Apache Week

Copyright ©2020 Red Hat, Inc

First published: 22nd November 1996

DBM User Authentication

This week, we explain how to store user authentication information in DBM files for faster access when you have thousands of users.

The feature on User Authentication shows how to restrict pages to selected people. We showed how to use the htpasswd program to create the necessary .htpasswd files, and how to create group files to provide more control over the users. We also said that .htpasswd files and group files like this are not very efficient when a large number of users are involved. This is because these are plain text files and for every request in the authenticated area Apache has to read through the file looking for the user. A much faster way to store the user information is to use files in DBM format. This article explains how to create and manage DBM format user authentication files.

What is DBM?

DBM files are a simple and relatively standard method of storing information for quick retrieval. Each item of information stored in a DBM file consists of two parts: a key and a value. If you know the key you can access the value very quickly. The DBM file maintains an 'index' of the keys, each of which points to where the value is stored within the file, and the index is usually arranged such that values can be accessed with the minimum number of file system accesses even for very large numbers of keys.

In practice, on many systems a DBM 'file' is actually stored in two files on the disk. If, for example, a DBM file called 'users' is created, it will actually be stored in files called users.pag and users.dir. If you ever need to rename or delete a DBM from the command line, remember to change both the files, keeping the extensions (.pag and .dir) the same. Some newer versions of DBM only create one file.

Provided the key is known in advance DBM format files are a very efficient way of accessing information associated with that key. For web user authentication, the key will be the username, and the value will store their (encrypted) password. Looking up usernames and their passwords in a DBM file will be more efficient than using a plain text file when more than a few users are involved. This will be particularly important for sites with lots of users (say, over 10,000) or where there are lots of accesses to authenticated pages.

Preparing Apache for DBM Files

If you want to use DBM format files with Apache, you will need to make sure it is compiled with DBM support. By default, Apache cannot use DBM files for user authentication, so the optional DBM authentication module needs to be included. Note that this is included in addition to the normal user authentication module (which uses plain text files, as explained in the previous article). It is possible to have support for multiple file formats compiled into Apache at the same time.

To add the DBM authentication module, edit your Configuration file in the Apache src directory. Remove the comment from the line which currently says

  # Module dbm_auth_module     mod_auth_dbm.o

To remove the comment, delete the # and space character at the right-hand end of the line. Now update the Apache configuration by running ./Configure, then re-make the executable with make.

However, before compiling you might also need to tell Apache where to find the DBM functions. On some systems this is automatic. On others you will need to add the text -lndbm or -ldbm to the EXTRA_LIBS line in the Configuration file. (Apache 1.2 will attempt to do this automatically if needed, but you might still need to configure it manually in some cases). If you are not sure what your system requires, try leaving it blank and compiling. If at the end of the compilation you see errors about functions such as _dbm_fetch() not being found, try each of these choices in turn. (Remember to re-run ./Configure after changing Configuration). If you still cannot get it to compile, you might have a system where the DBM library is installed in a non-standard directory, or where the there is no DBM library available. You could either contact you system administrator, or download and compile your own copy of the DBM libraries (a good choice might be GDBM: read about it or download it).

Creating A DBM Users File

For standard (htpasswd) user authentication password files, the program htpasswd is used to add new users and set their passwords. To create and manage DBM format user files another program from the Apache support directory is used. The program is called dbmmanage and is written in perl (so you will need perl on your system, and it will need to have been compiled with support for the same DBM library you compiled into Apache. If you have only just installed DBM on your system you will might need to re-compile perl to build in DBM support).

This program can be used to create a new DBM file, add users and passwords to it, change passwords, or delete users. To start by creating a new DBM file and adding a user to it, run the command:

  dbmmanage /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm adduser martin hamster

The creates the DBM file /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm (which might actually consist of /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm.dir and /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm.pag), if it does not already exist. It then adds the user 'martin' with password 'hamster'. This command can be used with other usernames and passwords to add more users, or with an existing username to change that user's password. A user can be deleted from the password file with

   dbmmanage /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm delete martin

You can get a list of all the users in the DBM file with

   dbmmanage /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm view

Restricting a Directory

Now you have a DBM user authentication file with some users in it, you are ready to create an authenticated area. You can restrict a directory either using a <Directory> section in access.conf or by using a .htaccess file. The feature on user authentication explained how you can set up a basic .htaccess file, using this example:

  AuthName "restricted stuff"
  AuthType Basic
  AuthUserFile /usr/local/etc/httpd/users

  require valid-user

To use DBM files, the only change is to replace the directive AuthUserFile line with

  AuthDBMUserFile /usr/local/etc/httpd/usersdbm

This single change tells Apache that the user file is now in a DBM format, rather than plain text. All the rest of the user authentication setup remains the same (so the authentication type is still Basic, and the syntax of require is the same as before).

