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In this text, which mostly resembles the talk I gave at Libre Software Meeting 2002 in Bordeaux, I will describe what the auth server does, why it is so important and which cool things you can do with it, both on the programming and the user side. I will also describe related programs like the password and fakeauth servers. Note that this text is targeted at programmers who want to understand the auth mechanism in detail and are already familiar with concepts like Remote Procedure Calls (RPCs) as well as the way User- and Group-IDs are used in the POSIX world.

The auth server is a very small server, therefore it gives a useful example when you want to learn how a server typically looks like. One reason why it is so small is that the auth interface, which it implements, consists of only four RPCs. You can find the interface in hurd/hurd/auth.defs and the server itself in hurd/auth/.

How IDs are represented and used

Each process holds (usually) one port to auth (an auth_t in C source, which actually is a mach_port_t, of course). The purpose of auth is to manage User-IDs and Group-IDs, which is the reason why users often will have no choice but to make use of the systems main auth server, which does not listen on /servers/auth; instead you inherit a port to auth from your parent process. Each such port is (internally in the auth server) associated with a set of effective User- and Group-IDs as well as a set of available User- and Group-IDs. So we have four sets of IDs in total. The available IDs can be turned into corresponding effective IDs at any time.

When you send an auth_getids RPC on the port you hold, you will get information about which IDs are associated with it, so you can figure out which permissions you have. But how will a server know that you have these permissions and therefore know which actions (e.g. writing into file "foo") it is supposed to do on your behalf and which not? The establishing of a trusted connection to a server works as follows:

  1. A user wants a server to know its IDs
  2. The user requests a reauthentication from the server
  3. In this request the user will include a port
  4. Both will hand this port to auth
  5. The user uses auth_user_authenticate
  6. The server uses auth_server_authenticate
  7. The server also passes a new port to auth
  8. auth matches these two requests
  9. The user gets the new port from auth
  10. The server learns about the IDs of the user
  11. The user uses the new port for further communication

We have different RPCs for users and servers because what we pass and what we get back differs for them: Users get a port, and servers get the sets of IDs, and have to specify the port which the user will get.

It is interesting to note that auth can match the requests by comparing two integers, because when you get the same port from two people, you will have the same mach_port_t (which is nothing but an integer).

All of this of course only works if they use the same auth server, which is why I said often you have no choice other than to use the one main auth server. But this is no serious restriction, as the auth server has almost no functionality one might want to replace. In fact, there is one replacement for the default auth implementation, but more on that later.

POSIX and beyond

Before we examine what is possible with this design, let us take a short look at how the POSIX semantics are implemented on top of this design. When a program that comes out of POSIX-land asks for its own effective User- or Group-ID, we will tell it about the first of the effective IDs. In the same sense, the POSIX real User- or Group-ID is the first available ID and the POSIX saved User- or Group-ID is the second available ID, which is why you have the same ID two times in the available IDs when you log into your GNU/Hurd machine (you can figure out which IDs you have with the program "ids", that basically just does an auth_getauth RPC). When you lack one of those IDs (for example when you have no effective Group-ID), a POSIX program asking for this particular information will get "-1" as the ID.

But as you can imagine, we can do more than what POSIX specifies. Fox example, we can modify our permissions. This is always done with the auth_makeauth RPC. In this RPC, you specify the IDs that should be associated with the new port. All of these IDs must be associated with either the port where the RPC is sent to or one of the additional ports you can specify; an exception is the superuser root, which is allowed to creat ports that are associated with arbitrary IDs. Hereby you can convert available into effective IDs.

This opens the door to a bunch of nice features. For example, we have the addauth program in the Hurd, which makes it possible to add an ID to either a single process or a group of processes if you hold the ID or know the appropriate password, and there is a corresponding rmauth program that removes an ID. So when you are working on your computer with GNU Emacs and want to edit a system configuration file, you switch to Emacs' shell-mode, do an "addauth root", enter the password, edit the file, and when you are done switch back to shell-mode and do "rmauth root". These programs have some interesting options, and there are various other programs, for setting the complete list of IDs (setauth) and so on.

Related servers

Finally, I want to explain two servers which are related to auth. The first is the password server, which listens on /servers/password. If you pass to it a User- or Group-ID and the correct password for it, it will return a port to auth to you which is associated with the ID you passed to it. It can create such a port because it is running as root. So let us assume you are an FTP server process. You will start as root, because you want to use port 21 (in this case, "port" does not refer to a mach_port_t, of course). But then, you can drop all your permissions so that you run without any ID. This makes it far less dangerous to communicate with yet unknown users over the network. But when someone now hands a username and password to you, you can ask the password server for a new auth port. The password server will check the data you pass to it, for example by looking into /etc/shadow, and if it is valid, it will ask the auth server for a new port. It receives this port from auth and then passes it on to you. So you have raised your permissions. (And for the very curious: Yes, we are well aware of the differences between this concept and capabilities; and we also do have some kinds of capabilities in various parts of the Hurd.)

My second example is the fakeauth server. It also implements the auth protocol. It is the part of the fakeroot implementation that gives a process the impression that it runs as root, even if it doesn't. So when the process asks fakeauth about its own IDs, fakeauth will tell the process that it runs as root. But when the process wants to make use of the authentication protocol described earlier in this text, fakeauth will forward the request to its own auth server, which will usually be the systems main auth server, which will then be able to match the auth_*_authenticate requests. So what fakeauth does is acting as a proxy auth server that gives someone the impression to run as root, while not modifying what that one is allowed to do.

At this point, I have said at least most of what can be said about the auth server and the protocol it implements, so I will finish by saying that it might be an interesting task (for you) to modify some existing software to take advantage of the features I described here.