Sunday, June 24, 2018

Connecting Ubuntu Server 18.04 to Active Directory

It seems a somewhat common scenario that a small business running all Windows gets to a point where something, some software package for whatever reason, is better suited to a Linux-based server. It would be simple to create the required server as a standalone and move along to other things, but wouldn’t it be better to let your users use their everyday Active Directory domain credentials to interact with Linux-based services like they already do for Windows?

I had just such a scenario occur on a project recently, to migrate our Windows-based VisualSVN repositories to a Linux-based Git server. Glossing over the significant differences between Subversion and Git, this is how I went about building a domain-joined Ubuntu Linux server supporting authentication via both username/password and SSH keypairs, all managed in Active Directory.

To be successful with this guide you should have some basic familiarity with managing a Linux server on the command line, but I’ve included as much detail as reasonably possible. You’ll need to use sudo for most of the commands presented here.

Installing Ubuntu

First thing’s first; Download and install the Ubuntu Server 18.04 LTS image from the official website, here: If you’re not familiar with Ubuntu installations, you can essentially take all of the default options and you’ll end up with a working server, ready for the next steps. You’ll just need to supply a username and password for the initial user account. Be sure to configure the networking options as well if you’re not planning to use DHCP. Ensuring that DNS points to your AD domain controller is critical so be sure the configuration is correct.

Once the installation has completed, access the server command line with an admin account via virtual console or SSH in order to continue.

Network Configuration

Before anything else, we need to confirm that the network configuration is correct so Ubuntu can find our domain controllers when we’re ready to join the domain. To do that review the interface configuration with the following command:


I’m using VMware Workstation here and this address is on the same network with my domain controller, so this looks good.

As of Ubuntu 17.10 we can work with Netplan, which reads yaml configuration files and generates the necessary network configurations. We can check the post-install configuration in the 50-cloud-init.yaml file:

cat /etc/netplan/50-cloud-init.yaml

I did a manual configuration of my network interface during installation, and this matches what I configured so I should be good to go. Note that in the image above is the IP of the DNS server/domain controller that holds the domain I’ll be joining. You can edit this file manually if needed. Be sure to use spaces in groups of four for indentation as Netplan does not appreciate tabs in its yaml files.

Package Installation

In order to accomplish what we’re trying to do here, we’ll need to install a few additional packages. We’ll start by updating our Ubuntu install. apt-get update will update the list of packages and apt-get upgrade will actually perform the update.

apt update && apt upgrade

This may take several minutes to run. When finished, we’re ready to install the additional packages that we need.

apt install -y realmd sssd sssd-tools libnss-sss libpam-sss krb5-user adcli samba-common-bin

During the installation process you’ll be prompted to provide some information about your domain and domain controllers. Enter the domain name and DC server names as needed.


With the packages installed, we can get to the configuration. First, we’ll configure Kerberos by editing the krb5.conf file. I like Nano for editing text files but feel free to use Vim or whatever you may prefer.

nano /etc/krb5.conf

Once we have the file open in our text editor, we want to add the following two configuration lines under the section for our realm.

dns_lookup_kdc = true
dns_lookup_realm = true

Save and exit the file (In Nano, Ctrl + X, then Yes, then Enter).

Next, we’ll configure NTP so our server is syncing time with the domain controller. Open /etc/systemd/timesyncd.conf in your editor.

nano /etc/systemd/timesyncd.conf

Uncomment the #NTP= line (remove the hash sign) and type the fully qualified domain name of your domain controller after the equals sign.

Save and exit the file. Now, we’ll force a time sync by running the following commands at the prompt.

timedatectl set-ntp true
systemctl restart systemd-timesyncd.service
timedatectl --adjust-system-clock

After the final command, be sure that the output matches the current time. If it doesn’t, go back and review your NTP settings, and validate that Ubuntu can contact your domain controller.

Now it’s time to setup our realm configuration. We’ll use realmd to configure our domain connectivity for us using sssd instead of winbind. If you don’t know what any of that means I encourage you to do a bit of research for your own understanding, but it isn’t material to this process.

We actually need to create the realmd.conf file from scratch. We’ll start by creating the file (opening it in a text editor).

nano /etc/realmd.conf

Then we’ll add the following lines to the file. Note that you should replace “” with your own domain name. Everything else can stay the same.

Save and exit the file.

Next, we’ll configure pam (pluggable authentication modules) and set it to create home directories for domain users when they first log in (so they don’t need to be created in advance by an admin). Be sure to sudo for this command or it may fail in the background and create some confusion later.


Select the option to Create home directory on login, then select OK.

Now let’s make sure that realmd can see our Active Directory domain with the discover command.

realm discover -v

If your networking is configured properly and Ubuntu can see the SRV record for your domain controller in DNS, you should see something like this:

If you get an error message here, go back and review your interface/netplan settings. If you see something similar to the above, you’re ready to continue.

Now we’ll use the realm join command to actually join the domain and configure sssd to communicate with it. For this step, we’ll need to know which OU we want to initially place this server into. I’m going to put it into my site’s Computers OU.

Note that the --user parameter must be a domain admin or other domain user with permission to join computers to the domain and place them into the specified OU.

realm join --verbose --user=Administrator --computer-ou=ou=Computers,ou=SMBLAB,dc=smblab,dc=net --install=/

The --install=/ switch at the end tells realm to install any necessary dependencies when the command is run. I found that more often than not the command would error out without it.

Notice when running the command you’re prompted first for your current account credentials in order to elevate to sudo, then prompted for the password for the domain account that you provided in the --user parameter.

