MIT Kerberos Documentation

Developing with GSSAPI

The GSSAPI (Generic Security Services API) allows applications to communicate securely using Kerberos 5 or other security mechanisms. We recommend using the GSSAPI (or a higher-level framework which encompasses GSSAPI, such as SASL) for secure network communication over using the libkrb5 API directly.

GSSAPIv2 is specified in RFC 2743 and RFC 2744. This documentation will describe how various ways of using GSSAPI will behave with the krb5 mechanism as implemented in MIT krb5, as well as krb5-specific extensions to the GSSAPI.

Name types

A GSSAPI application can name a local or remote entity by calling gss_import_name, specifying a name type and a value. The following name types are supported by the krb5 mechanism:

  • GSS_C_NT_HOSTBASED_SERVICE: The value should be a string of the form service or service@hostname. This is the most common way to name target services when initiating a security context, and is the most likely name type to work across multiple mechanisms.
  • GSS_KRB5_NT_PRINCIPAL_NAME: The value should be a principal name string. This name type only works with the krb5 mechanism, and is defined in the <gssapi_krb5.h> header.
  • GSS_C_NT_USER_NAME or GSS_C_NULL_OID: The value is treated as an unparsed principal name string, as above. These name types may work with mechanisms other than krb5, but will have different interpretations in those mechanisms. GSS_C_NT_USER_NAME is intended to be used with a local username, which will parse into a single-component principal in the default realm.
  • GSS_C_NT_ANONYMOUS: The value is ignored. The anonymous principal is used, allowing a client to authenticate to a server without asserting a particular identity (which may or may not be allowed by a particular server or Kerberos realm).
  • GSS_C_NT_MACHINE_UID_NAME: The value is uid_t object. On Unix-like systems, the username of the uid is looked up in the system user database and the resulting username is parsed as a principal name.
  • GSS_C_NT_STRING_UID_NAME: As above, but the value is a decimal string representation of the uid.
  • GSS_C_NT_EXPORT_NAME: The value must be the result of a gss_export_name call.

Initiator credentials

A GSSAPI client application uses gss_init_sec_context to establish a security context. The initiator_cred_handle parameter determines what tickets are used to establish the connection. An application can either pass GSS_C_NO_CREDENTIAL to use the default client credential, or it can use gss_acquire_cred beforehand to acquire an initiator credential. The call to gss_acquire_cred may include a desired_name parameter, or it may pass GSS_C_NO_NAME if it does not have a specific name preference.

If the desired name for a krb5 initiator credential is a host-based name, it is converted to a principal name of the form service/hostname in the local realm, where hostname is the local hostname if not specified. The hostname will be canonicalized using forward name resolution, and possibly also using reverse name resolution depending on the value of the rdns variable in [libdefaults].

If a desired name is specified in the call to gss_acquire_cred, the krb5 mechanism will attempt to find existing tickets for that client principal name in the default credential cache or collection. If the default cache type does not support a collection, and the default cache contains credentials for a different principal than the desired name, a GSS_S_CRED_UNAVAIL error will be returned with a minor code indicating a mismatch.

If no existing tickets are available for the desired name, but the name has an entry in the default client keytab, the krb5 mechanism will acquire initial tickets for the name using the default client keytab.

If no desired name is specified, credential acquisition will be deferred until the credential is used in a call to gss_init_sec_context or gss_inquire_cred. If the call is to gss_init_sec_context, the target name will be used to choose a client principal name using the credential cache selection facility. (This facility might, for instance, try to choose existing tickets for a client principal in the same realm as the target service). If there are no existing tickets for the chosen principal, but it is present in the default client keytab, the krb5 mechanism will acquire initial tickets using the keytab.

If the target name cannot be used to select a client principal (because the credentials are used in a call to gss_inquire_cred), or if the credential cache selection facility cannot choose a principal for it, the default credential cache will be selected if it exists and contains tickets.

