Petter Reinholdtsen

Caching password, user and group on a roaming Debian laptop
1st July 2010

For a laptop, centralized user directories and password checking is a bit troubling. Laptops are typically used also when not connected to the network, and it is vital for a user to be able to log in or unlock the screen saver also when a central server is unavailable. This is possible by caching passwords and directory information (user and group attributes) locally, and the packages to do so are available in Debian. Here follow two recipes to set this up in Debian/Squeeze. It is also possible to set up in Debian/Lenny, but require more manual setup there because pam-auth-update is missing in Lenny.

LDAP/Kerberos + nscd + libpam-ccreds + libpam-mklocaluser/pam_mkhomedir

This is the traditional method with a twist. The password caching is provided by libpam-ccreds (version 10-4 or later is needed on Squeeze), and the directory caching is done by nscd. The directory lookup and password checking is done using LDAP. If one want to use Kerberos for password checking the libpam-ldapd package can be replaced with libpam-krb5 or libpam-heimdal. If one is happy having a local home directory with the path listed in LDAP, one can use the pam_mkhomedir module from pam-modules to make this happen instead of using libpam-mklocaluser. A setup for pam-auth-update to enable pam_mkhomedir will have to be written until a fix for bug #568577 is in the archive. Because I believe it is a bad idea to have local home directories using misleading paths like /site/server/partition/, I prefer to create a local user with the home directory in /home/. This is done using the libpam-mklocaluser package.

These packages need to be installed and configured

libnss-ldapd libpam-ldapd nscd libpam-ccreds libpam-mklocaluser

The ldapd packages will ask for LDAP connection information, and one have to fill in the values that fits ones own site. Make sure the PAM part uses encrypted connections, to make sure the password is not sent in clear text to the LDAP server. I've been unable to get TLS certificate checking for a self signed certificate working, which make LDAP authentication unsafe for Debian Edu (nslcd is not checking if it is talking to the correct LDAP server), and very much welcome feedback on how to get this working.

Because nscd do not have a default configuration fit for offline caching until bug #485282 is fixed, this configuration should be used instead of the one currently in /etc/nscd.conf. The changes are in the fields reload-count and positive-time-to-live, and is based on the instructions I found in the LDAP for Mobile Laptops instructions by Flyn Computing.

	debug-level		0
	reload-count		unlimited
	paranoia		no

	enable-cache		passwd		yes
	positive-time-to-live	passwd		2592000
	negative-time-to-live	passwd		20
	suggested-size		passwd		211
	check-files		passwd		yes
	persistent		passwd		yes
	shared			passwd		yes
	max-db-size		passwd		33554432
	auto-propagate		passwd		yes

	enable-cache		group		yes
	positive-time-to-live	group		2592000
	negative-time-to-live	group		20
	suggested-size		group		211
	check-files		group		yes
	persistent		group		yes
	shared			group		yes
	max-db-size		group		33554432
	auto-propagate		group		yes

	enable-cache		hosts		no
	positive-time-to-live	hosts		2592000
	negative-time-to-live	hosts		20
	suggested-size		hosts		211
	check-files		hosts		yes
	persistent		hosts		yes
	shared			hosts		yes
	max-db-size		hosts		33554432

	enable-cache		services	yes
	positive-time-to-live	services	2592000
	negative-time-to-live	services	20
	suggested-size		services	211
	check-files		services	yes
	persistent		services	yes
	shared			services	yes
	max-db-size		services	33554432

While we wait for a mechanism to update /etc/nsswitch.conf automatically like the one provided in bug #496915, the file content need to be manually replaced to ensure LDAP is used as the directory service on the machine. /etc/nsswitch.conf should normally look like this:

passwd:         files ldap
group:          files ldap
shadow:         files ldap
hosts:          files mdns4_minimal [NOTFOUND=return] dns mdns4
networks:       files
protocols:      files
services:       files
ethers:         files
rpc:            files
netgroup:       files ldap

The important parts are that ldap is listed last for passwd, group, shadow and netgroup.

With these changes in place, any user in LDAP will be able to log in locally on the machine using for example kdm, get a local home directory created and have the password as well as user and group attributes cached.

LDAP/Kerberos + nss-updatedb + libpam-ccreds + libpam-mklocaluser/pam_mkhomedir

Because nscd have had its share of problems, and seem to have problems doing proper caching, I've seen suggestions and recipes to use nss-updatedb to copy parts of the LDAP database locally when the LDAP database is available. I have not tested such setup, because I discovered sssd.

LDAP/Kerberos + sssd + libpam-mklocaluser

A more flexible and robust setup than the nscd combination mentioned earlier that has shown up recently, is the sssd package from Redhat. It is part of the FreeIPA project to provide a Active Directory like directory service for Linux machines. The sssd system combines the caching of passwords and user information into one package, and remove the need for nscd and libpam-ccreds. It support LDAP and Kerberos, but not NIS. Version 1.2 do not support netgroups, but it is said that it will support this in version 1.5 expected to show up later in 2010. Because the sssd package was missing in Debian, I ended up co-maintaining it with Werner, and version 1.2 is now in testing.

These packages need to be installed and configured to get the roaming setup I want

libpam-sss libnss-sss libpam-mklocaluser
The complete setup of sssd is done by editing/creating /etc/sssd/sssd.conf.
config_file_version = 2
reconnection_retries = 3
sbus_timeout = 30
services = nss, pam
domains = INTERN

filter_groups = root
filter_users = root
reconnection_retries = 3

reconnection_retries = 3

enumerate = false
cache_credentials = true

id_provider = ldap
auth_provider = ldap
chpass_provider = ldap

ldap_uri = ldap://ldap
ldap_search_base = dc=skole,dc=skolelinux,dc=no
ldap_tls_reqcert = never
ldap_tls_cacert = /etc/ssl/certs/ca-certificates.crt

I got the same problem here with certificate checking. Had to set "ldap_tls_reqcert = never" to get it working.

With the libnss-sss package in testing at the moment, the nsswitch.conf file is update automatically, so there is no need to modify it manually.

If you want to help out with implementing this for Debian Edu, please contact us on

Tags: debian edu, english, ldap, nuug.

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