Introduction to LDAP

LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is a protocol that is used to communicate with directory servers. Directory is a sort of a database that is used heavily for identity management use cases. The terms “LDAP”, “LDAP database” and “directory server” are usually used interchangeably.

Unlike relational SQL databases, the LDAP database is not organized into tables, rows and columns but it is organized into a hierarchical directory structure – into containers, entries and attributes.


Examples of LDAP servers that are often used in Linux environments are OpenLDAP and 389ds.

SSSD can connect to any LDAP server to lookup POSIX accounts and other information such as sudo rules and autofs maps using an SSSD LDAP provider. It also provides various mechanisms of access controls and password policies. LDAP provider features include (but they are not limited to):

  • SASL/SSL/TLS support

  • LDAP service auto discovery

  • Limit search behavior using multiple search bases

  • Password changing and password policy support

  • RFC2307 and RFC2307bis support

  • POSIX users and groups support

  • sudo rules support

  • autofs maps support

  • LDAP-based access control

  • Simple access control

See also

To read more about how SSSD is used in LDAP integration at a high level, refer to the following links:

The rest of the page is dedicated to readers that are not yet familiar with directory servers. It explains the very basics that will help you dive into the LDAP world. Please lookup and visit external resources such as to gain more thorough information.

Each directory entry consists of a distinguished name, object class and attributes.

Distinguished name (DN)

The distinguished name is a unique name that identifies the object in the database. It is created out of set of attributes that have unique value to the object (also called relative distinguished name or RDN) and the parent’s DN. It basically resembles a hierarchical path to the entry (for example. name=John,cn=users,dc=mydomain where name is the entry’s attribute with unique value and cn=users,dc=mydomain is the parent’s DN.

Object class (OC)

An object class is a special attribute that specifies what mandatory and optional attributes can be set on the entry. Object classes are defined in schemas that are installed on the LDAP server.


Attributes are single or multi-valued properties of the entry. Their format and functions (e.g. date, string, case sensitiveness, comparison schema, limits, etc.) are defined by schema and object classes. Some standard and common attributes are:

  • dc: domain component – used to identify the directory domain

  • ou: organizational unit – used to split entries into named containers

  • cn: canonical name – used to provide name to an object

Directory entries can be exported into an LDIF (LDAP Data Interchange Format) format which is a text representation of the directory contents. Here is a simple example:

dn: dc=ldap,dc=vm
objectClass: domain
objectClass: top
dc: ldap

dn: ou=users,dc=ldap,dc=vm
objectClass: organizationalUnit
objectClass: top
ou: users

dn: cn=user-1,ou=users,dc=ldap,dc=vm
objectClass: posixAccount
objectClass: top
cn: user-1
gidNumber: 10001
homeDirectory: /home/user-1
uid: user-1
uidNumber: 10001
userPassword: {SHA}98O8HYCOBHMq32eZZczDTKeuNEE=

This represents the following entries:

graph LR dc(dc=ldap,dc=vm) ou(ou=users) cn(cn=user-1) dc --> ou --> cn

LDAP filters are expressed using a tree that consist of attribute-value pairs and operators. The whole tree is then collapsed using parentheses. The filters are well explained here and here, but here is an example for a quick introduction and basic idea. The following filter will search for all objects that have objectClass equal to posixAccount and canonical name set either to John or Alice. The filter also requires that an uidNumber attribute is set (it may have any arbitrary value but it must have a value).


We can also expand this filter into an indented tree so the operators and their operands can be easily understood.


When querying LDAP, we usually also specify a search base and scope which tells the server from which object and how far in the hierarchy it should start searching. A search base is simply a DN, scope can be one of base, subtree or onelevel.


The search base itself it matched against the filter. If the filter matches, the search base entry is returned. Otherwise an empty result is returned.


All entries below the search base are filtered.


Similar to subtree but only one level below the search base is searched.

You can use OpenLDAP tools to work with an LDAP server. Especially ldapsearch, ldapadd, ldapdelete and ldapmodify. To install these tools, run:

dnf install openldap-clients
yum install openldap-clients
apt install slapd ldap-utils

The following code shows an example of looking up an entry using the filter above and a simple bind with a combination of account and password:

ldapsearch -x -D "cn=Directory Manager" -w "$password" -H ldap:// -b dc=example,dc=com -s sub '(&(objectClass=posixAccount)(uidNumber=*)(|(cn=John)(cn=Alice)))'

You can also choose from a variety of graphical LDAP tools such as the Apache Directory Studio.