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Linux Network Administrator's Guide, Second Edition by Terry Dawson, Olaf Kirch

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Chapter 13. The Network Information System

When you’re running a local area network, your overall goal is usually to provide an environment for your users that makes the network transparent. An important stepping stone is keeping vital data such as user account information synchronized among all hosts. This provides users with the freedom to move from machine to machine without the inconvenience of having to remember different passwords and copy data from one machine to another. Data that is centrally stored doesn’t need to be replicated, so long as there is some convenient means of accessing it from a network-connected host. By storing important administrative information centrally, you can make ensure consistency of that data, increase flexibility for the users by allowing them to move from host to host in a transparent way, and make the system administrator’s life much easier by maintaining a single copy of information to maintain when required.

We previously discussed an important example of this concept that is used on the Internet—the Domain Name System (DNS). DNS serves a limited range of information, the most important being the mapping between hostname and IP address. For other types of information, there is no such specialized service. Moreover, if you manage only a small LAN with no Internet connectivity, setting up DNS may not seem to be worth the trouble.

This is why Sun developed the Network Information System (NIS). NIS provides generic database access facilities that can be used to distribute, for example, information contained in the passwd and groups files to all hosts on your network. This makes the network appear as a single system, with the same accounts on all hosts. Similarly, you can use NIS to distribute the hostname information from /etc/hosts to all machines on the network.

NIS is based on RPC, and comprises a server, a client-side library, and several administrative tools. Originally, NIS was called Yellow Pages, or YP, which is still used to refer to it. Unfortunately, the name is a trademark of British Telecom, which required Sun to drop that name. As things go, some names stick with people, and so YP lives on as a prefix to the names of most NIS-related commands such as ypserv and ypbind.

Today, NIS is available for virtually all Unixes, and there are even free implementations. BSD Net-2 released one that has been derived from a public domain reference implementation donated by Sun. The library client code from this release had been in the Linux libc for a long time, and the administrative programs were ported to Linux by Swen Thümmler.[73] An NIS server is missing from the reference implementation, though.

Peter Eriksson developed a new implementation called NYS.[74] It supports both plain NIS and Sun’s much enhanced NIS+. NYS not only provides a set of NIS tools and a server, but also adds a whole new set of library functions that need to be compiled into your libc if you wish to use it. This includes a new configuration scheme for hostname resolution that replaces the current scheme using host.conf.

The GNU libc, known as libc6 in the Linux community, includes an updated version of the traditional NIS support developed by Thorsten Kukuk.[75] It supports all of the library functions that NYS provided and also uses the enhanced configuration scheme of NYS. You still need the tools and server, but using GNU libc saves you the trouble of having to meddle with patching and recompiling the library.

This chapter focuses on the NIS support included in the GNU libc rather than the other two packages. If you do want to run any of these packages, the instructions in this chapter may or may not be enough. For additional information, refer to the NIS-HOWTO or a book such as Managing NFS and NIS by Hal Stern (O’Reilly).

Getting Acquainted with NIS

NIS keeps database information in files called maps, which contain key-value pairs. An example of a key-value pair is a user’s login name and the encrypted form of their login password. Maps are stored on a central host running the NIS server, from which clients may retrieve the information through various RPC calls. Quite frequently, maps are stored in DBM files.[76]

The maps themselves are usually generated from master text files such as /etc/hosts or /etc/passwd. For some files, several maps are created, one for each search key type. For instance, you may search the hosts file for a hostname as well as for an IP address. Accordingly, two NIS maps are derived from it, called hosts.byname and hosts.byaddr. Table 13.1 lists common maps and the files from which they are generated.

