Limit OS Authentication

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Oracle users can be authenticated in different ways, most commonly via database authentication. When a user is created as create user ananda identified by abc123, the only way the user can log in to database is by passing its userid and password.

One alternative is operating system authentication, in which the user is created as:

create user ops$ananda identified externally; If the host operating system has a userid named "ananda", then Oracle does not check its credentials anymore. It simply assumes the host must have done its authentication and lets the user into the database without any further checking.

That's where the problem lies. If the host operating system is strong in authentication, it may be secure; but in some weak OSs, it is possible to login as a user by cracking the password or entering without a password:

sqlplus / Note the lack of userid and password—the string "/" instructs the database to accept the connection of the userid ananda to the database account ops$ananda.

This type of authentication commonly useful in shell scripts so that you don't have to embed the password in the script, but simply call it as sqlplus /. This is not only convenient but also somewhat secure, since the password is not present. However, consider this scenario: In weak-security OSs, someone can create an account called ananda and then use it to log into account ops$ananda.

Must it be ops$? Not really; you can change it by setting an initialization parameter. In the following example, I have set it to osauthent$.

os_authent_prefix = 'osauthent$' You can find these users by using the following query:

SQL> select username, password from dba_users

 2  where password = 'EXTERNAL'
 3  /




When the initialization parameter is set like this, the account ops$ananda will not work; instead, you need to create those accounts (OS-authenticated) as osauthent$ananda. In an interesting twist , you can also set it to "" (null). In that case the OS user ananda will map to Oracle user ananda. You can even set the password for this account:

alter user ops$ananda identified by oracle; In that case, the user can log into the database in either manner:

sqlplus / sqlplus ops$ananda/oracle

So, what's wrong with that? Well, consider the situation. Suppose the parameter os_authent_prefix is set to "" (null). In a weak OS, someone can create a user called SYSTEM and login as

sqlplus / This will log the user as the Oracle user SYSTEM! Once logged in, the user can do anything they want—create users, drop data files, look into sensitive data, and a lot of other things. Suddenly, something that seemed like a convenience is a huge liability.


As you can see, the issue arises only in certain combination of occurrences. One of them is the OS_AUTHENT_PREFIX being not null, and the other one is setting the password for OS-authenticated accounts. So the first thing to check is the OS authentication prefix.

SQL> select value

 2  from v$parameter
 3  where name = 'os_authent_prefix';



If the above returns null, then you should make plans to change it. The actual value is not important, but you must include some non-alphanumeric character. That way, the OS-authenticated username will never match an actual user.

Second, you need to make sure the OS-authenticated accounts are authenticated exactly that way—by the OS—and never have a password. For example, if your OS_AUTHENT_PREFIX were set to OPS$, you would use the following query to find out whether or not the password is set:

SQL> select username, password from dba_users

 2  where username like 'OPS$%';




This shows that the user OPS$ORACLE cannot login through the OS authentication route or the password route. This is exactly what you want to avoid; there should be only one way to authenticate. To change the mode of authentication of OPS$ORACLE, you should use:

alter user OPS$ORACLE identified externally; This changes the PASSWORD column to EXTERNAL.


The implications of these changes may be extensive depending on the usage of these accounts. If you have any of these types of accounts, scan the programs to find out how easily they can be changed. Action Plan Find out which programs are using the OPS$ accounts. If none then

 Check initialization parameter os_authent_prefix

If it's null then

   Change it to OPS$ (database restart required) 
 Check password of OPS$ accounts

If not EXTERNAL then

   Change them to EXTERNAL 

If some then

 Check if they are using it as a password as well (e.g. OPS$ORACLE/mypass).

If a password is used, remove it—e.g. the line sqlplus OPS$ORACLE/mypass should become sqlplus /.