What Is Active Directory?

Understand the Generics and Specifics of Microsoft AD

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on April 12, 2022

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There’s no doubt that many organizations are increasingly utilizing cloud-based services for their business operations as opposed to on-prem IT infrastructure. Under such assumptions, you could argue that Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD) is irrelevant. However, this is not the case because AD still serves as the backbone for many enterprises’ IT infrastructures. 

Active Directory is so prevalent that approximately 90% of the Global Fortune 1000 companies use it as the primary identity and access management (IAM) platform. This is not because these companies necessarily want to maintain their own IT infrastructure. It has more to do with the amount of work required (and potential disruptions) that would be involved in transitioning all user accounts, groups, and AD objects to cloud-based identity management solutions such as Azure AD. 

Instead, IT teams in these companies prefer to simply use their existing on-prem AD as a single sign-on (SSO) for Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) that they can set up with relative ease. Since AD is crucial to authenticating and authorizing users throughout the organization, it is a prime target for attackers. 

In this post, we explore what Active Directory is, its strengths and weaknesses, and how JumpCloud Directory® can help you simplify authentication and authorization in a cloud environment, with or without AD.

What Is Active Directory?

AD is Microsoft’s proprietary directory service that runs on Windows Server operating systems (OSs). It allows IT teams to manage permissions and access to enterprise resources. AD represents and stores data as objects. You can think of an AD object as a single entity representing resources such as users, groups, applications, or devices like printers. 

Each AD object has associated attributes in the network. For example, a user object may contain attributes such as first name, last name, email address, supervisor, and more. Active Directory categorizes each object by its name and attributes. For example, a user’s name might include the username, along with passwords and secure shell (SSH) keys.

To facilitate efficient identity management, AD makes use of security and networking protocols such as lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP), domain name system (DNS), and Microsoft’s version of Kerberos protocol. Three elements allow AD to represent objects in a hierarchical structure: 

  • Domains. A domain is a set of objects that share the same AD database. The network identifies each domain via its DNS name, such as jumpcloud.com.
  • Trees. A tree is a group of domains within the AD network with a contiguous namespace. 
  • Forest. A forest is a group of trees within the AD network that share a common directory schema, global catalogs, and domain configurations. Typically, forests provide the security boundary for the entire AD network. 

IT teams can group objects within the domain to form organizational units (OUs), which simplify administration and policy management. For example, they can create arbitrary OUs to mirror functional and geographical structures and then apply group policies to OUs to streamline administration processes. 

Microsoft previewed Active Directory with its Windows 2000 Server edition in 1999. The company has since revised the platform to improve authentication and authorization in subsequent versions of Windows Server OSs. 

In 2003, for example, Microsoft expanded LDAP support in AD with Windows Server 2003, leveraging the protocol’s tree structure to organize users into hierarchies of groups. In 2008, the company then incorporated Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) in Windows Server 2008 to resolve and simplify third-party challenges that were inherent in the platform.

The same year also saw Microsoft rebranding the directory for domain management as Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS), effectively leaving AD as the umbrella term for the company’s directory-based service. In September 2016, Microsoft updated AD DS to allow companies to securely migrate their AD environments to the cloud and leverage hybrid cloud capabilities. 

In December 2016, the company launched Azure AD Connect to allow companies to join their on-prem AD system with Azure AD and enjoy SSO capabilities with cloud-based services such as Office 365. 

What Are the Strengths of Active Directory?

There are three primary strengths that businesses can derive from Active Directory:

1. IT teams can centralize the management of IT resources and simplify security administration 

AD provides IT teams with a centralized console to manage and secure corporate resources and associated security objects. When implemented correctly, AD can help IT teams to administer effective security policies in the organization. 

2. It can facilitate SSO access to enterprise resources 

AD provides SSO to allow users access to enterprise resources located on any server within the network. SSO mechanism in AD enables the platform to identify and authenticate a user only once. When this process completes, users can access any authorized network resources according to privileges within the domain. 

3. It can streamline resource location 

AD simplifies resource allocation by publishing files and print resources on the network. This allows users to securely access the resources by searching the AD database for any desired resource. For example, a user could search the database based on the resource’s name, location, or description.

Drawbacks of Active Directory

Despite the benefits, AD has notable limitations. Some of these include:

1. It doesn’t integrate well with third-party platforms

When Microsoft unveiled AD, most of the applications that companies used were largely Windows-based and resided in on-prem servers called domain controllers (DCs). However, web-based applications that are not native to Microsoft dominate today’s enterprise IT environments. Linux and macOS systems have also replaced Windows workstations in most organizations. 

Since Active Directory wasn’t built with the integration of third-party solutions in mind, connecting non-Microsoft systems to the platform is a challenging task. While you could achieve integration with additional configurations, the process isn’t as seamless as how AD natively supports Windows-based applications. 

2. Implementing AD can be costly for the organization

Active Directory is technically a free solution, with no additional costs if you’ve already subscribed to Windows Server OS. However, setting up SSO can be costly for the organization. For example, besides the initial server and setup costs, you have to figure out the maintenance expenses. 

3. It cannot address modern security needs

Identity management is an essential aspect of the modern attack surface. Any unattended credential, elevated access to applications, or data is of particular interest to cybercriminals. Therefore, compromising AD is the first step for hackers that want to penetrate the enterprise’s network. 

As more companies migrate their operations to the cloud and workforces become distributed outside of on-prem network perimeters, AD is increasingly becoming a focal point for cybercriminals. While AD is not inherently insecure, the complexities associated with implementing it can leave the network susceptible to attackers. For example, cybercriminals can take advantage of replication processes in AD and steal signing certificates, potentially launching devastating attacks. 

JumpCloud

Read More: The Fall of Active Directory and the Rise of the Domainless Enterprise

Azure AD — An Active Directory Alternative?

The rise of hybrid working environments, cloud computing, the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon, and countless cybersecurity threats have completely altered the game for companies that initially relied on Active Directory as a primary IAM solution. This is mainly because AD resides in on-prem systems and cannot address the emerging identity and access management (IAM) pain points. 

Azure AD is a Microsoft-based IAM solution that allows IT teams to manage access to Azure infrastructure. The platform integrates seamlessly with Office 365 and select web-based applications. Even though you can use Azure AD as a single IAM solution, most companies use it in conjunction with on-prem AD. 

When used with on-prem AD, Azure AD requires an Azure AD Connect feature which federates the Active Directory credentials to the cloud. This allows users to authenticate to Windows-based applications and selected web applications to Azure cloud by using their existing on-prem credentials.

JumpCloud Directory Is a Better Alternative for Migrating Active Directory to the Cloud

The JumpCloud Directory Platform is a modern cloud directory platform that companies can use to either migrate or extend AD to the cloud. Unlike Azure AD, which only works with Windows-based systems and selected web applications, JumpCloud is an inclusive cloud directory platform that authenticates users to heterogeneous devices, OSs, networks, and applications. 

You can use the platform as a standalone identity provider (IdP) in the cloud or layer it on the existing AD as an alternative to Azure AD. When used in an enterprise, JumpCloud serves as a single source of truth for identity management in heterogeneous IT environments.

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and Content Writer at JumpCloud. She is particularly inspired by the people who drive innovation in B2B tech. When away from her screen, you can find her climbing mountains and (unsuccessfully) trying to quit cold brew coffee.

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