HP Open Source Security for OpenVMS Volume 3: Kerberos > Chapter 1 Introduction to Kerberos

Understanding Kerberos

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Kerberos performs authentication as a trusted third-party authentication service by using conventional (shared secret key) cryptography. Kerberos provides a means of verifying the identities of principals, without relying on authentication by the host operating system, without basing trust on host addresses, without requiring physical security of all the hosts on the network, and under the assumption that packets traveling along the network can be read, modified, and inserted at will.

When you integrate Kerberos into an application, it is important to review how and when Kerberos routines ensure that the application design does not compromise the authentication. For instance, an application is not secure if it uses Kerberos routines only on initiation of a stream-based network connection and assumes the absence of any active attackers who might hijack the stream connection.

The Kerberos protocol code libraries, whose API is described in Chapters 5 and 6, can be used to provide encryption to any application. To add authentication to its transactions, a typical network application adds one or two calls to the Kerberos library, which results in the transmission of the necessary messages to achieve authentication.

The two methods for obtaining credentials—the initial ticket exchange and the TGT exchange—use slightly different protocols and require different API routines. The basic difference an API programmer will see is that the initial request does not require a TGT. It does require the client's secret key, because the reply is sent back encrypted in the client's secret key. Usually this request is for a TGT, and TGT-based exchanges are used from then on. In a TGT exchange, the TGT is sent as part of the request for tickets and the reply is encrypted in the session key from the TGT. For example, once a user's password is used to obtain a TGT, it is not required for subsequent TGT exchanges.

The reply consists of a ticket and a session key, encrypted either in the user's secret key (password) or the TGT session key. The combination of a ticket and a session key is known as a credentials cache. (In Kerberos V4, a credentials cache was called a ticket file.) An application client can use these credentials to authenticate to the application server by sending the ticket and an authenticator to the server. The authenticator is encrypted in the session key of the ticket and contains the name of the client, the name of the server, and the time the authenticator was created.

In order to verify the authentication, the application server decrypts the ticket using its service key, which is known only by the application server and the Kerberos server. Inside the ticket, the Kerberos server had placed the name of the client, the name of the server, a key associated with this ticket, and some additional information. The application server then uses the ticket session key to decrypt the authenticator, and verifies that the information in the authenticator matches the information in the ticket and that the timestamp in the authenticator is recent (to prevent reply attacks). Because the session key was generated randomly by the Kerberos server and delivered encrypted only in the service key and in a key known only by the user, the application server can be confident that user is really who he or she claims to be, because the user was able to encrypt the authenticator using the correct key.

To provide detection of both replay attacks and message stream modification attacks, the integrity of all the messages exchanged between principals can also be guaranteed by generating and transmitting a collision-proof checksum of the client's message, keyed with the session key. Privacy and integrity of the messages exchanged between principals can be secured by encrypting the data to be passed using the session key.


The Kerberos protocol operates across organizational boundaries. Each organization that runs a Kerberos server establishes its own realm. The name of the realm in which a client is registered is part of the client's name and can be used by the end service to decide whether to honor a request.

By establishing inter-realm keys, the administrators of two realms can allow a client authenticated in the local realm to use its credentials remotely. The exchange of inter-realm keys (a separate key may be used for each direction) registers the ticket-granting service of each realm as a principal in the other realm. A client is then able to obtain a ticket-granting ticket for the remote realm's ticket-granting service from its local realm. When that ticket-granting ticket is used, the remote ticket-granting service uses the inter-realm key (which usually differs from its own normal TGS key) to decrypt the ticket-granting ticket and to assure that it was issued by the client's own TGS. Tickets issued by the remote ticket-granting service will indicate to the end service that the client was authenticated from another realm.

This method can be repeated to authenticate across multiple realms. To build a valid authentication path to a distant realm, the local realm must share an inter-realm key with an intermediate realm that communicates with either the distant realm or yet another intermediate realm.

Realms are typically organized hierarchically. Each realm shares a key with its parent and a different key with each child. If two realms do not directly share an inter-realm key, the hierarchical organization allows an authentication path to be easily constructed. If a hierarchical organization is not used, it may be necessary to consult some database to construct an authentication path between realms.

Although realms are typically hierarchical, intermediate realms may be bypassed to achieve cross-realm authentication through alternate authentication paths. It is important for the end service to know which realms were traversed when deciding how much faith to place in the authentication process. To make this easier, a field in each ticket contains the names of the realms that were involved in authenticating the client.

Security Limitations in Kerberos

When you are designing a secure application, be aware of the following limitations of Kerberos:

  • Kerberos does not address denial of service attacks. There are places in the Kerberos protocol where an intruder can prevent an application from participating in the proper authentication steps. Detection and solution of such attacks (some of which can appear to be normal failure modes for the system) is usually best left to the human administrators and users.

  • Principals must keep their secret keys secret. If an intruder somehow steals a principal's key, they can use it to masquerade as that principal or impersonate a server to legitimate principals.

  • Password-guessing attacks are not solved by Kerberos. If a user chooses a poor password, it is possible for an attacker to successfully mount an offline dictionary attack by repeatedly attempting to decrypt, with successive entries from a dictionary, messages obtained that are encrypted under a key derived from the user's password.