Table 13-1. Some Standard NIS Maps and Corresponding Files

Master FileMap(s)Description
/etc/hosts

hosts.byname, hosts.byaddr

Maps IP addresses to host names

/etc/networks

networks.byname, networks.byaddr

Maps IP network addresses to network names

/etc/passwd

passwd.byname, passwd.byuid

Maps encrypted passwords to user login names

/etc/group

group.byname, group.bygid

Maps Group IDs to group names

/etc/services

services.byname, services.bynumber

Maps service descriptions to service names
/etc/rpc

rpc.byname, rpc.bynumber

Maps Sun RPC service numbers to RPC service names

/etc/protocols

protocols.byname, protocols.bynumber

Maps protocol numbers to protocol names

/usr/lib/aliases mail.aliases

Maps mail aliases to mail alias names

You may find support for other files and maps in other NIS packages. These usually contain information for applications not discussed in this book, such as the bootparams map that is used by Sun’s bootparamd server.

For some maps, people commonly use nicknames, which are shorter and therefore easier to type. Note that these nicknames are understood only by ypcat and ypmatch, two tools for checking your NIS configuration. To obtain a full list of nicknames understood by these tools, run the following command:

$ ypcat -x
Use "passwd" for "passwd.byname"
Use "group" for "group.byname"
Use "networks" for "networks.byaddr"
Use "hosts" for "hosts.byaddr"
Use "protocols" for "protocols.bynumber"
Use "services" for "services.byname"
Use "aliases" for "mail.aliases"
Use "ethers" for "ethers.byname"

The NIS server program is traditionally called ypserv. For an average network, a single server usually suffices; large networks may choose to run several of these on different machines and different segments of the network to relieve the load on the server machines and routers. These servers are synchronized by making one of them the master server, and the others slave servers. Maps are created only on the master server’s host. From there, they are distributed to all slaves.

We have been talking very vaguely about “networks.” There’s a distinctive term in NIS that refers to a collection of all hosts that share part of their system configuration data through NIS: the NIS domain. Unfortunately, NIS domains have absolutely nothing in common with the domains we encountered in DNS. To avoid any ambiguity throughout this chapter, we will therefore always specify which type of domain we mean.

NIS domains have a purely administrative function. They are mostly invisible to users, except for the sharing of passwords between all machines in the domain. Therefore, the name given to an NIS domain is relevant only to the administrators. Usually, any name will do, as long as it is different from any other NIS domain name on your local network. For instance, the administrator at the Virtual Brewery may choose to create two NIS domains, one for the Brewery itself, and one for the Winery, which she names brewery and winery respectively. Another quite common scheme is to simply use the DNS domain name for NIS as well.

To set and display the NIS domain name of your host, you can use the domainname command. When invoked without any argument, it prints the current NIS domain name; to set the domain name, you must become the superuser:

# domainname brewery

NIS domains determine which NIS server an application will query. For instance, the login program on a host at the Winery should, of course, query only the Winery’s NIS server (or one of them, if there are several) for a user’s password information, while an application on a Brewery host should stick with the Brewery’s server.

One mystery now remains to be solved: how does a client find out which server to connect to? The simplest approach would use a configuration file that names the host on which to find the server. However, this approach is rather inflexible because it doesn’t allow clients to use different servers (from the same domain, of course) depending on their availability. Therefore, NIS implementations rely on a special daemon called ypbind to detect a suitable NIS server in their NIS domain. Before performing any NIS queries, an application first finds out from ypbind which server to use.

ypbind probes for servers by broadcasting to the local IP network; the first to respond is assumed to be the fastest one and is used in all subsequent NIS queries. After a certain interval has elapsed, or if the server becomes unavailable, ypbind probes for active servers again.

Dynamic binding is useful only when your network provides more than one NIS server. Dynamic binding also introduces a security problem. ypbind blindly believes whoever answers, whether it be a humble NIS server or a malicious intruder. Needless to say, this becomes especially troublesome if you manage your password databases over NIS. To guard against this, the Linux ypbind program provides you with the option of probing the local network to find the local NIS server, or configuring the NIS server hostname in a configuration file.



[73] Swen can be reached at . The NIS clients are available as yp-linux.tar.gz from http://metalab.unc.edu in system/Network.

[74] Peter may be reached at . The current version of NYS is 1.2.8.

[75] Thorsten may be reached at .

[76] DBM is a simple database management library that uses hashing techniques to speed up search operations. There’s a free DBM implementation from the GNU project called gdbm, which is part of most Linux distributions.

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