Tags: ldap, java, internals

LDAP persistent searches with ldapjdk

As part of the LDAP-based profiles feature I’ve been working on for the Dogtag, it was necessary to implement a feature where the database is monitored for changes to the LDAP profiles. For example, when a profile is updated on a clone, that change is replicated to other clones, and those other clones have to detect that change and each instance must update its view of the profiles accordingly. This post details how the LDAP persistent search feature was used to implement this behaviour.

A naïve approach to solving this problem would have been to unconditionally refresh all profiles at a certain interval. Slightly better would be to check all profiles at a certain interval and update those that have changed. Both of these methods involve some non-trivial delay between changes being replicated to the local database, and the profile subsystem reflecting those changes.

A different approach was to use the LDAP persistent search capability. With this feature, once the search is running, the client receives immediate notification of changes. This advantage commended it over the polling approach as a more appropriate basis for a solution.

ldapjdk persistent search API §

A big part of the motivation for this post was the paucity of the ldapjdk documentation with respect to persistent searches. The necessary information is all there - but it is scattered across several classes, all of which play some important part in a working implementation, but none of which tells the full story.

Hopefully some people will benefit from this information being brought together in one place and explained step by step. Let’s look at the classes involved one by one as we build up the solution.

LDAPPersistSearchControl §

This is the server control that activates the persistent search behaviour. It also provides static flags for specifying what kinds of updates to listen for. Its constructor takes a union of these flags and three boolean values:


Whether to return existing entries that match the search criteria. For our use case, we are only interested in changes.


Whether to return entry change controls with each search result. These controls are required if you need to know what kind of change occured (add, modify, delete or modified DN).


Whether this control is critical to the search operation.

The LDAPPersistSearchControl object used for our persistent search is constructed in the following way:

int op = LDAPPersistSearchControl.ADD
    | LDAPPersistSearchControl.MODIFY
    | LDAPPersistSearchControl.DELETE
    | LDAPPersistSearchControl.MODDN;
LDAPPersistSearchControl persistCtrl =
    new LDAPPersistSearchControl(op, true, true, true);

LDAPSearchConstraints §

The LDAPSearchConstraints object sets various controls and parameters for an LDAP search, persistent or otherwise. In our case, we need to attach the LDAPPersistSearchControl to the constraints, as well as disable the timeout of the search, and set the results batch size to 1 so that no buffering of results will occur at the server:

LDAPSearchConstraints cons = conn.getSearchConstraints();
cons.setServerTimeLimit(0 /* seconds */);

LDAPSearchResults §

Executing the search method of an LDAPConnection (here named conn), yields an LDAPSearchResults object. This is the same whether or the search was a persistent search according to the LDAPSearchConstraints. The different between persistent and non-persistent searches is in how results are retrieved from the results object: if the search is persistent, the hasMoreElement method will block until the next result is received from the server (or the search times out, the connection dies, et cetera).

Let’s see what it looks like to actually execute the persistent search and process its results:

LDAPConnection conn = ... /* an open LDAPConnection */

LDAPSearchResults results = conn.search(
    "ou=certificateProfiles,ou=ca," + basedn, /* search DN */
    LDAPConnection.SCOPE_ONE, /* search at one level below DN */
    "(objectclass=*)",        /* search filter */
    null,   /* list of attributes we care about */
    false,  /* whether to only include specified attributes */
    cons    /* LDAPSearchConstraints defined above */
while (results.hasMoreElements()) /* blocks */ {
    LDAPEntry entry = results.next();
    /* ... process result ... */

We see that apart from the use of the LDAPSearchConstraints to specify a persistent search and the blocking behaviour of LDAPSearchResults.hasMoreElements, performing a persistent search is the same as performing a regular search.

Let us next examine what happens inside that while loop.

LDAPEntryChangeControl §

Do you recall the returnControls parameter for LDAPPersistSearchControl? If true, it ensures that each entry returned by the persistent search is accompanied by a control that indicates the type of change that affected the entry. We need to know this information so that we can update the profile subsystem in the appropriate way (was this profile added, updated, or deleted?)

