Chapter 2. Overview

Most service-giving applications are restricted. In other words, their service is not available to all and every prospective client. Instead, the applying client must jump through a number of hoops to convince the serving application that they are authorized to obtain service.

The process of authenticating a client is what PAM is designed to manage. In addition to authentication, PAM provides account management, credential management, session management and authentication-token (password changing) management services. It is important to realize when writing a PAM based application that these services are provided in a manner that is transparent to the application. That is to say, when the application is written, no assumptions can be made about how the client will be authenticated.

The process of authentication is performed by the PAM library via a call to pam_authenticate(). The return value of this function will indicate whether a named client (the user) has been authenticated. If the PAM library needs to prompt the user for any information, such as their name or a password then it will do so. If the PAM library is configured to authenticate the user using some silent protocol, it will do this too. (This latter case might be via some hardware interface for example.)

It is important to note that the application must leave all decisions about when to prompt the user at the discretion of the PAM library.

The PAM library, however, must work equally well for different styles of application. Some applications, like the familiar login and passwd are terminal based applications, exchanges of information with the client in these cases is as plain text messages. Graphically based applications, however, have a more sophisticated interface. They generally interact with the user via specially constructed dialogue boxes. Additionally, network based services require that text messages exchanged with the client are specially formatted for automated processing: one such example is ftpd which prefixes each exchanged message with a numeric identifier.

The presentation of simple requests to a client is thus something very dependent on the protocol that the serving application will use. In spite of the fact that PAM demands that it drives the whole authentication process, it is not possible to leave such protocol subtleties up to the PAM library. To overcome this potential problem, the application provides the PAM library with a conversation function. This function is called from within the PAM library and enables the PAM to directly interact with the client. The sorts of things that this conversation function must be able to do are prompt the user with text and/or obtain textual input from the user for processing by the PAM library. The details of this function are provided in a later section.

For example, the conversation function may be called by the PAM library with a request to prompt the user for a password. Its job is to reformat the prompt request into a form that the client will understand. In the case of