Kerberos authentication

Dovecot supports Kerberos 5 using GSSAPI. The Kerberos authentication mechanism doesn’t require having a passdb, but you do need a userdb so Dovecot can lookup user-specific information, such as where their mailboxes are stored. With centralized systems, such as Microsoft Active Directory, LDAP is pretty good choice.


If you only wish to authenticate clients using their Kerberos passphrase (as opposed to ticket authentication), you will probably want to use PAM authentication with instead.


This document assumes that you already have a Kerberos Realm up and functioning correctly at your site, and that each host in your realm also has a host keytab installed in the appropriate location.

For Dovecot, you will need to install the appropriate service keys on your server. By default, Dovecot will look for these in the host’s keytab file, typically /etc/krb5.keytab, but you can specify an alternate path using the auth_krb5_keytab configuration entry in dovecot.conf. Anyway specified keytab file should be readable by user “dovecot” (or whatever user the auth process is running as). If you wish to provide an IMAP service, you will need to install a service ticket of the form imap/hostname@REALM. For POP3, you will need a service ticket of the form pop/hostname@REALM. When using Dovecot’s SASL with MTA, you will need to install service ticket of the form smtp/hostname@REALM.

Setting up samba

Create symlink for krb5.conf, if you do not have krb5.conf ready

ln -sf /usr/local/samba/private/krb5.conf /etc/krb5.conf

Create dovecot user to your samba instance (choose random password)

$ samba-tool user create dovecot
New Password:
Retype Password:
User 'dovecot' created successfully

Add Service Principal Names (SPNs) and create keytab

$ samba-tool spn add imap/ dovecot
$ samba-tool domain exportkeytab --principal imap/ /etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab

Dovecot needs to be able to read the keytab

$ chgrp dovecot /etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab
$ chmod g+r /etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab

Make sure your keytab has entry for imap/

$ klist -Kek /etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab
Keytab name: FILE:/etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab
KVNO Principal
---- --------------------------------------------------------------------------
   1 imap/ (des-cbc-crc)
   1 imap/ (des-cbc-md5)
   1 imap/ (arcfour-hmac)

Example dovecot.conf configurations

If you only want to use Kerberos ticket-based authentication:

auth_gssapi_hostname = "$ALL"
auth_mechanisms = gssapi
auth_krb5_keytab = /etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab

userdb {
  driver = static
  args = uid=vmail gid=vmail home=/var/vmail/%u

(In this virtual-hosting example, all mail is stored in /var/vmail/$username with uid and gid set to ‘vmail’)

If you also want to support plaintext authentication in addition to ticket-based authentication, you will need something like:

auth_mechanisms = plain login gssapi
auth_gssapi_hostname = "$ALL"
auth_mechanisms = gssapi
auth_krb5_keytab = /etc/dovecot/dovecot.keytab
passdb {
  driver = pam
userdb {
  driver = passwd

(Note that in this example, you will also need to configure PAM to use whichever authentication backends are appropriate for your site.)

Enable plaintext authentication to use Kerberos

This is needed when some of your clients don’t support GSSAPI and you still want them to authenticate against Kerberos.

Install pam_krb5 module for PAM, and create /etc/pam.d/dovecot:

auth sufficient
account sufficient

Then enable PAM passdb:

passdb {
  driver = pam

Check /var/log/auth.log if you have any problems logging in. The problem could be that PAM is still trying to use rather than Make sure is the first module for account or just change to sufficient.

Cross-realm authentication

This seems to have all kinds of trouble. Search Dovecot mailing list for previous threads about it. Some points about it:

  • krb5_kuserok() is used to check if access is allowed. It may try to do the check by reading ~user/.k5login (good!) or ~dovecot/.k5login (bad!)

  • Solaris uses gss_userok() instead of krb5_kuserok(). Dovecot v2.2+ has “k5principals” passdb extra field which is a comma separated list of usernames that are allowed to log in. If it’s set, it bypasses the krb5_kuserok() check.


    for this to work, you need a password database which supports credential lookups.With 2.2.13, this excludes LDAP databases using authentication binds (auth_bind = yes). However, a second LDAP passdb entry without auth_bind = yes may be added for the sole purpose of Kerberos principals mapping. This passdb doesn’t need to return a password attribute (and usually shouldn’t). With 2.2.24, authentication-bind LDAP databases are able to provide k5principals lookups if configured with pass_filter.

Client support

Mail clients that support Kerberos GSSAPI authentication include:

  • Evolution

  • Mozilla Thunderbird

  • SeaMonkey

  • Mutt

  • UW Pine

  • Apple Mail

Test that the server can access the keytab

This test demonstrates that the server can acquire its private credentials. You need to configure your server accordingly, and then you can use mutt client to test this.

First telnet directly to the server

$ telnet localhost 143
* OK Dovecot ready.

or, if you are using IMAPS then use openssl instead of telnet to connect:

$ openssl s_client -connect localhost:993
* OK Dovecot ready.

Check that GSSAPI appears in the authentication capabilities:

a capability

Attempt the first round of GSS communication. The ‘+’ indicates that the server is ready

a authenticate GSSAPI

Abort the telnet session by typing control-] and then ‘close’

telnet> close

The test:

  • Setup mutt in /etc/Muttrc to use kerberos using gssapi and imap configuration

    • this is done with set imap_authenticators="gssapi"

  • run kinit (type in password for kerb)

  • run command mutt

  • If you get error No Authentication Method

    • run command klist (list all kerberos keys) should show imap/HOSTNAME

  • DNS has to function correctly so that kerberos works.