Application Programmer’s Guide


NOTE: This is a work in progress. Any contributions would be very appreciated.


About this Guide

This guide gives a tutorial on the use of the Cyrus SASL library for a client or server application. It complies with versions including and after 2.0.0. The following pages should only be considered a guide, not the final word on programming with the Cyrus SASL library. Consult the header files in the distribution in the case of ambiguities.

What is SASL?

SASL stands for Simple Authentication Security Layer and is defined in RFC 2222. That document is very difficult to understand however and it should be unnecessary to consult it.


How did the world work before SASL?

Before SASL, when a new protocol was written which required authentication (users proving who they are to an entity), the protocol had to allow explicitly for each individual authentication mechanism. There had to be a distinct way to say “I want to log in with Kerberos V4”. There had to be another distinct way to say “I want to log in with CRAM-MD5”. There had to be yet a different way to say “I want to log in anonymously,” and so on. This was not ideal for both the protocol and application writers.

Additionally, many programmers were not very familiar with security, so the protocol did support many mechanisms, or worse, they were supported incorrectly. Moreover, when a new authentication method was invented the protocol needed to be modified to support that mechanism.

This system also was not ideal for application writer. She had to have a special case for each mechanism she wished her application to support. Also, the mechanisms were difficult to implement. Even with a good library, an understanding of how the mechanism worked was still necessary. Finally if an application used more than one protocol (for example a mail client might use IMAP, POP, and SMTP) then “Kerberos V4 for IMAP”, “Kerberos V4 for POP”, “Kerberos V4 for SMTP”, “CRAM MD5 for IMAP”, “CRAM-MD5 for POP”, etc... would need to be written. This could quickly create a huge number of different mechanism-protocol pairs to implement.

SASL to the rescue!

SASL hopefully solves all these problems. In practice it makes many of them easier to deal with.

Protocol designers simply have to support SASL (in particular RFC 2222). Consequently, any mechanism that supports SASL (just about anything you would want to use does now) is supported by the protocol. If a new authentication mechanism is invented the protocol automatically supports it without any modifications.

Application writers, instead of having to support every mechanism for every protocol, only need to support SASL for every protocol. Application writers do not need to understand the authentication mechanisms at all: the SASL library handles all that. Also with the Cyrus SASL library if a new mechanism is invented you do not have rewrite your application at all. You may not even have to restart your application if it is a long running process. This is because the Cyrus SASL library loads each mechanism from a shared library. Simply copying a shared library into a directory will magically make your application support a new mechanism.

Cyrus SASL version 2 supports a much improved API over version 1, that allows for much smarter and faster memory allocation for the mechanisms as well as the applications. It is also provides for several new types of plugins to allow for greater overall flexibility. Unfortunately, though similar, this new API is completely incompatible with the old API, and applications will need to be rewritten.


What is the Cyrus SASL library good for?

The Cyrus SASL library is good for applications that wish to use protocols that support SASL authentication. An non-exhaustive list of these are: IMAP, SMTP, ACAP, and LDAP. Also if you are making a proprietary system and wish to support authentication it is a good way of supporting many different authentication types.

What does the Cyrus SASL library do?

From a client point of view, the Cyrus SASL library, given a list of mechanisms the server supports it will decide the best mechanism to use and tell you what to send to the server at each step of the authentication. From a server perspective, it handles authentication requests from clients.

What doesn’t the Cyrus SASL library do?

The Cyrus SASL library is neither network nor protocol aware. It is up to the application to send the data over the wire as well as to send the data in the protocol specific manner. With IMAP this means putting it in the form: + [base64'ed data]\\r\\n. LDAP just sends data in binary via bind requests. The Cyrus SASL library has utility base64 encode and decode routines to help with this.

