What is Kerberos?

Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread.

"The Dunwich Horror", HP Lovecraft, 1928

Kerberos is a system for authenticating access to distributed services:

  1. that callers to a service represent a principal in the system, or
  2. That a caller to a service has been granted the right to act on behalf of a principal —a right which the principal can grant for a limited amount of time.

In Hadoop, feature #2 is key: a user or a process may delegate the authority to another process, which can then talk to the desired service with the delegated authority. These delegation rights are both limited in scope --- the principal delegates authority on a service-by-service basis --- and in time. The latter is for security reasons ---it guarantees that if the secret used to act as a delegate, the token, is stolen, there is only a finite time for which it can be used.

How does it work? That is beyond the scope of this book and its author.

It is covered in detail in [Coluris01], S7.6.2. However, anyone attempting to read this will generally come out with at least a light headache and no better informed.

For an approximate summary of the concepts

Kerberos Domain Controller, the KDC

The KDC is the gate, it is is the key and guardian of the gate, it is the gateway to the madness that is Kerberos.

Every Kerberos Realm needs at least one. There's one for Linux and Active Directory can act as a federated KDC infrastructure. Hadoop cluster management tools often aid in setting up a KDC for a Hadoop cluster. There's even a minature one, the MiniKDC in the Hadoop source for testing.

KDCs are managed by operations teams. If a developer finds themselves maintaining a KDC outside of a test environment, they are in trouble and probably out of their depth.

Kerberos Principal

A principal is an identity in the system; a person or a thing like the hadoop namenode which has been given an identity.

In Hadoop, a different principal is usually created for each service and machine in the cluster, such as hdfs/node1, hdfs/node2, ... etc. These principals would then be used for all HDFS daemons running on node1, node2, etc.

It's possible to shortcut this and skip the machine specific principal, downgrading to one per service, such as hdfs, yarn, hbase —or even one for all hadoop applications, such as hadoop. This can be done on a small cluster, but doesn't scale well, or makes working out WTF is going on difficult.

In particular, the bits of Kerberos which handle logins, the Kerberos Domain Controllers, treat repeated attempts to log in as the same principal within a short period of time as some attack on the system, such as a replay or key guessing attack. The requests are all automatically rejected (presumably without any validation, so as to reduce CPU load on the server). Even a small Hadoop cluster could generate enough authentication requests on a cluster restart for this to happen —hence a different principal for every service on every node.

How do the Hadoop services know which principal to identify themselves at? Generally, though Hadoop configuration files. They also determine the hostname, and use this to decide which of the possible principals in their keytab (see below) to identify themselves at. For this to work, machines have to know who they are.


  1. They have to have a name
  2. That name has to be in their host table or DNS
  3. It has to match the IP address of the host

what if there is more than one IP address on the host?

Generally Hadoop services are single-IP address, which is a limitation that is likely to be addressed at some time. So who knows. Actually, it comes from org.apache.hadoop.net.NetUtils.getHostname(), which invokes InetAddress.getLocalHost() and relies on this to return a hostname. It's because of this need to know hostnames for principals, that requests for Hadoop services to use IP Addresses over hostnames, such as MAPREDUCE-6463 are declined. It also means that if a machine does not know its own hostname, things do not work HADOOP-3426, HADOOP-10011.

Kerberos Realm

A Kerberos Realm is the security equivalent of a subnet: all principals live in a realm. It is conventional, though not mandatory, to use capital letters and a single name, rather than a dotted network address. Examples: ENTERPRISE, HCLUSTER

Kerberos allows different realms to have some form of trust of others. This would allow a Hadoop cluster with its own KDC and realm to trust the ENTERPRISE realm, but for the enterprise realm to not trust the HCLUSTER realm, and hence all its principals. This would prevent a principal hdfs/[email protected] from having access to the ENTERPRISE systems. While this is a bit tricky to set up, it means that keytabs created for the Hadoop cluster (see below) are only a security risk for the Hadoop cluster and all data kept in/processed by it, rather than the entire organisation.

Kerberos login, kinit

The command line program kinit is how a user authenticates with a KDC on a unix system; it uses the information stored in /etc/krb

Alongside kinit, comes kdestroy, to destroy credentials/log out, and klist to list the current status. The kdestroy command is invaluable if you want to verify that any program you start on the command line really is reading in and using keytab.

