Best Practices for Integrating Macs with Active Directory




Updated on March 16, 2021

Apple has made huge inroads with Macs over the last decade. macOS laptops and desktops have become a popular choice across organizations of all sizes in what was once a market dominated by Microsoft® Windows® systems. However, while in many cases Macs may have become the preferred device for knowledge workers, the legacy, on-prem Microsoft Active Directory® (AD) solution has remained the identity provider, resulting in a disconnect for user and system management capabilities.

Managing Macs with Active Directory presents a number of challenges. The most imposing being the fact that Microsoft never designed AD to support Macs in the same way as Windows systems, nor does it appear that they are all that interested to do so. As the IT world shifts away from Windows to macOS and Linux, many IT admins are asking what are the best practices for integrating Macs with Active Directory. 

Mac Management with Active Directory Falls Short

apple vs microsoft

IT organizations have traditionally leveraged AD as their identity provider as well as their choice for managing Windows devices. Active Directory offers a number of user and device management capabilities as an identity provider for Windows users and systems. However, the majority of these management capabilities are not available for Mac (or Linux). This presents a few major issues for IT admins. 

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The Need for Supplemental Solutions to Manage macOS

The first issue is the lack of full control and management for macOS users. In large part, user management capabilities are limited to user authentication and password management. That means admins often have to implement third party add-ons to have the same level of control for Mac systems as they do for Windows endpoints in a pure AD environment. 

As Apple has continued to add more security features including their Secure Token functions, the ability to provision and manage users on macOS devices has become even more complex. This not only adds a lot of overhead for IT admins for user management, but also substantial added costs. 

A Fundamental Miss: GPOs and Macs

The other issue is the lack of device management or MDM (mobile device management) capabilities for macOS systems. For example, one of the most powerful features of AD is it’s Group Policy feature. Group Policy refers to a device management feature that enables IT admins to deploy commands and scripts in the form of policy documents that apply their settings to the computers and users within their control. (Technet) Microsoft calls these commands and scripts Group Policy Objects (GPOs). 

While GPOs are certainly powerful tools, their effectiveness comes down to two factors. For one, they can only be applied to Windows systems. The other factor is systems must be directly bound to the AD domain. That doesn’t bode well for Macs. Of course, Apple has driven hard on it’s own proprietary approach leveraging the MDM protocol to manage Macs. With the release of BigSur, only IT management solutions that support the MDM protocol and are approved by Apple can manage Mac devices.

The lack of GPOs for macOS endpoints – or to be more specific, support for the Apple MDM spec – in an AD environment is only a side effect of a larger problem. While it is easy to forget in the modern heterogeneous IT world, Windows and macOS are competing operating systems. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Microsoft isn’t going out of their way to make it easier to manage macOS systems on the same level as Windows endpoints any time soon. Of course, for a fee, IT organizations can leverage some of Microsoft’s other IT management tools to support some Mac management functions. Those tools would need to be integrated with AD and still struggle to manage Mac user accounts. Microsoft has even gone so far as to partner with other Apple-centric MDM providers to cover for this weakness.

The simple fact is that Microsoft is not all that interested in providing support for a competing operating system like macOS (or Linux), even in this new age of Microsoft where they are seemingly playing more nicely in the market. So if you have an organization that is deeply entrenched with AD and yet you’ve got a fleet of Macs to manage, the question has become, “What are the best practices for integrating Macs with Active Directory?”

Options for Integrating Macs with Active Directory

Currently, there are three major options for integrating Macs with Active Directory: 

Manual Connection

Option 1 is to manually connect Macs to AD. This can be done through some configurations and settings. It isn’t necessarily easy, nor scalable, but it can be done. What you don’t get is deep management capabilities as well as the concept of GPOs for Macs nor the full user management capabilities as you do with AD for Windows devices. You’ll likely need to manually provision users on to the machine.

Directory Extension Technology

Option 2 is to leverage a legacy directory extension technology. These solutions are enterprise caliber tools that are integrated on-prem to the AD server. Usually there are professional services involved and more infrastructure on-prem. These solutions are often expensive and further solidify the identity management architecture on-prem, often as IT organizations are making the leap to the cloud. Microsoft is seemingly recommending this approach with their partnership with Apple-centric MDM providers.

Cloud Identity Bridge

Option 3 is to utilize a cloud identity bridge. The JumpCloud AD Integration feature that comes as part of the cloud directory platform offers a particularly interesting example. This lightweight approach connects AD identities to virtually any resource that can’t be directly bound to the Active Directory domain. That can include not only Mac devices, but remote Windows machines, Linux servers at AWS, single sign on to web applications, WiFi authentication via RADIUS, and much more. 

The cloud identity bridge federates to a cloud hosted directory service. As part of that directory service, IT admins can have full user and device control over their Mac fleet. Further, through the JumpCloud Mac app, passwords can be updated on the machine and securely travel back to AD and elsewhere. The Mac app also avoids the pitfalls of phishing as the password is updated on the machine, not on a public website.

So What is the Best Practice?

Cloud identity bridges offer the greatest flexibility and allow an IT organization bound to AD to be more agile and adaptable as the modern office continues to evolve. JumpCloud’s ADI capability is unique in that it also offers GPO-like capabilities (also known as Apple MDM services) native to its functionality. That means IT admins can set policies on Mac and Linux machines while AD remains the authoritative IdP.

If you would like to know more about the best practices for integrating Macs with Active Directory, drop us a note. You can also sign up for a JumpCloud Free account and start extending AD today to your Mac fleet. You’ll receive 10 users and 10 systems free along with 10 days of Premium 24×7 in-app chat support. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions. 


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