Client-only Section

A typical interaction from the client’s perspective

  • A client makes a few calls to initialize SASL.
  • Every time the client application makes a new connection it should make a new context that is kept for the life of the connection.
  • Ask the server for the list of supported mechanisms
  • Feed this list to the library
  • Start the authentication with the mechanism the library chose
  • The server will return some bytes
  • Give these to the library
  • The library returns some bytes to the application
  • Application sends these bytes over the network
  • Repeat the last 4 steps until the server tells you that the authentication is completed

How does this look in code

1. Initialize the library

This is done once, using sasl_client_init(3).

int result;

/* attempt to start sasl
 * See the section on Callbacks and Interactions for an
 * explanation of the variable callbacks


    /* check to see if that worked */
    if (result!=SASL_OK) /* [failure] */

2. Make a new SASL connection

For every network connection, make a new SASL connection, using sasl_client_new(3):

/* The SASL context kept for the life of the connection */
sasl_conn_t *conn;

/* client new connection */
result=sasl_client_new("imap",     /* The service we are using */
           serverFQDN, /* The fully qualified domain
                                      name of the server we're
                                      connecting to */
           NULL, NULL, /* Local and remote IP
                                      address strings
                                      (NULL disables mechanisms
                                       which require this info)*/
                       NULL,       /* connection-specific
                                      callbacks */
           0,          /* security flags */
           &conn);     /* allocated on success */

/* check to see if that worked */
if (result!=SASL_OK) /* [failure] */

3. Get the mechanism list

Next get the list of SASL mechanisms the server supports. This is usually done through a capability command. Format the list as a single string separated by spaces. Feed this string into SASL to begin the authentication process.

 sasl_interact_t *client_interact=NULL;
 const char *out, *mechusing;
 unsigned outlen;

 do {

   result=sasl_client_start(conn,      /* the same context from
                                          above */
            mechlist,  /* the list of mechanisms
                          from the server */
            &client_interact, /* filled in if an
                                 interaction is needed */
            &out,      /* filled in on success */
            &outlen,   /* filled in on success */

   if (result==SASL_INTERACT)
      /* [deal with the interactions. See interactions section below] */

} while (result==SASL_INTERACT); /* the mechanism may ask us to fill
                                    in things many times. result is
                                    SASL_CONTINUE on success */
if (result!=SASL_CONTINUE) /* [failure] */

Note that you do not need to worry about the allocation and freeing of the output buffer out. This is all handled inside the mechanism. It is important to note, however, that the output buffer is not valid after the next call to sasl_client_start(3) or sasl_client_step(3).

If this is successful send the protocol specific command to start the authentication process. This may or may not allow for initial data to be sent (see the documentation of the protocol to see).

4. Start authentication

  • For IMAP this might look like:

    {tag} "AUTHENTICATE" {mechusing}\r\n
  • SMTP looks like:

    "AUTH" {mechusing}[ {out base64 encoded}]

5. Check Results

Read what the server sent back. It can be one of three things:

  1. Authentication failure. Authentication process is halted. This might look like A01 NO Authentication failure in IMAP or 501 Failed in SMTP. Either retry the authentication or abort.
  2. Authentication success. We’re now successfully authenticated. This might look like A01 OK Authenticated successful in IMAP or 235 Authentication successful in SMTP. Go here.
  3. Another step in the authentication process is necessary. This might look like + HGHDS1HAFJ= in IMAP or 334 PENCeUxFREJoU0NnbmhNWitOMjNGNndAZWx3b29kLmlubm9zb2Z0LmNvbT4= in SMTP. Note it could be an empty string such as + \r\n in IMAP.

Convert the continuation data to binary format (for example, this may include base64 decoding it). Perform another step in the authentication using sasl_client_step(3):

do {
  result=sasl_client_step(conn,  /* our context */
          in,    /* the data from the server */
          inlen, /* its length */
          &client_interact,  /* this should be
                                unallocated and NULL */
          &out,     /* filled in on success */
          &outlen); /* filled in on success */

  if (result==SASL_INTERACT)
     /* [deal with the interactions. See below] */

} while (result==SASL_INTERACT || result == SASL_CONTINUE);

if (result!=SASL_OK) /* [failure] */

Format the output (variable out of length outlen) in the protocol specific manner and send it across the network to the server.

Go back to check results (this process repeats until authentication either succeeds or fails.

