Is Free Active Directory Really Free?

Written by Natalie Bluhm on July 23, 2021

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Microsoft Active Directory (AD) has been the go-to identity and access management (IAM) platform for over two decades now. AD is included within Windows Server, but is licensed in a complex way. Many IT admins wonder whether a free AD is really free and ultimately worth it.

Why Microsoft Can Offer a Free Active Directory

Microsoft Active Directory

Microsoft has always been clever with licensing. Their goal has been to lock IT organizations into their products for the long term. So, for an organization that’s been using AD for years, their AD may technically be free, but their overall Microsoft licensing costs would have added up year over year. Ultimately, this works out best for Microsoft’s bottom line. 

Now, though, organizations face new licensing challenges as business standards for IT environments and infrastructure move farther and farther away from what they were 20 years ago, at the height of Microsoft’s dominance.

Most organizations used to be centered around the Microsoft Windows platform, so it made sense for them to structure enterprise license agreement (ELA) deals around all of Microsoft’s solutions. Microsoft, in turn, would make it advantageous to use as many of their tools as possible. This ELA model was Microsoft’s way of saying that AD was free to you because you were already paying for everything.


Securely connect to any resource using Google Workspace and JumpCloud.

Is a Free Active Directory Still Worth It?

Active Directory fails in the cloud

As the IT landscape shifts toward non-Windows IT resources, cloud-based infrastructures, device diversity, and remote or hybrid work models, organizations’ technology choices are following suit. On-prem Windows servers are giving way to AWS Linux servers. Fifty-five percent of businesses are now Mac-friendly. Millions of organizations have replaced Microsoft Exchange and Office with Google Workspace. That’s just the start of the list.

De-Centering Microsoft

With the IT world moving away from Microsoft-based resources, the Microsoft ELA is no longer a slam dunk, and neither is the fact that you’ll be able to repurpose Windows Server Client Access Licenses (CALs) and other licensing. This essentially eliminates the “free” in Microsoft’s approach to a free AD. Would an organization pay for all of the costs related to Windows Server if they weren’t utilizing AD? Many would not. What’s more, cost is just one factor driving many to move away from AD.

Adapting to Cloud and SaaS Infrastructure 

AD wasn’t built to manage user access to modern resources like web applications, cloud servers, and Mac systems, to name just a few, so AD’s functionality has become rather limited for today’s modern, heterogeneous environment. These days, organizations are choosing to leverage new, modern cloud identity management solutions that solve a wider range of IAM problems. These more comprehensive identity solutions connect users to Mac and Linux systems, web and on-prem applications, AWS and GCP cloud servers, cloud and on-prem storage solutions, and Wi-Fi networks, among other IT resources. One such solution is called JumpCloud Directory Platform.

JumpCloud – A Modern Cloud Identity Management Solution

Regardless of where your organization’s resources are, who the provider is, and what IT protocols and platforms you utilize, JumpCloud is providing IT admins with centralized control over virtually all IT resources. For end users, this means they only need one set of credentials to seamlessly access everything they need to do their job, whether in the office, at home, or on the go. From systems, servers, and networks to applications and file storage, users gain One Identity to Rule Them All® while IT admins achieve One Directory to Rule Them All®.

So, now you have to ask yourself, “Even if a solution is free, is it worth it if it’s not effective?”

Learn More About a Free Online Active Directory Alternative

If you’re interested in exploring an AD alternative, JumpCloud is easy to try out in your own environment obligation-free. There’s no cost to sign up, and your first 10 users and devices are free. We even offer 24/7 premium in-app chat support for your first 10 days. 

Sign up for a free account today to start testing the JumpCloud identity management platform.

Natalie Bluhm

Natalie is a writer for JumpCloud, an Identity and Access Management solution designed for the cloud era. Natalie graduated with a degree in professional and technical writing, and she loves learning about cloud infrastructure, identity security, and IT protocols.

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