Overview of Azure Active Directory

Written by Zach DeMeyer on February 26, 2019

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Microsoft has been shifting a number of their solutions to the cloud including Office and Windows Server, among others.

But, there is a great deal of confusion around the Active Directory family of solutions. With the shift to Azure for many organizations, a common question is what is Azure Active Directory and what can it be used for? 

What is Azure Active Directory?

Azure Active Directory (AAD) is the user management segment of the Azure cloud platform. 

With it, Azure admins can authenticate, authorize, and manage user access in Azure. Additionally, Azure AD features basic single sign-on (SSO) functionality to connect user identities to select web applications.

Given that it is a cloud identity management program, some people are curious if Azure Active Directory is Microsoft’s move to replace their on-prem directory service, Active Directory. Active Directory is the most widely used on-prem identity management platform in the enterprise today.

With IT’s general shift to the cloud, it makes sense to move the directory service with it.

What does Azure AD do? 

Azure Active Directory is primarily a user management platform for Azure services, namely Office 365 and Azure compute services. 

Azure AD can also provide web application single sign-on for a number of web-based applications and can be used to federate on-prem Active Directory identities to web apps. 

So, in Microsoft’s ideal world, organizations use AD on-prem, and then they extend those identities to Azure AD via a tool called Azure AD Connect. From there, Azure’s various AAD services such as Azure AD Domain Services can create a domain and user access to Azure services. 

For Microsoft-centric organizations, this is a compelling approach, even with the four or five disparate solutions, because everything ties together for on-prem and Azure-related Windows resources. If they’re using web-based applications, Azure AD can cover some of those as well.

The Differences Between AD and Azure AD

Active Directory and Azure Active Directory are designed to complement each other. Microsoft doesn’t want you to replace AD but use AD in conjunction with Azure Active Directory. 

Active Directory would be your core identity provider, while Azure AD acts as the user management platform for Azure services and provides single sign-on to web applications. The thing is, this setup is really designed for Microsoft centric workplaces, and it doesn’t work well if you leverage non-Microsoft IT resources

For example, if you are trying to connect to G Suite , AWS, Mac and Linux systems, or on-prem Linux-based applications, both Active Directory solutions struggle. 

Additionally, for those looking to move all of their IAM infrastructure to the cloud, Azure AD will not provide the control and visibility IT admins expect from a directory service.

Does Azure AD replace Active Directory?

Azure AD is not a replacement to the on-prem Active Directory. 

The goal of Azure AD’s creation wasn’t to disrupt organizations that already were using AD on-prem, but to provide a way to extend identities to Azure services as well as third party web applications.

From Microsoft’s perspective, this makes a great deal of sense. It doesn’t disrupt customers with their existing identity provider (IdP) — instead, it provides a path to leverage those identities in Office 365 and other Azure services. 

What Azure AD really is, is a user management system for Azure-related services and a single sign-on solution to web applications. 

While it has the ability to manage user logins for Windows devices, it largely is not meant to control on-prem resources, and it still doesn’t integrate with Mac and Linux systems. Much like AD, Azure struggles with non-Windows resources.

With this known, it is clear that Azure AD is not better than AD. So, as IT organizations continue to look for a replacement to Active Directory, they end up being left with two options. They can leverage a cloud identity bridge to federate AD identities to the cloud and non-Windows resources, or they can eliminate AD altogether and shift to a cloud directory service.

Cloud Identity Bridge Vs Cloud Directory Service

If you are heavily invested in Active Directory, Azure, and Windows-based IT resources with a minimal amount of non-Microsoft tools, a cloud identity bridge might be the way to go.

If you are leveraging a wide variety of non-Windows or non-Microsoft systems, applications, file storage, and networks, then you should seriously consider a cloud-based directory service that isn’t tied to any one platform, provider, protocol, or location.

If you have a lot of Windows-centric IT resources with a few non-Microsoft tools, JumpCloud®’s AD Integration feature can help. AD Integration uses a lightweight agent that enables you to extend AD identities to IT resources that aren’t bound to Active Directory, like Mac systems, remote Linux servers, and web-based applications.  

