Chapter 1. Introduction to Identity Management

Red Hat Enterprise Linux IdM is a way to create identity stores, centralized authentication, domain control for Kerberos and DNS services, and authorization policies — all on Linux systems, using native Linux tools. While centralized identity/policy/authorization software is hardly new, Identity Management is one of the only options that supports Linux/Unix domains.
Identity Management provides a unifying skin for standards-defined, common network services, including PAM, LDAP, Kerberos, DNS, NTP, and certificate services, and it allows Red Hat Enterprise Linux systems to serve as the domain controllers.
Identity Management defines a domain, with servers and clients that share centrally-managed services, like Kerberos and DNS. This chapter first explains what Identity Management is. This chapter also covers how all of these services work together within the domain and how servers and clients interact with each other.

1.1. IdM v. LDAP: A More Focused Type of Service

At the most basic level, Red Hat Identity Management is a domain controller for Linux and Unix machines. Identity Management defines the domain, using controlling servers and enrolled client machines. This provides centralized structure that has previously been unavailable to Linux/Unix environments, and it does it using native Linux applications and protocols.

1.1.1. A Working Definition for Identity Management

Security information frequently relates to identities of users, machines, and services. Once the identity is verified, then access to services and resources can be controlled.
For efficiency, risk management, and ease of administration, IT administrators try to manage identities as centrally as possible and to unite identity management with authentication and authorization policies. Historically, Linux environments have had a very difficult time establishing this centralized management. There are a number of different protocols (such as NIS and Kerberos) which define domains, while other applications store data (such as LDAP) and still others manage access (such as sudo). None of these applications talk to each other or use the same management tools. Every application had to be administered separately and it had to be managed locally. The only way to get a consistent identity policy was to copy configuration files around manually or to try to develop a proprietary application to manage identities and policies.
The goal of Identity Management is to simplify that administrative overhead. Users, machines, services, and polices are all configured in one place, using the same tools. Because IdM creates a domain, multiple machines can all use the same configuration and the same resources simply by joining the domain. Users only have to sign into services once, and administrators only have to manage a single user account.
IdM does three things:
  • Create a Linux-based and Linux-controlled domain. Both IdM servers and IdM clients are Linux or Unix machines. While IdM can synchronize data with an Active Directory domain to allow integration with Windows servers, it is not an administrative tool for Windows machines and it does not support Windows clients. Identity Management is a management tool for Linux domains.
  • Centralize identity management and identity policies.
  • Build on existing, native Linux applications and protocols. While IdM has its own processes and configuration, its underlying technologies are familiar and trusted by Linux administrators and are well established on Linux systems.
In a sense, Identity Management isn't making administrators do something new; it is helping them do it better. There are a few ways to illustrate that.
On one extreme is the low control environment. Little Example Corp. has several Linux and Unix servers, but each one is administered separately. All passwords are kept on the local machine, so there is no central identity or authentication process. Tim the IT Guy just has to manage users on every machine, set authentication and authorization policies separately, and maintain local passwords. With IdM, things come to order. There is a simple way to have central user, password, and policy stores, so Tim the IT Guy only has to maintain the identities on one machine (the IdM server) and users and policies are uniformly applied to all machines. Using host-based access control, delegation, and other rules, he can even set different access levels for laptops and remote users.
In the middle is the medium control environment. Mid-Example Corp. has several Linux and Unix servers, but Bill the IT Guy has tried to maintain a greater degree of control by creating a NIS domain for machines, an LDAP directory for users, and Kerberos for authentication. While his environment is well under control, every application has to be maintained separately, using different tools. He also has to update all of the services manually whenever a new machine is added to his infrastructure or when one is taken offline. In this situation, IdM greatly reduces his administrative overhead because it integrates all of the different applications together seamlessly, using a single and simplified tool set. It also makes it possible for him to implement single sign-on services for all of the machines in his domain.
On the other extreme is the absent control environment. At Big Example Corp., most of the systems are Windows based and are managed in a tightly-knit Active Directory forest. However, development, production, and other teams have many Linux and Unix systems — which are basically excluded from the Windows controlled environment. IdM brings native control to the Linux/Unix servers, using their native tools and applications — something that is not possible in an Active Directory forest. Additionally, because IdM is Windows-aware, data can be synchronized between Active Directory and IdM, preserving a centralized user store.
IdM provides a very simple solution to a very common, very specific problem: identity management.

1.1.2. Contrasting Identity Management with a Standard LDAP Directory

The closest relative to Identity Management is a standard LDAP directory like 389 Directory Server, but there are some intrinsic differences between what they do and what they're intended to do.
First, it helps to understand what a directory service is. A directory service is a collection of software, hardware, and processes that stores information. While directory services can be highly specific (for example, DNS is a directory service because it stores information on hostnames), a generic directory service can store and retrieve any kind of information. LDAP directories like 389 Directory Server are generic directories. They have a flexible schema that supports entries for users, machines, network entities, physical equipment, and buildings, and that schema can be customized to define entries of almost anything. Because of its extensibility, LDAP servers like 389 Directory Server are frequently used as backends that store data for other applications. 389 Directory Server not only contains information, it organizes information. LDAP directories use a hierarchical structure, a directory tree, that organize entries into root entries (suffixes), intermediate or container entries (subtrees or branches), and leaf entries (the actual data). Directory trees can be very complex, with a lot of branch points, or very simple (flat) with few branch points.
The primary feature of an LDAP directory is its generality. It can be made to fit into a variety of applications.
Identity Management, on the other hand, has a very specific purpose and fits a very specific application. It is not a general LDAP directory, it is not a backend, and it is not a general policy server. It is not generic.
Identity Management focuses on identities (user and machine) and policies that relate to those identities and their interactions. While it uses an LDAP backend to store its data, IdM has a highly-customized and specific set of schema that defines a particular set of identity-related entries and defines them in detail. It has a relatively flat and simple directory tree because it has only a handful of entry types and relationships that are relevant to its purpose. It has rules and limitations on how the IdM server can be deployed because it can only be deployed for a specific purpose: managing identities.
The restrictions on IdM also give it a great deal of administrative simplicity. It has a simple installation process, a unified set of commands, and a clearly defined role in the overall IT infrastructure. An IdM domain is easy to configure, easy to join, and easy to manage, and the functions that it serves — particularly identity/authentication tasks like enterprise-wide single sign-on — are also easier to do with IdM than with a more general-purpose directory service.

Table 1.1. Identity Management Compared to 389 Directory Server

389 Directory Server Identity Management
Use General purpose Single domain, focused on identity management
Flexibility Highly-customizable Limitations to focus on identity and authentication
Schema Default LDAP schema Optimized, special schema for identity management
Directory Tree Standard and flexible hierarchy Flat tree with a fixed hierarchy
Authentication LDAP Kerberos or Kerberos and LDAP
Active Directory Synchronization Bi-directional Unidirectional, Active Directory to Identity Management
Password Policies LDAP-based Kerberos-based
User Tools Java Console and standard LDAP utilities Web-based UI and special Python command-line tools
LDAP directories like 389 Directory Server have flexibility and adaptability which makes them a perfect backend to any number of applications. Its primary purpose is to store and retrieve data efficiently.
IdM fills a very different niche. It is optimized to perform a single task very effectively. It stores user information and authentication and authorization policies, as well as other information related to access, like host information. Its single purpose is to manage identities.