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LillyDAP (Little LDAP)

LillyDAP logo

LDAP is protocol for data communication, with rich semantics for data modelling, security and database administration. But implementations of LDAP start off from a notion of data storage, but are not ideal for handling dynamic data. LillyDAP was designed to change that.

See also:


Most of today's developers focus solely on HTTP to carry their data definitions. This even happens when LDAP would be a better carrier, which it usually is because of its richer and finer-grained syntax and semantics.

But this isn't just about standards; it's also about the technology implementing it. The most well-known open source directory is OpenLDAP, and there are others like 389ds and ApacheDS. All these solutions are storage-centric, though they add dynamicity options through mechanisms like overlays and stored procedures with triggers. In all cases, dynamicity is a bit of an afterthought, storage is central and there is only limited facilitation for dynamicity.

HTTP on the other hand, has a long tradition of plugins that provide dynamicity to the data set, and this is a large part of its success story. The simple mechanisms for dynamic plugins, pioneered by cgi-bin technology, has given rise to an incredible enthousiasm for dynamic HTTP services. There is no way to do this with current-day LDAP solutions, and this is the kind of thing that LillyDAP wants to improve on.

Reasons for using LDAP

Given its omnipresence, HTTP is used to do things in spite of better otions. HTTP was designed for resource transfer as large BLOBs without known content, so any processing of data contained in those BLOBs depends on semantics that must be created in situ, for instance by interpreting the contents of a particular JSON format. Although this gives the programmer maximal freedom, it also means that many things need to be reinvented. Many of the facilities that are fully standardised (and that represent a lot of experience) are entirely lacking in HTTP, also when adding REST. On top of that, HTTP is stateless in nature, which often conflicts with application requirements.

This is not a theoretical thought strand. It is directly reflected in the high complexity of standards like CalDAV, which have great difficulty to implement locks and which need to resort to polling to obtain updates. Polling is inefficient and more expensive than needed when done from a mobile device.

To name a few semantical uses that LDAP adds, relative to HTTP and REST:

  • Searching inside the transferred objects with powerful filter expressions; LDAP objects have attributes with well-defined semantics; their scheme can be locally extended without risk of conflict with other local extensions (!)
  • Transactions spanning across individual updates; this is possible because LDAP is connection-oriented and so it can recognise whether a client has terminated or crashed -- and its resources should be freed
  • Atomic updates, even featuring preconditions that can be imposed on such an update: "Add this new attribute value, but only under the condition that another attribute (value) is absent"
  • Subscription to data, basically saying "please tell me about changes since I connected last, and send me (virtually instant) updates for the remainder of this connection"

Having said this, HTTP and REST are much better suited for the transfer of BLOBs. Doing that over LDAP is possible in the protocol, but not advised. (Though one might imagine a front-end that resolves a particular form of reference to an object store and delivers them inlined in an LDAP object; this would bother the front-end specialised in data pumping, but it would releave the directory server of large data blocks.)

Reasons for using LillyDAP

What seems to be missing in the LDAP landscape is a simple mechanism to plugin dynamic scripts and tools that can then be used to deliver data on the fly, as is customary over HTTP, but with the added benefits of the more developed protocol. LDAP servers tend to be self-contained, and not grant plugin scripts in the style that we have come to know from HTTP with its rich flavours of Server Side Includes, FastCGI, WSGI, and all sorts of language-specific plugins.

This is where LillyDAP steps in. The standard API for LDAP is defined in C, and is straightforward enough. So is the translation from and to the LDAP network protocol; this takes a little bit of LDAP knowledge and BER. In LillyDAP, the BER layer is easily and efficiently handled with Quick DER. This library was written in a terse, embedded style. LillyDAP follows that approach to come to an event-driven LDAP kernel suited for lock-free concurrency models. LillyDAP assumes running in an environment where events trigger the invocation of event handler functions for reading and writing byte streams, and when an LDAPMessage is complete it translates to invocation of callback functions, which most or all of the data already packed into easy-to-handle formats.

One might view LillyDAP as an engine for LDAP, that turns the protocol into a remote procedure call mechanism that centers around data. Data that may be stored, dynamically generated, modified on the fly, and so on. The procedure calls can be routed any way desired; an application may have its own logic to filter or modify the LDAP exchange, and pass it on to a backend server or handle it locally. It may also host plugin modules written in one's favourite language, be it Python, C++ or Java.

