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The kerberos security server operates online

Implementing Kerberos in Distributed Systems 1399

As a pioneering effort in distributed security, Kerberos exposed many new, and sometimes surprising, security issues. Many of those issues are endemic to distributed environments and are a reflection of organi-zation and culture, and the changing face of security as organizations moved from a centralized to a distributed model. As a product of organization and culture, there is little if anything that technology alone can do to address most of those issues. Many of the resulting problems have been attributed to Kerberos, the vast majority of which are common to all distributed security systems, regardless of the technology used.

The vast majority of identity information used in organizations by computer systems and applications today is based on IDs and passwords, identity information that is bound to individuals. That is the result of years of evolution of our computer systems and applications. Any security based on that existing identity information is fundamentally limited by the trust placed in that information. In other words, security is limited by the level of trust we place in our current IDs and passwords as a means of identifying individuals.

Fundamentally increasing the level of trust placed in our identity information and the security of any system that uses those identities requires rebinding, or reverifying, individual identities. That is a very, very expensive proposition for all but the smallest organizations. In simple and extreme terms: any authentication technology purporting to improve the authenticity of individuals that is based on existing identity information is a waste of money; any authentication technology that is not based on existing identity information is too expensive to deploy on any but a small scale. This very simple but very fundamental equation limits all security technologies and the level of security that is practical and achievable.

Although technology continues to advance and provide us with the raw materials for improving Kerberos, many of the assumptions and influences that originally shaped Kerberos are still valid today. Although new security technologies may captivate audiences, the fundamentals have not changed. One fundamental of security that should never be forgotten is that a security system must be affordable and reliable if it is to achieve the goal of improving an organization’s security.

An affordable and reliable security system makes the most of what exists, and does not require the use of new, expensive or unproven technologies as a prerequisite to improving security. A good security system such as Kerberos allows those newer technologies to be used but does not mandate them. With rapid advances in technology, single-technology solutions are also doomed to rapid obsolescence. Solutions that are predicated on new technologies will, by definition, see limited deployment until the cost and reliability of those solutions are acceptable to a broad range of organizations. The longer that evolution takes, the higher the probability that even newer technologies will render them, and any investment made in them, obsolete.

Although we can formulate solutions to authentication, confidentiality, integrity, and access control that are useful and that are independent of a broad range of applications, the same cannot be said of delegation and authorization. In this context, the assertion that Kerberos requires modification of the application is correct. However, that requirement has little if any affect on the practical employment of Kerberos, because very few applications in use today need, or could make use of, those capabilities. Applications that can understand and make use of those capabilities are just starting to appear.


Kerberos is specifically designed to eliminate the transmission of passwords over the network. Passwords are not transmitted in any form as a part of the Kerberos authentication process. The only case in which a password or a derivation of the password (i.e., a key derived from the password) is transmitted is during a password-change operation — assuming, of course, that passwords are being used for authentication, and not an alternative technology such as smart cards. During a password-change operation, the password or its derivation is always protected using Kerberos confidentiality services.


The association between individual and service may be very short-lived, such as for the duration of a single transaction. In other cases that association is long-lived and spans the workday. Whatever the duration of the association, the vast majority of work is performed online. That is, the individual and the service interact in real-time. Offline operation, which is sometimes necessary, is fast becoming a rarity. Notable exceptions are “road warriors,” who must be capable of operating offline. However, that is a function of the limitations of connectivity, not of any desire to operate offline — as any road warrior will tell you.

The combined ability to provide both efficient and secure access to services, and the ability to serve as the basis for a collective security mechanism is one of Kerberos’s major strengths. To deliver those capabilities, and deliver them efficiently, the Kerberos security server operates online. Extending that concept to an aggregate“enterprise security service” that incorporates Kerberos allows economies and efficiencies to be achieved across multiple security functions, including authentication, authorization, access control, and key management —all of which can be provided by, or built from, Kerberos. Although the concept of an aggregate enterprise security service is not native to Kerberos, the union of the two is very natural. Moreover, given the direction of technology and the composition and conduct of modern distributed enterprises, online security services


All control flows from a central authority. That authority defines the association between itself and the individual and the level of trust it places in an individual. This model requires a level of control that is cost-prohibitive in today’s distributed environments. The classic military or business models tend toward this end of the spectrum.

Trust Models

The level of trust that is required between entities in a distributed system is a distinguishing characteristic of all distributed security systems, and affects all other services that are built on the system, as well as the scalability of the system. A prerequisite to trust is authentication: knowing the identity of the person (or machine) you are dealing with. In Kerberos, the entities that authenticate with one another are referred to as “principals,” as in “principals to a transaction.”

EXHIBIT 118.1 Direct trust relationships.

and applications grows, the number of direct relationships, and the cost of establishing and managing those relationships, increases geometrically (Exhibit 118.1). A geometric increase in complexity and cost is obviously not sustainable and limits the scalability of such solutions to a small number of applications or users.

All scalable distributed security systems use a trusted third party. In the Kerberos system, the trusted third party is known as the Key Distribution Center (KDC). In public key systems, the trusted third party is referred to as a Certificate Authority (CA). In token card systems, the token card vendor’s server acts as a trusted third party. Many other applications of third-party trust exist in the world, one of the most obvious being credit cards, where the bank acts as the trusted third party between consumer and merchant. Neither consumer nor merchant shares a high degree of trust with each other, but both trust the credit card issuer. Note that without a credit card, each consumer would have to establish a direct trust relationship with each merchant (i.e., to obtain credit). Credit cards have made it much easier for consumers and merchants to do business, especially over long distances.

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the kerberos security server operates online
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