Active Directory Pros and Cons

Written by Ashley Gwilliam on August 10, 2023

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Can you believe Active Directory is nearly a quarter of a century old? 

Microsoft introduced Active Directory (AD) to the world in 1999. Running on a Windows server, AD enables admins to manage users’ access to the network resources. It also helps them grant permissions and enforce policies.

Since its inception, AD has been the cornerstone on which many organizations have built their identity and access management strategy. However, changes in the technology landscape have introduced particular challenges that leave many IT administrators wondering whether Active Directory is still the way to go in a modern work environment.

In this post, we’ll examine the perks of Active Directory, its limitations, and an effective solution around these limitations. Let’s get into it.

Pros of Active Directory

While AD has many benefits, they are only enjoyable within an on-prem Window environment. In a cross-platform or hybrid/remote work environment these benefits can quickly become nonexistent. 

to people looking at a computer screen collaborating

Nonetheless, the best bits about Active Directory are as follows:

Centralized Management of Users, Computers, and Resources

AD is a hub that allows admins to control user access, computers, and resources; remotely create, modify, or disable user accounts; and deploy software, configure multiple computers simultaneously, and remotely troubleshoot computers. Plus, admins can easily manage resources such as files, applications, and other hardware using AD Domain Services.

Integration With Other Microsoft Services

Active Directory was developed by Microsoft for its Windows infrastructure. So, it’s not surprising that it integrates seamlessly with the operating system and various Microsoft services such as Exchange Server, SharePoint, and Office Communications Server. It’s also easy to combine AD with Azure AD to provide easy management and access to both desktop and cloud-based Microsoft products.

Group Policies Objects (GPO)

GPOs are a powerful feature of AD. They are a set of commands that define the behavior and appearance of a system. With them, admins can set several rules about what multiple users and computers can or can’t do.

Admins typically use GPOs to update software, define settings for desktop appearance, prevent the installation of unauthorized software, and limit access to resources and certain system settings. 

Security and Access Control

Admins set and enforce network-wide security policies from AD. They can define password complexity requirements, account lockouts, and password expiration policies.

AD also utilizes secure authentication and authorization protocols such as Kerberos and LDAP. The domain controller uses this to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive resources and ensures that only authenticated and authorized individuals can gain access to resources.

Improved Efficiency 

AD results in greater efficiency for users and admins alike. Users get to enjoy the personalized settings that they can access on any device. Also, they only need to log in once using their AD credentials to gain access to multiple resources on the network. This eliminates the need to remember multiple usernames and passwords.

Admins get to enjoy the widespread control they have over computers through the centralized system. Hence, they don’t need to go into each computer to manually carry out tasks on them.

Reporting for Auditing and Compliance

By securing identities and controlling access to resources and data, Active Directory can play an important role in achieving data compliance. Plus, with the help of third-party tools, reports of multiple kinds of activities such as logging in or out, file creation, modifications, deletions, permission grants or revocations, etc., can all be generated for audit purposes.

Cons of Active Directory

The drawbacks to Active Directory are as follows:

Cost and Complexity of Implementation and Maintenance

One of AD’s biggest downsides is the total cost of setting it up and maintaining it. Organizations that use Active Directory have to contend with hardware server costs. These become even higher when the organization is a large one with multiple offices.

Then there are the Client Access Licensing costs, the price of which varies depending on whether an organization is getting the license directly from Microsoft or a reseller.

Besides these primary costs, there are other secondary costs to consider. For one, those servers won’t house themselves, they’ve got to be set up somewhere in a data center: Translation — more rent fees.

Plus, thanks to the fact that AD is a very complex directory that involves a steep learning curve, organizations have to allocate resources for training IT staff or hiring specialized professionals, further increasing the overall cost.

Throw in the cost of implementing other third-party add-ons to make Active Directory play nice with other non-Windows devices in the environment, and then organizations have gotten themselves a real money sinkhole.

two women having a discussion over a tablet in a server room

Dependency on Microsoft Ecosystem

Active Directory operates on and is best suited for traditional on-prem architecture. Also, it is best compatible with Microsoft business applications. This makes it less suitable for organizations that use cloud-based non-Microsoft solutions and that have to support remote users.

Of course, Microsoft has since developed Azure Active Directory; but, contrary to what many think, this is a separate product that doesn’t exactly serve as a cloud alternative to the traditional AD.