If all has gone well, you’ll get a success message from realmd:

You’ll see the Ubuntu server name listed in ADUC within the OU specified in --computer-ou. Mine is named SMB-GIT1, as I mentioned a Subversion to Git migration was the impetus for this project.

Next we’ll open up the sssd config file in our text editor.

nano /etc/sssd/sssd.conf

We want to do four things here:

  • Add ssh to the services = section.
  • Verify that ldap_id_mapping = True is set (this is the default)
  • Change use_fully_qualified_names to False.
  • Add ldap_user_ssh_public_key = altSecurityIdentities
The third item is a quality of life change that I applied but it isn’t required. It allows domain users to login to Ubuntu with just their username instead of the UPN (<user> instead of <user>@<domain>). The final item specifies the altSecurityIdentities attribute within an AD user account that we’re going to use to store our SSH public key. Here’s what my file looks like after making the necessary changes.

Save and exit the sssd.conf file. Do a quick reboot at this point to make sure everything reloads with the updated config files.

At this stage, all of the AD parts are connected and we should be able to log in to the console with a domain username. I’ll log in with my domain user “murphy”.

The login is successful and in addition to the MOTD info I can see that my home directory for the domain user was created automatically in /home/

Since we haven’t done anything to restrict SSH access yet, logging in via SSH from a remote machine should also work for any valid account. I verified this by connecting through PuTTy from the domain controller.

With everything working for username/password authentication, we can move on to authenticating via SSH keys.

A quick note on this for the sake of understanding what’s going on; Typically when we want to use key-based authentication for SSH we’ll put our public key in our Ubuntu home directory in the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys file. When we attempt to connect over SSH with our private key, the SSH server service knows to check the authorized_keys file for the matching public key and approves our authentication attempt. What we want to do instead is have SSH check Active Directory for the altSecurityIdentities attribute on the authenticating user account. To that end, we’ll configure ssh to check AD instead of the local authorized_keys file.

Open the SSH config file:

nano /etc/ssh/sshd_config

Uncomment the AuthorizedKeysCommand and AuthorizedKeysCommandUser values. Set the values as follows

AuthorizedKeysCommand /usr/bin/sss_ssh_authorizedkeys %u
AuthorizedKeysCommandUser root

This configuration tells ssh to run the sss_ssh_authorizedkeys executable with the %u (username) parameter instead of directly checking the ~/.ssh/authorized_keys, and you remember that we configured sssd to check the altSecurityIdentities attribute within AD, which is what will be returned by this lookup. Great, right?

Save and exit the sshd_config file. Restart the ssh service (systemctl restart ssh.service) or reboot the server, to ensure that the new configuration is loaded.

All that’s left now is to create our SSH key pair and test the connectivity. To do that I’ll use PuttyGen to create a key pair for myself to work with. Within the PuTTy Key Generator I left the default options and clicked Generate to create a key pair for myself.

Since I’ll be using PuTTy from my Windows machine to connect to Ubuntu, I saved the private key in PuTTy’s ppk format. I also saved a copy of the public key as a text file for future reference.

Next, let’s load our public key into Active Directory. Once again I’m using my “murphy” account. We’ll need to get to the Attribute Editor tab on the AD user account, and in order to do that we need to enable Advanced Features within ADUC.

With Advanced Features enabled, open the user account properties and navigate to the Attribute Editor tab. On the Attribute Editor tab click on the Attribute altSecurityIdentities, then click Edit.

This is where we’ll add the public key that we created with PuttyGen. Note that the key needs to be one continuous line and must be prefixed with ssh-rsa.

Once you’ve added the public key and clicked OK (and OK again on the user account), we can load up PuTTy and try it out. Note that we haven’t touched ~/.ssh/authorized_keys on the Ubuntu server so there are no keys loaded directly onto the server.

Launch PuTTy and provide the IP address of your Ubuntu server:

Next, go to the Connection > Data options and add the username that you setup in AD with your public key. I used the “murphy” account so that is what I’m configuring here.

Lastly, go to the Connection > SSH > Auth options to add the private key file that matches the public key we configured in AD.

Now when we click Open, PuTTy will provide the username and private key to Ubuntu, which will lookup the matching public key in AD and authenticate the login. Since I set a passphrase on my private key, I’m prompted to enter that here:

If key authentication fails, you’ll be prompted for the matching user password:

If that’s the case, review your configurations and verify things are set properly. If you’ve configured any services since the last reboot, reboot again. One useful thing to note is that sssd will cache domain login information just like many other services. To forcibly expire that cache and tell sssd to go back to the source (AD), use this command:

sss_cache -E

At this point we’re effectively done. We’ve:

  1. Installed Ubuntu and setup networking to talk to DNS/Active Directory.
  2. Configured Kerberos to recognize our domain.
  3. Used realmd to configure sssd and join the AD domain.
  4. Configured sssd to let ssh use AD authentication.
  5. Configured ssh to lookup public keys stored in an AD attribute via sssd.
To take it a step further you can configure AllowGroups within ssh to ensure that only authorized AD users can connect over SSH. I created an AD security group named Role-G-LinuxAdmins and added my “murphy” user to that group, then configured it within sshd_config.

You’ll need to restart the SSH service or reboot Ubuntu for that change to take effect. You may also need to expire the sss_cache per the above if you’ve just added your user to the new group.

That’s it! Now you can log in with AD credentials or with a public key stored in AD. You can control access to SSH with AD groups, and you can even set file/folder ACLs with AD users and groups.