Taming Kerberos

If you’re using Windows 2000 Server or above, chances are you’re also using Kerberos authentication. It’s time to get to know this three-pronged protocol and learn how to troubleshoot it.

Guard dogs are great if you’re protecting a house or a military base. But when it comes to securing nodes on a computer network, guard dogs don’t seem to work very well. Try installing German shepherds on your users’ desktops and you’ll soon see what I mean. However, there is one dog you can install for computer security: Kerberos.

As everyone working with Windows 2000 or above should know by now, Kerberos version 5 authentication protocol is the default for network authentication on computers with Windows 2000 Server and Windows Server 2003. The Kerberos protocol was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and is named after Cerberus, the three-headed fire-breathing dog guarding the gate to Hades. Remembering that makes it easy to remember that Kerberos is a three-pronged authentication scheme consisting of:

  • Client. The system/user making the request
  • Server. The system that offers a service to systems whose identity can be confirmed
  • Key Distribution Center (KDC). The third-party intermediary between the client and the server, which vouches for the identity of a client. In the Windows environment, the KDC is a domain controller running Active Directory (it could be a Unix-based KDC also).

Kerberos has been heralded as—and proven to be—an improvement over the previous standard, NT Lan Manager (NTLM). It’s more flexible and efficient than NTLM and more secure. Benefits include more efficient authentication to servers; mutual identification between client and server; delegated authentication; simplified trust management; and improved interoperability with other networks using Kerberos v.5 for authentication. Given the number of articles that have already been written on how Kerberos works, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the topic.

Ten-Minute Tour
Windows 2000 and newer provides support for MIT Kerberos v.5 authentication, as defined in IETF RFC 1510. The Kerberos protocol is composed of three sub-protocols. The sub-protocol in which the KDC gives the client a logon session key and a TGT (Ticket Granting Ticket) is called the Authentication Service (AS) Exchange. The sub-protocol in which the KDC distributes a service session key and ticket for the service is called the Ticket-Granting Service (TGS) Exchange. The sub-protocol in which the client pre-sends the ticket for admission to a service is called the Client-Server (CS) Exchange.

The chain of communication involved in a Kerberos authentication session goes like this:

Authentication Service Exchange. User Helen, at a Windows 2000 Professional workstation, logs onto a Windows 2003 network. The Kerberos client running on Helen’s workstation converts her password to an encryption key and saves the result in a program variable. The Kerberos client sends a message to the KDC Server, of type KRB_AS_REQ (Kerberos Authentication Server Request). This message has two parts:

  1. An identification of the user, Helen, and the service for which she is requesting credentials, the TGS; and
  2. Pre-authentication data, intended to prove that Helen knows her password. This is simply an authenticator encrypted with Helen’s master key. The master key is generated by running Helen’s password through a one-way function (OWF).

The KDC, upon receipt of KRB_AS_REQ from Helen, looks up the user in the AD, gets her master key, decrypts the pre-authentication data and evaluates the time stamp inside. If the time stamp passes the test, the KDC can be assured that the pre-authentication data was encrypted with Helen’s master key and isn’t merely a captured replay. Finally, once the KDC has verified Helen’s identity, it will create credentials that the client program on her workstation can present to the TGS. The credentials are created and deployed as follows:

  1. A brand-new logon session key, encrypted with Helen’s master key, is created.
  2. A second copy of the logon session key and Helen’s authorization data, in a TGT, encrypted with the KDC’s own master key, is created.
  3. Next, the KDC sends these credentials back to the client by replying with a message of type KRB_AS_REP (Kerberos Authentication Response).
  4. When the client receives the reply, it decrypts the logon session key via application of Helen’s master key. The session key is then stored in the client workstation’s ticket cache. The TGT is extracted from the message, and stored in the cache, as well.

Ticket-Granting Service Exchange. At this stage, the Kerberos client running on Helen’s workstation is going to actually request credentials to access the target server, user Bob, by sending a message of type KRB_TGS_REQ (Kerberos Ticket-Granting Service Request) to the KDC. This message consists of the following components:

  • Identity of the target service for which the client is requesting credentials.
  • Authenticator encrypted with the user’s logon session key.
  • TGT acquired from the AS Exchange.

The KDC decrypts the TGT with its master key, and extracts Helen’s logon session key. Helen’s logon session key is used to decrypt Helen’s authenticator. If Helen’s authenticator passes the test, the KDC invents a new session key for Helen to share with Bob. Two copies of this new session key are sent back to Helen in a single message, encrypted as follows:

  • One copy is encrypted using Helen’s logon session key.
  • The second copy is encrypted using the target server’s master key, in a ticket along with Helen’s authorization data.
  • Helen decrypts the target server session key, using her logon session key, and stores the session key in her cache, along with the target server ticket.

