What Is LDAP Authentication?

Written by Sean Blanton on February 28, 2023

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Updated on January 23, 2024

The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, or LDAP for short, is one of the core authentication protocols that was developed for directory services. LDAP historically has been used as a database of information, primarily storing information like:

  • Users
  • Attributes about those users
  • Group membership privileges
  • … and more.

But what is LDAP authentication, and how does it work? Continue reading for the answers to these questions and to learn how the JumpCloud Directory Platform delivers LDAP authentication as a cloud-based service.  

Origins of LDAP

illustration of a central node connecting to smaller nodes

Before we define what LDAP authentication is, we should talk about the significance of LDAP as a whole. According to Tim Howes, co-inventor of the LDAP protocol, LDAP was developed at the University of Michigan where Tim was a graduate student to initially replace DAP (the Directory Access Protocol) and provide low-overhead access to the X.500 Directory – the directory service that LDAP would eventually replace. 

I was in a group of young upstarts who were trying to bring Unix and the Internet to campus. The Internet was just emerging, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was creating standards for everything related to the Internet, including email and directory services. So, we were working with X.500, which was ISO’s standard for directory services. At that time, I was also working for the University’s information technology division. I was assigned this project to deploy an X.500 directory for the campus, which I completed, but I quickly learned that it was way too heavy of a protocol and too complicated for the machines that were on most people’s desktops. LDAP came out of my desire to do something a little lighter weight in order to accommodate the Macs and PCs that were on everybody’s desktop.”

Tim Howes

LDAP has been highly successful ever since it was first introduced in 1993. In fact, LDAP.v3 became the internet standard for directory services in 1997. LDAP also inspired the creation of OpenLDAP, the leading open source directory services platform.

This, in turn, spawned numerous other open source solutions based on LDAP (like 389 Directory, Apache Directory Service), and formed the foundation for Microsoft Active Directory (AD) in the late 1990s. LDAP is even a core aspect of modern cloud directories like JumpCloud, which offers cloud LDAP. So, it’s safe to assume that LDAP authentication will be a foundational element of identity management for years to come despite its age.

Basic LDAP Authentication and Common Challenges

Basic LDAP Authentication and Common Challenges

 LDAP directory servers use a flexible schema, which means they can  store a variety of attributes, including user credentials, phone numbers, group associations, and more, in the format that meets the organization’s needs. As a result, a common LDAP use case is to store core user identities

Because LDAP directories can store user data and credentials, they can act as the source of truth for LDAP authentication. In an LDAP authentication transaction, the user inputs their credentials via a system or application, which are then compared to those stored within the LDAP directory database. If they match, the user is authenticated and granted access.

How does LDAP authentication between a client and server work?

Let’s break the LDAP authentication process down. 

LDAP authentication is accomplished through a bind operation, and it follows a client/server model. Typically, the client is an LDAP-ready system or application accessed by a user, and the server is the LDAP directory database. 

To authenticate, the  client sends a bind request to the LDAP server along with the user’s identifier (i.e., username or email) and password, which the client obtains when the user inputs their credentials. If the user’s submitted credentials match the credentials associated with their core user identity that is stored within the LDAP database, the user is authenticated and granted access to the requested resources or information through the client. If the credentials sent don’t match, the bind fails and access is denied.

Note: There are some precautions organizations should take to secure their LDAP authentication processes, like prohibiting anonymous LDAP binds and encrypting data in transit. Learn more about LDAP security in our blog

What does it take to implement LDAP?

While LDAP authentication has certainly proven to be effective, the time and effort required to implement and customize LDAP-based infrastructure to meet a modern organization’s identity management needs can be significant. Historically, LDAP has also been an on-prem implementation, requiring dedicated servers that must be integrated into an organization’s overall identity management infrastructure (which has also historically been on-prem). 

This type of setup can be difficult to achieve, especially for smaller or cloud-forward IT organizations. After all, most modern organizations would like to shift their entire on-prem identity management infrastructure to the cloud. However, as more organizations replace their traditional on-prem infrastructure with cloud alternatives, the question becomes, “How do I provide LDAP authentication without anything on-prem?”

Cloud-Based LDAP Authentication

Fortunately, cloud-based directories and open directory platforms have emerged, which can provide LDAP authentication as a cloud-based service.

JumpCloud, for example, not only provides cloud-based LDAP authentication, but also securely manages and connects users to their systems, applications, files, and networks without anything on-prem. This is because JumpCloud takes an open directory approach, where organizations can manage work on their terms.

JumpCloud can act as your core identity provider or integrate seamlessly with others, accommodate all devices with an OS-agnostic platform, and connect users to all the resources they need by leveraging multiple protocols, including LDAP, SAML, RADIUS, SSH, OAuth, and more.  The end result is that IT organizations are free to leverage the best resources for them, knowing they can effectively manage as little or as much as they want l with JumpCloud.


Enable Secure Hybrid Work Anywhere, Anytime

Identity, access, and device management from a single cloud-based console

Learn More about LDAP Authentication From JumpCloud

To learn more about cloud-based LDAP, sign up for a free trial of JumpCloud to see cloud LDAP authentication in action. Better yet, it allows you to try out everything from multi-factor authentication to device and patch management to its full cloud directory services.

Not ready to try it yourself yet? Schedule a demo to learn more about how you can Make Work Happen with JumpCloud. 

General LDAP FAQ

How does LDAP work with Active Directory?

LDAP provides a means to manage user and group membership stored in Active Directory. LDAP is a protocol to authenticate and authorize granular access to IT resources, while Active Directory is a database of user and group information.

What is LDAP injection?

LDAP injection occurs when a bad actor uses manipulated LDAP code to modify or divulge sensitive user data from LDAP servers. Prevent malicious injections with LDAP filter validation and by checking the LDAP client applications.

Where do we use LDAP?

LDAP is used as an authentication protocol for directory services. We use LDAP to authenticate users to on-prem and web applications, NAS devices, and SAMBA file servers. 

Is LDAP secure?

In order to secure communications, LDAP transactions must be encrypted using an SSL/TLS connection. To set up, use either LDAPS on port 636 or StartTLS on the standard LDAP 389 port.  

What is the difference between Kerberos and LDAP?

While both are network protocols used for authentication, Kerberos uses symmetric key cryptography and is popular with Microsoft systems while LDAP uses query-based authentication and is popular with on-premise systems. As a directory protocol, LDAP can also store user and group information.

Sean Blanton

Sean Blanton is the Director of Content at JumpCloud and has spent the past decade in the wide world of security, networking and IT and Infosec administration. When not at work Sean enjoys spending time with his young kids and geeking out on table top games.

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