Additionally, if you’re looking to make a complete switch, JumpCloud is a comprehensive replacement to Active Directory. 

Our cloud identity provider securely connects users to their systems (Windows, Mac, and Linux), LDAP and SAML-based applications, physical and virtual file storage, and wired and wireless networks

Why Use Azure AD?

If your IT organization is Windows-centric and deeply invested in on-prem identity management technology such as Microsoft Active Directory (AD), then supplementing that setup with Azure AD can make a lot of sense. 

Active Directory has been incredibly dominant for nearly twenty years now. Active Directory’s position as a market-leading solution did not happen by accident. Microsoft owned the enterprise namely because of name-brand solutions such as Windows, Office, and Exchange.

Those solutions were put in place to help drive employee productivity, and Active Directory tied all of them together with the concept of the domain. For IT organizations, they could centrally manage user access to Windows-based resources using a single tool: Microsoft Active Directory.

The approach worked well, and AD quickly became the dominant directory services platform. Then something interesting happened — Active Directory reinforced Microsoft’s dominance in several other markets.

Because AD managed Microsoft tools so well, IT admins wanted to inject more Windows-based tools into their network. With more Windows-based solutions on the network, AD became more powerful and valuable to organizations. It was certainly a virtuous cycle for Microsoft.

Rise of the Cloud and Non-Windows Solutions

That value would begin to slip though. We all know that the IT landscape has now changed with the inclusion of macOS and Linux systems into networks. 

Cloud infrastructure from AWS began to take infrastructure by storm. G Suite and Office 365 replaced applications that were once installed via CD-ROM and made them accessible from the web browser.

Cloud and non-Windows file servers like G Drive, Dropbox, NAS, and Samba devices were each difficult to access via on-prem AD. This is not even a comprehensive list, but you get the point. 

Microsoft’s Response 

These changes have pushed Active Directory to the limit, and the result was the birth of a complementary solution: Azure AD. 

With AAD, IT organizations could more easily shift their Microsoft infrastructure to Azure and still have that ability to manage their on-prem AD identities. This approach leveraged all of Microsoft’s existing solutions and helped them easily transition their customers to Azure. 

But, it’s worth noting that Azure AD is not an outright replacement for on-prem AD. So you will have to factor in the time to maintain both solutions should you go that route.

Ultimately, for organizations composed of Microsoft solutions that had on-prem AD behind the scenes, this worked well. For others, not so much — especially those who wanted to shift to the cloud completely.

Organizations Already on the Move

For organizations that have started to shift away from Microsoft, Azure AD simply looks like a user management system for Azure as well as a web application single-sign on (SSO) service. 

While it is undoubtedly an interesting solution, it does not solve an organization’s core need for a cloud-based directory service that can securely manage and connect users to all of their IT resources, no strings attached. 

For heterogeneous environments, the Active Directory family of solutions is quite limiting and creates a new need for organizations to purchase additional point solutions.

For many IT organizations that want to utilize a single directory services tool, without having to purchase and maintain a bunch of addons, this is not a direction they’re looking to go.

Why Replace Azure AD?

Forward-thinking IT organizations may be looking beyond Azure AD for a cloud-based IdP that allows them to leverage more control over users and resources. 

AAD functions best when paired with an existing directory service, as it natively lacks certain identity management capabilities. As such, there’s been a call for a replacement that can secure and authenticate users to the other, disparate resources they need.

Granted, many organizations already have Azure AD Free, as it’s included with a subscription to Office 365. And in a way, AAD acts as the authoritative identity management tool for their O365 users. 

With this in mind, a replacement for Azure AD isn’t always about taking away existing IT infrastructure — it’s sometimes about supplementing it with a solution that can authenticate users to all their resources. 

But how do you know what to look for when considering a supplement to or replacement for your current IdP? Below, we’ll outline the requirements to properly evaluate the best options for your organization.

What to Look For in a Azure AD Replacement

Replacing an existing identity management tool can be an arduous task. With IT teams often managing any number of users, it’s important to know exactly what you’ll need in an Azure AD replacement before choosing to implement one.