Client-Server Exchange. Helen’s Kerberos client is now ready to be authenticated by the target server, Bob. Helen’s client sends Bob a message of type KRB_AP_REQ (Kerberos Application Request). This message contains:

  1. An authenticator encrypted with the session key for Bob;
  2. The ticket for sessions with Bob, encrypted with Bob’s master key; and
  3. A flag indicating whether the client requests mutual authentication.

Bob decrypts the ticket, and extracts Helen’s authorization data and session key. Bob uses the session key to decrypt Helen’s authenticator, and evaluates the time stamp. If the authenticator passes the test, Bob looks for a mutual authentication flag. If this flag is set, Bob uses the session key to encrypt the time from Helen’s authenticator and returns the result to Helen in a message of type KRB_AP_REP (Kerberos Application Reply). Helen decrypts the reply with the session key. If the authenticator is identical to the one that she sent Bob, the client is assured that the server is genuine, and the connection proceeds. Tickets, Please

If you didn’t follow all this precisely, don’t worry too much; but it is important that you understand a couple of points. The key one is that virtually the entire Kerberos protocol is devoted to acquiring and using tickets. Again—virtually the entire Kerberos protocol is devoted to acquiring and using tickets.

Once our user Helen has been authenticated by the server, she’s given a ticket. Think of the ticket as dangling from a keychain on the belt of her Windows Explorer. Wherever she or any ticket-holder chooses to explore, the ticket provides entry—or not.

In the same way a plane ticket is printed for a particular seat on a particular flight at a specified time, a Kerberos ticket is “printed” with the user’s Domain UserName and the time the ticket’s valid.

While it was Helen’s logon password that got her the ticket, when she wants resources it presents this ticket rather than sending a password. This method allows for stronger encryption on the ticket than a password allows. For example, the ticket encryption includes time-based elements that make it difficult to intercept.

Ticket Granting Tickets and Session Tickets have different purposes. The idea is that once a user logs on that user gets a master ticket, a.k.a. Ticket Granting Ticket. If that user wants resources from a different server, the user gets a second Session Ticket, valid only for a limited time for a particular purpose.

As long as Helen remains logged on, the tickets are renewed automatically. The default ticket lifetimes are controlled at the domain level by using domain policy. The defaults, which should be noted, are:

  • MaxServiceTicketAge: 10 hours
  • MaxTicketAge: 10 hours
  • MaxRenewAge: 7 days
  • MaxClockSkew: 5 minutes

Troubleshooting Kerberos
In an ideal world, Kerberos would hum along, happily issuing, processing and renewing tickets and handling authentication without fail. And it’s safe to say that’s what happens 99.9 percent of the time. When it doesn’t, authentications and permissionings start to fail. Helen, who suddenly starts having problems accessing resources, picks up the phone and calls Rock, her friendly system administrator. Rock must diagnose the problem and fix it, while being snarled at by a three-headed dog and grumpy users clamoring for attention and solutions.

Thankfully, for Rock, troubleshooting Kerberos isn’t very different from the troubleshooting procedures used for other protocols. With a few exceptions, it’s basically a process of looking for places where the system for the acquisition and use of tickets is impaired.

Enabling Event Logging
Event Logs are an excellent place to look, but Kerberos Event Logging is turned off by default in Windows, which seems odd since logging gives Rock the capability of tracing detailed Kerberos events through the event log mechanism. This information in turn can be used to troubleshoot Kerberos. The procedure involves a Registry hack and is fairly straightforward (see “Enabling Kerberos Event Logging on a Specific Computer”). Personally, I recommend doing this on all machines on your network, as the information you accumulate in the security log can save you considerable time and effort (but don’t forget the standard warnings about all the horrible things that can, and probably will, happen to your servers if you start fiddling with the Registry without knowing what you’re doing). You can find any Kerberos-related events in the security log.

Enabling Kerberos Event Logging on a Specific Computer

1. Start Registry Editor.

2. Add the following Registry value

Registry Value: LogLevel
Value Type: REG_DWORD
Value Data: 0x1

If the Parameters subkey doesn’t exist, create it.

Note: Remove this Registry value when no longer needed, so that performance isn’t degraded on the computer. Also, you can remove this Registry value to disable Kerberos event logging on a specific computer.

3. Quit Registry Editor, then restart the computer.

Step-by-Step Troubleshooting

  • When Helen’s problem is relayed to Rock, there are a few basic things he should do. He should make sure that Kerberos is actually supposed to be in use. Neither Telnet nor FTP utilize Kerberos, so puzzling over their steadfast refusal to do so is fruitless.

