LDAP directories, explained in 1 minute

An LDAP directory is a type of hierarchical NoSQL storage. A quick way to explain the essence of LDAP is by drawing a comparison to a computer file system which people are familiar with.

LDAP directories share many similarities with a file system

Overall organisation

  • A file system consists of files in a tree-like structure.
  • An LDAP directory consists of entries in a tree-like structure.

Data types

  • A file in a file system is an arbitrary blob of text or binary data.
  • A directory entry is a collection of attributes, or name / value pairs. Attributes may be text or binary. They may be mandatory or optional, single or multi-valued.


  • A file in a file system has a name, e.g. “tax-report-2010.xml”. The file name must be unique within the containing folder.
  • An entry in a directory branch has a relative distinguished name (RDN), e.g. “cn=Alice Wonderland”. The RDN comes from an existing name/value pair in the entry that was chosen to become the entry’s name (or title). RDNs must also be unique within the containing directory branch.

Global naming

  • A file in a file system is uniquely identified by its path, e.g. “/home/vladimir/taxes/tax-report-2010.xml”.
  • An entry in a directory is identified by its distinguished name (DN), which is formed by the chain of RDNs leading all the way to the directory root, e.g. “cn=Alice Wonderland, ou=people, dc=wonderland, dc=net”.

Here is a truncated example directory entry of a user, in LDIF (LDIF stands for LDAP data interchange format).

The distinguished name (DN) is in bold, the name/value pair serving as RDN is slanted.

dn: uid=alice,ou=people,dc=wonderland,dc=net
uid: alice
objectClass: inetorgperson
objectClass: organizationalperson
objectClass: person
objectClass: top
cn: Alice Wonderland
sn: Wonderland
employeeNumber: 18001
givenName: Alice
initials: AA
mail: alice@wonderland.net
mobile: +1 010 154 3228
userPassword:: c2VjcmV0

If you like this analogy explanation of LDAP you’re welcome to use it in your own presentations 🙂