The Difference Between LDAP, OpenLDAP, and Active Directory

Written by Kate Lake on August 19, 2021

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LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is a standard protocol for user, device, and client communication with a directory server. The LDAP protocol facilitates user authentication and authorization to IT resources, which can include servers, applications, networks, file servers, and more. 

Vendors have created software implementations of LDAP that include tooling, interfaces, and other added functionality. Two of the most popular implementations are OpenLDAP and Microsoft Active Directory. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between the two. But first, let’s clarify the distinction between LDAP and other software implementations.

What’s the Difference Between LDAP and Software Like OpenLDAP and Active Directory?

LDAP is the protocol that defines how users, devices, and clients can communicate with a directory server. It also provides a framework for how information can be organized and represented within a directory. These frameworks are flexible and customizable, so different directories can be formatted differently, but they tend to follow a hierarchical tree structure. Learn more about LDAP directory structure in our full LDAP overview.

With LDAP,  users access IT resources by inputting credentials. The protocol searches and compares the credentials to what the LDAP server has stored for the authenticating user — if the username and password match what’s listed in the directory, LDAP authenticates the user. By using LDAP, you can centralize authentication services while providing users with quick access to many of their resources on the network.

The LDAP protocol is not software, but software packages have emerged to streamline LDAP directory creation, implementation, and management. One of the first implementations of this was OpenLDAP. 

What Is the Difference Between LDAP and OpenLDAP?

OpenLDAP is a free, open-source implementation of the LDAP protocol. Because it’s a common, free iteration available to anyone, OpenLDAP is sometimes referred to as just “LDAP.” However, it is more than just the protocol; it’s light LDAP directory software.

OpenLDAP can be used on any platform. In contrast to other implementations that offer more robust features like a GUI and often a suite of other protocols and functionality (often, at a cost), OpenLDAP is a highly focused LDAP option that’s customizable and supports all major computing platforms. While flexibility may sound like a plus (and it often is), it can make the software more difficult to navigate. This, paired with its lack of interface, means it can require significant expertise to implement and manage.

What Is the Difference Between OpenLDAP and Active Directory?

Microsoft Active Directory (AD) is a directory service that stores user and device account data in a central location for Windows-based network, device, application, and file access. 

AD is more feature-rich than OpenLDAP: it includes a GUI and more robust configuration features like Group Policy Objects for Windows devices. While OpenLDAP only uses the LDAP protocol, AD uses other protocols in addition to LDAP. In fact, LDAP is not AD’s primary protocol; instead, it leverages an implementation of Microsoft’s proprietary Lightweight Directory Access Protocol and primarily uses Kerberos, Microsoft’s main proprietary authentication protocol. 

While AD may seem more robust overall, OpenLDAP’s exclusive focus on the LDAP protocol gives it far greater depth than AD offers.

Of course, the cost difference reflects the notion of a wider breadth of functionality and the commercial nature of Microsoft solutions: OpenLDAP is free, and AD is not. AD requires licensing, and because it runs on premised equipment, the costs of AD hardware and maintenance can add up.

While AD offers more capabilities outside the LDAP protocol, OpenLDAP is more flexible and customizable when it comes to implementation. When considering these two, businesses should decide whether they’re more interested in flexibility (OpenLDAP) or ease of use (AD).

For some organizations, OpenLDAP is a better fit. Specifically, for organizations that leverage Linux-based systems and applications, networking gear, and NAS and SAN storage systems, LDAP is often the preferred protocol for those IT resources. Further, for organizations that leverage data centers or cloud infrastructure-as-a-service technology, leveraging an OpenLDAP server is often far more effective than Active Directory. 

Of course, Active Directory has its advantages as well. For organizations that are largely Windows-based and intend to leverage only Azure cloud infrastructure, the combination of Active Directory and Azure AD can be quite beneficial. Even in this case, though, many IT organizations opt to leverage OpenLDAP as well, because of Azure AD’s lack of LDAP support for cloud infrastructure.

What Are the Main Reasons to Choose OpenLDAP?

Many organizations opt for OpenLDAP for the flexibility and cost savings. OpenLDAP is highly configurable for skilled engineers, making it a better choice for organizations with niche or nuanced needs. 

Additionally, it’s compatible with nearly every platform or OS, while AD works best with Windows devices. Organizations that use or plan to use Mac, Linux, or other systems often choose OpenLDAP. Those with legacy applications or those that are based on Linux will often also choose OpenLDAP.

Why Should You Consider Active Directory Instead?

If your environment is fully homogenous and based only on Microsoft and Windows, AD might be the best choice. In a Windows environment, IT administrators can use the Windows-based Active Directory Users and Computers console to perform nearly all management tasks. However, even in these environments, you still need to consider how to account for mobile and SaaS applications, Mac and Linux device support, non-Windows-based file servers, and networking gear, as AD generally does not support them without integrations or add-ons.