If the default credential cache does not exist, but the default client keytab does, the krb5 mechanism will try to acquire initial tickets for the first principal in the default client keytab.

If the krb5 mechanism acquires initial tickets using the default client keytab, the resulting tickets will be stored in the default cache or collection, and will be refreshed by future calls to gss_acquire_cred as they approach their expire time.

Acceptor names

A GSSAPI server application uses gss_accept_sec_context to establish a security context based on tokens provided by the client. The acceptor_cred_handle parameter determines what keytab entries may be authenticated to by the client, if the krb5 mechanism is used.

The simplest choice is to pass GSS_C_NO_CREDENTIAL as the acceptor credential. In this case, clients may authenticate to any service principal in the default keytab (typically DEFKTNAME, or the value of the KRB5_KTNAME environment variable). This is the recommended approach if the server application has no specific requirements to the contrary.

A server may acquire an acceptor credential with gss_acquire_cred and a cred_usage of GSS_C_ACCEPT or GSS_C_BOTH. If the desired_name parameter is GSS_C_NO_NAME, then clients will be allowed to authenticate to any service principal in the default keytab, just as if no acceptor credential was supplied.

If a server wishes to specify a desired_name to gss_acquire_cred, the most common choice is a host-based name. If the host-based desired_name contains just a service, then clients will be allowed to authenticate to any host-based service principal (that is, a principal of the form service/hostname@REALM) for the named service, regardless of hostname or realm, as long as it is present in the default keytab. If the input name contains both a service and a hostname, clients will be allowed to authenticate to any host-based principal for the named service and hostname, regardless of realm.


If a hostname is specified, it will be canonicalized using forward name resolution, and possibly also using reverse name resolution depending on the value of the rdns variable in [libdefaults].


In MIT krb5 versions prior to 1.10, and in Heimdal’s implementation of the krb5 mechanism, an input name with just a service is treated like an input name of service@localhostname, where localhostname is the string returned by gethostname().

If the desired_name is a krb5 principal name or a local system name type which is mapped to a krb5 principal name, clients will only be allowed to authenticate to that principal in the default keytab.

Importing and exporting credentials

The following GSSAPI extensions can be used to import and export credentials (declared in <gssapi/gssapi_ext.h>):

OM_uint32 gss_export_cred(OM_uint32 *minor_status,
                          gss_cred_id_t cred_handle,
                          gss_buffer_t token);

OM_uint32 gss_import_cred(OM_uint32 *minor_status,
                          gss_buffer_t token,
                          gss_cred_id_t *cred_handle);

The first function serializes a GSSAPI credential handle into a buffer; the second unseralizes a buffer into a GSSAPI credential handle. Serializing a credential does not destroy it. If any of the mechanisms used in cred_handle do not support serialization, gss_export_cred will return GSS_S_UNAVAILABLE. As with other GSSAPI serialization functions, these extensions are only intended to work with a matching implementation on the other side; they do not serialize credentials in a standardized format.

A serialized credential may contain secret information such as ticket session keys. The serialization format does not protect this information from eavesdropping or tampering. The calling application must take care to protect the serialized credential when communicating it over an insecure channel or to an untrusted party.

A krb5 GSSAPI credential may contain references to a credential cache, a client keytab, an acceptor keytab, and a replay cache. These resources are normally serialized as references to their external locations (such as the filename of the credential cache). Because of this, a serialized krb5 credential can only be imported by a process with similar privileges to the exporter. A serialized credential should not be trusted if it originates from a source with lower privileges than the importer, as it may contain references to external credential cache, keytab, or replay cache resources not accessible to the originator.

An exception to the above rule applies when a krb5 GSSAPI credential refers to a memory credential cache, as is normally the case for delegated credentials received by gss_accept_sec_context. In this case, the contents of the credential cache are serialized, so that the resulting token may be imported even if the original memory credential cache no longer exists.