An implementation difference in NSS netgroups between Linux and Solaris

April 25, 2018

NSS is the Name Service Switch, or as we normally know it, /etc/nsswitch.conf. The purpose of NSS is to provide a flexible way for sysadmins to control how various things are looked up, instead of hard-coding it. For flexibility and simplicity, the traditional libc approach is to use loadable shared objects to implement the various lookup methods that nsswitch.conf supports. The core C library itself has no particular knowledge of the files or dns nsswitch.conf lookup type; instead that's implemented in a shared library such as libnss_files.

(This is a traditional source of inconvenience when building software, because it usually makes it impossible to create a truly static binary that uses NSS-based functions. Those functions intrinsically want to parse nsswitch.conf and then load appropriate shared objects at runtime. Unfortunately this covers a number of important functions, such as looking up the IP addresses for hostnames.)

The general idea of NSS and the broad syntax of nsswitch.conf is portable between any number of Unixes, fundamentally because it's a good idea. The shared object implementation technique is reasonably common; it's used in at least Solaris and Linux, although I'm not sure about elsewhere. However, the actual API between the C library and the NSS lookups is not necessarily the same, not just in things like the names of functions and the parameters they get passed, but even in how operations are structured. As it happens we've seen an interesting example of this divergence in a fundamental way.

Because it comes from Sun, one of the traditional things that NSS supports looking up is netgroup membership, via getnetgrent() and friends. In the Solaris implementation of NSS's API for NSS lookup types, all of these netgroup calls are basically passed directly through to your library. When a program calls innetgr(), there is a whole chain of NSS API things that will wind up calling your specific handler function for this if you've set one. This handler function can do unusual things if you want, which we use for our custom NFS mount authorization.

We've looked at creating a similar NSS netgroup module for Linux (more than once), but in the end we determined it's fundamentally impossible because Linux implements NSS netgroup lookups differently. Specifically, Linux NSS does not make a direct call to your NSS module to do an innetgr() lookup. On Linux, NSS netgroup modules only implement the functions used for getting the entire membership of a netgroup, and glibc implements innetgr() internally by looping through all the entries of a given netgroup and checking each one. This reduces the API that NSS netgroup modules have to implement but unfortunately makes our hack impossible, because it relies on knowing which specific host you're checking for netgroup membership.

At one level this is just an implementation choice (and a defensible one in both directions). At another level, this says something about how Solaris and Linux see netgroups and how they expect them to be used. Solaris's implementation permits efficient network-based innetgr() checks, where you only have to transmit the host and netgroup names to your <whatever> server and it may have pre-built indexes for these lookups. The Linux version requires you to implement a smaller API, but it relies on getting a list of all hosts in a netgroup being a cheap operation. That's probably true today in most environments, but it wasn't in the world where netgroups were first created, which is why Solaris does things the way it does.

(Like NSS, netgroups come from Solaris. Well, they come from Sun; netgroups predate Solaris, as they're part of YP/NIS.)


Comments on this page:

From 90.131.46.208 at 2018-04-25 05:31:40:

I was planning to suggest that perhaps the API could still be added to glibc... But apparently, glibc 2.27 (fresh) has even removed its built-in NIS modules, so I guess that's fairly unlikely.

(NIS is still usable but the modules are now maintained separately.)

Written on 25 April 2018.
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The shifting goals of our custom NFS mount authorization system »

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Last modified: Wed Apr 25 01:33:20 2018
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