Here's what a full klist -v listing looks like

$ klist -v
Credentials cache: API:489E6666-45D0-4F04-9A1D-FCD5D48EEA07
        Principal: [email protected]
    Cache version: 0

Server: krbtgt/[email protected]
Client: [email protected]
Ticket etype: aes256-cts-hmac-sha1-96, kvno 1
Ticket length: 326
Auth time:  Sep  2 11:52:02 2015
End time:   Sep  3 11:52:01 2015
Renew till: Sep  2 11:52:02 2015
Ticket flags: enc-pa-rep, initial, renewable, forwardable
Addresses: addressless

Server: HTTP/[email protected]
Client: [email protected]
Ticket etype: aes256-cts-hmac-sha1-96, kvno 25
Ticket length: 333
Auth time:  Sep  2 11:52:02 2015
Start time: Sep  2 12:20:00 2015
End time:   Sep  3 11:52:01 2015
Ticket flags: enc-pa-rep, transited-policy-checked, forwardable
Addresses: addressless

A shorter summary comes from the basic klist

$ klist
Credentials cache: API:489E6666-45D0-4F04-9A1D-FCD5D48EEA07
        Principal: [email protected]

  Issued                Expires               Principal
Sep  2 11:52:02 2015  Sep  3 11:52:01 2015  krbtgt/[email protected]
Sep  2 12:20:00 2015  Sep  3 11:52:01 2015  HTTP/[email protected]

This shows that

  1. The user is logged in as [email protected]
  2. They have a ticket to work with the ticket granting service, krbtgt/[email protected].
  3. They have a ticket to authenticate with the principal HTTP/[email protected]. This is used by some HTTP services running on the host (devix.cotham.uk), specifically the Hadoop Namenode and Resource Manager web pages. These have both been configured to require Kerberos authentication via SPNEGO, and to use HTTP as the user. The full principal HTTP/devix.cotham.uk is determined from the host running the service.


A (binary) file containing the secrets needed to log in as a principal

  1. It contains all the information to log in as a principal, so is a sensitive file.
  2. It can hold many principals, so one can be created for, say, hdfs, which contails all its principals, hdfs/[email protected], hdfs/[email protected], ...etc. Thus only one keytab per service is needed.
  3. It is created by the KDC administrators, who must then securely propagate that file to where it can be used.

Keytabs are the only way in which programs can directly authenticate themselves with Kerberos, (though they can indirectly do this with credentials passed to them). This means that for any long-lived process, a keytab is needed.

Operations teams are generally very reluctant to provide keytabs. They will need to create them for all long-lived services which run in the cluster. For services such as HDFS and YARN this is generally done at cluster setup time. YARN services have to deal with this problem whenever a user wants to run a long lived YARN service within the cluster: the technical one of keytab management and the organisational one of getting the keytab in the first place.

To look at and work with keytabs, the ktutil command line program is the tool of choice.


Kerberos is built around the notion of tickets.

A ticket is something which can be passed to a server to identify that the caller and to provide a secret key that can be used between the client an the server —for the duration of the ticket's lifetime. It is all that a server needs to authenticate a client: there's no need for the server to talk to the KDC.

What's important is that tickets can be passed on: an authenticated principal can obtain a ticket to a service, and pass that on to another process in the distributed system. The recipient can then issue requests on behalf of the original principal, using that ticket. That recipient only has the permissions granted to the ticket (it does not have any other permissions of the principal, unless those tickets are also provided), and those permissions are only valid for as long as the ticket is valid.

The limited lifetime of tickets ensures that even if a ticket is captured by a malicious attacker, they can only make use of the credential for the lifetime of the ticket. The ops team doesn't need to worry about lost/stolen tickets, to have a process for revoking them, as they expire within a short time period, usually a couple of days.

This notion of tickets starts right at the bottom of Kerberos. When a principal authenticates with the KDC, it doesn't get any special authentication secrets —it gets a ticket to the Ticket Granting Service. This ticket can then be used to get tickets to other services —and, like any other ticket, can be forwarded. Equally importantly, the ticket will expire —forcing the principal to re-authenticate via the command line or a keytab.

