Towards pluggable GSS-API modules

GSS-API is a standardized framework that is used by applications to, primarily, support Kerberos V5 authentication. GSS-API is standardized by IETF and supported by protocols like SSH, SMTP, IMAP and HTTP, and implemented by software projects such as OpenSSH, Exim, Dovecot and Apache httpd (via mod_auth_gssapi). The implementations of Kerberos V5 and GSS-API that are packaged for common GNU/Linux distributions, such as Debian, include MIT Kerberos, Heimdal and (less popular) GNU Shishi/GSS.

When an application or library is packaged for a GNU/Linux distribution, a choice is made which GSS-API library to link with. I believe this leads to two problematic consequences: 1) it is difficult for end-users to chose between Kerberos implementation, and 2) dependency bloat for non-Kerberos users. Let’s discuss these separately.

  1. No system admin or end-user choice over the GSS-API/Kerberos implementation used

    There are differences in the bug/feature set of MIT Kerberos and that of Heimdal’s, and definitely that of GNU Shishi. This can lead to a situation where an application (say, Curl) is linked to MIT Kerberos, and someone discovers a Kerberos related problem that would have been working if Heimdal was used, or vice versa. Sometimes it is possible to locally rebuild a package using another set of dependencies. However doing so has a high maintenance cost to track security fixes in future releases. It is an unsatisfying solution for the distribution to flip flop between which library to link to, depending on which users complain the most. To resolve this, a package could be built in two variants: one for MIT Kerberos and one for Heimdal. Both can be shipped. This can help solve the problem, but the question of which variant to install by default leads to similar concerns, and will also eventually leads to dependency conflicts. Consider an application linked to libraries (possible in several steps) where one library only supports MIT Kerberos and one library only supports Heimdal.

    The fact remains that there will continue to be multiple Kerberos implementations. Distributions will continue to support them, and will be faced with the dilemma of which one to link to by default. Distributions and the people who package software will have little guidance on which implementation to chose from their upstream, since most upstream support both implementations. The result is that system administrators and end-users are not given a simple way to have flexibility about which implementation to use.
  2. Dependency bloat for non-Kerberos use-cases.

    Compared to the number of users of GNU/Linux systems out there, the number of Kerberos users on GNU/Linux systems is smaller. Here distributions face another dilemma. Should they enable GSS-API for all applications, to satisfy the Kerberos community, or should they be conservative with adding dependencies to reduce attacker surface for the non-Kerberos users? This is a dilemma with no clear answer, and one approach has been to ship two versions of a package: one with Kerberos support and one without. Another option here is for upstream to support loadable modules, for example Dovecot implement this and Debian ship with a separate ‘dovecot-gssapi’ package that extend the core Dovecot seamlessly. Few except some larger projects appear to be willing to carry that maintenance cost upstream, so most only support build-time linking of the GSS-API library.

    There are a number of real-world situations to consider, but perhaps the easiest one to understand for most GNU/Linux users is OpenSSH. The SSH protocol supports Kerberos via GSS-API, and OpenSSH implement this feature, and most GNU/Linux distributions ship a SSH client and SSH server linked to a GSS-API library. Someone made the choice of linking it to a GSS-API library, for the arguable smaller set of people interested in it, and also the choice which library to link to. Rebuilding OpenSSH locally without Kerberos support comes with a high maintenance cost. Many people will not need or use the Kerberos features of the SSH client or SSH server, and having it enabled by default comes with a security cost. Having a vulnerability in OpenSSH is critical for many systems, and therefor its dependencies are a reasonable concern. Wouldn’t it be nice if OpenSSH was built in a way that didn’t force you to install MIT Kerberos or Heimdal? While still making it easy for Kerberos users to use it, of course.

Hopefully I have made the problem statement clear above, and that I managed to convince you that the state of affairs is in need of improving. I learned of the problems from my personal experience with maintaining GNU SASL in Debian, and for many years I ignored this problem.

Let me introduce Libgssglue!

Matryoshka Dolls
Matryoshka Dolls – photo CC-4.0-BY-NC by PngAll

Libgssglue is a library written by Kevin W. Coffman based on historical GSS-API code, the initial release was in 2004 (using the name libgssapi) and the last release was in 2012. Libgssglue provides a minimal GSS-API library and header file, so that any application can link to it instead of directly to MIT Kerberos or Heimdal (or GNU GSS). The administrator or end-user can select during run-time which GSS-API library to use, through a global /etc/gssapi_mech.conf file or even a local GSSAPI_MECH_CONF environment variable. Libgssglue is written in C, has no external dependencies, and is BSD-style licensed. It was developed for the CITI NFSv4 project but libgssglue ended up not being used.

I have added support to build GNU SASL with libgssglue — the changes required were only ./ since GSS-API is a standardized framework. I have written a fairly involved CI/CD check that builds GNU SASL with MIT Kerberos, Heimdal, libgssglue and GNU GSS, sets ups a local Kerberos KDC and verify successful GSS-API and GS2-KRB5 authentications. The ‘gsasl’ command line tool connects to a local example SMTP server, also based on GNU SASL (linked to all variants of GSS-API libraries), and to a system-installed Dovecot IMAP server that use the MIT Kerberos GSS-API library. This is on Debian but I expect it to be easily adaptable to other GNU/Linux distributions. The check triggered some (expected) Shishi/GSS-related missing features, and triggered one problem related to authorization identities that may be a bug in GNU SASL. However, testing shows that it is possible to link GNU SASL with libgssglue and have it be operational with any choice of GSS-API library that is shipped with Debian. See GitLab CI/CD code and its CI/CD output.

