Differences Between Active Directory & Azure AD

Written by Greg Keller on April 4, 2019

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Beyond the obvious difference of one solution being hosted on-prem (Microsoft Active Directory or simply AD) and the other existing in the cloud (Azure Active Directory or Azure AD or AAD), there are a number of differences between Active Directory and Azure AD that are important to understand.

Realistically, if Microsoft had their way, there would be just one directory service solution available and everything would be on-prem (and this whole cloud thing would never have disrupted their cash generating machine).

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the move to the cloud has forced them into a position where they now have many different services. These two, however, while having a number of similarities, come from different code bases, and each serves very different purposes within the identity and access management world. Let’s dive in.

Active Directory’s Limitations

For organizations searching for control over their on-prem devices and applications, the original Microsoft Active Directory is, seemingly, a potential choice. If you’re an all-Windows shop that utilizes only on-prem Microsoft resources, then it would make sense to leverage the legacy identity provider, AD.

That’s because it works best with Windows systems, users, and Windows applications. But, as most IT admins already know, AD is a poor choice for multi-platform environments that take advantage of macOS and Linux systems, web-based applications, and non-Microsoft cloud infrastructure.

Additionally, for organizations that not only have Linux machines but Linux-based applications as well, AD will struggle to control those user accounts as it cannot manage them natively. In an effort to provide a solution for web application access, Microsoft created Active Directory Federation Services. But, that’s a separate solution that requires on-prem maintenance.

With the vast majority of organizations shifting to the cloud, Microsoft recognized the need and created Azure AD. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do anything to help with the proliferation of non-Windows systems or the increased usage of cross-platform services though.

Is Azure Active Directory a Fitting Replacement?

With organizations looking to move a great deal of their infrastructure to Azure, organizations will have to leverage both Active Directory on-prem and Azure AD in the cloud. In effect, it is not a true replacement. Azure AD sits within the infrastructure in Azure, and it enables organizations to have a central user management system for their cloud servers and applications such as Office 365. Invariably, Azure AD isn’t a sound solution for organizations that use macOS and Linux systems, AWS or G Suite, or for that matter, third-party providers that are direct competitors to any Microsoft solution (e.g. Samba file servers and NAS appliances for file storage).

All told, Microsoft works well for Azure solutions; it is that simple. To that end, in the case that your business is leveraging Microsoft Azure services, Azure AD can be a valuable solution for you and your company.

A Vendor-Neutral Directory

For organizations that have more than just Windows systems, there are better options than trying to force fit either AD or Azure AD. Over the last few years, a new generation of directory services solution has emerged. JumpCloud is one such solution. It is a cross-platform, cloud-based directory that can integrate on-prem and cloud-based resources into a single source of truth.

Implementing a cloud directory ensures you no longer have keep up with the differences between the on-prem AD and cloud-based Azure AD because you no longer need either solution. Instead, you have a core directory service that cuts across virtually all platforms and locations. Consequently, you won’t need to traverse the complexity that comes with setting up and maintaining an array of Active Directory products. You gain the simplicity of using just one directory to authenticate your users to virtually all of their tools.

Learn More About JumpCloud

If you’re in a mixed-platform IT environment, the differences between Active Directory and Azure AD may not provide a compelling reason for you to leverage either solution. If that’s the case, sign up today for a JumpCloud account. With it, you’ll be able to manage you first 10 users, 10 devices and their diverse set of IT resources both on-prem and in the cloud—at no charge. If you have additional questions, feel free to drop us a line, visit our Knowledge Base, and/or schedule a demo.

Greg Keller

JumpCloud CTO, Greg Keller is a career product visionary and executive management leader. With over two decades of product management, product marketing, and operations experience ranging from startups to global organizations, Greg excels in successful go-to-market execution.

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