Kerberos Authentication Service

This is network-accessible service which runs in the KDC, and which is used to authenticate callers. The protocol to authenticate callers is one of those low level details found in text books. What is important to know is that

  1. The KDC contains 'a secret' shared with the principal. There is no public/private key system here, just a shared secret.
  2. When a client authenticates on the command line, the password is (somehow) used to generate some data which is passed to the authentication service to show that at least during the authentication process, the client had the password for the principal they were trying to authenticate as. (i.e., part of the process includes a challenge issued by the KDC, a challenged hashed by the password to show that's in the callers' possession).
  3. When a client authenticates via the keytab, a similar challenge-reponse operation takes place to allow the client to show they have the principal's (secret) data in that keytab.
  4. When the KDC's secret key for a principal is changed, all existing keytabs stop working.

Ticket Granting Service, TGS

  1. A Kerberos Domain Controller, KDC exists on the network to manage Kerberos security
  2. It contains an Authentication Service, which authenticates remote principals, and a Ticket Granting Service, TGS, which grants access to specific services.
  3. The Authentication Service can authenticate via a password-based login, or though the principal having a stored copy of a shared secret, a key.
  4. The TGS can issue tickets, secrets which declare that a caller has duration-limited access to a requested service, with the rights of the authenticated principal.
  5. An authenticated principal can request tickets to services, which they can then use to authenticate directly with those services, and interact with them until the ticket expires.
  6. A principal can also forward a ticket to any other process/service within the distributed system, to delegate rights.
  7. This delegate can use the ticket to access the service, with the identity of the principal, for the lifespan of that ticket.

Note that Hadoop goes beyond this with the notion of delegation tokens, secrets which are similar to tickets, but which can be issued and renewed directly by Hadoop services. That will be covered in a later chapter.

Kerberos User Login

A user logs in with the Kerberos Authentication Service

Examples of Kerberos

To put things into the context of Hadoop, here are some examples of how it could be used.

Example: User listing an HDFS directory

A user wishes to submit some work to a Hadoop cluster, a new YARN application.

First, they must be logged in to the Kerberos infrastructure,

  1. On unix, this is done by running kinit
  2. The kinit program asks the user for their password.
  3. This is used to authenticate the user with the Authentication Service of the KDC configured in /etc/krb5.conf.
  4. The Kerberos Authentication Service authenticates the user and issues a TGT ticket, which is stored in the client's Credentials Cache. A call to klist can be used to verify this.

Then, they must run a hadoop command

hadoop fs -ls /
  1. The HDFS client code attempts to talk to the HDFS Namenode via the org.apache.hadoop.hdfs.protocol.ClientProtocol IPC protocol
  2. It checks to see if If security is enabled (via UserGroupInformation.isSecurityEnabled())
  3. If it is, it looks in metadata assocated with the protocol, metadata which is used to identify the Kerberos principal, the identity, of the namenode.

         @KerberosInfo(serverPrincipal ="dfs.namenode.kerberos.principal")
         public interface ClientProtocol {
  4. The Hadoop Configuration class instance used to initialise the client is used to retrieve the value of "dfs.namenode.kerberos.principal" —so identifying the service to which the client must have a valid ticket to talk to.
  5. The Hadoop Kerberos code (this is in Java, not the OS), asks the Kerberos Ticket Granting Service, the TGS, for a ticket to talk to the Namenode's principal. It does this in a request authenticated with the TGT received during the kinit process.
  6. This ticket is granted by the TGT, and cached in the memory of the JVM.
  7. The Hadoop RPC layer then uses the ticket to authenticate the caller to the Namenode, and implicitly, authenticate the NameNode to the caller.
  8. The Namenode can use the Kerberos information to determine the identity of the (authenticated) caller.
  9. It can then look at the permissions of the user as recorded in the HDFS directory and file metadata and determine if they have the rights to perform the requested action.
  10. If they do, the action is performed and the results returned to the caller.

(Note there's some glossing over of details here, specifically how the client to Namenode authentication takes place, how they stay authenticated, how a users principal gets mapped to user name and how its group membership is ascertained for authorization purposes.)

