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RFC 1309 - Technical Overview of Directory Services Using the X.500 Protocol

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Network Working Group C. Weider Request for Comments: 1309 ANS FYI: 14 J. Reynolds ISI S. Heker JvNC March 1992
Technical Overview of Directory Services Using the X.500 Protocol Status of this Memo This memo provides information for the Internet community. It does not specify an Internet standard. Distribution of this memo is unlimited. Abstract This document is an overview of the X.500 standard for people not familiar with the technology. It compares and contrasts Directory Services based on X.500 with several of the other Directory services currently in use in the Internet. This paper also describes the status of the standard and provides references for further information on X.500 implementations and technical information. A primary purpose of this paper is to illustrate the vast functionality of the X.500 protocol and to show how it can be used to provide a global directory for human use, and can support other applications which would benefit from directory services, such as main programs. This FYI RFC is a product of the Directory Information Services (pilot) Infrastructure Working Group (DISI). A combined effort of the User Services and the OSI Integration Areas of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). 1. INTRODUCTION As the pace of industry, science, and technological development quickened over the past century, it became increasingly probable that someone in a geographically distant location would be trying to solve the same problems you were trying to solve, or that someone in a geographically distant location would have some vital information which impinged on your research or business. The stupendous growth in the telecommunications industry, from telegraphs to telephones to computer networks, has alleviated the problem of being able to DISI Working Group [Page 1] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 communicate with another person, PROVIDED THAT YOU KNOW HOW TO REACH THEM. Thus, along with the expansion of the telecommunications infrastructure came the development of Directory Services. In this paper, we will discuss various models of directory services, the limitations of current models, and some solutions provided by the X.500 standard to these limitations. 2 MODELS OF DIRECTORY SERVICES 2.1 The telephone company's directory services. A model many people think of when they hear the words "Directory Services" is the directory service provided by the local telephone company. A local telephone company keeps an on-line list of the names of people with phone service, along with their phone numbers and their address. This information is available by calling up Directory Assistance, giving the name and address of the party whose number you are seeking, and waiting for the operator to search his database. It is additionally available by looking in a phone book published yearly on paper. The phone companies are able to offer this invaluable service because they administer the pool of phone numbers. However, this service has some limitations. For instance, you can find someone's number only if you know their name and the city or location in which they live. If two or more people have listings for the same name in the same locality, there is no additional information which with to select the correct number. In addition, the printed phone book can have information which is as much as a year out of date, and the phone company's internal directory can be as much as two weeks out of date. A third problem is that one actually has to call Directory assistance in a given area code to get information for that area; one cannot call a single number consistently. For businesses which advertise in the Yellow Pages, there is some additional information stored for each business; unfortunately, that information is unavailable through Directory Assistance and must be gleaned from the phone book. 2.2 Some currently available directory services on the Internet. As the Internet is comprised of a vast conglomeration of different people, computers, and computer networks, with none of the hierarchy imposed by the phone system on the area codes and exchange prefixes, any directory service must be able to deal with the fact that the Internet is not structured; for example, the hosts and DISI Working Group [Page 2] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 may be on opposite sides of the world, the .edu domain maps onto an enormous number of organizations, etc. Let's look at a few of the services currently available on the Internet for directory type services. 