Articles

Scale of the enterprise desktop – users, accounts, groups and permissions

In enterprise, Gnome, Linux desktop, open source on November 22, 2010 by oli4444

Large corporations have many employees in many departments. And many of them will have an account. 16 bits for the UIDnumber is not big enough for some enterprises (but luckily the kernel handles 32bit numbers fine – but does your app?). All those employees in different projects and different departments means there are lots of different authorizations, meaning lots of groups, again possibly beyond the 16bit limit. And you may guess that the traditional scheme with owner/group/others might not do it – ACL’s are needed.

what does that mean for a GUI? For example a GUI to set file permissions:

  • Ever thought of a dropdown with groups or users? Does that work with 50000 groups or 70000 users?
  • Does it have a search field to select the right user/group?
  • Does it display ACL’s in the GUI?

You can image that lots of users also means lots of users that forget their passwords. One solution to that is kerberos. Log on with your password, you receive a kerberos ticket, and you log on to every service using your kerberos ticket – never using your password again. Or better: logon using your PKI smartcard (with pkinit), you receive a kerberos ticket, and you never use a password at all! But this implies that all clients and all services support kerberos. The basics work well with Linux. Kerberos init on logon works and firefox understands it (so most internal web servers will work). But what about instant messaging (empathy?), voip and email clients? Lets make it worse: log on with dual factor authentication: a PKI smartcard with PIN code. Again the basics work, pkinit works perfectly on Linux, so you get a Kerberos ticket using your PKI smartcard. And even programs like gnome-screensaver can ask for your PIN code instead of a password. But GDM doesn’t understand it completely, you’re asked for a username while you enter your smartcard (that’s already passed with your certificate!). And your default gnome keyring won’t unlock anymore without a password (would be great if we could unlock it with the PKI certificate as well!).

  • does your app work with Kerberos?
  • will it work with dual factor authentication?

To manage a situation with this number of users, accounts and groups will be in a directory server, probably LDAP. In large enterprises all accounts are mostly in one level in the directory server. Smaller organizations sometimes try to organize accounts in their departments, but in large organizations there are so many people that move around to different departments, so many people that work in multiple departments, that they usually keep the departments as attributes in the account, and keep all accounts in one level. So what can go wrong. Image a ldap browser that lists all accounts per level: listing 50.000 of them won’t fir on your screen, and probably will take ages to load. You would think that most ldap browsers are designed for these situations, but they almost all suffer from this problem.

  • can your app handle 50.000 results on a ldap query?

The good thing about the LDAP server is that all users have the same account on all systems, with the same permissions, same address, etc. So once you know the email address, you know their jabber and voip account as well. But oh: my email client knows how to look up names in a directory, but my jabber client doesn’t. And I cannot start a VOIP call from my email client – even if I know that the address is the same, I have to copy & paste it into another program.

  • does your app support ldap directory lookups?

So there is some room for improvement here. And don’t get me wrong – I really like it that most things already work out of the box and how easy this is. It’s just the small things that could be improved.

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