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The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, or LDAP, is a protocol for querying and modifying a X.500-based directory service running over TCP/IP. The current LDAP version is LDAPv3, as defined in RFC4510, and the implementation used in Ubuntu is OpenLDAP.

The LDAP protocol accesses directories. A common mistake is to call a directory an LDAP directory, or LDAP database, but it’s really so common, and we all know what we are talking about, that it’s ok. Here are some key concepts and terms:

  • A directory is a tree of data entries that is hierarchical in nature and is called the Directory Information Tree (DIT).

  • An entry consists of a set of attributes.

  • An attribute has a key (a name/description) and one or more values.

  • Every attribute must be defined in at least one objectClass.

  • Attributes and objectclasses are defined in schemas (an objectclass is actually considered as a special kind of attribute).

  • Each entry has a unique identifier: its Distinguished Name (DN or dn). This, in turn, consists of a Relative Distinguished Name (RDN) followed by the parent entry’s DN.

  • The entry’s DN is not an attribute. It is not considered part of the entry itself.


The terms object, container, and node have certain connotations but they all essentially mean the same thing as entry, the technically correct term.

For example, below we have a single entry consisting of 11 attributes where the following is true:

  • DN is “cn=John Doe,dc=example,dc=com”

  • RDN is “cn=John Doe”

  • parent DN is “dc=example,dc=com”

 dn: cn=John Doe,dc=example,dc=com
 cn: John Doe
 givenName: John
 sn: Doe
 telephoneNumber: +1 888 555 6789
 telephoneNumber: +1 888 555 1232
 manager: cn=Larry Smith,dc=example,dc=com
 objectClass: inetOrgPerson
 objectClass: organizationalPerson
 objectClass: person
 objectClass: top

The above entry is in LDIF format (LDAP Data Interchange Format). Any information that you feed into your DIT must also be in such a format. It is defined in RFC2849.

Such a directory accessed via LDAP is good for anything that involves a large number of access requests to a mostly-read, attribute-based (name:value) backend, and that can benefit from a hierarchical structure. Examples include an address book, company directory, a list of email addresses, and a mail server’s configuration.


Older references that might still be useful:

Last updated 24 days ago. Help improve this document in the forum.