2.2.1 The finger protocol. The finger protocol, which has been implemented for UNIX systems and a small number of other machines, allows one to "finger" a specific person or username to a host running the protocol. This is invoked by typing, for example, "finger". A certain set of information is returned, as this example from a UNIX system finger operation shows, although the output format is not specified by the protocol: Login name: clw In real life: Chris Weider Directory: /usr/clw Shell: /bin/csh On since Jul 25 09:43:42 4 hours 52 minutes Idle Time Plan: Home: 971-5581 where the first three lines of information are taken from the UNIX operating systems information and the line(s) of information following the "Plan:" line are taken from a file named .plan which each user modifies. Limitations of the fingerd program include: a) One must already know which host to finger to find a specific person, b) since primarily UNIX machines run fingerd, people who reside on other types of operating systems are not locateable by this method, c) fingerd is often disabled on UNIX systems for security purposes, d) if one wishes to be found on more than one system, one must make sure that all the .plan files are consistent, and e) there is no way to search the .plan files on a given host to (for example) find everyone on who works on X.500. Thus, fingerd has a limited usefulness as a piece of the Internet Directory. 2.2.2 whois The whois utility, which is available on a wide of variety of systems, works by querying a centralized database maintained at the DDN NIC, which was for many years located at SRI International in Menlo Park, California, and is now located at GSI. This database contains a large amount of information which primarily deals with people and equipment which is used to build the Internet. SRI (and now GSI) has been able to collect the information in the WHOIS database as part of its role as the Network Information Center for the TCP/IP portion of the Internet. The whois utility is ubiquitous, and has a very simple interface. A DISI Working Group [Page 3] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 typical whois query look like: whois Reynolds and returns information like: Reynolds, John F. (JFR22) 532JFR@DOM1.NWAC.SEA06.NAVY.MIL (702) 426-2604 (DSN) 830-2604 Reynolds, John J. (JJR40) amsel-lg-pl-a@MONMOUTH-EMH3.ARMY.MIL (908) 532-3817 (DSN) 992-3817 Reynolds, John W. (JWR46) EAAV-AP@SEOUL-EMH1.ARMY.MIL (DSN) 723-3358 Reynolds, Joseph T. (JTR10) JREYNOLDS@PAXRV-NES.NAVY.MIL 011-63-47-885-3194 (DSN) 885-3194 Reynolds, Joyce K. (JKR1) JKREY@ISI.EDU (213) 822-1511 Reynolds, Keith (KR35) keithr@SCO.CO (408) 425-7222 Reynolds, Kenneth (KR94) (502) 454-2950 Reynolds, Kevin A. (KR39) REYNOLDS@DUGWAY-EMH1.ARMY.MIL (801) 831-5441 (DSN) 789-5441 Reynolds, Lee B. (LBR9) reynolds@TECHNET.NM.ORG (505) 345-6555 a further lookup on Joyce Reynolds with this command line: whois JKR1 returns: Reynolds, Joyce K. (JKR1) JKREY@ISI.EDU University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute 4676 Admiralty Way Marina del Rey, CA 90292 (310) 822-1511 Record last updated on 07-Jan-91. The whois database also contains information about Domain Name System (DNS) and has some information about hosts, major regional networks, and large parts of the MILNET system. The WHOIS database is large enough and comprehensive enough to exhibit many of the flaws of a large centralized database: a) As the database is maintained on one machine, a processor bottleneck forces slow response during times of peak querying activity, even if many of these queries are unrelated, b) as the database is maintained on one machine, a storage bottleneck forces the database administrators to severely limit the amount of information which can be kept on each entry in the database, c) all changes to the database have to be DISI Working Group [Page 4] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 mailed to a "hostmaster" and then physically reentered into the database, increasing both the turnaround time and the likelihood for a mistake in transcription. 2.2.3 The Domain Name System The Domain Name System is used in the Internet to keep track of host to IP address mapping. The basic mechanism is that each domain, such as or, is registered with the NIC, and at time of registration, a primary and (perhaps) some secondary nameservers are identified for that domain. Each of these nameservers must provide host name to IP address mapping for each host in the domain. Thus, the nameservice is supplied in a distributed fashion. It is also possible to split a domain into subdomains, with a different nameserver for each subdomain. Although in many cases one uses the DNS without being aware of it, because humans prefer to remember names and not IP addresses, it is possible to interactively query the DNS with the nslookup utility. A sample session using the nslookup utility: nslookup Default Server: Address: > Server: Address: Name: Address: > Server: Address: Name: [] Address: Thus, we can explicitly determine the address associated with a given host. Reverse name mapping is also possible with the DNS, as in this example: DISI Working Group [Page 5] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 traceroute traceroute to (, 30 hops max, 40 byte packets 1 t3peer ( 11 ms 5 ms 5 ms 2 enss ( 6 ms 6 ms 6 ms ................. 