6. Authentication Successful

Before we’re done we need to call sasl_client_step(3) one more time to make sure the server isn’t trying to fool us. Some protocols include data along with the last step. If so this data should be used here. If not use a length of zero.

result=sasl_client_step(conn,  /* our context */
        in,    /* the data from the server */
        inlen, /* it's length */
        &client_interact,  /* this should be unallocated and NULL */
        &out,     /* filled in on success */
        &outlen); /* filled in on success */

if (result!=SASL_OK) /* [failure] */

Congratulations. You have successfully authenticated to the server.

Don’t throw away the SASL connection object (sasl_conn_t *) yet though. If a security layer was negotiated you will need it to encode and decode the data sent over the network.

7. Cleaning up

When you are finally done with connection to server, dispose of SASL connection using sasl_dispose(3):


If you are done with SASL forever (application quitting for example), use sasl_client_done(3):


Or if your application is both a SASL client and a SASL server, use sasl_done(3):


But note that applications should be using sasl_client_done(3)/sasl_server_done(3) whenever possible.

Server-only Section

A typical interaction from the server’s perspective

The server makes a few Cyrus SASL calls for initialization. When it gets a new connection it should make a new context for that connection immediately. The client may then request a list of mechanisms the server supports. The client also may request to authenticate at some point. The client will specify the mechanism it wishes to use. The server should negotiate this authentication and keep around the context afterwards for encoding and decoding the layers.

How does this look in code?


This is done once, using sasl_server_init(3). The application name is used for reading configuration information.

int result;

/* Initialize SASL */
result=sasl_server_init(callbacks,      /* Callbacks supported */
                        "TestServer");  /* Name of the application */

sasl_server_new(3) should be called for each new connection. It should be called when the socket is accepted.

sasl_conn_t *conn;
int result;

/* Make a new context for this connection */
result=sasl_server_new("smtp", /* Registered name of service */
        NULL, /* my fully qualified domain name;
                NULL says use gethostname() */
        NULL, /* The user realm used for password
                lookups; NULL means default to serverFQDN
                Note: This does not affect Kerberos */
        NULL, NULL, /* IP Address information strings */
        NULL,   /* Callbacks supported only for this connection */
        0,  /* security flags (security layers are enabled
               using security properties, separately) */

When a client requests the list of mechanisms supported by the server, use sasl_listmech(3). This particular call might produce the string: {PLAIN, KERBEROS_V4, CRAM-MD5, DIGEST-MD5}

result=sasl_listmech(conn,  /* The context for this connection */
         NULL,  /* not supported */
         "{",   /* What to prepend the string with */
         ", ",  /* What to separate mechanisms with */
         "}",   /* What to append to the string */
         &result_string, /* The produced string. */
                     &string_length, /* length of the string */
                     &number_of_mechanisms); /* Number of mechanisms in
                                            the string */

When a client requests to authenticate, use sasl_server_start(3):

int result;
const char *out;
unsigned outlen;

result = sasl_server_start(conn, /* context */
             clientin,    /* the optional string the client gave us */
             clientinlen, /* and it's length */
             &out, /* The output of the library.
                      Might not be NULL terminated */

if ((result!=SASL_OK) && (result!=SASL_CONTINUE))
  /* failure. Send protocol specific message that says authentication failed */
else if (result==SASL_OK)
  /* authentication succeeded. Send client the protocol specific message
   to say that authentication is complete */
  /* send data 'out' with length 'outlen' over the network in protocol
   specific format */

When a response is returned by the client. clientin is the data from the client decoded from protocol specific format to a string of bytes of length clientinlen. This step may occur zero or more times. An application must be able to deal with it occurring an arbitrary number of times, using sasl_server_step(3):

int result;

                        clientin,      /* what the client gave */
                        clientinlen,   /* it's length */
                        &out,          /* allocated by library on success.
                                          Might not be NULL terminated */

if ((result!=SASL_OK) && (result!=SASL_CONTINUE))
    /* failure. Send protocol specific message that says authentication failed */
else if (result==SASL_OK)
    /* authentication succeeded. Send client the protocol specific message
       to say that authentication is complete */
    /* send data 'out' with length 'outlen' over the network in protocol
        specific format */

This continues until authentication succeeds. When the connection is concluded, make a call to sasl_dispose(3), as with the client connection.

