Directory Services 101: terminology

This post is part of a series on directory services. Current available installments are:


Directory services come with a lot of terminology and part of that lingo is what makes things difficult to understand to someone who hasn’t heard any of it before.

Below is a common list of terms you might run into in documentation and the rest of these posts and hopefully a simple enough explanation of what they mean. This list is meant as a reference. If you ever get stuck in a blog post or reading some of the documentation, hopefully this’ll help.

  • X.500: The standard, nowadays maintained by ITU-T and unhelpfully locked behind a paywall
  • Directory server: A server hosting a directory (the database)
  • Directory service: A service providing the ability to query and/or modify the directory
  • LDAP: The Lightweight (ahem) Directory Access Protocol is what usually powers the communication with a directory service. A lot of times people refer to directory services as LDAP and the database as the LDAP server
  • DIT: The directory information tree, a hierarchical tree-like representation of entries in the directory service. I find it helpful to visualise this as a set of folders that can contain other folders or files
  • Entry: An entry in the directory representing an actual thing, such as me the person or my desktop (and not the abstract concept of a person or a desktop, think of it as an instance vs. an object)
  • DN: A distinguished name, essentially a lookup key uniquely identifying an entry in the DIT
  • RDN: A relative distinguished name, a lookup key uniquely identifying an entry in the DIT relative to its parent
  • Base DN or suffix: A DN pointing to the root of your tree. Usually searches for objects are done relative to the base DN and client tools can be configured to do so. Any object returned allows contains the full DN, including the suffix. You’ll often see it in the form of a DNS name split into labels, such as dc=example,dc=com
  • Bind DN: When authenticating to a directory service to perform an action we bind onto an entry that gives us the permission to perform this action. Very often the bind DN is the DN to your user but it can be a service account or another security entry
  • OID: The object identifier, an identifier mechanism standardised by ITU and ISO/IEC for naming something with a globally unique, unambiguous and persistent name. A dot-separated sequence of integers like 1.3.6.1.4. etc. and so forth and so on
  • attribute: A key-value pair that can be set on an entry. Attributes also define their type and how they can be matched or searched against, for example if the attribute is a string and supports substring matching. Attributes are assigned an OID
  • objectClass: a collection of required and optional attributes to help model an entity, such as a person, an account, a computer etc. Like attributes every objectClass is identified by an OID. objectClasses can inherit from each other
  • Schema A collection of attributes and objectClasses. A directory service can be powered by multiple schema. A schema can define the same attributes and objectClasses as another schema but can then not be loaded at the same time

If anything is missing or needs to be corrected feel free to send a PR on GitHub.