The Purpose of Active Directory: Nearly Everything You Need to Know

Written by Ashley Gwilliam on January 31, 2023

Share This Article


Would you hang on to a screwdriver with a broken handle if you could upgrade to a power drill?

Since its debut in 2000, Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD) has long been the tool admins used to connect users to computers, applications, and other IT resources.

With time, however, the proverbial wheels began to fall off; a once unbeatable solution for admins became a problem in itself for organizations worldwide.  

This article will discuss how evolving workplace realities, demands, and challenges are forcing AD to evolve. We’ll also share a modern alternative for combining IT toolkits in heterogeneous environments. 

The Purpose of Active Directory

To understand why Active Directory was popular over the past two decades, it’s essential to understand why many of the world’s biggest organizations use it today. 

AD is an on-prem directory service owned by Microsoft; its purpose is to enable IT departments to create and manage user accounts and control access to resources on corporate networks.

With it, admins can create and enforce security policies for the network. They can also define which users or groups have access to which resources. Users also enjoy a single sign-on (SSO)  experience and can access every network resource by logging in to their computers.

But there’s a catch…

The Origin of Active Directory 

First previewed in 1999 and officially released with Windows 2000, Active Directory’s background extends to the early 1990s. 

The beginning of the decade witnessed the Federal Trade Commission, and later the U.S. Department of Justice, slamming Microsoft with antitrust investigations regarding monopolistic practices in the personal computer operating system market.

Due to these investigations and a highly publicized court case, Microsoft began to pivot from the consumer market to the enterprise market. Here it had a strong foothold with its Windows and Office products. Nonetheless, Active Directory was at the heart of this strategy.


By making Active Directory a glue to tie the already ubiquitous Windows devices and applications, IT teams had every reason to choose it as the go-to option for access management.

Since Active Directory integrates best with Windows products, businesses running on Active Directory continued to utilize Microsoft’s solutions — even when they weren’t necessarily the best options. The result? Organizations were effectively locked into an ecosystem with seemingly impenetrable walls. 

At the time, the monopoly didn’t really matter because Windows OS had a dominant presence in the workplace, and AD served to preserve that dominance. But, as often happens in the face of building public momentum, cracks in the walls began to appear.

Crack in the Walls & the Evolution of Active Directory

Despite periodic updates and extended functionalities that included AD Federation Service (AD FS) in 2008, Active Directory couldn’t keep up with the winds of change in the workplace. 

Cloud Infrastructure

The term “cloud” conjured images of fluffy, cumulus shapes or silver linings for most individuals in the early 2000s. And every IT resource was still hosted on-premises.

No one imagined a time when data centers would be a thing of the past and businesses could host entire workloads on the cloud. It was during this era that the Active Directory was born; like most children, it was a product of the times. 

Microsoft specifically designed AD to operate with on-prem devices and resources. And this worked perfectly until the business landscape changed seemingly overnight. 

group sitting around a table with laptops in a business meeting

The rise of cloud applications such as Salesforce and Google Workspace introduced unique challenges that Active Directory couldn’t easily address. Plus, the introduction of Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud computing products meant that several companies did not need to keep data on-premises.


Securely connect to any resource using Google Workspace and JumpCloud.

As a result, AD was no longer the best fit for modern organizations’ directory and access management needs. 

Several businesses, however, sought third-party solutions such as web apps single sign-on or Identity-as-a-Service to see how far they could stretch things. But this meant that IT now had more tools to oversee and could no longer manage users and resources from one solution.

Mixed Platform Environments

Another premise that underpins Active Directory is that IT teams would only need to manage primarily Windows platforms and devices. This premise has upended to the changing nature of workforce preferences. 

As showcased by a 2016 Jamf survey, three out of every four employees prefer to work with a Mac than a Windows PC. And as more organizations are looking to equip their employees with devices that suit their needs and preferences, an average work environment would inevitably consist of a heterogeneous mix of Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and other operating systems.

two men sitting at a table with their laptops having a meeting

Besides employee preference, the fact that certain software or apps run better or have more support on a specific platform means that admins have to cater to the different platforms in their IT environment.

With this reality in place, Active Directory went from hero to zero as several organizations now had a real problem on their hands that they could whittle down to two questions:

  1. Should we focus on our needs and use devices or apps best suited to our operations and employees’ preferences? 
  2. Should we work within our restrictions and leverage only devices and solutions that we can easily manage within our current AD infrastructure?

