Comparing JumpCloud vs Active Directory

Stand-Alone AD Doesn’t Meet Modern IT Requirements

Written by David Worthington on January 6, 2023

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Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD) has been entrenched in IT infrastructure since its debut in 1999. It established a client/server model that was intended for private office networks, both physical and virtual. The world has changed significantly in the ensuing decades with consolidation to how people work and the types of apps and devices that they now use. JumpCloud is a cloud-based open directory platform that was designed for the “new normal.” It manages identities, with devices serving as gateways to the resources that make work happen. Microsoft created its Azure portfolio in response to shifting requirements and technology churn.

This article compares AD with JumpCloud by outlining the benefits of each platform and how they differ. Today’s challenge is to make identity the new perimeter. It’s not possible to accomplish that objective with standalone AD, so we’ll also examine how Azure fits into the mix. Microsoft’s reliance on cloud services for modern IT gives reason for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to evaluate alternatives as they optimize their IT infrastructure. 

Directory Needs and Considerations

The classic AD scenario where an SME is running Windows PCs exclusively with native apps and resources is today’s exception, not the rule. That shop would quickly fail to achieve recommendations for cyber defenses and compliance without substantial customizations. Microsoft shops that have been slow to enact proactive security measures to safeguard their data and identities (even for legitimate reasons) should assume that Azure adoption will be their predetermined course. 

Some organizations will do well with prescribed stacks of services layered on top of AD. However, AD + Azure may not be the optimal fit for an SME’s technical requirements or budget. Consider that an SME’s general IT requirements should now include:

  • Single sign-on (SSO) to all IT assets
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and/or passwordless authentication
  • The capacity to manage identities and access control on any device, anywhere
  • Advanced Identity Lifecycle Management
  • A Zero Trust security strategy
  • Meeting rising compliance requirements, including patching and device posture
  • Managing supply chain risks and unifying IT

SSO to Everything

AD: Microsoft provides several options for integrations, but AD cannot provide SSO directly. Protocols such as RADIUS authentication require installing and maintaining the NPS server role, FreeRADIUS, or purchasing a subscription to a stand-alone cloud service.

  • Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) provides self-managed SSO capabilities, but you’ll encounter a complex setup. It takes a server farm in order to function.
  • SCIM provisioning is available.
  • Azure Active Directory (AAD) provides SSO, including SAML and OIDC. This is the approach that Microsoft recommends due to the aforementioned complexity.
    • A free tier is available, but has limited functionality, specifically for group management, provisioning, device management, and security configurations.
    • Premium tiers of AAD are necessary for Application Proxy for on-premises, header-based, and Integrated Windows Authentication. Kerberos, NTLM, LDAP, RDP, and SSH authentication are available from AAD’s free tier.
  • AD isn’t capable of managing non-Windows devices, placing identities that reside on unmanaged devices and the resources that they access at risk.

JumpCloud: JumpCloud features “SSO to everything” as part of its core functionality.

  • SAML, OIDC, and RESTful integrations are included in the platform.
  • SCIM provisioning is available.
  • Cloud RADIUS and LDAP, with the option to use external credentials for authentication, are integrated. This ensures that network devices don’t become identity silos.
  • JumpCloud syncs with AAD/Microsoft 365, AD, Google Workspace, and Okta identities for SSO at no additional charge. It also syncs user information into Amazon’s IAM Identity Center, securing access to your AWS resources.
  • Identities and assets are protected, because JumpCloud also manages the device.

Advanced Lifecycle Management

AD: Advanced Lifecycle Management is only possible through integrations with AAD and Lifecycle Workflows (in preview), third-party services, and extensive customizations.

  • Workarounds, such as custom PowerShell scripts, are needed to enable or disable user accounts on a schedule.
  • External identities may only be managed through a combination of AAD and Microsoft Entra, another paid Azure service.
  • Default user management is manual, creating the potential to over/under provision users through human error, or even failure to disable accounts. This is considered “basic” entitlements management due to the manual and ad hoc nature of user maintenance.
  • Attribute imports from other directories is a manual process, requiring PowerShell and other tools.
  • AD doesn’t manage users on devices beyond Windows — without additional paid subscriptions to Microsoft’s Intune platform.
  • Integrations are possible with third-party lifecycle management systems. That approach requires dedicating users that have administrative privileges to those solutions. AD is popular, so many premium third-party solutions exist for enterprise-grade management.
  • AAD makes it possible for a zero-touch onboarding experience, but not AD.
  • SSO to everything is only available through add-ons.
  • The Schema Management Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in makes it possible to customize AD for niche requirements.

JumpCloud: JumpCloud integrates with human resources systems and other sources, automates group memberships, schedules user on/offboarding events, and provides SSO.