If a second request is made against the Namenode in the same Java process, there is no need to ask the TGT for a new ticket —not until the previous one expires. Instead cached authentication data is reused. This avoids involving the KDC in any further interactions with the Namenode.

In Hadoop —as we will see— things go one step further, with Delegation Tokens. For now: ignore them.

This example shows Kerberos at work, and the Hadoop IPC integration.

As described, this follows the original Kerberos architecture, one principal per user, tickets between users and services. Hadoop/Kerberos integration has to jump one step further to address the scale problem, to avoid overloading the KDC with requests, to avoid problems such as having to have the client ask the TGT for a ticket to talk to individual Datanodes when reading or writing a file across the HDFS filesystem, or even handle the problem with a tens of thousands of clients having to refresh their Namenode tickets every few hours.

This is done with a concept called Hadoop Delegation Tokens. These will be covered later.

For now, know that the core authentication between principals and services utterly depends upon the Hadoop infrastructure, with an initial process as describe above.

Kerberos and Windows Active Directory

A lot of people are blissfully unaware of Kerberos. Such a life is one to treasure. Many of these people, do, however, log in to an enterprise network by way of Microsoft Active Directory. "AD" is a Kerberos Controller. Kerberos Explained

If an organisation uses Active Directory to manage users, they are running Kerberos, so have the basic infrastructure needed to authenticate users and services within a Hadoop cluster. Users should be able to submit jobs as themselves, interacting with "Kerberized" Hadoop services.

Setting up Hadoop to work with Active Directory is beyond the scope of this book. Please consult the references in the bibliography, and/or any vendor-specific documentation.

For Developers, it is worth knowing that AD is subtly different from the MIT/Unix Kerberos controller, enough so that you should really test with a cluster using AD as the Kerberos infrastructure, alongside the MIT KDC.

Limitations of Kerberos

Kerberos is considered "the best there is" in terms of securing distributed systems. Its use of tickets is designed to limit the load on the KDC, as it is only interacted with when a principal requests a ticket, rather than having to validate every single request.

The ability to delegate tokens to other processes allows transitive authentication as the original principal. This can be used by core Hadoop services to act on a users behalf, and by processes launched by the user.

The fact that tickets/tokens are time limited means that if one is stolen, the time for which unauthorized access is possible is limited to the lifespan of the token.

Finally, the fact that kerberos clients are standard in Windows, Linux and OS/X, and built into the Java runtime, means that it is possible to use Kerberos widely.

This does not mean it is perfect. Known limitations are

  1. The KDC is a Single Point of Failure, unless an HA system is set up (which Active Directory can do).
  2. Excess load can overload the KDC.
  3. The communications channels between services still need to be secure. Kerberos does not address data encryption. If those channels are not secure, then tickets can be intercepted or communications forged.
  4. Time needs to be roughly consistent across machines, else the time-limited tokens won't work.
  5. If time cannot be securely managed across machines (i.e. an insecure time synchronization, protocol is used), then it is theoretically possible to extend the lifetime of a stolen token.
  6. Because a stolen ticket can be used directly against a service, there's no log of its use in the KDC. Every application needs to have its own audit log of actions performed by a user, so that the history of actions by a client authenticated with a stolen ticket can be traced.
  7. It's an authentication service: it verifies callers and allows callers to pass that authentication information on. It doesn't deal with permissions at all.

There's some coverage of other issues in Kerberos in the Crosshairs: Golden Tickets, Silver Tickets, MITM, and More

Hadoop/Kerberos Integration Issues

Hadoop specific issues are:

  1. While the ticketing process reduces KDC load, an entire Hadoop cluster starting up can generate the login requests of a few thousand principals over a short period of time. The Hadoop code contains some back-off logic to handle connection and authentication failures here.
  2. Because granted tokens expire, long-lived YARN services need to have a mechanism for updating tokens.
  3. It's both hard to code for kerberos, and test against it.

Finally, it is necessary but not sufficient.

Having a Kerberized application does not guarantee that it is secure: you need to think about possible weaknesses, ways in which untrusted callers can make use of the service, ways in which tokens and keytabs may be leaked (that includes log messages!) and defend against them.

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