Active Directory vs Okta

Written by Brenna Lee on January 23, 2023

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Between the proliferation of Mac and Linux systems and the move to cloud-based resources, the IT landscape has witnessed a tremendous amount of change over the last two decades. These changes have many IT organizations wondering if they can continue to manage their modern environment with the long-time leading identity provider, Microsoft Active Directory (AD), or if they should look into cloud identity management solutions like Okta

If you’re in an Active Directory vs. Okta situation, the next question that arises is: how do you decide which solution is best for you?

Well, in the case of Active Directory vs. Okta, it’s actually pretty easy, because they are two very different solutions. That being said, it’s not exactly fair to compare the two, because AD is a core identity provider, while Okta is a web app single sign-on (SSO) provider. So, let’s take a closer look at Active Directory vs. Okta and the difference between an identity provider and a web app SSO solution.

The Difference Between AD and Okta

In general, Active Directory is focused on being the primary user store for an organization, while Okta is meant to be the web application single sign-on portal for users. In fact, the two integrate tightly whereby Okta receives Active Directory identities, which it can subsequently federate to web applications. With that being said, SSO is not complete identity management, it’s merely a small, but important, part.

This approach to identity and access management (IAM) has been a staple for the last few years. Because AD has been the directory services solution of choice for a long time, Okta really had no other option than to build its solution on top of Active Directory. So, IT admins have leveraged the two together to solve their problems. 

With Active Directory, IT admins have been able to control Windows-based systems and on-prem applications, and by integrating Okta with AD, they gained the ability to federate access to web applications through Okta. However, this stitched-together IT solution surfaces new problems that IT has had to find ways to deal with, and it isn’t ideal for many modern organizations that prefer a cloud-forward, integrated approach to identity and access management. 

This begs the question: Are IT organizations better off eliminating Active Directory, and leveraging Okta’s Universal Directory instead?

The short answer is: No. Okta’s Universal Directory is not a replacement for AD.

Why You Can’t Replace Active Directory With Okta

Unfortunately, Okta cannot serve as a total replacement to Active Directory. This is because AD serves as the identity provider for Windows systems, applications, file servers, and networks. Okta then uses those AD identities to federate users to web applications. Shifting to Okta as a cloud directory service will result in admins losing significant control, including the ability to manage the systems, on-prem apps, file servers, and networks that AD touches. 

AD works best managing Windows-based systems and on-prem applications, and increasingly, more and more add-ons have been needed to accommodate it. These add-ons include identity bridges, multi-factor authentication, privileged identity management, governance solutions, and much more. Okta cannot help with all of this functionality, which means it is not a replacement for AD.

Plus, the complexity that the ever-evolving IAM landscape has brought to modern IT environments results in a higher total cost of ownership (TCO) for IT admins when they use AD and Okta together, rather than a comprehensive IAM solution. Not to mention that the more solutions are layered on top of one another, the more work there is to do — be it help-desk requests or mitigating general security hazards.

Why Traditional IAM Solutions Don’t Make Sense Anymore

As you can see, the piecemeal IAM strategy doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s expensive, an IT time-sink, and often a nightmare to manage. The challenges that many modern IT organizations face are a result of heterogeneous IT environments that have varying needs, which traditional IAM solutions can’t easily handle. 

IT ecosystems now include Windows, Mac, Linux, and mobile devices that need to be managed, as well as web apps, Linux-based apps, and more. AWS and GCP are the new data centers with servers hosted in the cloud. File servers are being transitioned to more cost-effective solutions such as Samba file servers and NAS appliances. Internet access is being driven through WiFi rather than wired connections. All of these changes, and then some, are driving the need for a different approach to identity management.

What to Consider When Replacing Active Directory

While Okta may not be a suitable replacement for Active Directory, there are modern AD replacements out there. The first step to replacing AD is to figure out what capabilities you need in a new solution.

Aside from the layering effect of add-ons, Active Directory plays a critical role as the domain controller –– authenticating access to the domain, Windows systems and applications, and printers/file servers. Further, a critical capability for IT admins has been AD’s Group Policy Objects (GPOs), which provide fleet-wide Windows system management capabilities. 

There are many utilities that admins need when it comes to controlling their IT environment. And taking all of this into consideration, it’s important to ask the following questions if you’re thinking about replacing Active Directory with an alternative solution:

  • Can the alternative solution holistically manage Windows, Mac, and Linux devices?
  • Does it give you the ability to manage Windows, Mac, and Linux systems through GPO-like functions?
  • Can you control access to Windows and Linux servers on-prem or in the cloud?
  • How will you authenticate access to file servers, printers, WiFi networks, VPNs, etc.?
  • Does it include other capabilities you need, such as MFA, SSO, governance, and more?
  • Can it easily integrate with other solutions you use (HRIS, other directories, and other resources)?

A Comprehensive IAM Solution

Luckily, for those looking to replace Active Directory, a new generation of cloud identity management solution is available that meets all of these criteria. The JumpCloud Directory Platform securely manages and connects user identities to the IT resources they need. This includes Windows, Mac, Linux, and mobile devices, web and on-prem apps, files, networks, and more. With JumpCloud’s open directory platform at the center of your IT infrastructure, easily and securely manage identities, access, and devices while easily integrating other tools such as your HRIS or other directories with JumpCloud.

JumpCloud’s comprehensiveness is achievable in large part because JumpCloud takes an independent approach that makes it possible to unify the management of your IT resources, regardless of their location, protocol, platform, or provider. IT admins benefit by being able to securely manage their entire IT environment from a single pane of glass.

Whether your environment is still on-prem, all in the cloud, or a mix of both, JumpCloud can help you efficiently and securely manage it.

Learn More About Active Directory vs. Okta

If you’d like to discuss more about Active Directory vs Okta and how JumpCloud can replace AD, get in touch with us today to speak to an expert. Otherwise, try out JumpCloud’s platform for free by signing up for a free account. We offer 10 users and 10 devices free for you to test out the platform’s full breadth of capabilities to see if it will work for your needs.

Brenna Lee

Brenna is a Content Writer at JumpCloud that loves learning about and immersing herself in new technologies. Outside of the [remote] office, she loves traveling and exploring the outdoors!

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