Using Groups

Each user can be in one or more "groups", and you can restrict access to people just in a specified group. This makes it possible to manage all your users on your site in a single database, and customise the areas that each can access. The use of DBM files for storing group information is particularly efficient because you can use the same file to store both password and group information.

The dbmmanage command can be used to set group information for users. For example, to add the user "martin" to the group "staff", you would use

  dbmmanage /usr/local/etc/httpd/users adduser martin hamster staff

You put a user into multiple groups but listing them, separated by commas. For example,

  dbmmanage /usr/local/etc/httpd/users adduser martin hamster staff,admin

Note that dbmmanage has to be told the password as well, and there is no way to set or change group information for a user without knowing their password. This means in practice that dbmmanage is not suitable for managing users in groups, and you will have to write your own management scripts. Some help writing perl to manage DBM files is given later in this article.

After creating a user and group file containing details of which users are in which groups, you can restrict access by these groups. For example, to restrict access to an area to only people in the group staff, you could use:

  AuthName "restricted stuff"
  AuthType Basic
  AuthDBMUserFile /usr/local/etc/httpd/users
  AuthDBMGroupFile /usr/local/etc/httpd/users

  require group staff

Custom Management of DBM Files

The supplied dbmmanage script to manage DBM files is adequate for basic editing, but cannot handle advanced use, such as managing group information. It is also command line driven, while a Web interface might be a better choice in many situations. To do either of these things you will have to write programs to manage DBM files yourself. Using perl this is not too difficult.

As a simple example, say you have an existing .htpasswd file and you want to convert it to a DBM file, putting all the users in a specific group. We will introduce the concepts here, and there is a link below to the completed program for you to download. It will be written in Perl which is quick to write and easy to customise, although the principles of DBM use are the same whatever language is used.

The basic way to look in a DBM file is given here. DBM files are opened in Perl as 'hashed arrays'. The "key" is the user name, and the value is the encrypted password and optionally group information. A simple script to lookup all the keys and values in a DBM is:

  dbmopen(%DBM, "/usr/local/etc/httpd", 0644) || 
                         die "Cannot open file: $!\n";
  while (($key, $value) = each %DBM) {
    print "key=$key, value=$value\n";

Note that if the given DBM file does not exist, it will be created. This script will work with both perl 4 and perl 5 (although Perl 5 users might prefer to use the new tie facility instead of dbmopen). To lookup a known key you would use:

  $key = "martin";

  dbmopen(%DBM, "/usr/local/etc/httpd", 0644) || 
                                        die "Cannot open file: $!\n";
  $value = $DBM{$key};
  if (!defined($value)) {
    print "$key not stored\n";
  } else {
    print "key=$key, value=$value\n";

Now we can write a script to convert a htpasswd file into a DBM database, optionally putting each user into one or more groups. The script is htpasswd2dbm.pl, and is used like this:

  cd /usr/local/etc/httpd
  htpasswd2dbm.pl -htpasswd users usersdbm

The -htpasswd option specifies the htpasswd file to be read, the the final argument is the DBM file to create (or add to). To set a group, use the -group argument. For example, to put all the users from this file into the groups admin and staff, use

  htpasswd2dbm.pl -htpasswd users -group admin,staff usersdbm

The program will add users to an existing DBM database, so it can be used to merge multiple htpasswd files. If you give users from different files different groups, you will be able to set up access restrictions on a group-by-group basis, and manage all your users in one database. Note that if there is already a user with the same username in the DBM file it will be overwritten by the new information.

Group information stored in a DBM file as part of the value. If no group information is stored, the key associated with a username just consists of the encrypted password. To store group information, the encrypted password is followed by a colon, then a list of groups that the user is in, each separated by a comma. So a typical key might look like this:


A program written in perl can easily extract the group information, for example:

  $value = $DBM{$key};
  ($enc, $groupfield) = split(/:/, $value);
  @groups = split(/,/, $groupfield);

It is also possible to store additional information in the DBM file, by following the groups list with a colon. Apache will ignore any data after a colon following the groups list, so it could be used, for example, to store the real name and contact details for the user, and an expiry date. This could be stored in the DBM like this:

  $DBM{$key} = join(":", $enc, join(",", @groups),
                           $realname, $company, $emailaddr,

Keeping all the user information together in a database like this, which Apache can also use for user authentication, can make administering a site with many users simpler.