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Chapter 1. Introduction to System Authentication

One of the cornerstones of establishing a secure network environment is making sure that access is restricted to people who have the right to access the network. If access is allowed, users can authenticate to the system, meaning they can verify their identities.
On any Red Hat Enterprise Linux system, there are a number of different services available to create and identify user identities. These can be local system files, services which connect to larger identity domains like Kerberos or Samba, or tools to create those domains.
This guide reviews some common system services and applications which are available to administrators to manage authentication and identities for a local system. Other guides are available which provide more detailed information on creating Linux domains and integrating a Linux system into a Windows domain.

1.1. Confirming User Identities

Authentication is the process of confirming an identity. For network interactions, authentication involves the identification of one party by another party. There are many ways to use authentication over networks: simple passwords, certificates, one-time password (OTP) tokens, biometric scans.
Authorization, on the other hand, defines what the authenticated party is allowed to do or access.
Authentication requires that a user presents some kind of credential to verify his identity. The kind of credential that is required is defined by the authentication mechanism being used. There are several kinds of authentication for local users on a system:
  • Password-based authentication. Almost all software permits the user to authenticate by providing a recognized name and password. This is also called simple authentication.
  • Certificate-based authentication. Client authentication based on certificates is part of the SSL protocol. The client digitally signs a randomly generated piece of data and sends both the certificate and the signed data across the network. The server validates the signature and confirms the validity of the certificate.
  • Kerberos authentication. Kerberos establishes a system of short-lived credentials, called ticket-granting tickets (TGTs). The user presents credentials, that is, user name and password, that identify the user and indicate to the system that the user can be issued a ticket. TGT can then be repeatedly used to request access tickets to other services, like websites and email. Authentication using TGT allows the user to undergo only a single authentication process in this way.
  • Smart card-based authentication. This is a variant of certificate-based authentication. The smart card (or token) stores user certificates; when a user inserts the token into a system, the system can read the certificates and grant access. Single sign-on using smart cards goes through three steps:
    1. A user inserts a smart card into the card reader. Pluggable authentication modules (PAMs) on Red Hat Enterprise Linux detect the inserted smart card.
    2. The system maps the certificate to the user entry and then compares the presented certificates on the smart card, which are encrypted with a private key as explained under the certificate-based authentication, to the certificates stored in the user entry.
    3. If the certificate is successfully validated against the key distribution center (KDC), then the user is allowed to log in.
    Smart card-based authentication builds on the simple authentication layer established by Kerberos by adding certificates as additional identification mechanisms as well as by adding physical access requirements.