  • Since everything is all about ticket getting, Rock should do a simple check to assure that the KDC Service has started on the domain controllers. If it hasn’t, he should start the service. If it has, another thing to check is that time synchronization, typically controlled through the W32Time (Windows Time) service, is operational and that time is synchronized across the network. Information regarding this can typically be found in the System Log or Event Viewer. Happily, not much else is required regarding client time synchronization, since the built-in Windows Time Service on XP and Win2K Pro synchronizes automatically with the PDC Emulator. This eliminates the need to create a special logon script for XP and Win2K Pro clients. n Rock should also confirm DNS records if there are connectivity problems with the KDC. At login, clients need to contact their DCs. DNS provides the IP address of the DCs. Hence, he should first check that Helen’s TCP/IP settings are correct, using “ipconfig /all” to make sure the client can query the DNS server.

  • If that doesn’t shed light on the problem, try examining the SRV records on the DNS server. Windows 2003 clients use DNS SRV records to locate DCs—in particular, they attempt to resolve the _ldap._tcp. dc._msdcs SRV records. Win2K and above DCs also publish SRV records for _kerberos and _kpasswd services. The list of published SRV records can be found on a DC in the following file:


  • What if Helen’s Kerberos problem is seemingly inconsistent? For example, many operation authentications succeed, but operations that include GPO applications don’t work at all? In that case, Rock may want to review Helen’s group memberships to see if the problem lies there.

  • Size could also matter. By design, the Kerberos token has a fixed size. If Helen’s a member of a group either directly or by membership in another group, the security ID (SID) for that group is added to her token. For a SID to be added to the user’s token, it must be communicated by using the Kerberos token. If the required SID information exceeds the size of the token, authentication fails. The number of groups varies, but the limit is approximately 70 to 80 groups. If Helen belongs to a large number of security groups, that alone maybe the source of the problem.
         This problem may not be immediately obvious, since NTLM authentication will continue to succeed. The Kerberos authentication problem, then, isn’t obvious until Helen accesses operations that include GPO application and these simply don’t work at all. There are several workarounds covered in KnowledgeBase 280830, “Kerberos Authentication May Not Work If User Is a Member of Many Groups.”

Errors and Their Meanings
One of the first things mentioned in troubleshooting Kerberos was enabling the Event Log, since checking Event Viewer is an indispensable tool in the arsenal. All error messages listed in Table 1 appear in Event Viewer. Understanding what they mean provides a plethora of helpful hints for troubleshooting Kerberos authentication problems.

Table 1. Kerberos Error Messages and Meanings
Code Summary What it Means



Client not found in Kerberos database The KDC couldn't translate the client principal Name from the KDC request into an account in the AD. To troubleshoot this error, check whether the client account exists in AD, if it has expired, and whether AD replication is functioning correctly.
0x7 Server not found in Kerberos database The KDC couldn't translate the server principal name from the KDC request into an account in the AD. To troubleshoot this error check whether the client account exists in AD, if it's expired, and whether AD replication is functioning correctly.
0x9 The client or server has a null key Keys should never be null (blank). Even null passwords generate keys, because the password is concatenated with other elements to form the key. If a client sees this error, the administrator should reset the password on the account.
0xE KDC has no support for this encryption type The client tried to use an encryption type that the KDC doesn't support, for any of the following reasons: The client's account doesn't have a key of the appropriate encryption type; the KDC account doesn't have a key of the appropriate encryption type; or the requested server account doesn't have a key of the appropriate encryption type. The type may not be recognized at all, for example, if a new type is introduced. This happens most frequently with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) compatibility, where an account may not yet have an MIT-compatible key. Generally, a password change must occur for the MIT-compatible key to be available.
0x17 Password has expired This error can be caused by conflicting credentials. Have the user log off and then log on again to resolve the issue.
0x18 Pre-authentication information was invalid This indicates failure to obtain ticket, possibly due to the client providing the wrong password.
0x1A Requested server and ticket do not match This error will occur when a server receives a ticket destined for another server. This can be caused by DNS problems.
0x1F Integrity check on decrypted field failed This error indicates that there's a problem with the hash included in a Kerberos message. This could be caused by a hacker attack.
0x20 Ticket has expired This is not a real error; it just indicates that a ticket's lifetime has ended and that the Kerberos client should obtain a new ticket.
0x22 Session request is a replay This error indicates that the same authenticator is used twice. This can be caused by a hacker attack.
0x19 Additional pre-authentication The client didn't send pre-authentication, or didn't send the appropriate type of pre-authentication, to receive a ticket. The client will retry with the appropriate kind of pre-authentication (the KDC returns the pre-authentication type in the error). Many Kerberos implementations will start off without pre-authenticated data and only add it in a subsequent request when it sees this error. In this case, this error can safely be ignored.
0x25 Clock skew too great There is a time discrepancy between client and server or client and KDC. To resolve this issue synchronize time between the client and the server.
0x26 Incorrect net address Session tickets include the addresses from which they're valid. This error can occur if the address sending the ticket is different from the valid address in the ticket. A possible cause could be an IP address change invalidating any existing cached tickets. Another possible cause is when a ticket's passed through a proxy server or NAT. The client is unaware of the address scheme used by the proxy server, so unless the program caused the client to request a proxy server ticket with the proxy server's source address, the ticket could be invalid.
0x3C Generic error A generic error that may be a memory allocation failure. Checking the event logs may be useful.
0x29 Message stream modified This indicates that the server was unable to decrypt the ticket sent by a client, so the server doesn't know the secret key used to encrypt the ticket, or the client got the ticket from a KDC that didn't know the server's key. This can be tested by determining if the server can obtain a ticket to itself, or if anybody else can locate the server. The secure channel used by NTLM is also an indicator of the validity of the password on local machine accounts. Put another way, it means that the checksum used to verify the data packet didn't match what was expected, which would imply a corrupted data stream or possible attack.