  • User provisioning/deprovisioning can be scheduled from the GUI console.
  • JumpCloud is an open directory platform that enables attributes to be imported from other “sources of truth,” including AD, AAD, Google, Okta, and more. 
  • JumpCloud manages external identities at no additional cost.
  • JumpCloud centrally manages identities on Apple devices, Android (soon), many popular Linux distributions, and Windows.
  • It’s possible to provide your users with an Out of Box Experience (OOBE) for Windows and zero-touch onboarding on Apple devices through Volume Purchase Program (VPP).
  • JumpCloud continuously validates and identifies entitlement issues (through attributes) to deliver group membership suggestions. That provides an “intermediate” level of controls and measures. Full membership automation enables advanced entitlement management.
  • SSO is built into the platform, eliminating siloed point tools to manage identity/user lifecycles.
maturity model for entitlements management
Image credit: TAG Cyber

Compliance and Security

AD: Active Directory is well documented and understood. Qualified consultants and solutions are plentiful and can increase its security to comply with compliance regimes or regulations. However, achieving this level of security entails a significant commitment in budgets and people.

  • AD doesn’t provide MFA everywhere, and “out-of-the-box” AAD or third-party solutions are necessary to extend MFA to common SSO protocols (and beyond).
  • AD wasn’t designed with a Zero Trust security strategy in mind. Features such as conditional access rules are only found through AAD or third parties.
  • Achieving a baseline level of hardening and implementing recommended best practices requires substantial work and knowledge.
  • AD was designed for the network boundary to be the perimeter.
  • Domain admins represent a potential security risk and additional solutions are necessary to limit access by temporarily elevating privileges or creating a separate forest.
    • Security group memberships must be carefully maintained.
    • Delegating tasks to non-administrators should be logged and tracked.
    • The potential for privilege abuse is higher when there’s more admins.
  • Managing on-premise servers, server roles, and other add-ons increases management overhead and the potential attack surface area.
    • AD servers must be patched/mitigated, secured, and maintained. Privilege escalation attacks, using malware-free techniques have become more common.
    • Physical protection from people, fires, floods, and natural disasters is necessary.
    • Domain controller backups should be encrypted; backups must be performed correctly to ensure ​​granular restores of all the objects or attributes within a forest. 
    • AD health monitoring is advisable to analyze the replication status for domain controllers, abnormal behaviors and events, etc., using built-in tools. Azure AD Premium subscriptions are necessary for more robust monitoring of on-premise identity infrastructure.
  • AD Group Policies provide intricate control over Windows systems, but only Window systems. Compliance for non-Windows devices requires Intune or third-party services.
    • Microsoft and other parties maintain numerous Administrative Templates (.admx).
    • Microsoft provides tools such as Advanced Threat Analytics to monitor AD.
    • Constant VPN connections are necessary to manage remote Windows Devices through Group Policy.
  • Only basic password policies are available to admins without AAD integration. Microsoft offers even more functionality through Defender for Identity and its security business.
    • Selling security solutions on top of the AD ecosystem has become a cash cow for Microsoft. Numerous enterprise-grade services are available.
  • Reporting is basic, performed through queries, and may require licensing third-party applications and snap-ins to meet compliance needs.
  • Patching requires add-on components and services, especially for non-Windows devices.
  • The certificate authority (CA), i.e., Windows Server’s Certification Authority role, must be segmented from your primary domain controller, adding another server into your datacenter.
  • The RDS server role for remote system access is limited to domain-joined Windows devices; it shouldn’t run off of your domain controller and requires maintaining a Security Group.

JumpCloud: JumpCloud assists a Zero Trust approach to security through environment-wide MFA, optional conditional access rules, and device trust. Infrastructure may be cloud-only. Commands, pre-built policies, and reports are included. Reporting tools are standard.

  • Push or TOTP MFA is present everywhere, including RADIUS and LDAP authentications.
  • Optional conditional access policies offer Privileged Access Management (PAM).
    • Policies examine location, mandatory MFA prompts, and whether a device is being managed by JumpCloud. Device-state, such as full disk encryption (FDE), is also considered.
  • Very little configuration is necessary to achieve security best practices.
  • Cloud-based infrastructure reduces attack surface area.
  • Pre-built GPO-like policies are available for every supported OS for controls such as FDE.
    • SUDO console/terminal and PowerShell commands can be used to deploy compliance benchmarks across your fleet, similar to templates for AD.
    • The full JumpCloud platform manages your devices no matter where they are, no VPN required.
    • JumpCloud manages identity as your perimeter and devices are the gateway to resources.
  • An optional decentralized password manager and vault is integrated into the platform.
  • Basic cross-OS patching policies are included; a premium offering provides greater granularity.
  • Directory Insights and System Insights offer comprehensive reporting that can be exported to a SIEM. Numerous reports, including Users to SSO, are pre-made.
  • JumpCloud offers certificate-based authentication for a passwordless experience on RADIUS and will soon function as its own CA, no additional infrastructure required.
  • JumpCloud is an award-winning CrowdStrike partner; deep product integrations that will increase security are forthcoming.
  • Remote system access (for support purposes) is provided for free using the JumpCloud desktop client and can be toggled “off” by admins from the console.