In short, LillyDAP does to data what HTTP does to complete resources, and it does it very, very well.


A few examples may help to explain the kind of applications for which LillyDAP could make a difference.

X.509 Certificate Store

Certificates as commonly used in TLS connections are signed by Certificate Authorities. All certificates have a distinguishedName (DN) to refer to their own place in the hierarchy, as well as to their signer's place. These DN identities are precisely the locations used for objects in LDAP.

This means that nothing is more natural as a certificate store than LDAP. It might hold a list of trusted root certificates, perhaps intermediate certificates and even personal certificates under a user's account-based location in LDAP. The latter may be protected until users have logged on with the LDAP operation BindRequest.

In general, one can search LDAP with a SearchRequest. One might ask for the certificate by directly naming its DN (when looking for a signer, as it is mentioned in any signed certificate) or one might try to search for an AuthorityKeyIdentifier (though an additional LDAP schema may be needed to accommodate that).

Why is such a service useful? Because it centralises and is supportive of automation, including provisioning. This could be achieved with generic tooling such as the ARPA2 SteamWorks project. And because it can grow to include more useful information, such as OpenPGP and SSH keys.

OpenPGP key server

It is possible to run an OpenPGP key server under your own domain, and support others in automating the retrieval of your keys and its updates. GnuPG supports this mode of operation, so most current implementations are ready to go!

Servicing keys from under the domains that they claim to be from greatly simplifies the big problem of OpenPGP, namely to validate a key's trust. Place the key in LDAP, protect that with TLS and store its certificate in a TLSA record signed with DNSSEC, and you have a secure chain of trust from the DNS root, through the domain mentioned in its email address, all the way to your OpenPGP public key.

The web of trust remains valuable to directly validate the people you met in person, and the very general facilities it offers can be used in the many creative ways for which it has been used. But for hitherto unknown contacts, the path throught the web of trust required more knowledge of trust models than casual users have or want to have. Their reliance on domain-hosted key servers can help them directly validate remote contacts that have setup this facility.

Unfortunately, running an LDAP server is not trivial. OpenLDAP is reliable, efficient and secure. What it is not, is easy to setup. It is nowhere near the simplicity level of Apache, especially because Apache is usually already running somewhere.

With LillyDAP however, you can write a simple program that you might run in your ~/.gnupg directory, to serve up what it finds there. There are two ways this could be done:

  1. Serve up the user's OpenPGP public keys (to anyone),
  2. Serve the user's entire key chain (to authorised users).

The second piece is in fact a personal key server that can be used to service multiple GnuPG installations. Keys are then easily, and sometimes even automatically downloaded when they are needed. As a user, you no longer need to push and pull keys between machines and accounts!

LillyDAP is ultimately suited as a basis for a program that exports the ~/.gnupg of domain users over LDAP, as a domain-bound service. It can respond to search filters and attributes queried by interacting with the key chain, and it may derive the customary attributes and will not have to store them -- instead, it always serves up what is int the pristine source, the key chain.

It is even possible to do intelligent things with the UserIDs that are sent back. It is possible to take OpenPGP keys apart, and pass only those pieces that are considered useful, so only the UserID that matches the requested domain could be sent out.

SSH Key Server

Servers tend to have lists of authorized_keys installed in accounts. These lists are used to learn about keys that are welcome for login to those accounts. A problem however, is that such keys are not easy to manage, because they are not centrally stored.

  • One needs to login to a system (as root or as the target user) to learn which keys are setup;
  • There is no external management interface to oversee what has been allowed where;
  • There is no integral way to welcome a key into all accounts with a given name, or to a group of systems' root account.
  • There is no way to centrally remove an SSH key from everywhere it is trusted.

Modern OpenSSH implementations however, will allow commands to be run to retrieve information in the authorised_keys format. This makes it easy to do all these things, especially when a centrally coordinated LDAP store is approached.

It is possible to construct a daemon on each host, either to produce the authorized_keys information on demand, or to actively install it in the various users' accounts or in the location that such accounts reference. The daemon may be run centrally or, as long as a session lasts, in service of the user's session.

To learn more, please read the original description of this idea.

Privacy Filtering

One problem with LDAP is that it makes a lot of information available -- and some of that may be considered personal. For example, think of email addresses which many would argue are too personal to distribute to arbitrary online peers.

