LDAP Nested Groups: Modelling and Representation in Code

This post describes what LDAP “nested groups” are and how we ended up modelling and representing them in code.
June 5, 2019 705 words

LDAP Group Sync in Mattermost 

In Mattermost v5.8 we deployed LDAP group sync feature to enable Enterprise Edition customers to create and synchronize groups in Mattermost matching their LDAP groups. The goal was to ease onboarding by automatically adding group members to configured teams and channels.

With the upcoming Mattermost v5.12 we’re adding the ability to create teams and channels that are only accessible to those synced groups. This post describes what LDAP “nested groups” are and how we ended up modelling and representing them in code.

Defining Nested Groups 

The two main types of groups in LDAP are groupOfNames and groupOfUniqueNames. At minimum they have a cn (common name) attribute and can have membership attributes member or uniqueMember, respectively.

As an example, the below LDIF creates two groups: developers and senior-developers.

dn: cn=developers,ou=groups,dc=www,dc=test,dc=com
changetype: add
objectclass: groupOfNames
member: uid=miranda,ou=users,dc=www,dc=test,dc=com
member: cn=senior-developers,ou=groups,dc=www,dc=test,dc=com

dn: cn=senior-developers,ou=groups,dc=www,dc=test,dc=com
changetype: add
objectclass: groupOfNames
member: uid=suzanne,ou=users,dc=www,dc=test,dc=com

The developers group has two members: a person miranda and another group senior-developers. The senior-developers group has a single member: a person suzanne.

When a group has another group as a member we call it a “nested group”.


There are two main query operations one wants to perform when dealing with nested groups.

  1. List all of the members of group X.
  2. List all of the groups that person Y belongs to.

For our example, these propositions are all true:

  • developers has members [miranda, suzanne]
  • senior-developers has members [suzanne]
  • suzanne is a member of groups [developers, senior-developers]
  • miranda is a member of groups [developers]

Native Solution 

There’s an “extensible match operator” called LDAP_MATCHING_RULE_IN_CHAIN that, if installed, traverses nested groups. It’s used by adding the string :1.2.840.113556.1.4.1941: to your query filter.

For example, this filter retrieves all of the recursive members of developers:


And this filter retrieves all of the recursive groups that suzanne belongs to:


However, not all LDAP implementations natively support LDAP_MATCHING_RULE_IN_CHAIN, so when we set out to support LDAP nested groups in Mattermost I realized we would need to do the group traversal in our application code.

Modelling the Problem 

We can represent our example arrangement with a directed graph (aka digraph) as seen in figure 1.

nested group figure 1

The digraph makes the structure easy to reason about and, moreover, because cycles are possible in LDAP nested groups — group A can have group B as a member which in turn has group A as a member — the digraph is critical to avoiding needless code complexity and errors. Here’s how it works:

From a Group’s Perspective 

To list all of the members of, say, the developers group, simply traverse the graph in figure 1 starting at developers. All reachable vertices (that are people) are the members of the developers group.

From a Person’s Perspective 

To list all of the groups that, say, suzanne belongs to, reverse all of the edges in the graph (aka transpose it) — as seen in figure 2 — and traverse the graph starting at suzanne. All of the reachable vertices (that are groups) are the groups that suzanne belongs to.

nested group transposed figure 2

The same data model and traversal logic can be reused to achieve both of our main objectives.

Representation in Code 

In Mattermost I represent the digraph as an adjacency list. In Golang our figure 1 graph looks like this:

adjacencyList := map[string][]string{
    "group/developers":        []string{"person/miranda", "group/senior-developers"},
    "group/senior-developers": []string{"person/suzanne"},
    //"person/miranda":          []string{},
    //"person/suzanne":          []string{},

Normally an adjacency list representing a graph would include all vertices as keys in the array or map. However, in our LDAP case people will never have groups or other people nested under them, so I was able to remove those keys without losing any relevant data.

Our reversed graph from figure 2 is represented as an adjacency list like this:

transposedAdjacencyList := map[string][]string{
    "person/miranda":          []string{"group/developers"},
    "group/senior-developers": []string{"group/developers"},
    "person/suzanne":          []string{"group/senior-developers"},
    "group/developers":        []string{},

One can input the adjacency list into a breadth-first (or depth-first) search — avoiding cycles — to get the reachable vertices. It performs well at scale and is easy to serialize and debug.

That pretty much summarizes the interesting parts of modelling and representing LDAP nested groups. If you have any questions feel free to reach out. Thanks for reading!

[cross-posted from Martin's personal blog]

Written by Martin Kraft - @martin.kraft on community.mattermost.com and @mkraft on GitHub

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