Common Section

Callbacks and Interactions

When the application starts and calls sasl_client_init(3) you must specify for what data you support callbacks and/or interactions.

These are for the library getting information needed for authentication from the application. This is needed for things like authentication name and password. If you do not declare supporting a callback you will not be able to use mechanisms that need that data.

A callback is for when you have the information before you start the authentication. The SASL library calls a function you specify and your function fills in the requested information. For example if you had the userid of the user already for some reason.

An interaction is usually for things you support but will need to ask the user for (e.g. password). sasl_client_start(3) or sasl_client_step(3) will return SASL_INTERACT. This will be a list of sasl_interact_t’s which contain a human readable string you can prompt the user with, a possible computer readable string, and a default result. The nice thing about interactions is you get them all at once so if you had a GUI application you could bring up a dialog box asking for authentication name and password together instead of one at a time.

Any memory that is given to the SASL library for the purposes of callbacks and interactions must persist until the exchange completes in either success or failure. That is, the data must persist until sasl_client_start(3) or sasl_client_step(3) returns something other than SASL_INTERACT or SASL_CONTINUE.

Memory management
As in the rest of the SASLv2 API, whoever allocates the memory is responsible for freeing it. In almost all cases this should be fairly easy to manage, however a slight exception where the interaction sasl_interact_t structure is allocated and freed by the library, while the results are allocated and freed by the application. As noted above, however, the results may not be freed until after the exchange completes, in either success or failure.

For a detailed description of what each of the callback types are see the sasl.h file. Here are some brief explanations:

the name of the user authenticating
the name of the user acting for. (for example postman delivering mail for tmartin might have an AUTHNAME of postman and a USER of tmartin)
password for AUTHNAME
Realm of the server

An example of a way to handle callbacks:

/* callbacks we support. This is a global variable at the
    top of the program */
 static sasl_callback_t callbacks[] = {
   SASL_CB_GETREALM, NULL, NULL  /* we'll just use an interaction if this comes up */
 }, {
   SASL_CB_USER, NULL, NULL      /* we'll just use an interaction if this comes up */
 }, {
   SASL_CB_AUTHNAME, &getauthname_func, NULL /* A mechanism should call getauthname_func
                                                if it needs the authentication name */
 }, {
   SASL_CB_PASS, &getsecret_func, NULL      /* Call getsecret_func if need secret */
 }, {

 static int getsecret_func(sasl_conn_t *conn,
   void *context __attribute__((unused)),
   int id,
   sasl_secret_t **psecret)
    /* [ask the user for their secret] */

    /* [allocate psecret and insert the secret] */

   return SASL_OK;

 static int getauthname_func(void *context,
                             int id,
                             const char **result,
                             unsigned *len)
    if (id!=SASL_CB_AUTHNAME) return SASL_FAIL;

    /* [fill in result and len] */

    return SASL_OK;

in the main program somewhere


Security layers

All is well and good to securely authenticate, but if you don’t have some sort of integrity or privacy layer, anyone can hijack your TCP session after authentication. If your application has indicated that it can support a security layer, one might be negotiated.

To set that you support a security layer, set a security property structure with max_ssf set to a non-zero number:

sasl_security_properties_t secprops;

secprops.min_ssf = 0;
secprops.max_ssf = 256;
secprops.maxbufsize = /* SEE BELOW */;

secprops.property_names = NULL;
secprops.property_values = NULL;
secprops.security_flags = SASL_SEC_NOANONYMOUS; /* as appropriate */

sasl_setprop(conn, SASL_SEC_PROPS, &secprops);

The secprops variable will be copied during the call to sasl_setprop, so you may free its memory immediately. The SSF stands for “security strength factor” and is a rough indication of how secure the connection is. A connection supplying only integrity with no privacy would have an SSF of 1. A connection secured by 56-bit DES would have an SSF of 56.