9 ( 51 ms 43 ms 49 ms 10 ( 53 ms 53 ms 46 ms At each hop of the traceroute, the program attempts to do a reverse lookup through the DNS and displays the results when successful. Although the DNS has served superlatively for the purpose it was developed, i.e. to allow maintenance of the namespace in a distributed fashion, and to provide very rapid lookups in the namespace, there are, of course, some limitations. Although there has been some discussion of including other types of information in the DNS, to find a given person at this time, assuming you know where she works, you have to use a combination of the DNS and finger to even make a stab at finding her. Also, the DNS has very limited search capabilities right now. The lack of search capabilities alone shows that we cannot provide a rich Directory Service through the DNS. 3: THE X.500 MODEL OF DIRECTORY SERVICE X.500 is a CCITT protocol which is designed to build a distributed, global directory. It offers the following features: * Decentralized Maintenance: Each site running X.500 is responsible ONLY for its local part of the Directory, so updates and maintenance can be done instantly. * Powerful Searching Capabilities: X.500 provides powerful searching facilities that allow users to construct arbitrarily complex queries. * Single Global Namespace: Much like the DNS, X.500 provides a single homogeneous namespace to users. The X.500 namespace is more flexible and expandable than the DNS. * Structured Information Framework: X.500 defines the information framework used in the directory, allowing local extensions. DISI Working Group [Page 6] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 * Standards-Based Directory: As X.500 can be used to build a standards-based directory, applications which require directory information (e-mail, automated resource locators, special-purpose directory tools) can access a planet's worth of information in a uniform manner, no matter where they are based or currently running. 3.1 Acronym City, or How X.500 Works The '88 version of the X.500 standard talks about 3 models required to build the X.500 Directory Service: the Directory Model, the Information Model, and the Security Model. In this section, we will provide a brief overview of the Directory and Information Models sufficient to explain the vast functionality of X.500. 3.1.1 The Information Model To illustrate the Information Model, we will first show how information is held in the Directory, then we will show what types of information can be held in the Directory, and then we will see how the information is arranged so that we can retrieve the desired pieces from the Directory. Entries The primary construct holding information in the Directory is the "entry". Each Directory entry contains information about one object; for example, a person, a computer network, or an organization. Each entry is built from a collection of "attributes", each of which holds a single piece of information about the object. Some attributes which might be used to build an entry for a person would be "surname", "telephonenumber", "postaladdress", etc. Each attribute has an associated "attribute syntax", which describes the type of data that attribute contains, for example, photo data, a time code, or a string of letters and numbers. As an example, let's look at part of an entry for a person. Entry for John Smith contains: attribute ---> surName= Smith <--- attribute value |---> telephoneNumber= 999-9999 <--- attribute value |---> title= Janitor <--- attribute value ... The attribute syntax for the surName attribute would be CaseIgnoreString, which would tell X.500 that surName could contain any string, and case would not matter; the attribute syntax for the telephoneNumber attribute would be TelephoneNumber, which would DISI Working Group [Page 7] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 specify that telephoneNumber could contain a string composed of digits, dashes, parenthesis, and a plus sign. The attribute syntax for the title attribute would also be CaseIgnoreString. A good analogy in database terms for what we've seen so far might be to think of a Directory entry as a database record, an attribute as a field in that record, and an attribute syntax as a field type (decimal number, string) for a field in a record. Object Classes At this point in our description of the information model, we have no way of knowing what type of object a given entry represents. X.500 uses the concept of an "object class" to specify that information, and an attribute named "objectClass" which each entry contains to specify to which object class(es) the entry belongs. Each object class in X.500 has a definition which lists the set of mandatory attributes, which must be present, and a set of optional attributes, which may be present, in an entry of that class. An given object class A may be a subclass of another class B, in which case object class A inherits all the mandatory and optional attributes of B in addition to its own. The object classes in X.500 are arranged in a hierarchical manner according to class