Name Service Switch (NSS)

Name Service Switch (NSS)


The Name Service Switch is a System V UNIX facility which abstracts the mapping between names and numbers into a set of library calls and makes the back-end pluggable (hence “switch”). For a stand-alone server, this is used to provide access to the various file databases for users, groups, hostnames, services and protocols. The backend is selected with the /etc/nsswitch.conf file. In a networked environment, it is used to distribute this information through the network, such as with NIS and LDAP. The database types are often called ‘‘maps’’.


As this is a System V facility, it is available on almost any platform that is SysV-based, such as Solaris. It is likely available on IRIX, HP-UX, and SCO, but I cannot verify this. It is not, however, available on AIX and BSD-based systems, such as FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, and MacOS X. It is also available on Linux distributions since it is included with the GNU glibc.


Back-end selection is done through the /etc/nsswitch.conf file. Included stock with GNU glibc are the following back-ends:

  • nisplus
  • nis
  • dns
  • files
  • db
  • compat
  • hesiod

An LDAP back-end is also available from PADL at The Samba project also makes a daemon called winbindd that is able to retrieve information for users and groups from a Windows Domain Controller, although it internally has to map Windows UUIDs to user and group IDs, since the Windows protocols use an alphanumeric string instead of just a number to ennumerate users and groups.

The dns back-end is used only for hostname resolution, as you might expect. The hesiod back-end also uses DNS with special record types, but it isn’t used widely outside of a few large university campuses. The files back-end is the default for most databases, and uses /etc/passwd for users, /etc/groups for groups, /etc/hosts for hostnames, /etc/services for service to port/protocol (mostly TCP and UDP) mappings, and /etc/protocols for protocols. The db back-end is a Berkeley-style database built from map files with the same formats as the files back-end. On Linux systems, these are usually located in /var/db. The compat back-end is for some NIS compatibility, although I’m not entirely sure what. The nis and nisplus back-ends are, obviously, for NIS and NIS+.

Also included is nscd, the name-service cache daemon. For network back-ends, this provides a considerable speed-up by caching information. Load is also considerably decreased on the server. It is configured in /etc/nscd.conf, which lets you set various server options, and time-outs and other parameters for the various maps.

External Back-Ends

As of ‘‘glibc’’ 2.2, ‘‘nss_db’’ has been moved into a separate package. There are also a number of other external or third-party NSS providers, including the following:

  • db
  • winbind Samba component for mapping Windows SIDs into UNIX UIDs and GIDs
  • ldap, PADL’s ‘‘nss_ldap’’
  • mdns, multicast DNS (aka, ‘‘Rendezous’’ or ‘‘Zeroconf’’)
  • MySQL (several)
  • Postgres (several)


Various programming languages provide interfaces for accessing data in the maps. The simplest is the shell command getent. If you issue the command with a map name it will list all entries in that map:

$ getent passwd |head

If you supply a key, it will retrieve only the record with that key; for the ‘‘passwd’’ map, available keys are username and UID:

$ getent passwd 0

$ getent passwd root

You can also use it on to look up host names without caring about whether it’s coming from DNS or /etc/hosts or whatever back-ends you have configured:

$ getent hosts

If you write shell scripts that access this data, you can do it more portably by using this interface instead of reading the files directly. An example is on my ShellHacks page.

Of course, C, Perl, Python and probably Ruby also provide similar interfaces. However, with these interfaces, you usually go through a setXXent, loop over getXXent, endXXent pattern to retrieve data one record at a time. The ‘‘XX’’ means there are separate calls for the various maps, for the ‘‘passwd’’ map the ‘‘XX’’ is ‘‘pw’’. You can see the Perl interface in action in my script.