GSS-API Programming Guide

Server-Side GSS-API: gss-server

Naturally, the client needs a server to perform a security handshake. Where the client initiates a security context and sends data, the server must accept the context, verifying the identity of the client. In doing so, it might need to authenticate itself to the client, if requested to do so, and it may have to provide a “signature” for the data to the client. Plus, of course, it has to process the data!

gss-server takes this form on the command line (the line has been broken up to make it fit):

gss-server [-port port] [-verbose] [-inetd] [-once] [-logfile file] \
                 [-mech mechanism] service_name

gss-server does the following:

  1. Parses the command line.

  2. Translates the mechanism name given on the command-line, if any, to internal format.

  3. Acquires credentials for the caller.

  4. Checks to see if the user has specified using the inetd daemon for connecting or not.

  5. Establishes a connection.

  6. Gets the data.

  7. Signs the data and returns it.

  8. Releases namespaces and exits.

Following is a step-by-step description of how gss-server works. Because it is a sample program designed to show off functionality, the parts of the program that do not closely relate to the steps above are skipped here.

Overview: main() (Server)

gss-client begins with the main() function. main() performs the following tasks:

  1. It parses command-line arguments, assigning them to variables:

    • port, if specified, is the port number to listen on. If no port is specified, the program uses port 4444 as the default.

    • If -verbose is specified, the program runs in a quasi-debug mode.

    • The -inetd option indicates that the program should use the inetd daemon to listen to a port; inetd uses stdin and stdout to hand the connection to the client.

    • If -once is specified, then the program makes only a single-instance connection.

    • mechanism is the (optional) name of the security mechanism to use, such as Kerberos v5, to use. If no mechanism is specified, the GSS-API uses a default mechanism.

    • The name of the network service requested by the client (such as telnet, ftp, or login service) is specified by service_name.

    An example command line might look like this:

    % gss-server -port 8080 -once -mech kerberos_v5 erebos.eng nfs "hello"

  2. It converts the mechanism, if specified, to a GSS-API object identifier (OID). This is because GSS-API functions handle names in internal format.

  3. It acquires the credentials for the service (such as ftp), for the mechanism being used (for example, Kerberos v5).

  4. It calls the sign_server() function, which does most of the work (establishes the connection, retrieves and signs the message, and so on).

    If the user has specified using inetd, then the program closes the standard output and standard error and calls sign_server() on the standard input, which inetd uses to pass connections. Otherwise, it creates a socket, accepts the connection for that socket with the TCP function accept(), and calls sign_server() on the file descriptor returned by accept().

    If inetd is not used, the program creates connections and contexts until it's terminated. However, if the user has specified the -once option, the loop terminates after the first connection.

  5. It releases the credentials it has acquired.

  6. It releases the mechanism OID namespace.

  7. It closes the connection, if it's still open.

Creating an OID for the Mechanism

As with the gss-client program example, the sample server program allows the user to specify a mechanism. However, it is strongly recommended that all applications use the default mechanism provided by the GSS-API implementation. The default mechanism is obtained by setting the gss_OID that represents the mechanism to GSS_C_NULL_OID. Interested readers can refer to the code itself in createMechOid() and read about using non-default mechanisms in Appendix C, Specifying an OID.

Acquiring Credentials

As with the client application, neither the server application nor the GSS-API create credentials; they are created by the underlying mechanism(s). Unlike the client program, the server needs to explicitly acquire the credentials it needs. (Some client applications might want to acquire credentials explicitly, in which case they do so in the same manner as shown here. But generally the client has acquired credentials before that, at login time, and GSS-API acquires those automatically.)

The gss-server program has its own function, server_acquire_creds(), to get the credentials for the service being provided. It takes as its input the name of the service, and the security mechanism being used, then returns the credentials for the service.

server_acquire_creds() uses the GSS-API function gss_acquire_cred() to get the credentials for the service that the server provides. Before it can do this, however, it must do two things.

If a single credential can be shared by multiple mechanisms, gss_acquire_cred() returns credentials for all those mechanisms. Therefore, it takes as input not a single mechanism, but a set of mechanisms. (See Credentials.) However, in most cases, including this one, a single credential might not work for multiple mechanisms. Besides, in the server application, either a single mechanism is specified on the command line or the default mechanism is used. Therefore, the first thing to do is make sure that the set of mechanisms passed to gss_acquire_cred() contains a single mechanism, default or otherwise:

if (mechOid != GSS_C_NULL_OID) {
     desiredMechs = &mechOidSet;
     mechOidSet.count = 1;
     mechOidSet.elements = mechOid;
} else
     desiredMechs = GSS_C_NULL_OID_SET;

GSS_C_NULL_OID_SET indicates that the default mechanism should be used.

Because gss_acquire_cred() takes the service name in the form of a gss_name_t structure, the second thing to do is import the name of the service into that format. To do this, use gss_import_name(). Because this function, like all GSS-API functions, requires arguments to be GSS-API types, the service name has to be copied to a GSS-API buffer first:

     name_buf.value = service_name;
     name_buf.length = strlen(name_buf.value) + 1;
     maj_stat = gss_import_name(&min_stat, &name_buf,
                (gss_OID) GSS_C_NT_HOSTBASED_SERVICE, &server_name);
     if (maj_stat != GSS_S_COMPLETE) {
          display_status("importing name", maj_stat, min_stat);
          if (mechOid != GSS_C_NO_OID)
                gss_release_oid(&min_stat, &mechOid);
          return -1;

Note again the use of the nonstandard function gss_release_oid(). See Overview: main() (Client).

The input is the service name, as a string in name_buf, and the output is the pointer to a gss_name_t structure, server_name. The third argument, GSS_C_NT_HOSTBASED_SERVICE, is the name type for the string in name_buf; in this case it indicates that the string should be interpreted as a service of the format service@host.