inheritance; the following diagram shows a part of the object class hierarchy. DISI Working Group [Page 8] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 _____________ | | "top" has one mandatory | top | attribute "objectClass", |_____________| and nooptional attributes. | | | | | | every other object class is a ________________| | | subclass of "top"... | | ... ______|________ _____|_______ | | | |"organization" inherits one | country | | organization |mandatory attribute from |_______________| |_______________|"top", "objectClass"; adds one more mandatory attribute "O" "country" inherits one (for organization), and has mandatory attribute from "top", many optional attributes. Any "objectClass", adds one more subclass of "organization" mandatory attribute "c" (for would inherit all of the country), and has two optional mandatory and optional attributes, "description" and attributes from "organization" "searchGuide". Any subclass of including the attribute which "country" would inherit all of the "organization" inherited mandatory and optional attributes from "top". of the "country" class, including the attribute which "country" inherited from "top". Figure 1. One major benefit of the object class concept is that it is in many cases very easy to create a new object class which is only a slight modification or extension of a previous class. For example, if I have already defined an object class for "person" which contains a person's name, phone number, address, and fax number, I can easily define an "Internet person" object class by defining "Internet person" as a subclass of "person", with the additional optional attribute of "e-mail address". Thus in my definition of the "Internet Person" object class, all my "person" type attributes are inherited from "person". There are other benefits which are beyond the scope of this paper. X.500's namespace. X.500 hierarchically organizes the namespace in the Directory Information Base (DIB); recall that this hierarchical organization is called the Directory Information Tree (DIT). Each entry in the DIB occupies a certain location in the DIT. An entry which has no children is called a leaf entry, an entry which has children is called a non-leaf node. Each entry in the DIT contains one or more DISI Working Group [Page 9] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 attributes which together comprise the Relative Distinguished Name (RDN) of that entry, there is a "root" entry (which has no attributes, a special case) which forms the base node of the DIT. The Distinguished Name of a specific entry is the sequence of RDNs of the entries on the path from the root entry to the entry in question. A diagram here will help to clarify this: Level of DIT Root RDN Distinguished Name root * nothing { } / | \ country (other / | \ things at this / | \ c=us {c=us} level) c=gb c=us c=ca / | \ / | \ / | \ organization o=SRI o=Merit o=DEC o=Merit {c=us, o=Merit} (other things / | \ at this level) / | \ / | \ Third level cn=Chris Weider cn=Chris Weider {c=us, o=Merit, cn=Chris Weider} Figure 2: Building a DN from RDNs (adapted from a diagram in the X.500 (88) Blue Book) Each entry in this tree contains more attributes than have been shown here, but in each case only one attribute for each entry has been used for that entry's RDN. As noted above, any entry in the tree could use more than one attribute to build its RDN. X.500 also allows the use of alias names, so that the entry {c=us, o=Merit, cn=Chris Weider} could be also found through an alias entry such as {c=us, o=SRI, ou=FOX Project, cn=Drone 1} which would point to the first entry. 3.1.2 The Directory Model Now that we've seen what kinds of information can be kept in the Directory, we should look at how the Directory stores this information and how a Directory users accesses the information. There are two components of this model: a Directory User Agent (DUA), which accesses the Directory on behalf of a user, and the Directory System Agent, which can be viewed as holding a particular subset of the DIB, and can also provide an access point to the Directory for a DUA. Now, the entire DIB is distributed through the world-wide collection of DSAs which form the Directory, and the DSAs employ two techniques DISI Working Group [Page 10] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 to allow this distribution to be transparent to the user, called "chaining" and "referral". The details of these two techniques would take up another page, so it suffices to say that to each user, it appears that the entire global directory is on her desktop. (Of course, if the information requested is on the other side of the world, it may seem that the desktop directory is a bit slow for that request...) 3.2 The functionality of X.500 To describe the functionality of X.500, we will need to separate three stages in the evolution of X.500: 1) the 1988 standard, 2) X.500 as implemented in QUIPU, and 3) the (proposed) 1992 standard. We will list some of the features described in the 1988 standard, show how they were implemented in QUIPU, and discuss where the 1992 standard will take us. The QUIPU implementation was chosen because a) it is widely used in the U.S. and European Directory Services Pilot projects, and b) it works well. For a survey of other X.500 implementations and a catalogue of DUAs, see [Lang]. 