This experiment worked so well that I contacted Kevin to learn that he didn’t have any future plans for the project. I have adopted libgssglue and put up a Libgssglue GitLab project page, and pushed out a libgssglue 0.5 release fixing only some minor build-related issues. There are still some missing newly introduced GSS-API interfaces that could be added, but I haven’t been able to find any critical issues with it. Amazing that an untouched 10 year old project works so well!

My current next steps are:

  • Release GNU SASL with support for Libgssglue and encourage its use in documentation.
  • Make GNU SASL link to Libgssglue in Debian, to avoid a hard dependency on MIT Kerberos, but still allowing a default out-of-the-box Kerberos experience with GNU SASL.
  • Maintain libgssglue upstream and implement self-checks, CI/CD testing, new GSS-API interfaces that have been defined, and generally fix bugs and improve the project. Help appreciated!
  • Maintain the libgssglue package in Debian.
  • Look into if there are applications in Debian that link to a GSS-API library that could instead be linked to libgssglue to allow flexibility for the system administrator and reduce dependency bloat.

What do you think? Happy Hacking!

Laptop Buying Advice?

My current Lenovo X201 laptop has been with me for over four years. I’ve been looking at new laptop models over the years thinking that I should upgrade. Every time, after checking performance numbers, I’ve always reached the conclusion that it is not worth it. The most performant Intel Broadwell processor is the the Core i7 5600U and it is only about 1.5 times the performance of my current Intel Core i7 620M. Meanwhile disk performance has increased more rapidly, but changing the disk on a laptop is usually simple. Two years ago I upgraded to the Samsung 840 Pro 256GB disk, and this year I swapped that for the Samsung 850 Pro 1TB, and both have been good investments.

Recently my laptop usage patterns have changed slightly, and instead of carrying one laptop around, I have decided to aim for multiple semi-permanent laptops at different locations, coupled with a mobile device that right now is just my phone. The X201 will remain one of my normal work machines.

What remains is to decide on a new laptop, and there begins the fun. My requirements are relatively easy to summarize. The laptop will run a GNU/Linux distribution like Debian, so it has to work well with it. I’ve decided that my preferred CPU is the Intel Core i7 5600U. The screen size, keyboard and mouse is mostly irrelevant as I never work longer periods of time directly on the laptop. Even though the laptop will be semi-permanent, I know there will be times when I take it with me. Thus it has to be as lightweight as possible. If there would be significant advantages in going with a heavier laptop, I might reconsider this, but as far as I can see the only advantage with a heavier machine is bigger/better screen, keyboard (all of which I find irrelevant) and maximum memory capacity (which I would find useful, but not enough of an argument for me). The sub-1.5kg laptops with the 5600U CPU on the market that I have found are:

Lenovo X250 1.42kg 12.5″ 1366×768
Lenovo X1 Carbon (3rd gen) 1.34kg 14″ 2560×1440
Dell Latitude E7250 1.25kg 12.5″ 1366×768
Dell XPS 13 1.26kg 13.3″ 3200×1800
HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G2 1.49kg 14″ 1920×1080
HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G3 1.4kg 11.6″ 1366×768

I find it interesting that Lenovo, Dell and HP each have two models that meets my 5600U/sub-1.5kg criteria. Regarding screen, possibly there exists models with other screen resolutions. The XPS 13, HP 810 and X1 models I looked had touch screens, the others did not. As screen is not important to me, I didn’t evaluate this further.

I think all of them would suffice, and there are only subtle differences. All except the XPS 13 can be connected to peripherals using one cable, which I find convenient to avoid a cable mess. All of them have DisplayPort, but HP uses DisplayPort Standard and the rest uses miniDP. The E7250 and X1 have HDMI output. The X250 boosts a 15-pin VGA connector, none of the others have it — I’m not sure if that is a advantage or disadvantage these days. All of them have 2 USB v3.0 ports except the E7250 which has 3 ports. The HP 1040, XPS 13 and X1 Carbon do not have RJ45 Ethernet connectors, which is a significant disadvantage to me. Ironically, only the smallest one of these, the HP 810, can be memory upgraded to 12GB with the others being stuck at 8GB. HP and the E7250 supports NFC, although Debian support is not certain. The E7250 and X250 have a smartcard reader, and again, Debian support is not certain. The X1, X250 and 810 have a 3G/4G card.

Right now, I’m leaning towards rejecting the XPS 13, X1 and HP 1040 because of lack of RJ45 ethernet port. That leaves me with the E7250, X250 and the 810. Of these, the E7250 seems like the winner: lightest, 1 extra USB port, HDMI, NFC, SmartCard-reader. However, it has no 3G/4G-card and no memory upgrade options. Looking for compatibility problems, it seems you have to be careful to not end up with the “Dell Wireless” card and the E7250 appears to come in a docking and non-docking variant but I’m not sure what that means.

Are there other models I should consider? Other thoughts?

OpenWRT with Huawei E367 and TP-Link TL-WR1043ND

The ability to connect a 3G modem to a wireless router to form a Internet connected ad-hoc network of machines is very powerful. I’ve done this many times and have written about it before (e.g., see my OpenWRT writeup page) but I recently did it with modern hardware again. Here I will use the TP-Link TL-WR1043ND wireless router (available here for around $50) together with the Huawei E367 3G UMTS/HSDPA modem. Other wireless routers and modem should work fine. The software is OpenWRT 10.03 although I hope to redo this with LibreWRT eventually. My writeup is mostly focused around what is happening around the prompt, so it is mostly a cut’n’paste terminal session with a comment interlined.

TL-WR1043ND and Huawei 367
Router and modem

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