On the other hand, being able to search for data based on email addresses is useful. So what can we do?

One solution could be to only return an email address (or userid, or other data considered private) only inasfar as it exactly matches a value in the search filter. Such a rule is non-standard but useful. With LillyDAP you can insert it in your LDAP setup even if your server cannot do it.

User-controlled ACL

In most LDAP systems, access control is provided through complex rules that are targeted at system administrators. It is not usually practical to let users edit the ACL to the data they're maintaining. Still, there could be useful applications where this is precisely what we need.

When existing access control does not work well enough, or when it is not sufficiently portable between LDAP server solutions, or when it is not ideal to locate it inside the LDAP server because authorisation is handled in a proxy, we would like a "wrapper" that can handle authorisation.

Imagine adding attributes such as readers and writers, with user names or patterns for such names to grant access. This might be interpreted by such a wrapper, and still be sufficiently workable for understand by users. It is quite possible to make just that kind of wrapper with LillyDAP, and perhaps integrate it with the functions of authentication and authorisation, and let the LDAP server focus on data issues.

The most important issue here is perhaps not even that more flexibility is created for ACL models; it is that the programming model of an LDAP server can be easily extended by individual tool developers, of which there are many in the open source world. LDAP has not nearly been as good at motivating this incredibly potent resource as HTTP has, and LillyDAP is hoped to provide a solution to that.

Bidirectional LDAP

Although not everybody knows it, LDAP can be a P2P protocol and that means that its very potent data processing semantics can readily be used in modern, distributed networks that defy network models with a central controller, such as a server. In many ways, this is more elegant than the HTTP application that needs to rely on Server-Sent Events with the customary minimalistic semantics, and without actually dropping the client/server distinction.

The fact that it is possible in LDAP does not mean that all LDAP software is willing to operate bidirectionally. Even parts of an infrastructure may object. With LillyDAP, it would be trivial to split the two directions into two independent streams, and thereby work around such funny parts of an infrastructure.

Remote Locking

A very simple demonstration of the powerful semantics of LDAP would be a remote locking mechanism. This can be based on the Assertion Control, which is usually referred to informally as Test-And-Set semantics. This basic facility suffices to implement a plethora of locking and other clever primitives. And since it is approached over a network, these pritimites are networked locks. How cool is that?

Integration into Nginx

LillyDAP is functional and useful to provision stand-alone programs. But a strong wish that we have for the future, which is to support the LDAP protocol in Nginx, just like it supports HTTP, SMTP, POP3 and IMAP. The architecture of LillyDAP lends itself well as a basis for this integration; both event-driven processing and region-pooled memory allocation have been included into LillyDAP from the onset. And no, that is not really a coincidence.

Nginx can help to build a virtual LDAP directory consisting of subtrees from various places. This means it would make a directory as pluggable as web sites in common web servers. Plus, Nginx can be used to implement load balancing, failover and traffic redirection; it can offload the backend by collecting requests from many client connections and once complete it can pass them along. And it can even compose responses coming from multiple sources.

The LDAP model includes Proxied Authorization to support such bundling of connections even when clients may all have different authorisations. In other words, the LDAP server accepting these can be addressed over a few bulk-traffic connections by a proxy, even if the proxy has many connections from clients open. The proxy would in this scenarion authenticate and authorise the client, and store the results with the connection to pass to the backend through Proxied Authorization.

To make this work really well, Nginx would need to support SASL in the same way as an LDAP directory does; to this end, a second protocol named sasl should be added, and handled by proxying to HTTP and/or LDAP backends. This mechanism would also be helpful for the current implementations of SMTP, POP3 and IMAP. And it will be helpful with any future attempts of integrating XMPP and AMQP into Nginx. (In case you wonder, we have the IdentityHub for the InternetWide Architecture in mind with this example.)

Since LDAP can be a P2P protocol, it would be possible to listen to a backend proxy, and see requests in the opposite direction pass through. The reverse flow direction will normally not be used until an LDAP Turn operation has asked for it, but as should be clear from this, Nginx holds good cards for formulating treatment of the Turn operation in its configuration files.

Related Work

  • ldapjs implements LDAP in JavaScript; it can use Node.JS to run as a server. It can support middleware such as filters and proxies.

  • SteamWorks Crank makes LDAP content available as JSON structures over a RESTful API.