocol, its traffic encryption is usually mandatory. Simple Authentication and Security Layer (SASL) is introduced to ensure the security during authentication. It is not a single protocol, but rather a framework for authentication and data security involving many protocols. The intent is to decouple authentication mechanisms from application protocols, thus allowing any authentication mechanism (under SASL) to be used in any application protocol (that supports SASL). Application protocols that support SASL typically can also be built on Transport Layer Security (TLS), whose latest versions (1.2 and 1.3) are considered more secure.


The server basically does not authenticate the client. The client connects to the server anonymously. Under SASL framework, this may also be referred to as ANONYMOUS mechanism.

Simple (PLAIN)

In simple authentication method the password is sent to server in the clear. This is subject to eavesdropping and is not secure. It is still surprisingly widespread in legacy configurations probably due to the simplicity of configuration. This option should not be available in cloud environment. Under SASL framework, this may also be referred to as PLAIN mechanism.


CRAM-MD5: described in RFC 2195, using HMAC-MD5 algorithm. In this challenge-response scheme based mechanism, the client’s password is protected during authentication, but the application session (e.g. LDAP) traffic is not encrypted. It includes random data from the server and is slightly better than Simple authentication. However, this authentication method is not recommended either.

DIGEST-MD5: described in RFC 2831. This is very similar to CRAM-MD5 but is is somewhat stronger because it includes random data from both the client and server. In addition, it also provides a provision to ensure connection integrity and confidentiality (a data security layer).


Generic Security Service Application Program Interface (GSS-API) is an API specification for programs to access security services. GSS-API by itself does not provide any security. Instead, security-service vendors provide GSSAPI implementations – usually in the form of libraries installed with their security software. These libraries present a GSSAPI-compatible interface to application developers who can write their application to use only the vendor-independent GSSAPI.

Under SASL, the dominant GSSAPI mechanism implementation in use is Kerberos version 5. GSSAPI allows Kerberos implementations to be API compatible. In many contexts, GSSAPI simply implies Kerberos.


NT LAN Manager (NTLM) is a challenge-response based Microsoft security protocols. It is implemented in a Security Support Provider (SSP), which combines the older LAN Manager authentication protocol, NTLMv1, NTLMv2 and NTLM2 Session protocols in a single package. Group policy manages whether these protocols are used or can be used. NTLM passwords are considered weak because they can be brute-forced very easily with modern hardware. It might still be enabled in server configuration as a backup mechanism to Kerberos.


CRAM-MD5, DIGEST-MD5, GSSAPI, and NTLM are more commonly referred to as SASL mechanisms (in loose terms). These mechanisms allow for a secure password exchange without requiring TLS by trying to address the authentication traffic encryption problem at application layer. Using TLS this can also be address at transport layer. TLS can be used in combination with any of the mechanisms above but usually TLS/Simple mechanism is sufficient. In many occasions the mechanisms under SASL can be replaced by simple authentication encrypted with TLS. Under the SASL framework, this may also be referred to as EXTERNAL mechanism so TLS (in strict terms) is also considered a SASL mechanism.


This article outlined several authentication protocols under SASL. Since SASL is the framework that intends to govern all authentication protocols, the use case of these protocol can be widespread. For example, in LDAP you can find all of them. Here is a comparison across them:

Password on wireSession
SimpleClearNo Encryption
SASL/CRAM-MD5EncryptedNo Encryption
SASL/DIGEST-MD5EncryptedNo Encryption

Common SASL implementation includes Cyrus SASL and GNU SASL. There are also some API implementations that supports some of SASL mechanisms, such as SSPI.