Authentication systems and protocol compatibility

Not all authentication protocols work with all authentication systems

In many network configurations, there will be some transactions for which the RADIUS server will not perform the authentication itself, but simply pass credentials to a third party system and rely on the pass/fail response it gets from that system. Unfortunately, not all of these authentication systems work with all password storage formats. In these scenarios, it is important to realize that the incompatibility is between the authentication system and the password format, not the RADIUS system.

Password compatibily with non-RADIUS authentication systems is a topic related to the protocol compatibility page. Such a system is used by the RADIUS server as an authentication oracle, which affects which authentication protocols the RADIUS server may support.

An authentication oracle is a system where the RADIUS server does not perform the authentication itself, but instead passes the users authentication credentials to another system. Those credentials are normally a user name and password, i.e. for PAP or MS-CHAP authentication.

The oracle takes those credentials, and returns a pass/fail response to the RADIUS server. If it returns pass, the RADIUS server decides that the user was authenticated. If it returns fail, on the other hand, the RADIUS server decides that the user has failed authentication. The RADIUS server normally sends the same response to the NAS, but not always. For example, it may decide that a user with authentication pass may be accessing the wrong NAS, and therefore return an Access-Reject. Or, it may return an Access-Accept for a user with an authentication fail, but then place the user in a quarantine VLAN. Either way, the result returned by the authentication oracle is just one more piece of information used by the RADIUS server to make its decisions.

From the point of view of the RADIUS server, systems like PAM, LDAP “bind as user” or ntlm_auth are authentication oracles. Similarly, from the point of view of the NAS, the RADIUS server is an authentication oracle, because the RADIUS server authenticates the user when the NAS cannot.

The table below lists the compatiblity between the common systems used for authentication, and the authentication protocols.

  PAM LDAP “bind as user” ntlm_auth


For EAP-TTLS, look up the tunneled protocol in the above table. For the purposes of this table, the tunneled session is just another RADIUS authentication request. So for EAP-TTLS, with tunneled PAP, look up PAP in the above table.

Similarly, PEAP normally contains EAP-MSCHAPv2 in the tunneled session, so it’s row in the table is identical to the EAP-MSCHAPv2 row, which is in turn identical to the MS-CHAP row.

We do not list EAP-TLS in the above table, because it performs authentication with certificates. As such, it does not interact with any of the authentication oracles listed above.


Many people try to use one of the systems above for authentication, because it works for PAP. They later decide that they need to support an authentication protocol that the above table shows is incompatible with the system they have chosen. They then ask:

How can I make authentication protocol X work with authentication system Y?

The short answer is:

You can’t.

The authentication oracles listed above are much more limited than a RADIUS server, and are designed to only support one authentication protocol. If there’s no check mark in the above table, then it’s impossible to make the authentication protocol use that system. Your only choices are to stop trying to use that authentication protocol, or to use a different system that is compatible with that authentication protocol. The last choice often means storing the password in clear-text in a DB, which means asking all users to change their passwords, unfortunately.

Need more help?

Network RADIUS has been helping clients around the world design and deploy their RADIUS infrastructure for 20 years. We specialize in complex systems and have seen pretty much every variation and problem out there. If you want help from the people who wrote FreeRADIUS, contact us for a consultation.


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