AD offers an easy-to-use GUI for configuring settings and managing users and groups. For those who are less experienced with configuring open-source software, OpenLDAP’s lack of interface can be an uphill battle, making AD the better choice.

While OpenLDAP and the LDAP protocol precede Microsoft’s entrance into the directory services space, Microsoft AD has garnered the lion’s share of the market — although, with the advent of cloud directories the IAM landscape is starting to shift. This, in combination with its more user-friendly suite of tools, can make it an attractive choice for Windows/Azure centric organizations.

AD also offers more protocols than just LDAP while OpenLDAP is LDAP-exclusive. Multi-protocol directory services are growing in popularity as networks expand and disperse; companies need to authenticate users to a higher number and wider variety of resources, and different resources tend to work best with different protocols. 

In environments with heavy reliance on cloud apps, SAML and SSO solutions are better suited. In this case, both AD and OpenLDAP require an additional identity and access management tool. Ideally, an IAM tool or directory service should be able to authenticate and authorize users to all their IT resources, wherever they are (including the cloud), using whichever protocol best suits the task. This is one area where both OpenLDAP and AD fall short. 

Where AD and OpenLDAP Fall Short

In many cases, neither AD nor OpenLDAP is the right sole option for an organization’s identity management infrastructure. Although OpenLDAP and AD both have their proponents, the truth is that they are outdated systems and need other solutions around them to complete an organization’s IAM architecture. 

Both have usability issues. AD, while robust, can become complex when expanded with add-ons like Azure AD to manage diverse and dispersed environments. Further, while Microsoft does seemingly have interest in supporting non-Windows platforms, there is also the pull from within Microsoft to treat Windows and Azure as first class citizens versus their competitors’ solutions. 

On the other hand, OpenLDAP’s flexibility can be challenging and cause issues for the less tech-savvy. OpenLDAP server configuration can be complex, and it can be difficult to keep up with app dependencies, modify the directory data or schema, and maintain directory integrity as the business changes and scales. Also, the simple matter of managing the OpenLDAP infrastructure can also be challenging, especially as more organizations shift management of technology to cloud providers and SaaS vendors.

While OpenLDAP can work in the cloud, it only uses the LDAP protocol. And although AD uses other protocols like Kerberos, it isn’t cloud-friendly. To integrate with the cloud, AD requires complex add-ons like Azure — but even Azure doesn’t allow organizations to completely part from their on-prem directory (without specialized pay-by-the-hour hosted directory use cases, like Azure AD Domain Services). AD also requires significant add-ons and integrations to manage non-Windows devices. As the world migrates to the cloud, businesses diversify their devices and tools, and applications require more specialized authentication and authorization protocols, these can be significant drawbacks.   

Because neither solution can effectively adopt the protocols and cloud compatibility necessary to connect to all the resources users need, neither has been able to truly centralize user management. Rather, both function as tools within a multi-tool IAM system. This decentralized user management system can create inconsistencies, security vulnerabilities, and extra management work for IT teams. 

A Better Option – JumpCloud’s Cloud Directory Platform

To solve the issues of decentralized user management systems, multiple operating systems, authenticating and authorizing access to resources in a cloud or hybrid cloud infrastructure, and the need for multiple protocols, many companies are turning to cloud directory platforms

With a cloud-based directory platform, IT admins no longer have to continually maintain an on-prem directory, and they get to use a multi-protocol, OS-agnostic centralized user management system that’s often managed through a rich GUI. 

When considering AD, OpenLDAP, and cloud directory platforms — the three most common directory service options — it’s important to consider your current infrastructure as well as where you want your organization to head. Companies are increasingly choosing cloud directories that combine aspects of all three into one platform.

A cloud directory platform could be right for your company if the following are true:

  • You have mixed platforms, like Mac, Linux, and Windows machines
  • You leverage SaaS applications
  • You leverage a cloud/hybrid-cloud infrastructure or IaaS, such as AWS, Google Workspace, GitHub, Dropbox, or others
  • You support or plan to support remote, hybrid-remote, or mobile work. Cloud directories enable users to access the same IT resources from any location

With the JumpCloud® directory platform, for example, IT admins can connect user identities to the IT resources they need regardless of platform, provider, protocol, or location. JumpCloud uses an OS-agnostic and multi-protocol approach, so you don’t have to switch your company’s established authentication solutions, devices, or applications in use today. It also includes mobile device management (MDM) and makes directory management easy with a rich GUI that still gives admins the option for command-line execution. Finally, you can even integrate an existing directory service like AD into JumpCloud, so you don’t have to ditch your existing directory and start from scratch.

Because we understand choosing your directory or switching providers is a big decision, we make it easier by letting companies try JumpCloud for free. You can sign up and add your first 10 users and 10 devices at no cost, and we’ll provide free live chat support for your first 10 days to make sure you’re able to optimize it to your environment and needs. Try JumpCloud Free today.

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