Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)


Originally LDAP only refers to the connectivity protocol to the directory server. This term is being used loosely today and it also refers to the actual directory service that supports and complies with LDAP. LDAP v3 is the current version developed in RFC 2251.

A directory is information about some set of entities such as people, organization, or stones. An example of directory would be /etc/passwd file in Linux. A directory server is simply an application with the main purpose of maintaining directories. Typically, the read traffic is high whereas write traffic is low. LDAP is a general-purpose directory server. It can store information about people, or cars, or rocks. You just need to define what a person’s entry looks like as well as what a rock’s entry looks like. The general architecture of LDAP provides the capability nedded for managing large amount of diverse directory entries.

An LDAP entry consists of DN (distinguished name) and attributes. An attribute may have one or more attribute names and they are defined in attribute definitions. Attribute names are not case-sensitive. An attribute may have one or more values if multiple values are allowed for that attribute. Attribute values may be case-sensitive depending on the definition.

A special attributed named objectclass attribute provides information about what type of record it is, and what attributes canbe given to the record. For example, the organization name (o) is required for any entry with an organization object class. While a record may have multiple object classes, one of these object classes must be the structural object class for the record. A structural object class determines what type of object the record is.

In addition to regular attributes, the directory server may also attach special operational attributes to an entry. Operational attributes are used by the directory server itself to store information about entries. Such attributes are not designed for use by end users, and are usually not returned during LDAP searches.

An LDAP schema defines types of records in a directory and how those records might relate to each other.

Information in an LDAP directory is organized into one or more hierarchies where, at the top of the hierarchy, there is a base entry, and other entries are organized in tree-like structures beneath the base entry. Each node on the hierarchy is an entry, with a DN and more than one attributes. This hierarchically organized collection of entries is called a directory information tree (DIT). In DIT, LDAP directories stores data in hierarchical relationships. The root entry sits at the top and subordinate entry is beneath that, which in turn may have its own subordinate entries. Each of these records has its own DN, and its own attributes. The DN of each entry is composed of two parts: the relative DN (RDN) and the full DN of the superior entry.

LDAP is nothing other than a special sort of database that organizes data into tree structures, like a file system hierarchy. This view is more easily seen by comparing an LDAP directory to a relational database system (RDB), where SQL is the protocol and RDBMS is the service. LDAP refers to both the protocol and the service.


A common LDAP implementation is openldap. OpenLDAP suite can be broken up into four components:

  • Servers: slapd (stand-alone LDAP Daemon) provides LDAP services.
  • Clients: ldapsearch is used to manipulate LDAP data
  • Utilities: support LDAP servers
  • Libraries: provide programming interfaces to LDAP

Installing OpenLDAP requires libldap-2.3-0, slapd, ldap-utiles packages. It is configured in /etc/ldap/. An HDB (hierarchical database) needs to be specified in the configuration.

To test as a client, the first thing that must happen is the client must authenticate to the server (via simple bind or SASL Bind). LDAP server verifies the identity, permission as well as password provided by the client.

LDAPTLS_REQCERT=never ldapsearch -x -o ldif-wrap=256 -H ldaps://ldap.digihunch:636/ -b "OU=Admin,OU=Service Department,DC=digihunch,DC=com" -D "gh\ldap-bind-user" -w 'S@f35+P@55w0rd' "(objectclass=user)" -s sub -d 9

The command above first sets client environment variable LDAPTLS_REQCERT to never, in case the client is being asked to provide certificate. Then the ldapsearch command performs the bind.

To search the directory, the client needs to provide the followings:

  • Base DN: where in the directory to start from
  • Scope: how deep in the tree to look
  • Attributes: what information to be retrieved per result
  • Filter: what to look for

Below is an example of ldapsearch (-b for Base DN, -s for Scope, -S for attributes, stdin for filter):

ldapsearch -x -o ldif-wrap=256 -H ldaps://ldap.digihunch:636/ -b "OU=Admin,OU=Service Department,DC=digihunch,DC=com" -D "gh\ldap-bind-user" -w 'S@f35+P@55w0rd' "(memberof=CN=Security-Admin,OU=Admin,OU=Service Department,DC=digihunch,DC=com)" -s sub -S name

Users with appropriate permissions may also other directory operations using ldapadd, ldapmodify, ldapdelete, ldapcompare, ldapmodrdn, ldappasswd, ldapwhoami, etc

Apart from those in Openldap toolkits, there are many other tools such as Apache Directory Studio that allows you to perform similar functionality with a user interface.

LDAP security

Historically LDAP servers listens to port 389 through which traffic is sent in clear text. This is a bad security practice known as “insecure bind”. To secure LDAP traffic, two prevalent approaches are Secure LDAP and StartTLS.

Secure LDAP was the original attempt to secure LDAP traffic as an addition to LDAP v2. It is also known as LDAPS, LDAP over TLS/SSL or LDAP channel binding (“channel binding” just refers to the establishment of encrypted channel following TLS handshake. It provides a facility to tie an authentication exchange to security services provided at a lower layer. Defined in RFC 5056). Secure LDAP operates on port 636 on the server side and TLS handshake must be established for traffic encryption. Client application usually need to import the certificate of LDAP server. As part of TLS 1.2 protocol, the server may also request client certificate during ServerHello message. The presence of CertificateRequest means the server either demands client certificate, or tries to get client certificate (i.e. TLSVerifyClient is set to demand or try, which is only visible on the server). If client cert is only attempted, the LDAP client may choose to ignore it. If client cert is demanded, then a two-way TLS authentication is required and thus the client must proof its identity to the server. This Secure LDAP configuration requires the server to listen to both 389 and 636 ports on the same server to support both secure and legacy applications, which is unnecessary. Secure LDAP therefore is not the preferred approach.

The standardized way of implementing SSL/TLS in LDAP v.3 is to use the StartTLS method. This method should be implemented whenever possible. If an AD server supports StartTLS, the client can start with a STARTTLS command to the server so that the server begins the TLS encryption process. In the binding phase, TLS handshake follows a LDAP_START_TLS_OID command through port 389.

Here’s the summary of the three LDAP configuration mode:

LegacySecureLDAP (aka LDAPS, LDAP over TLS/SSL)StartTLS
Listening port389636389
Traffic EncryptedNoYesYes
StandardYes but this should always be avoided since it is insecureIntroduced in the time of LDAP v2, but the option is deprecated (although still supported) by RedHatIntroduced in LDAP v3. This may be left as the only valid option.

Note that one of the recent changes that drives may customer away from the legacy mode is the requirement for LDAP channel binding on Windows servers, with a target date of March 2020. Our current strategy at CS is to direct customer towards Secure LDAP as we do not support StartTLS yet and we know we do support LDAPS. Although Secure LDAP itself is somewhat legacy this would not hold long. According to this Wikipedia page:

The use of LDAP over SSL was common in LDAP Version 2 (LDAPv2) but it was never standardized in any formal specification. This usage has been deprecated along with LDAPv2, which was officially retired in 2003.

The trade off between StartTLS and TLS/SSL exists not only in LDAP protocol, but also in many other protocols such as SMTP (port 2525, 25, 587). StartTLS is also called Opportunistic TLS. The standard is in the relevant RFC documents.