With this in mind, we’ve compiled a list of those provider requirements most organizations will evaluate when considering a new core identity provider. Keep in mind, however, that these should be tailored to your organization’s individual needs.

For most, effective identity management should include:

  • Cross-platform system management that supports all three major operating systems (Windows, macOS, and Linux)
  • Single sign-on (SSO) for cloud applications via SAML 2.0 and OAuth
  • Cloud LDAP for connecting users to legacy applications
  • RADIUS authentication for WiFi, VPNs, and wired networks
  • Security tools like multi-factor authentication (MFA), SSH keys, and full disk encryption (FDE) to keep users, systems, networks, file servers, and more protected
  • PowerShell tooling to streamline IT administration
  • Event logging on all IT infrastructure to expedite troubleshooting and generate reports for auditing/compliance

Requirements like these can ensure that IT teams have the right tools to keep both users and their resources secured and properly calibrated to suit an organization’s needs. 

Security Requirements 

On an even smaller level, admins looking for an Azure AD replacement should find one that protects all their resources, including those hosted outside organizational boundaries. Remote work is another aspect of user management to consider.

 Does your selected IdP support authentication to VPNs so that users can securely work from anywhere? VPNs are critical to ensuring secure access to resources no matter where users and devices reside.

Furthermore, are you safeguarding your IT infrastructure by requiring that your users create passwords that are complex and difficult for hackers to guess? Are those credentials protected through MFA by requiring that another factor, such as a TOTP token generated on their phones, be used before they gain entry to their resources?

Not only is it important that users and resources be organized under one centralized IdP, it’s even more crucial that those users apply all security measures available to maintain organizational security. 

Authenticate to Everything

Similar to ensuring security is a top priority, a potential replacement for Azure AD should allow users to authenticate to everything they need to maintain productivity.   

The current era of technological innovation is in no way slowing down, and IT admins concerned about limiting their users to certain platforms/iterations of a particular product should seek out a cloud-based identity and access management (IAM) tool that authenticates to nearly everything, regardless of provider.

The ideal IdP for organizations looking to transition to cloud infrastructure should connect users to both on-prem equipment (like file servers, on-prem applications, and on-prem systems) and cloud-based software (such as web applications and Infrastructure-as-a-Service platforms like AWS) from the same console. 

And for admins utilizing Azure AD for managing O365 users, a replacement IdP should seamlessly integrate with their existing infrastructure so as not to disrupt their admins’ and users’ general workflow. 

By doing so, IT teams can ease their transition to an entirely cloud-based infrastructure or maintain their existing identity management platforms while ensuring that users can employ True Single Sign-On for all the systems, networks, files, and applications they need access to.

Ultimately, True SSO allows users to enter their credentials/MFA token once, reducing workflow friction and allowing admins to easily provision and configure those users for all their resources from a single interface.

Extend or Move to the Cloud with JumpCloud

If you’re not quite ready to completely eliminate your on-prem Active Directory infrastructure, JumpCloud’s AD Integration is a great solution for you. This identity bridge feature integrates with AD and then extends your AD identities to non-bound AD resources like Mac systems and cloud Linux servers in AWS.

When you’re ready to completely move your IdP to the cloud, JumpCloud’s Directory Platform is a full-fledged cloud alternative to Active Directory. However, JumpCloud is more than just an alternative to AD. 

This modern directory service takes an independent approach that makes it possible for IT admins to centralize access to any IT resource regardless of protocol, provider, platform, or place. IT admins are able to secure user access to the following IT resources:

  • Windows, Mac, and Linux systems
  • Local and cloud servers
  • On-prem and web-based apps
  • Physical and virtual file storage
  • Wired and wireless networks

So whether you’re looking to simply extend AD or replace it altogether, JumpCloud’s Cloud Directory can help you with both IAM strategies.  To get started, try out the full functionality of the platform with JumpCloud Free — get up to 10 users and 10 devices free with 24×7 in-app support for the first 10 days. See how JumpCloud can integrate or replace AD and make sure it’s right for your organization!

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