3.2.1 Functionality in X.500 (88) There are a number of advantages that the X.500 Directory accrues simply by virtue of the fact that it is distributed, not limited to a single machine. Among these are: * An enormously large potential namespace. Since the Directory is not limited to a single machine, many hundreds of machines can be used to store Directory entries. * The ability to allow local administration of local data. An organization or group can run a local DSA to master their information, facilitating much more accurate data throughout the Directory. The functionality built into the X.500(88) standard includes: * Advanced searching capabilities. The Directory supports arbitrarily complex searches at an attribute level. As the object classes a specific entry belongs to is maintained in the objectClass attribute, this also allows Directory searches for specific types of objects. Thus, one could search the c=US subtree for anyone with a last name beginning with S, who also has either a fax number in the (313) area code or an e-mail address ending in This feature of X.500 also helps to provide the basic functionality for a Yellow Pages service. DISI Working Group [Page 11] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 * A uniform namespace with local extensibility. The Directory provides a uniform namespace, but local specialized directories can also be implemented. Locally defined extensions can include new object classes, new attributes, and new attribute types. * Security issues. The X.500 (88) standards define two types of security for Directory data: Simple Authentication (which uses passwords), and Strong Authentication (which uses cryptographic keys). Simple authentication has been widely implemented, strong authentication has been less widely implemented. Each of these authentication techniques are invoked when a user or process attempts a Directory operation through a DUA. In addition to the global benefits of the X.500 standard, there are many local benefits. One can use their local DSA for company or campus wide directory services; for example, the University of Michigan is providing all the campus directory services through X.500. The DUAs are available for a wide range of platforms, including X-Windows systems and Macintoshes. 3.2.2 Functionality added by QUIPU. Functionality beyond the X.500 (88) standard implemented by QUIPU includes: * Access control lists. An access control list is a way to provide security for each attribute of an entry. For example, each attribute in a given entry can be permitted for detect, compare, read, and modify permissions based on the reader's membership in various groups. For example, one can specify that some information in a given entry is public, some can be read only by members of the organization, and some can only be modified by the owner of the entry. * Replication. Replication provides a method whereby frequently accessed information in a DSA other than the local one can be kept by the local DSA on a "slave" basis, with updates of the "slave" data provided automatically by QUIPU from the "master" data residing on the foreign DSA. This provides alternate access points to that data, and can make searches and retrievals more rapid as there is much less overhead in the form or network transport. DISI Working Group [Page 12] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 3.3 Current limitations of the X.500 standard and implementations. As flexible and forward looking as X.500 is, it certainly was not designed to solve everyone's needs for all time to come. X.500 is not a general purpose database, nor is it a Data Base Management System (DBMS). X.500 defines no standards for output formats, and it certainly doesn't have a report generation capability. The technical mechanisms are not yet in place for the Directory to contain information about itself, thus new attributes and new attribute types are rather slowly distributed (by hand). Searches can be slow, for two reasons: a) searches across a widely distributed portion of the namespace (c=US, for example) has a delay which is partially caused by network transmission times, and can be compounded by implementations that cache the partial search returns until everyone has reported back, and b) some implementations are slow at searching anyway, and this is very sensitive to such things as processor speed and available swap space. Another implementation "problem" is a tradeoff with security for the Directory: most implementations have an administrative limit on the amount of information which can be returned for a specific search. For example, if a search returns 1000 hits, 20 of those might be displayed, with the rest lost. Thus a person performing a large search might have to perform a number of small searches. This was implemented because an organization might want to make it hard to "troll" for the organization's entire database. Also, there is at the moment no clear consensus on the ideal shape of the DIT, or on the idea structure of the object tree. This can make it hard to add to the current corpus of X.500 work, and the number of RFCs on various aspects of the X.500 deployment is growing monthly. Despite this, however, X.500 is very good at what it was designed to do; i.e., to provide primary directory services and "resource location" for a wide band oftypes of information. 