A Better Way to Manage Google Workspace: Cloud Directory vs. Active Directory

Written by Ashley Gwilliam on February 9, 2023

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Have you ever eaten a bowl of cereal with chopsticks?

Well, that’s kinda how it feels managing Google Workspace with Active Directory (AD). Though not an impossible task, it’s far from ideal. But many IT admins struggle with the delicate balancing act of having one foot in Google’s cloud and the other on-prem with Active Directory. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the tricky relationship between Google Workspace and Active Directory. We’ll dissect some common pitfalls before exploring the option of moving into the cloud altogether. 

Active Directory and Google Workspace: Great Players, Poor Teammates

AD is an on-prem database that is used to control user access and authentication across various IT resources, including systems, networks, file servers, applications, and more.

Google Workspace, formerly called Google Suite, or just G Suite, is a cloud-based, all-in-one suite of productivity tools for businesses to create and collaborate easily. Its cloud-based nature means that organizations can easily adopt it since they don’t need to purchase extra software or hardware to access it.

With Google Workspace having more than 6 million paying customers in 2020, and about 46% of the market share of productivity software in 2022, it’s no surprise that several organizations that already use Active Directory would somehow have to manage Google Workspace as well.

And therein lies the problem: Active Directory and Google Workspace may be great in their own rights, but when put together, the two don’t mesh well.

As a result, organizations have attempted to solve this problem in a variety of ways.

The Google Cloud Directory Sync (GCDS) Approach

Formerly called Google Apps Directory Sync (GADS), GCDS was developed by Google to help bridge the gap between AD and what was formerly known as G Suite. 

It worked by using LDAP to interact with Active Directory and retrieve information about users and groups. With it, admins could continue to manage users within AD, and whatever changes they made would be reflected in G Suite.

The problem with this approach was threefold. First, the GCDS and Active Directory highway was unidirectional. This meant that while changes made in Active Directory would be reflected in Google Workspace, there was no way to sync changes the other way around.

The second is that GCDS somehow contributed to increasing organizations’ “on-prem footprint” and slowed down their complete cloud migration efforts. This was because GCDS needed a dedicated server and active management by IT admins. This translates to more hardware and higher costs.

The last straw is that GCDS is unsurprisingly “Google-centric.” This means that it can only connect AD identities to Google Workspace. In other words, GCDS x AD cannot be used as a source of truth to manage identities across non-Google tools, nor can it be used on non-Windows platforms.

The Single Sign-On Approach

Another method organizations chose to address the Google Workspace x AD integration challenge was through web single sign-on (SSO). SSO works by using Secure Assertion Markup Language (SAML), which allows users to use their credentials to access Google Workspace and other web applications such as Salesforce.

Like with the GCDS approach, SSO could neither manage nor authenticate devices. Plus, it couldn’t integrate with non-web applications or other legacy servers. This meant that admins still had to work with other solutions for those outside the Google Workspace x AD integration circle.

Anchors Aweigh: Sailing Into the Cloud

For many businesses that use Google Workspace, Active Directory remains an anchor weighing them down on-prem and preventing them from making the full switch to the cloud. Thankfully, there’s a way to shed this weight and transition better into the cloud: an open, cloud-native directory like JumpCloud.

JumpCloud offers a cloud directory as a replacement for, and an upgrade to, Active Directory. Like Active Directory, it serves as a central user platform for an organization; unlike AD, it integrates seamlessly not only with Google Workplace but also with other cloud-based and on-prem applications. It also eliminates the need for complex and isolated sync strategies that admins resorted to with the GCDS and web single sign-on solutions.

What’s more? JumpCloud operates on a platform-independent architecture, so it can be used by organizations running various operating systems and platforms, including Windows, macOS, and Linux, regardless of device location. JumpCloud goes beyond basic authentication to assist organizations in implementing Zero Trust security strategies.

Often, with a cloud directory platform, the only on-prem hardware IT admins have to manage is Wi-Fi network equipment. They don’t have server maintenance or other technical issues related to Active Directory.

Move Into the Cloud with JumpCloud

Perhaps you’ve made the move to Google Workspace but are still tethered on-prem with Active Directory, the JumpCloud Directory Platform can help you make the jump.

JumpCloud’s open directory platform supports both mobile device management and identity access management that integrates with Google Workspace. It also plays nicely with the other tools organizations use to get work done, like Salesforce, Box, Docker, and VPNs.

JumpCloud is platform-neutral and allows admins to manage and connect users to all their IT resources regardless of whether they use a Windows, macOS, or Linux device. Besides providing a central point of command, it also provides a vantage point for IT admins to implement Zero Trust security measures across their networks.

Are you ready to cut the anchor of Active Directory? Sign up for a free trial with JumpCloud.

Ashley Gwilliam

Ashley Gwilliam is a Content Writer for JumpCloud. After graduating with a degree in print-journalism, Ashley’s storytelling skills took her from on-camera acting to interviewing NBA basketball players to ghostwriting for CEOs. Today she writes about tech, startups, and remote work. In her analog life, she is on a quest to find the world's best tacos.

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