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Azure AD vs. ADFS



Microsoft® dominated the IT identity management space for decades, so it’s no surprise that some of their solutions intersect. Below, we’ll compare Azure® Active Directory® (AD) vs. Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) to see how these Microsoft offerings overlap and where they differ.

What is Azure AD?

Azure is Microsoft’s cloud computing offering, akin to AWS® or GCP™. Azure AD is the cloud identity management solution for managing users in the Azure Cloud. IT admins use Azure AD to authenticate access to Azure, Office 365™, and a select group of other cloud applications through limited SAML single sign-on (SSO). At its most basic level, Azure AD is free, included with a subscription to Office 365. In order to fully leverage its capabilities, however, IT admins need to purchase higher tiers of the product.

It’s important to note that Azure AD is primarily a user management tool for Azure and O365, and doesn’t really focus on the on-prem IT infrastructure, which often includes systems, networks, file servers, and other resources. As such, it is not a cloud-based replacement for the on-prem Microsoft directory service, Active Directory. Regardless, many Microsoft-centric organizations rely on Azure AD in tandem with on-prem AD to manage the entirety of their environment. There are, of course, other tools that could be used to do so. AD FS is one such tool.

What is AD FS?

Since the SaaS boom of the early 2000s, IT organizations leveraging Active Directory often need a tool that federates their on-prem identities to cloud applications. While a number of  dedicated third-party SSO solutions exist to fill this void, Microsoft also offers their own tool: Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS), which has traditionally been an add-on charge to Windows Server purchases.

AD FS is a companion tool to Active Directory that extends on-prem identities to cloud applications. It’s akin to a web application SSO tool, but it’s leveraged on-prem rather than in the cloud. AD FS uses SAML XML certificates like web app SSO services, except it can also authenticate using cookies or other security tokens.

Ultimately, this means that AD FS is focused on web applications, and organizations that need identity management for non-Windows systems, networks, and domain-bound applications elsewhere will have to turn to Active Directory or other options. All that said, let’s compare Azure AD with AD FS and see which is the best fit for your organization’s requirements.

Azure AD vs AD FS

Azure AD and AD FS share similar roles in an IT environment. Both Microsoft tools share SSO-like properties, and they each need to work in tandem with on-prem Active Directory (although Azure AD could possibly be used without).

Although both solutions are similar, they each have their own distinctions. Azure AD has wider control over user identities outside of applications than AD FS, which makes it a more widely used and useful solution for IT organizations. Both Azure AD and AD FS share one critical similarity, though: neither are true directory services nor standalone services. That means that IT organizations using Azure AD or AD FS usually require a directory service like Active Directory, as well as any other add-on solutions AD requires.

IT organizations need the adaptability to support any resources their end users require, regardless of their protocol, platform, provider, or location. By sticking to just Azure AD or AD FS on top of their AD instance, IT organizations essentially lock themselves into Windows systems and a select group of web applications.

Organizations looking to unify their identity management often need to venture outside the Microsoft family of products. After all, Microsoft is no longer the only player in the IT game; IT organizations need to find a solution that can accommodate virtually all IT resources. 

Comprehensive Identity Management from the Cloud

Thankfully, there is a cloud directory service on the market which provides comprehensive identity management entirely from the cloud. This Directory-as-a-Service® offers True Single Sign-On™ so that users can employ a single set of credentials to access systems, applications, networks, infrastructure, file servers, and more. This access is backed by multi-factor authentication (MFA) to provide a secure, unified authentication experience for IT admins and end users alike.

Directory-as-a-Service features an Active Directory Integration, which acts as a complete cloud extension for on-prem AD, as well as an identity bridge to non-Windows resources, and much more. Directory-as-a-Service also integrates smoothly with Office 365, meaning organizations can reap similar administrative capabilities as Azure AD while also centralizing their SSO, system, and network management. So, for organizations debating Azure AD vs. AD FS, Directory-as-a-Service presents an all-in-one solution that covers much of what each Microsoft tool entails and provides flexibility for modern IT organizations.

Learn More

Interested in centralizing your identity management in the cloud? Contact us; we’d be happy to chat about cloud directory services with you.


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