Azure AD only extends a current Active Directory to the cloud. Plus, it also suffers the problem of being best suited for a Microsoft ecosystem.

Limited Cross-Platform Support

AD certainly excels as a directory service for Windows-based environments. However, it doesn’t seamlessly integrate with non-Windows platforms. This makes it challenging to use in heterogeneous IT environments that leverage platforms such as MacOS, Linux, or Unix.

Take AD’s group policies for example. As earlier mentioned, group policies enable admins to control multiple computers and push group-wide instructions. However, except with the aid of multiple third-party tools or custom scripting, admins cannot deploy or enforce AD policies on Mac and Linux devices.

Even in instances where these tools come to the rescue, they often bring in entirely new sets of problems that can result in inconsistencies and security gaps.

Vulnerability to Internal and External Security Threats and Attacks

As noted earlier, AD’s complexity and the consequent need for multiple third-party tools only make it easier to cause gaps and expand the attack surface area of an organization’s network.

Active Directory is also highly susceptible to modern-day threats such as Kerberoasting and stolen credentials. Its architecture and design were primarily conceived in an era when cybersecurity threats differed from what organizations face today.

For example, AD focuses on keeping outsiders from gaining entry but trusts insiders in the system.

In the event of stolen credentials, few to no safeguards verify the user’s identity, giving the attacker free reign in the system. Credentials have been known to get stolen through phishing attacks and the contributory risk posed by admins who leave machines logged on as AD domain admins.

Tool Sprawl

No thanks to the different workarounds needed to tackle AD’s problems, IT teams can soon get bogged down with multiple tools. Tool sprawl not only increases costs but also contributes to the network’s complexity, and makes it more challenging to manage. Further compatibility problems can also arise in integrating various third-party tools with AD and each other.

Plus, tool sprawl makes admins need training and support for each tool separately. This adds to the learning curve for administrators, leading to further costs and complexity.

Considerations for IT Admins and MSPs

So is Active Directory good or bad for any organization? It depends on the following factors:

  • Device base: In an environment where a vast majority, if not all, of the employees use a Windows device, AD should do just fine. In most modern workplaces — especially those that support BYOD policies — admins would be best served by choosing device-agnostic solutions that help them support all their users.
  • On-prem or cloud architecture: AD works best in an on-prem architecture and can be integrated closely with Azure AD to enjoy Microsoft’s cloud services. Nonetheless, for businesses that are either already moving their resources or plan to do so in the future, Active Directory is not the best route.
  • Remote support: Where an organization’s workforce is located in-office, AD may be great at managing resource access. However, if the organization has a remote workforce, AD’s limitation makes it difficult to support such users.
  • Cost: AD requires considerable personnel and financial resources. While larger organizations can easily afford these costs, managed services providers (MSP) and smaller organizations with limited budgets and IT staff may find cloud-based alternatives more cost-effective.

Speaking of cloud-based alternatives, the JumpCloud directory platform provides a rethought solution to access management. Focused on managing user identities irrespective of device choice, JumpCloud ensures that admins can support multiple users in a cross-platform environment. 

JumpCloud also provides solutions that help IT teams avoid the pitfalls of tool sprawl that AD exposes. With multi-factor authentication (MFA), single sign-on (SSO), Password Manager, and lots more in its utility belt, JumpCloud reduces cost, limits threat exposure, and provides a unified infrastructure that admins can look to as a single source of truth.

Key Takeaway

Active Directory provides admins with extensive control over multiple computers and enables them to define permissions for network users. However, the headaches it causes for admins who manage remote workers, heterogeneous, and cloud or hybrid environments makes AD an unsuitable solution for most modern IT teams.

Thankfully, these teams can look toward cloud-native directory services such as JumpCloud that integrates users seamlessly with the resources they need to access regardless of device or location.JumpCloud’s unified tool stack creates a pleasant experience for users and admins, cuts costs, and reduces security vulnerabilities. Be sure to try it out for free today.


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Ashley Gwilliam

Ashley Gwilliam is a Content Writer for JumpCloud. After graduating with a degree in print-journalism, Ashley’s storytelling skills took her from on-camera acting to interviewing NBA basketball players to ghostwriting for CEOs. Today she writes about tech, startups, and remote work. In her analog life, she is on a quest to find the world's best tacos.

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