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On windows there's active directory.

On Linux there are several options, but what's the dead simplest option to set up? I'd like to manage users and groups centrally, but don't need anything fancy beyond that.

Let's say this doesn't have to scale to more than a dozen machines.

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one possibility is using openldap. here is a how-to to get you started. the how-to is a bit outdated, but it should get you started. perhaps your distro offers some of the needed packages, this would make it much easier.

another option is ad. when you already have a windows network with a working ad, you can add your linux servers to the ad. you could use unix services for windows or pam or ...
some distributions already have bundles to connect to ad, for example likewise in fedora/rhel.

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If you are ready to invest a little more effort into it Kerberos is the standard solution and designed to do Authentication/Authorization. Both windows and unix implementations exists and clients are built into most OS. I would consider the effort of setting up Kerberos similar to LDAP/OpenLDAP.

If you don't wish to invest that much of an effort and the network is small there is always the old trick of simply syncing (part of) your passwd and group files to all systems. If you do this you have to keep UIDs and similar identical everywhere.

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syncing is at first not necessarily a centralized solution, but when you add configuration management (e.g. puppet) to it, it becomes centralized. – Christian Jan 21 '10 at 11:32

I'm suprised that nobody's mentioned NIS yet. It pairs well with NFS. It's easy to set up and you can use the existing passwd file.

I wouldn't use it in a hostile environment though.

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If the question is about "easy" then NIS is definitely the correct answer. NIS has long been the standard UNIX directory system and even its successor, NIS+, has been "legacied" by Sun and pretty much all UNIX players have fallen back to NIS as the standard for "easy" and LDAP for serious enterprise deployments. – Scott Alan Miller Jan 21 '10 at 17:26

Maybe not the easyest, but surely up to the job : openldap and Samba are known to work together pretty nicely

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