Pluggable Authentication Module. I think this is one of the all time best ideas ever. I do think it could use some polishing on the configuration side: it should be easier and less confusing, but the basic idea of flexible authentication is beautiful.
You may not realize that Sun invented this. According to http://www.kernel.org/pub/linux/libs/pam/FAQ:
PAM was invented by SUN Microsystems. They have their own implementation of the specification(!). It is present in an internal form in Solaris 2.5 and will be fully realized in 2.6 . [Internal form = no stacking of modules and no pam.conf file]
See Understanding PAM for an introduction.
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