Now the server program can call gss_acquire_cred():

maj_stat = gss_acquire_cred(&min_stat, server_name, 0,
                                 desiredMechs, GSS_C_ACCEPT,
                                 server_creds, NULL, NULL);


Accepting a Context, Getting and Signing Data

Having acquired credentials for the service, the server program checks to see if the user has specified using inetd (see Overview: main() (Server)) and then calls sign_server(), which does the main work of the program. The first thing that sign_server() does is establish the context by calling server_establish_context().

Note –

inetd is not covered here. Basically, if inetd has been specified, the program calls sign_server() on the standard input. If not, it creates a socket, accepts a connection, and then calls sign_server() on that connection.

sign_server() does the following:

  1. Accepts the context.

  2. Unwraps the data.

  3. Signs the data.

  4. Returns the data.

Accepting a Context

Because establishing a context can involve a series of token exchanges between the client and the server, both context acceptance and context initialization should be performed in loops, to maintain program portability. Indeed, the loop for accepting a context is very similar to that for establishing one, although rather in reverse. (Compare with Establishing a Context.)

  1. The first thing the server does is look for a token that the client should have sent as part of the context initialization process. Remember, the GSS-API does not send or receive tokens itself, so programs must have their own routines for performing these tasks. The one the server uses for receiving the token is called recv_token() (it can be found at recv_token()):

         do {
              if (recv_token(s, &recv_tok) < 0)
                   return -1;

  2. Next, the program calls the GSS-API function gss_accept_sec_context():

         maj_stat = gss_accept_sec_context(&min_stat,
                                          NULL,     /* ignore time_rec */
                                          NULL);    /* ignore del_cred_handle */


    • min_stat is the error status returned by the underlying mechanism.

    • context is the context being established.

    • server_creds is the credential for the service being provided (see Acquiring Credentials).

    • recv_tok is the token received from the client by recv_token().

    • GSS_C_NO_CHANNEL_BINDINGS is a flag indicating not to use channel bindings (see Channel Bindings).

    • client is the ASCII name of the client.

    • oid is the mechanism (in OID format).

    • send_tok is the token to send to the client.

    • ret_flags are various flags indicating whether the context supports a given option, such as message-sequence-detection.

    • NULL and NULL indicate that the program is not interested in the length of time the context will be valid, nor in whether the server can act as a client's proxy.

    The acceptance loop continues (barring an error) as long as gss_accept_sec_context() sets maj_stat to GSS_S_CONTINUE_NEEDED. If maj_stat is not equal to either that value nor to GSS_S_COMPLETE, there's a problem and the loop exits.

  3. gss_accept_sec_context() returns a positive value for the length of send_tok if there is a token to send back to the client. The next step is to see if there's a token to send, and, if so, to send it:

         if (send_tok.length != 0) {
              . . .
              if (send_token(s, &send_tok) < 0) {
                   fprintf(log, "failure sending token\n");
                   return -1;
              (void) gss_release_buffer(&min_stat, &send_tok);

Unwrapping the Message

After accepting the context, the server receives the message sent by the client. Because the GSS-API doesn't provide a function to do this, the program uses its own function, recv_token():

if (recv_token(s, &xmit_buf) < 0)

Since the message might be encrypted, the program uses the GSS-API function gss_unwrap() to unwrap it:

maj_stat = gss_unwrap(&min_stat, context, &xmit_buf, &msg_buf,
                           &conf_state, (gss_qop_t *) NULL);
     if (maj_stat != GSS_S_COMPLETE) {
        display_status("unwrapping message", maj_stat, min_stat);
     } else if (! conf_state) {
        fprintf(stderr, "Warning!  Message not encrypted.\n");

     (void) gss_release_buffer(&min_stat, &xmit_buf);

gss_unwrap() takes the message that recv_token() has placed in xmit_buf, translates it, and puts the result in msg_buf. Two arguments to gss_unwrap() are noteworthy: conf_state is a flag to indicate whether confidentiality was applied for this message (that is, if the data is encrypted or not), and the final NULL indicates that the program isn't interested in the QOP used to protect the message.

Signing the Message, Sending It Back

All that is left, then, is for the server to “sign” the message — that is, to return the message's MIC (Message Integrity Code, a unique tag associated with message) to the client to prove that the message was sent and unwrapped successfully. To do that, the program uses the function gss_get_mic():

maj_stat = gss_get_mic(&min_stat, context, GSS_C_QOP_DEFAULT,
                            &msg_buf, &xmit_buf);

which looks at the message in msg_buf and produces the MIC from it, storing it in xmit_buf. The server then sends the MIC back to the client with send_token(), and the client verifies it with gss_verify_mic(). See Verifying the Message.

Finally, sign_server() performs some cleanup; it releases the GSS-API buffers msg_buf and xmit_buf with gss_release_buffer() and then destroys the context with gss_delete_sec_context().

Importing and Exporting a Context

As noted in Context Export and Import, the GSS-API allows you to export and import contexts. The usual reason for doing this is to share a context between different processes in a multiprocess program.

sign_server() contains a proof-of-concept function, test_import_export_context(), which illustrates how exporting and importing contexts works. This function doesn't pass a context between processes. It only displays the amount of time it takes to export and then import a context. Although rather an artificial function, it does indicate how to use the GSS-API importing and exporting functions, as well as give an idea of how to use timestamps with regard to manipulating contexts. test_import_export_context() can be found in test_import_export_context().


Back in the main() function, the application deletes the service credential with gss_delete_cred() and, if an OID for the mechanism has been specified, deletes that with gss_delete_oid() and exits.