Troubleshooting tools
Microsoft offers a number of tools to troubleshoot Kerberos, spread across the resource kit, the support tools, and the platform SDK. Most are command-prompt tools, and all of them are valuable, especially Kerbtray. (See Table 2).

Table 2. Kerberos Troubleshooting Tools
Tool (Location) Comments
(Platform SDK)
Command-prompt tool to display the content of a user's access token, including the user's rights and group memberships.
(Resource Kit)
Command-prompt tool to look at the local Kerberos ticket cache. Klist can also be used to purge tickets.
(Resource Kit)
GUI tool that displays the content of the local Kerberos ticket cache.
(Support tools)
Netdiag helps isolate networking and connectivity problems by providing a series of tests to determine the state of your network client. One of the netdiag tests is the Kerberos test (netdiag was named nettest before Windows 2000 Beta 3). To run the Kerberos test, type "netdiag /test:Kerberos" at the command prompt.
Replication monitor
(Support tools)
Using replication monitor an administrator can check not just the replication traffic, but also the number of AS and TGS requests as well as the FSMO roles.
Network monitor
(Server CD)
Network monitor doesn't come out of the box with a parser for the Kerberos protocol. A special Kerberos parser DLL is, however, available from Microsoft.
Nltest (Resource Kit) Administers domain and user accounts. Useful to test and discover information about trust relationships (see Table 3).
(Support Tools)
Versatile tool that can manage domains and trust relationships from the command prompt (see Table 4). In Windows 2000 it allows you to move a workstation or member server to a new domain; rename/reset a workstation or member server; verify or reset and synchronize TIME within a domain and resynchronize out of synch domain controllers; and that's only the beginning.
(Resource Kit)
This command-line tool allows management of the Service Principal Names (SPN) directory property for an AD service account. SPNs are used to locate a target principal name for running a service. SetSpn allows you to view the current SPNs, reset the host SPNs, and add or delete supplemental SPNs. (See Table 5.)


Table 3. NLTEST Switches
Nltest Action
Nltest /trusted_domains
Discover trusted domains
Nltest /dclist:
Discover a domain's DCs
Nltest /whowill:

Find out whether a domain has a DC available that can authenticate a particular user
Nltest /finduser:
Find the trusted domain for a user


Table 4. NETDOM Switches
Netdom Action
Netdom TRUST

Creates a trust relationship from a trusting domain to a trusted domain using the given accounts and passwords. Adding the switch /TWOWAY after the /ADD switch creates a bidirectional trust relationship.
Netdom TRUST

Creates a trust relationship from a trusting domain to a non-Windows 2000 Kerberos realm; sets the trust password. To make it a bidirectional trust add /TWOWAY; to make it a transitive trust add /TRANS:yes.
Netdom TRUST

Makes a trust relationship between a trusting domain and trusted domain transitive.
Netdom TRUST

Removes a trust relationship between the trusting domain and the trusted domain.
Netdom TRUST

Verifies the trust relationship between a trusting domain and the trusted domain.
Netdom TRUST

Resets the secure channel between a trusting domain and the trusted domain.
Netdom TRUST
Verifies Kerberos authentication (referrals) between the local workstation and a Kerberos service in a verified domain.


Table 5. SETSPN switches
Header Header
Setspn - l Lists all the SPNs linked to a server.
Setspn - r Resets the default SPNs for a server.
Setspn - a Adds for a server; an SPN usually has the following format: /.
Setspn - d Deletes for a server.

Taming the Beast
It would be satisfying to tell you that this article contains all the information you’ll ever need to troubleshoot any conceivable Kerberos problem you might encounter. It isn’t. However, troubleshooting Kerberos problems need not be an arcane art and the above should at least point Rock, you and your colleagues in the right direction when the inevitable growl comes from the machine. Now where is that rolled up newspaper?


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