3.4 Things to be added in X.500 (92). The 1988 version of the X.500 standard proved to be quite sufficient to start building a Directory Service. However, many of the new functions implemented in QUIPU were necessary if the Directory were to function in a reasonable manner. X.500 (92) will include formalized and standardized versions of those advances, including * A formalized replication procedure. * Enhanced searching capacities. DISI Working Group [Page 13] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 * Formalization of access control mechanisms, including access control lists. Each of these will provide a richer Directory, but you don't have to wait for them! You can become part of the Directory today! 4: WHAT X.500 CAN DO FOR YOU TODAY 4.1 Current applications of X.500 X.500 is filling Directory Services needs in a large number of countries. As a directory to locate people, it is provided in the U.S. as the White Pages Pilot Project, run by PSI, and in Europe under the PARADISE Project as a series of nation-wide pilots. It is also being used by the FOX Project in the United States to provide WHOIS services for people and networks, and to provide directories of objects as disparate as NIC Profiles and a pilot K-12 Educators directory. It is also being investigated for its ability to provide resource location facilities and to provide source location for WAIS servers. In fact, in almost every area where one could imagine needing a directory service (particularly for distributed directory services), X.500 is either providing those services or being expanded to provide those services. In particular, X.500 was envisioned by its creators as providing directory services for electronic mail, specifically for X.400. It is being used in this fashion today at the University of Michigan: everyone at the University has a unified mail address, e.g. An X.500 server then reroutes that mail to the appropriate user's real mail address in a transparent fashion. Similarly, Sprint is using X.500 to administrate the address space for its internal X.400 mail systems. Those of us working on X.500 feel that X.500's strengths lie in providing directory services for people and objects, and for providing primary resource location for a large number of online services. We think that X.500 is a major component (though not the only one) of a global Yellow Pages service. We would also like to encourage each of you to join your national pilot projects; the more coverage we can get, the easier you will be able to find the people you need to contact. DISI Working Group [Page 14] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 5. For Further Information For further information, the authors recommend the following documents: Weider, C., and J. Reynolds, "Executive Introduction to Directory Services Using the X.500 Protocol", FYI 13, RFC 1308, ANS, ISI, March 1992. Lang, R., and R. Wright, Editors, "A Catalog of Available X.500 Implementations", FYI 11, RFC 1292, SRI International, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, January 1992. Barker, P., and S. Hardcastle-Kille, "The COSINE and Internet X.500 Schema", RFC 1274, University College London, November 1991. Hardcastle-Kille, S., "Replication Requirements to provide an Internet Directory using X.500", RFC 1275, University College London, November, 1991. Hardcastle-Kille, S., "Replication and Distributed Operations extensions to provide an Internet Directory using X.500", RFC 1276, University College London, November 1991. Hardcastle-Kille, S., "Encoding Network Addresses to support operation over non-OSI lower layers", RFC 1277, University College London, November 1991. Hardcastle-Kille, S., " A string encoding of Presentation Address", RFC 1278, University College London, November 1991. Hardcastle-Kille, S., "X.500 and Domains", RFC 1279, University College London, November 1991. 6. Security Considerations Security issues are discussed in section 3. DISI Working Group [Page 15] RFC 1309 Technical Overview of X.500 March 1992 7. Authors' Addresses Chris Weider Advanced Network and Services, Inc. 2901 Hubbard G-1 Ann Arbor, MI 48105-2437 Phone (313) 663-2482 E-mail: Joyce K. Reynolds Information Sciences Institute University of Southern California 4676 Admirality Way Marina del Rey, CA 90292 Phone: (310) 822-1511 EMail: Sergio Heker JvNCnet Princeton University 6 von Neumann Hall Princeton, NJ 08544 Phone: (609) 258-2400 Email: DISI Working Group [Page 16]