While the preferable option is not a surprise, several organizations and IT teams had no choice but to go for solutions that were easier to deploy rather than those that best served their interests.

Organizations that prioritized user preferences and workloads had to once again resort to using third-party tools to manage the alternate platforms from Active Directory. Translation: they also had to contend with a fresh wave of headaches.

Increased Security Risks

Active Directory’s vulnerabilities are multiple. First, there is the fact that attackers have become well-acquainted with AD’s default settings. Thus, attackers can easily exploit these settings unless the admin hardens AD.

There is also the risk posed by leaving machines logged on as domain admins. If such devices fall into the wrong hands, an attacker can easily gain login credentials to user accounts by exploiting AD’s replication feature.

fingerprint on-top of a scanner

Also, an inherent risk stems from the fact that Microsoft didn’t build AD with Zero Trust Security in mind. This is readily observable because it doesn’t contain modern breach detection or detailed auditing and event logging features. 

Also, access to user accounts is regulated only through passwords and usernames. In the event of a successful credential theft, there is no multi-factor authentication (MFA) to prevent unauthorized access to a user account.

Microsoft has developed solutions to upgrade AD’s security capabilities, however, these solutions are either resource intensive or bundled with Azure Active Directory (Azure AD or just AD).

Cloud Directory: The New Active Directory Competitor On the Block

With time, it became glaring that a real solution could not be found with an approach of trying to make an old tool keep up with the pace of modern demands. The time had come for a custom-built solution to support the realities of the contemporary workplace.

And that solution is the JumpCloud Directory Platform. JumpCloud allows users to access their resources either on-prem or in the cloud, on their preferred device, and wherever they are located.

It also allows organizations to choose whatever tool serves them best without having to worry about how to manage access to them. JumpCloud allows admins to oversee users and seamlessly connect them with their Windows, Mac, or Linux devices. 

With its identity management capabilities, admins can easily control user access to all their apps, whether on-prem or in the cloud.

Plus, with JumpCloud’s security features, admins can quickly secure their users’ access with strong authentication and granular access control. And users can also access all their resources with a single sign-on.

So, Is Active Directory Still Relevant?

In a world where cloud directory delivers the goodies for admins and users alike, one may be tempted to think of Active Directory as living on borrowed time.

But this isn’t exactly true. Active Directory is still relevant in workplaces that require on-prem Windows-based architecture and use cloud infrastructure and web-based applications sparingly.

Also, Active Directory comes in handy for heavily regulated industries where compliance and security are mandatory. Organizations in these industries often have concerns over migrating to the cloud, so they prefer to keep their data on-premises. 

The financial sector is a primary example, with the 2021 Google and Harris Poll indicating that the cost and uncertainty of the regulatory approval process are among the chief reasons why financial organizations tend to avoid the cloud.

Is Active Directory Right for You?

Whether Active Directory is suitable for you depends on the nature of your organization, its operations, and its IT requirements.

In assessing whether you should turn to Active Directory for access management needs, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What percentage of Windows devices do you have compared to Mac and Linux?
  • How do you manage your Mac and Linux users and devices?
  • Do you host cloud infrastructure on Azure, AWS, or Google Cloud Platform, and how do you control access to them?
  • How do you manage your non-Windows on-prem and web applications?
  • Do you need to protect your systems or resources with MFA or 2FA?
back of a persons head sitting at a desk looking at computer screens

Pivot Away from a Rock and a Hard Place

Once the king of identity and access management, Active Directory has been rendered near-obsolete, or at least less relevant, in today’s modern workplace.

Thankfully, organizations can avoid getting caught between a rock and a hard place in deciding between a tool sprawl for managing their preferred work resources or a tidy stack that does not include user preferences and operational needs. The JumpCloud Directory Platform allows organizations to choose whatever solutions they prefer without compromising an admin’s ability to regulate access and manage authentication.

Organizations can also use its integrated solutions, such as multi-factor authentication and single sign-on to improve their IT environment security posture and comply with regulatory requirements. If you’re looking to break down the walls currently locking you in, we recommend swapping your broken screwdriver for a shiny, new drill. 

Sign up for a free JumpCloud account today.

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.

Continue Learning with our Newsletter