Networking Basics: Part 10 – Distinguished Names

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

In the previous part of this article series, I explained that the LDAP protocol references objects in the Active Directory by their distinguished name, and that every object in the directory has its own unique distinguished name. In this article, I want to continue the discussion by explaining how distinguished names work.

Before I Begin

Before I get started, I just want to remind you that distinguished names are not unique to the Active Directory. Microsoft built the Active Directory to take advantage of industry standards which are used by other companies such as Novell and IBM. By learning how distinguished names work, you will not only be better prepared to manage an Active Directory environment, you will also have some degree of familiarity if you are ever asked to work with a non Microsoft network operating system.

Basic Naming Rules

Distinguished names are made up of attributes, which are assigned values. A single distinguished name almost always contains multiple attribute value pairs. To see what I am talking about, let’s look at a simple distinguished name:

CN=User1, CN=Users, DC=Contoso, DC=com

In this particular example, the distinguished name is made up of four different attribute / value pairs, each of which are separated by a comma. The first attribute / value pair is CN=USER1. In this attribute / value pair, CN (which stands for Common Name) is the attribute and User1 is the value. Attributes and values are always separated by the equals sign, and attribute / value pairs are always separated from each other by commas.

Relative Distinguished Names

When you look at a distinguished name such as CN=User1, CN=Users, DC=Contoso, DC=com, one thing probably becomes immediately apparent; distinguished names can be really long. If you take a closer look at this distinguished name, you will notice that it is hierarchical. In this particular case, DC=com represents the highest level of the hierarchy. DC=Contoso represents the second level of the hierarchy. You can tell that COM and Contoso are both domains because both use the DC attribute. The domain hierarchy mimics the domain hierarchy used by DNS servers (you learned about the DNS hierarchy earlier in this series).

It is important to understand how the distinguished name hierarchy works for two reasons. First, by understanding the naming hierarchy, it becomes possible to know exactly where a particular object is located within the directory. The other reason why it is important to understand the nature of the directory hierarchy is because sometimes shortcuts are used in lieu of a full distinguished name.

To see what I am talking about, let’s take another look at our example distinguished name: CN=User1, CN=Users, DC=Contoso, DC=com. This distinguished name simply refers to a user account (more precisely known as a user object) named User1. The rest of the information in the distinguished name simply tells us the object’s position within the directory hierarchy.

If you were trying to tell another person about this object, you would probably casually refer to it as User1. Sometimes LDAP does the same thing. This is possible because it isn’t necessary to provide information about an object’s location in the hierarchy if the location is already known.

For example, if we are performing some operation on user objects located in the Users container in the domain, is it really necessary to explicitly state that every single object is located in the domain’s Users container?

In situations like this, the distinguished name is often replaced by a Relative Display Name (abbreviated RDN). In the case of CN=User1, CN=Users, DC=Contoso, DC=com, the RDN is CN=User1. The RDN is always made up of the most specific identifier. This will be the left most attribute / value pair in the distinguished name. The remaining portion of the distinguished name is known as the parent distinguished name. In this particular case, the parent distinguished name would be CN=Users, DC=Contoso, DC=com.

Before I move on, I want to mention that Microsoft tends to use a slightly different distinguished name format than some other network operating system manufacturers. As you have already seen, Microsoft’s distinguished names tend to be based on containers and domains. There is certainly nothing wrong with this format, because it does comply with RFC 2253, which sets the rules for distinguished names.

Some of the other network operating systems tend to base their distinguished name hierarchies on companies and countries rather than containers and domains. In these types of distinguished names, the attribute O is used to designate an organization (company) name, and the letter C is used to designate a country name. Using this naming convention, the distinguished name CN=User1, CN=Users, DC=Contoso, DC=com would look something like this:

CN=User1, O=Contoso, C=US

Keep in mind that the two formats both comply with RFC 2253, but they cannot be used interchangeably. Remember that a distinguished name’s job is to describe an object and its position within the directory. The reason for the two different distinguished name formats is that Microsoft structures their directory differently than some of their competitors.

Special Characters in Distinguished Names

So far you have seen that commas and equal signs have special meaning in the context of a distinguished name. There are several other characters that also have special meanings. These characters include the plus sign, the greater than and less than signs, the number sign, the back slash, and the quotation mark. I’m not going to bother covering most of these because you will rarely, if ever, have to use them in real life.

I do however want to talk about the back slash. The back slash allows you to tell an LDAP statement to ignore the following character. This allows you to store otherwise forbidden characters in your directory.

To see how this is of use, consider that full names are often expressed as last name comma first name. Even so, LDAP does not allow you to use the statement CN=Smith, John because the comma is used by LDAP to separate attribute / value pairs. If you wanted to store the value Smith, John in the directory, you could do so by making use of the back slash, as shown below:

CN=Smith\, John

In the statement above, the back slash tells LDAP to treat the comma as data rather than as a part of the command syntax. Another way to accomplish this is to surround the entire attribute value by quotation marks. Everything within the quotation marks is treated as data rather than as a part of the syntax.

There is a special rule regarding the use of the back slash within quotation marks. The back slash can only be used to force LDAP to ignore another back slash. To put it simply, if you needed to include a back slash as a part of the data, you would simply use two back slashes instead of one. Any other use of the back slash between quotation marks is considered to be illegal.


As you can see, the rules for creating a distinguished name can be a bit tricky. Even so, having a basic understanding of distinguished names is key to effectively managing an Active Directory environment. In Part 11, I will continue the discussion by demonstrating some of the Active Directory management tools.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

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