Let’s look at how we do this. We are inside the while loop from above, starting exactly where we left off:

LDAPEntry entry = results.next();
LDAPEntryChangeControl changeControl = null;
for (LDAPControl control : results.getResponseControls()) {
    if (control instanceof LDAPEntryChangeControl) {
        changeControl = (LDAPEntryChangeControl) control;
if (changeControl != null) {
    int changeType = changeControl.getChangeType();
    switch (changeType) {
    case LDAPPersistSearchControl.ADD:
    case LDAPPersistSearchControl.DELETE:
    case LDAPPersistSearchControl.MODIFY:
    case LDAPPersistSearchControl.MODDN:
        /* shouldn't happen; log a warning and continue */
        CMS.debug("Profile change monitor: MODDN shouldn't happen; ignoring.");
        /* shouldn't happen; log a warning and continue */
        CMS.debug("Profile change monitor: unknown change type: " + changeType);
} else {
    /* shouldn't happen; log a warning and continue */
    CMS.debug("Profile change monitor: no LDAPEntryChangeControl in result.");

The first thing that has to be done is to retrieve from the LDAPSearchResults object the LDAPEntryChangeControl for the most recent search result. To do this we call results.getResponseControls(), which returns an LDAPControl[]. Each search result can arrive with multiple change controls, but we are specifically interested in the LDAPEntryChangeControl so we iterate over the LDAPControl[] until we find what we want, then break.

Next we ensure that we did in fact find the LDAPEntryChangeControl. This should always hold in our implementation but the code should handle the failure case anyway - we just log a warning and move on.

Finally, we call changeControl.getChangeType() and dispatch to the appropriate behaviour according to its value.

Interaction with the profile subsystem §

Up to this point, we have seen how to use the ldapjdk API to execute a persistent LDAP search and process its results. Of course, this is just part of the story - the search somehow needs to be run in a way that doesn’t impede the regular operation of the Dogtag PKI, and needs to safely interact with the profile subsystem. Because the persistent search involves blocking calls, the procedure needs to run in its own thread.

Because this persistent search only concerns the ProfileSubsystem class, it was possible to completely encapsulate it within this class such that no changes to its API (including constructors) were necessary. An inner class Monitor, which extends Thread, actually runs the search. In this way, the code we saw above is neatly segregated from the rest of the ProfileSubsystem class, and there are no visibility issues when calling the readProfile and forgetProfile methods of the other class.

The following simplified code conveys the essence of the complete implementation:

public class ProfileSubsystem implements IProfileSubsystem {
    public void init(...) {
        // Read profiles from LDAP into the subsystem.
        // Calls readProfile for each existing LDAPEntry.

        monitor = new Monitor(this, dn, dbFactory);

    public synchronized IProfile createProfile(...) {
        // Create the profile

    public void readProfile(LDAPEntry entry) {
        // Read some LDAP attributes into local vars

    private void forgetProfile(LDAPEntry entry) {
        profileId = /* read from entry */

    private void forgetProfile(String profileId) {
        // Forget about this profile.

    private class Monitor extends Thread {
        public Monitor(...) {
            // constructor

        public void run() {
            // Execute the persistent search as above.
            // Calls readProfile and forgetProfile depending
            // on changes that occur.

So, what’s going on here? First of all, it must be emphasised that this example is simplified. For example, I have omitted details of how the monitor thread is stopped when the subsystem is shut down or reinitialised.

The monitor thread is started by the init method, once the existing profiles have been read into the profile subsystem. Executing the persistent search and handling results is the one job this the monitor has to do, so it can block without affecting any other part of the system. When it receives results, it calls the readProfile and forgetProfiles methods of the outer class - the ProfileSubsystem - to keep it up to date with the contents of the database.

Other parts of the system access the ProfileSubsystem as well, so consideration had to be given to synchronisation and making sure that changes to the contents of the ProfileSubsystem are done safely. In the end, the only method that was made synchronized was createProfile, which is also called by the REST interface. The behaviour of the handful of other methods that could be called simultaneously should be fine by virtue of the fact that the internal data structures used are themselves synchronised and idempotent. Hopefully I have not overlooked something important!

Conclusion §

LDAP persistent searches can be used to receive immediate notification of changes that occur in an LDAP database. They support all the parameters of regular LDAP searches. ldapjdk’s API provides persistent search capabilities including the ability to discern what kind of change occurred for each result.

The ldapjdk LDAPSearchResults.hasMoreElements() method blocks each time it is called until a result has been received from the server. Because of this, it will usually be necessary to execute persistent searches asynchronously. Java threads can be employed to do this, but the usual “gotchas” of threading apply - threads must be stopped safely and the safety of methods that could be called from multiple places at the same time must be assessed. The synchronized keyword can be used to ensure serialisation of calls to methods that would otherwise be unsafe under these conditions.

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