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Open Directory and Active Directory, Part 1

by Michael Bartosh
08/05/2003

Editor's Note: For the last number of months, Michael Bartosh has been working on a series of articles for Mac DevCenter readers which examines Mac OS X's Directory Services architecture in depth and explores how to integrate these services with Microsoft's Active Directory. We're looking at three, maybe four installments that will run about 10 days apart. These articles represent a tremendous amount of work, and I want to be the first to thank him for this tremendous effort. Michael will also be sharing his knowledge in person at the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference in his session titled, Mac OS X and Active Directory: A Study in Directory Integration. If you haven't registered for this event yet, this article will give you a good idea of the quality content that will be presented there.

Mac OS X marks a significant first for Apple, an enterprise-capable operating system. Built from the ground up based on open standards with powerful Unix-like underpinnings, it's moving Apple further into the infrastructures of business and academic computing than ever before. Critical to this trend is its ability to make use of enterprise directories, that is, centralized network repositories for users, groups, security policy and other administrative data. Due to its ubiquitous nature, Microsoft's Active Directory plays a particularly important role.

Mac OSX Conference

Session by Michael Bartosh:
Mac OS X and Active Directory: A Study in Directory Integration

Participants in this session will be exposed to Mac OS X's directory services infrastructure in depth, and will learn to leverage its capabilities to maximize end user satisfaction while minimizing impact on enterprise systems. While Active Directory is the primary example, these strategies are applicable to almost any directory service.

O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference
October 27-30, 2003
Santa Clara, CA


Mac OS X's integration into Active Directory is an interesting phenomenon since it's not a product of any formalized cooperation between Apple and Microsoft. Rather, it's a product of open standards, the product of two vendors conforming to an established specification for directory services protocols. Out of this ecosystem, rich IT infrastructures evolve. End users and IT managers alike can take advantage of Mac OS X's robust feature set while utilizing their enterprise directory data and providing a single sign on for both Windows and Mac environments.

However, cross platform directory services are complex, and planning and implementing integration between Active Directory and Mac OS X has proven to be a formidable challenge for both Windows and Mac administrators. Although it's easy to prototype a generalized infrastructure, adopting that infrastructure to sophisticated, deployed environments is difficult without a good understanding of directory services in general, Active Directory, and the capabilities and data requirements of Mac OS X.

Rather than provide a cookie-cutter recipe for Directory Services integration, this series of articles seeks to examine Mac OS X's Directory Services architecture in depth, providing a solid conceptual framework on which the reader may build services that minimize impact on existing infrastructure while still providing a good end user experience. While our deployment target will be Active Directory, the more general architectural features and capabilities can be easily applied to other environments as well.

Active Directory integration has been fundamentally changed in Panther, Mac OS X 10.3. We're working with Apple right now in order to determine what we can say and when we can say about it. Beyond the NDAs, though, Jaguar is still very relevant. Apple's OS releases tend to be wide in scope, resulting in a significant lag between introduction and deployment while support infrastructures are updated. In many larger environments, Panther won't be rolled out until spring or summer of 2004. Because of this, Jaguar maintains its importance.

Open Directory

In order to understand Mac OS X's place in an enterprise directory, we first need to understand its capabilities, processes and configuration. Apple's Directory Services Architecture is known as Open Directory. You can think of Open Directory as Mac OS X's Rosetta Stone. Open Directory knows how to talk to LDAP directories so that specific Mac OS X applications (like Apache or loginwindow) don't have to. In a very general sense, the process looks something like this:


Fig 1.1 Open Directory

Open Directory can be accessed both via traditional libc calls (getpwnam(), gethostbyname(), etc) and also via the Directory Service framework, which is documented here (although some portions of that documentation appear to be out of date).

More specifically, Open Directory has a dual name service architecture; that is, requests may be serviced by one of two specific subsystems, lookupd or DirectoryService. libc requests are dispatched to lookupd while the Directory Service API communicates with DirectoryService (a daemon designed to integrate with directory services...the naming can be quite circular).

In NextStep 1.0 there was only lookupd. NeXT, opting to store its administrative data in a directory (NetInfo) rather than the traditional Unix flat files, knew that there should be a flexible, modular method for supporting lookups, so that administrative data might not always be stored in NetInfo. Out of this specification, lookupd was born. It could reply to queries based on data from a number of backing stores, including NetInfo, flat files, NIS, DNS and (eventually) LDAP. Each backing store had, and has, an associated agent, which could be configured for use based on the query type. lookupd has been steadily improved over the years and was overhauled for NextStep 3.3. Since then, it has remained mostly unchanged and currently has an extensive man page.

lookupd had some limitations, though. Designed in a time when libc calls expected to return full user records -- including crypt() passwords -- it has no specific authentication support. It is, additionally, a read-only architecture. While this is the norm for libc interfaces, it makes sense that in a world of evolving directory services to support write operations. Finally, lookupd is relatively difficult to extend. While third party lookupd agents were written, they were the exception rather than the rule.

DirectoryService was designed to meet these limitations. It's highly extensible and licensed as open source. Its API is well documented and supports write operations as well as multiple authentication methods. Due to these features, DirectoryService is the primary method for accessing enterprise directories. Apple has chosen to continue support of lookupd, presumably to maintain the stability of libc, on which much of the OS relies. The resulting architecture looks like this:


Fig 1.2 Open Directory architecture

In order for libc clients (most cross platform Unix utilities: for instance sshd, ls, pwd, etc.) to access DirectoryService data, Apple built a specialized lookupd agent, DSAgent, beginning in 10.1. DSAgent uses the DirectoryService API to provide access to enterprise directories to lookupd clients, including libc. Because lookupd has no authentication support, libc clients must be pam-enabled. pam, in turn, is able to access DirectoryService authenticating methods, like dsDoDirNodeAuth. This isn't the end of the story, however. lookupd is still Mac OS X's resolver, so host resolution (gethostby*()) will generally be answered by its FFAgent or DNSAgent. In addition, lookupd will, for performance reasons, query the local NetInfo directory itself rather than dispatch that query to DSAgent (and hence DirectoryService) although this behavior is configurable.

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