Kerberos (protocol)

From CryptoDox, The Online Encyclopedia on Cryptography and Information Security

Jump to: navigation, search

Kerberos is the name of a computer network authentication protocol, which allows individuals communicating over an insecure network to prove their identity to one another in a secure manner. It is also a suite of free software published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that implements this protocol. Its designers aimed primarily at a client-server model, and it provides mutual authentication — both the user and the server verify each other's identity. Kerberos protocol messages are protected against eavesdropping and replay attacks.

Kerberos builds on symmetric key cryptography and requires a trusted third party. Extensions to Kerberos can provide for the use of public key cryptography during certain phases of authentication.


History and development

Rajesh developed Kerberos to protect network services provided by Project Athena. The protocol was named after the Greek mythological character Kerberos (or Cerberus), known in Greek mythology as being the monstrous three-headed guard dog of Hades. Several versions of the protocol exist; versions 1–3 occurred only internally at MIT.

Steve Miller and Clifford Neuman, the primary designers of Kerberos version 4, published that version in the late 1980s, although they had targeted it primarily for Project Athena.

Version 5, designed by John Kohl and Clifford Neuman, appeared as RFC 1510 in 1993 (made obsolete by RFC 4120 in 2005), with the intention of overcoming the limitations and security problems of version 4.

MIT makes an implementation of Kerberos freely available, under copyright permissions similar to those used for BSD.

Authorities in the United States classified Kerberos as a munition and banned its export because it used the DES encryption algorithm (with 56-bit keys). A non-US Kerberos 4 implementation, KTH-KRB developed at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, made the system available outside the US before the US changed its cryptography export regulations (circa 2000). The Swedish implementation was based on a version called eBones. eBones was based on the exported MIT Bones release (stripped of both the encryption functions and the calls to them) based on version Kerberos 4 patch-level 9. This somewhat limited Kerberos was called the eBones release. A Kerberos version 5 implementation, Heimdal, was released by basically the same group of people releasing KTH-KRB.

Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Windows Vista use Kerberos as their default authentication method. Some Microsoft additions to the Kerberos suite of protocols are documented in RFC 3244 "Microsoft Windows 2000 Kerberos Change Password and Set Password Protocols". RFC 4757 documents Microsoft's use of the RC4 cipher. While Microsoft uses the Kerberos protocol, it does not use the MIT software. Apple's Mac OS X also uses Kerberos in both its client and server versions.

As of 2005, the IETF Kerberos working group is updating the specifications [1]. Recent updates include:

  • "Encryption and Checksum Specifications" (RFC 3961),
  • "Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) Encryption for Kerberos 5" (RFC 3962),
  • A new edition of the Kerberos V5 specification "The Kerberos Network Authentication Service (V5)" (RFC 4120). This version obsoletes RFC 1510, clarifies aspects of the protocol and intended use in a more detailed and clearer explanation,
  • A new edition of the GSS-API specification "The Kerberos Version 5 Generic Security Service Application Program Interface (GSS-API) Mechanism: Version 2." (RFC 4121).


Template:Expand-section Kerberos uses as its basis the Needham-Schroeder protocol. It makes use of a trusted third party, termed a Key Distribution Center (KDC), which consists of two logically separate parts: an Authentication Server (AS) and a Ticket Granting Server (TGS). Kerberos works on the basis of "tickets" which serve to prove the identity of users.

The KDC maintains a database of secret keys; each entity on the network — whether a client or a server — shares a secret key known only to itself and to the KDC. Knowledge of this key serves to prove an entity's identity. For communication between two entities, the KDC generates a session key which they can use to secure their interactions.


The following software is able to use Kerberos for authentication:


The security of the protocol relies heavily on participants maintaining loosely synchronized time and on short lived assertions of authenticity called Kerberos tickets.

What follows is a simplified description of the protocol. The following abbreviations will be used:

  • AS = Authentication Server
  • TGS = Ticket Granting Server
  • SS = Service Server.
  • TGT = Ticket Granting Ticket

Briefly, the client authenticates to AS using a long-term shared secret and receives a ticket from the TGS. Later the client can use this ticket to get additional tickets for SS without resorting to using the shared secret. These tickets can be used to prove authentication to SS.

In more detail:

User Client-based Logon Steps:

  1. A user enters a username and password on the client.
  2. The client performs a one-way function on the entered password, and this becomes the secret key of the client.

Client Authentication Steps:

  1. The client sends a clear-text message to the AS requesting services on behalf of the user. Sample Message: "User XYZ would like to request services". Note: Neither the secret key nor the password is sent to the AS.
  2. The AS checks to see if the client is in its database. If it is, the AS sends back the following two messages to the client:
    • Message A: Client/TGS session key encrypted using the secret key of the user.
    • Message B: Ticket-Granting Ticket (which includes the client ID, client network address, ticket validity period, and the client/TGS session key) encrypted using the secret key of the TGS.
  3. Once the client receives messages A and B, it decrypts message A to obtain the client/TGS session key. This session key is used for further communications with TGS. (Note: The client cannot decrypt the Message B, as it is encrypted using TGS's secret key.) At this point, the client has enough information to authenticate itself to the TGS.

Client Service Authorization Steps:

  1. When requesting services, the client sends the following two messages to the TGS:
    • Message C: Composed of the Ticket-Granting Ticket from message B and the ID of the requested service.
    • Message D: Authenticator (which is composed of the client ID and the timestamp), encrypted using the client/TGS session key.
  2. Upon receiving messages C and D, the TGS decrypts message D (Authenticator) using the client/TGS session key and sends the following two messages to the client:
    • Message E: Client-to-server ticket (which includes the client ID, client network address, validity period and Client/server session key) encrypted using the service's secret key.
    • Message F: Client/server session key encrypted with the client/TGS session key.

Client Service Request Steps:

  1. Upon receiving messages E and F from TGS, the client has enough information to authenticate itself to the SS. The client connects to the SS and sends the following two messages:
    • Message E from the previous step (the client-to-server ticket, encrypted using service's secret key).
    • Message G: a new Authenticator, which includes the client ID, timestamp and is encrypted using client/server session key.
  2. The SS decrypts the ticket using its own secret key and sends the following message to the client to confirm its true identity and willingness to serve the client:
    • Message H: the timestamp found in client's recent Authenticator plus 1, encrypted using the client/server session key.
  3. The client decrypts the confirmation using the client/server session key and checks whether the timestamp is correctly updated. If so, then the client can trust the server and can start issuing service requests to the server.
  4. The server provides the requested services to the client.

Kerberos drawbacks

  • Single point of failure: It requires continuous availability of a central server. When the Kerberos server is down, no one can log in. This can be mitigated by using multiple Kerberos servers.
  • Kerberos requires the clocks of the involved hosts to be synchronized. The tickets have time availability period and, if the host clock is not synchronized with the clock of Kerberos server, the authentication will fail. The default configuration requires that clock times are no more than 10 minutes apart. In practice, NTP daemons are usually employed to keep the host clocks synchronized.
  • Password changing is not standardized, and differs between server implementations.

See also


External links


  • B. Clifford Neuman and Theodore Ts'o, Kerberos: An Authentication Service for Computer Networks, IEEE Communications, 32(9) pp33–38. September 1994. [2]
  • John T. Kohl, B. Clifford Neuman, and Theodore Y. T'so, The Evolution of the Kerberos Authentication System. Distributed Open Systems, pp78–94. IEEE Computer Society Press, 1994. [3] (Postscript format)
  • Cisco Systems Security Configuration Guide Configuring Kerberos