Can I Replace Active Directory® with Okta®

Written by Jon Griffin on February 10, 2018

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Perhaps one of the most significant monopolies in the IT market is Microsoft’s with their directory services solution Active Directory® (AD). When it comes to medium to large businesses, Microsoft® has an overwhelming percentage of the market share with Active Directory.

Since its release in 1999, AD has been a staple in organizations of all sizes. But, as the world shifts to the cloud, as well as changes the infrastructure and device OS profiles, AD has become less and less functional on its own. Many SSO vendors have risen to prominence in that wake – with Okta® near the top of the heap – and as a result many admins have wondered if an IT organization can replace Active Directory with Okta.

What’s the Difference Between Active Directory and Okta?

When Active Directory first hit shelves, the IT landscape was very different. It was almost entirely Windows®-based and on-prem, with systems not on-prem requiring VPN tunnels to access vital resources. Since then, the industry has seen a world of changes with the advent of the cloud. As IT environments have evolved, AD is no longer the one-size-fits-all solution for Identity and Access Management (IAM).

Over time, IT organizations added third-party solutions to keep AD as their core IdP, and one of their central needs was to extend user identities to web apps. This is where web application single sign-on (SSO) solutions, such as Okta, really made their name. 

Okta does a great job of channeling AD identities and federating them to web applications. This creates seamless access for users and grants IT admins more control and security. 

What Does Okta Actually Do?

Okta is one of the leading web application single sign-on (SSO) solutions today. Web app SSO solutions have risen to popularity today due to their ability to help AD connect to cloud-based identities and resources. Their solution works by leveraging AD identities, and then federating them to web applications.

Web app SSO vendors like Okta are creating frictionless access to web applications, increasing control over IT resources, and improving security. As more web apps come into the enterprise the popularity of SSO solutions has only risen, creating one of the hottest categories in IT at the moment.

But as more IT infrastructure shifts to the cloud – e.g. servers, file storage, and much more – Active Directory is losing touch with more than just web application solutions. Are IT organizations better off eliminating Active Directory, and leveraging Okta’s Universal Directory instead?

It’s a good question, but it’s unfortunately a little off base – Okta’s Universal Directory is not a replacement for AD.

Why You Can’t Replace Active Directory With Okta

mac desktop

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 the network. Okta is using those AD identities to federate those users to web applications. Shifting to Okta as a cloud directory service will result in admins losing the ability to manage those systems, on-prem apps, file servers, and networks that AD touch. This means admins miss a great deal of what they need for control.

While integration of the two has been a viable solution for a long time, more and more IT organizations are starting to realize it’s not a total solution. Active Directory was virtually a monopoly for decades, and Okta didn’t have much choice but to extend their offerings on top of it. AD really 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. And in the evolving IAM landscape, this has meant further complexity and higher cost for IT admins. 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 genuine security hazards.

What to Consider when Replacing Active Directory

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:

  • How will you authenticate access to Windows, macOS®, and Linux® systems?
  • Do you have the ability to manage Windows, macOS, 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.?
  • Can you integrate add-ons such as MFA, SSO, governance, and more?
  • Can you shift your IAM infrastructure to the cloud and integrate disparate solutions?

Replace Active Directory with JumpCloud

Even though Okta may not be the correct solution to replace on-prem AD, it doesn’t mean that a solution doesn’t exist. The ideal approach to replacing AD is to leverage a cloud-based directory service. This solution is called JumpCloud Directory Platform and it is a complete replacement for Active Directory. With this directory you can continue to leverage Okta as cloud SSO, while having one solution to handle the rest of your systems, applications, files, and networks.

virtual true sso

JumpCloud is the ideal cloud-based directory for admins who want to regain easy and efficient control over their users and IT environment. This virtual directory service enables users to securely access their IT resources, regardless of the provider, protocol, platform, or location. This means systems (Mac, Windows, Linux), cloud and on-prem applications (via LDAP, SAML), virtual and physical servers (AWS, GCE), web and local storage (Box, Samba), and WiFi and wired networks (via RADIUS) can all be controlled with ease from one central location.

See what a directory built for the modern age of IT looks like, and sign up for a free account of JumpCloud. We offer 10 users and 10 devices free, enabling a perfect opportunity to test the platform out and make sure it works for you. If you prefer to see a live demo, you can always sign up for a demo here. Questions? Contact the JumpCloud team and we would be happy to help.

Jon Griffin

Jon Griffin works as a writer for JumpCloud, an organization focused on bringing centralized IT to the modern organization. He graduated with a degree in Professional and Technical Writing from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and is an avid learner of new technology from cloud-based innovations to VR and more.

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