To require a security layer, set min_ssf to the minimum acceptable security layer strength.

After authentication is successful, you can determine whether or not a security layer has been negotiated by looking at the SASL_SSF property:

const int *ssfp;

result = sasl_getprop(conn, SASL_SSF, (const **) &ssfp);
if (result != SASL_OK) {
    /* ??? */
if (*ssfp > 0) {
    /* yay, we have a security layer! */

If a security layer has been negotiated, your application must make use of the sasl_encode(3) and sasl_decode(3) calls. All output must be passed through sasl_encode(3) before being written to the wire; all input must be passed through sasl_decode(3) before being looked at by the application. Your application must also be prepared to deal with sasl_decode(3) not returning any data in the rare case that the peer application did something strange (by splitting a single SASL blob into two seperate TCP packets).

The only subtlety dealing with security layers is the maximum size of data that can be passed through sasl_encode(3) or sasl_decode(3). This must be limited to make sure that only a finite amount of data needs to be buffered. The simple rules to follow:

  • Before starting authentication, set maxbufsize in your security properties to be the buffer size that you pass to the read() system call—that is, the amount of data you’re prepared to read at any one time.
  • After authentication finishes, use sasl_getprop(3) to retrieve the SASL_MAXOUTBUF value, and call sasl_encode(3) with chunks of data of that size or less. sasl_encode(3) will throw an error if you call it with a larger chunk of data, so be careful!
Memory management
As usual, whoever allocates the memory must free it. The SASL library will keep the data returned from sasl_encode(3) until the next call to sasl_encode(3) on that connection. (sasl_decode(3) results persist until the next call to sasl_decode(3) on that connection.) The application must not attempt to free the memory returned from either function.
  • your application sets SASL_SEC_PROPS with the buffer size X of the amount of data it will be using to read() from the socket.
  • libsasl passes this number to the mechanism.
  • the mechanism passes this number to the other side. the other side gives the corresponding read() size to our side.
  • the mechanism subtracts the overhead of the layers from the size retrieved from the other side and returns it to the libsasl.
  • libsasl then returns (via SASL_MAXOUTBUF) this number as the maximum amount of plaintext material that can be encoded at any one time, Y.
  • sasl_encode() enforces the restriction of the length Y.

Example applications that come with the Cyrus SASL library

sample-client and sample-server

The sample client and server included with this distribution were initially written to help debug mechanisms. They base64 encode all the data and print it out on standard output.

Make sure that you set the IP addresses, the username, the authenticate name, and anything else on the command line (some mechanisms depend on these being present).

Also, sometimes you will receive a realm: Information not available message, or similar; this is due to the fact that some mechanisms do not support realms and therefore never set it.

Cyrus imapd v2.1.0 or later

The Cyrus IMAP server now incorporates SASLv2 for all its authentication needs. It is a good example of a fairly large server application. Also of interest is the prot layer, included in libcyrus. This is a stdio-like interface that automatically takes care of layers using a simple prot_setsasl() call.

Cyrus imapd also sets a SASL_CB_PROXY_POLICY callback, which should be of interest to many applications.

imtest, from Cyrus 2.1.0 or later

imtest(3) is an application included with Cyrus IMAPd. It is a very simple IMAP client, but should be of interest to those writing applications. It also uses the prot layer, but it is easy to incorporate similar support without using the prot layer. Likewise, there are other sample client applications that you can look at including smtptest(3) and pop3test(3) in the Cyrus IMAPd distribution, respectively.

Miscellaneous Information

Empty exchanges

Some SASL mechanisms intentionally send no data; an application should be prepared to either send or receive an empty exchange. The SASL profile for the protocol should define how to send an empty string; make sure to send an empty string when requested, and when receiving an empty string make sure that the inlength passed in is 0.

Note especially that the distinction between the empty string “” and the lack of a string (NULL) is extremely important in many cases (most notably, the client-send first scenario), and the application must ensure that it is passing the correct values to the SASL library at all times.


While the implementation and the plugins correctly implement the idle calls, none of them currently do anything.