Total Cost of Ownership

TCO can be a complicated topic. Check out JumpCloud’s TCO calculator.

AD: Active Directory may be free, but it includes inherent infrastructure, licensing, and IT talent costs. You may even need to budget for outside consultants. Those associated costs all rise as your setup becomes more extensive or complex. AAD and other services must be licensed in order to manage non-Windows services, SSO, external identities, and enhanced security.

  • The setup for multiple locations requires regional administrators when multiple domains are grouped together into a forest, creating staff and infrastructure redundancies.
  • AD best practices cost time and money to implement.
  • Account for hardware, network, fire protection, HVAC, power, and other facilities costs.
    • Cost will rise as you add server roles and more dedicated servers.
    • High availability (HA) is automatic whenever there’s more than one datacenter. Only that configuration makes it possible to shut down a server for maintenance without impacting your end users and stifling business operations.
    • Backup and disaster restoration planning, simulations, and execution can become a considerable investment in time and resources.
  • Account for current and future Microsoft licensing costs to modernize identity and access management (IAM) and manage users on non-Windows devices.
    • Client access licenses (CALs) and core licensing.
    • Azure services such as AAD, AutoPatch, Lifecycle Workflows, Entra, Intune, and more might be required to meet modern IT requirements. These are additional costs on top of AD.
    • Microsoft charges more to manage and authenticate external identities with Entra.
    • Azure licensing is complex and features are gated off into tiers. You can learn more about that in an article that explores the TCO for AAD.
  • Account for patching solutions using either third-party tools, WSUS for Windows, or new AutoPatch (a premium Azure offering) for non-Microsoft OSs.
  • Account for significant IT management overhead and training costs.
    • Maintaining domain controllers and other servers
    • Configuring Microsoft’s synchronization apps for AAD or migrating from ADFS
    • Responding to zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows
    • Third-party security solutions such as Extended Detection and Response (XDR)
  • Vendor lock-in and monoculture creates a high dependence on Microsoft. This makes it more difficult to adopt “best-of-breed” solutions.
enterprise pricing comparison chart

JumpCloud: JumpCloud is cloud-based, which eliminates most infrastructure costs. It integrates advanced lifecycle management and IAM, along with key IT management apps. JumpCloud is an open directory, so there’s no penalty for bringing your own identities.

  • HA is available by default without any setup.
  • Remote offices can be configured into groups without complex configurations.
  • Licensing is workflow-based, versus feature-based. It’s possible to license what you need or adopt the entire platform for advanced lifecycle management with Zero Trust security.
    • SSO, MFA, advanced lifecycle management, policies, remote assistance, mobile device management (MDM), and reporting are included in the platform.
    • Conditional access, advanced patch management, and the password manager are optional add-ons, but work seamlessly with the platform.
  • Services such as RADIUS and LDAP are cloud-based and immediately available.
  • There’s no upcharge for managing external identities or authentication.
  • JumpCloud integrates and syncs with AD, but can also function as a standalone directory to enable a domainless enterprise configuration.
  • JumpCloud is an open directory platform that assists with unifying IT resources. It’s possible to avoid vendor lock-in and select best-of-breed solutions.
  • The interface is simpler and more streamlined than many AD and Azure features.

Accounting rules make a distinction between software and services. Using services helps your organization to lower its income taxes and free up cash. Services may make it easier to budget when you already know what the ongoing costs will be.

Can I Replace Active Directory with JumpCloud?

It’s possible to manage your organization’s IT infrastructure with JumpCloud. AAD isn’t a cloud replacement for Active Directory, but JumpCloud can be that … and more. It’s also architectured for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), keeping its complexity low but its value high. 

Other organizations may benefit from a hybrid approach, maintaining AD, but extending its capabilities. The choice is yours: Azure isn’t mandatory to accomplish what you need and may not be the best fit or its enterprise-grade features might be more helpful. The best way to determine how well JumpCloud’s open directory will work for you is to try it. JumpCloud is free to use for 10 users and devices with 10 days of premium chat support to get started.

Sometimes self-service doesn’t get you everything you need. If that’s how you’re feeling, schedule a 30-minute consultation to discuss options for implementation assistance, migration services, custom scripting, and more.

David Worthington

I'm the JumpCloud Champion for Product, Security. JumpCloud certified, security analyst, a one-time tech journalist, and former IT director.

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