How to Join a Mac® to a Windows® Domain

Written by Vince Lujan on April 9, 2019

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For the last decade, IT admins have been asking the question, how do you join a Mac® to a Windows® domain? It’s such a common question, that an entire category of enterprise-grade directory extension solutions emerged to offer an answer. However, while you could leverage directory extension technology to join a Mac to a Windows domain, what if there was a better way?

Life Before Mac

Historically, Microsoft® solutions have been critical for IT organizations. At the height of their popularity, IT networks were primarily on-prem and based on the Windows OS. The ubiquity of Microsoft solutions enabled IT admins to leverage Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS, another Microsoft solution) to effectively manage an entire Windows-based network from one centralized location. It wasn’t until Apple® saw a resurgence in the early-2000s that IT admins began to wonder how to join a Mac to a Windows domain.

It’s important to note that AD DS was designed specifically for on-prem networks of Windows-based IT resources. Consequently, Mac systems were difficult to manage directly in a pure AD environment. This was a minor inconvenience at first. However, it became a major headache as the popularity of Mac systems exploded in the mid-2000s. AD didn’t offer full support for Macs (or Linux® for that matter). As a result, IT admins struggled to manage users and Mac systems properly. Of course, that’s when legacy directory extension technology emerged.

Living with Directory Extensions

Simply put, directory extensions extend directories. They are often layered on top of AD on-prem to extend AD functionality to non-Windows IT resources, such as Mac systems or cloud-based resources. Directory extensions emerged to bridge these gaps and have been popular AD add-ons. So, at first glance, it would appear that IT admins need only to leverage directory extension technology to join a Mac to a Windows domain.

This is true. However, at a higher level, Macs represent but one of many identity management challenges in modern IT organizations. In fact, cross platform system environments (Windows, Mac, Linux), web and on-prem applications, physical and virtual data storage solutions, and remote networks spanning multiple locations are common—all of which are difficult to manage with AD. Thus, a directory extension for Macs is but one of many identity federation services required to manage the complexity of modern networks, via AD.

Further, modern IT organizations would rather shift the majority, if not all of their on-prem identity management infrastructure to the cloud. Yet, AD is an on-prem solution that requires heavy investment into on-prem identity management infrastructure. Thus, any solution layered on top of AD will share the same foundation, further cementing IT organizations on-prem. Even Azure® Active Directory (Azure AD), which many thought would be a cloud replacement for AD on-prem, requires AD on-prem—and Microsoft still requires that you purchase Azure AD Connect to bridge the two.

Additional Security Challenges

As if the added cost and complexity of managing a patchwork of identity management solutions wasn’t difficult enough already, this approach also creates numerous security vulnerabilities. Essentially, every time a user’s credentials change hands, an attacker has an opportunity to strike. Well, if you have a bunch of add-ons and non-Windows IT resources in your environment, that’s a lot of handshakes—and attackers only need one entry point to breach a network and cause damage.

In fact, IT admins are discovering that the traditional domain-bound approach to Windows-based networks in general presents a huge attack surface. As a result, new IT security methodologies are developing that seem to be at odds with the Windows domain itself. Take Zero Trust Security, for example. This approach stipulates that every source of network traffic is a potential attack vector, whereas the traditional Windows domain relies on a fortified perimeter to protect trusted assets within the domain that need not authenticate.

Reimagining Active Directory

All of these challenges have placed tremendous strain on the traditional Windows domain, and especially AD DS. While a traditional Windows domain could make sense for some IT admins, the vast majority will have their work cut out for them. So, instead of trying to figure out how to join a Mac to a Windows domain, perhaps the better question is, what are the alternatives? The good news is that a next generation cloud IdP has emerged that is effectively Active Directory reimagined.

JumpCloud® Directory-as-a-Service® is a next generation identity provider that shifts the concept of directory services to the cloud. The Directory-as-a-Service platform is a cross-platform, vendor-neutral, protocol driven, neutral directory that supports virtually any IT resource. As a modern IAM and security company, JumpCloud has designed the Directory-as-a-Service platform with the tenets of Zero Trust Security and DevOps methodologies in mind. Essentially, the goal of JumpCloud is to create the best IAM tool for modern networks. As a result, IT admins are free to choose the best IT resources for their specific environments, such as Windows and Macs—not one or the other.

So, if you’re wondering how to join a Mac to a Windows domain, first reconsider the concept of the Windows domain altogether. Contact the JumpCloud team if you need additional information. Of course, you can also sign up for a free account and check out everything the Directory-as-a-Service platform has to offer. The full functionality of the platform is free for up to 10 users.

Vince Lujan

Vince is a writer and video specialist at JumpCloud. Originally from the horse capital of New Mexico, Corrales, he has lived in Boulder, Colorado for three years. When Vince is not developing content for JumpCloud, he can usually be found at the Boulder Creek.

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