What is a keytab, and how do I use one?

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A keytab is a file containing pairs of Kerberos principals and encrypted keys (which are derived from the Kerberos password). You can use a keytab file to authenticate to various remote systems using Kerberos without entering a password. However, when you change your Kerberos password, you will need to recreate all your keytabs.

Keytab files are commonly used to allow scripts to automatically authenticate using Kerberos, without requiring human interaction or access to password stored in a plain-text file. The script is then able to use the acquired credentials to access files stored on a remote system.

Anyone with read permission on a keytab file can use all the keys in the file. To prevent misuse, restrict access permissions for any keytab files you create. For instructions, see In Unix, how do I change the permissions for a file?

Creating a keytab file

To use the instructions and examples on this page, you need access to a Kerberos client, on either your personal workstation or a UITS research computing system. When following the examples on this page, enter the commands exactly as they are shown. You may need to modify your path to include the location ofktutil (e.g., /usr/sbin or /usr/kerberos/sbin).

You can create keytab files on any computer that has a Kerberos client installed. Keytab files are not bound to the systems on which they were created; you can create a keytab file on one computer and copy it for use on other computers.

Following is an example of the keytab file creation process using MIT Kerberos:

  > ktutil
  ktutil:  addent -password -p username@ADS.IU.EDU -k 1 -e rc4-hmac
  Password for username@ADS.IU.EDU: [enter your password]
  ktutil:  addent -password -p username@ADS.IU.EDU -k 1 -e aes256-cts
  Password for username@ADS.IU.EDU: [enter your password]
  ktutil:  wkt username.keytab
  ktutil:  quit

Following is an example using Heimdal Kerberos:

  > ktutil -k username.keytab add -p username@ADS.IU.EDU -e arcfour-hmac-md5 -V 1

If the keytab created in Heimdal does not work, it is possible you will need an aes256-cts entry. In that case, you will need to find a computer with MIT Kerberos, and use that method instead.


Using a keytab to authenticate scripts

To execute a script so it has valid Kerberos credentials, use:

  > kinit username@ADS.IU.EDU -k -t mykeytab; myscript

Replace username with your username, mykeytab with the name of your keytab file, and myscript with the name of your script.


Listing the keys in a keytab file

With MIT Kerberos, to list the contents of a keytab file, use klist (replace mykeytab with the name of your keytab file):

  > klist -k mykeytab

  version_number username@ADS.IU.EDU
  version_number username@ADS.IU.EDU

The output contains two columns listing version numbers and principal names. If multiple keys for a principal exist, the one with the highest version number will be used.

With Heimdal Kerberos, use ktutil instead:

  > ktutil -k mykeytab list

  Vno  Type         Prinicpal
  1    des3-cbc-md5 username@ADS.IU.EDU


Deleting a key from a keytab file

If you no longer need a keytab file, delete it immediately. If the keytab contains multiple keys, you can delete specific keys with the ktutil command. You can also use this procedure to remove old versions of a key. An example using MIT Kerberos follows:

  > ktutil
  ktutil: read_kt mykeytab
  ktutil: list

  slot# version# username@ADS.IU.EDU        version#

  ktutil: delent slot#

Replace mykeytab with the name of your keytab file, username with your username, and version# with the appropriate version number.

Verify that the version is gone, and then in ktutil, enter:


To do the same thing using Heimdal Kerberos, use:

  > ktutil -k mykeytab list

  version# type username@ADS.IU.EDU

  > ktutil -k mykeytab remove -V version# -e type username@ADS.IU.EDU


Merging keytab files

If you have multiple keytab files that need to be in one place, you can merge the keys with the ktutil command.

To merge keytab files using MIT Kerberos, use:

  > ktutil
  ktutil: read_kt mykeytab-1
  ktutil: read_kt mykeytab-2
  ktutil: read_kt mykeytab-3
  ktutil: write_kt krb5.keytab
  ktutil: quit

Replace mykeytab-(number) with the name of each keytab file. The final merged keytab would be krb5.keytab.

To verify the merge, use:

  klist -k krb5.keytab

To do the same thing using Heimdal Kerberos, use:

  > ktutil copy mykeytab-1 krb5.keytab
  > ktutil copy mykeytab-2 krb5.keytab
  > ktutil copy mykeytab-3 krb5.keytab

Then, to verify the merge, use:

  ktutil -k krb5.keytab list

Copying a keytab file to another computer

The keytab file is independent of the computer it’s created on, its filename, and its location in the file system. Once it’s created, you can rename it, move it to another location on the same computer, or move it to another Kerberos computer, and it will still function. The keytab file is a binary file, so be sure to transfer it in a way that does not corrupt it.

If possible, use SCP or another secure method to transfer the keytab between computers. If you have to use FTP, be sure to issue the bin command from your FTP client before transferring the file. This will set the transfer type to binary so the keytab file will not be corrupted.

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