Overview of Cloud LDAP

Written by Kate Lake on August 30, 2021

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LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is a protocol that was developed in the early 1990s as a means of authenticating and authorizing  users requiring access to specific on-prem IT resources.

In the decades that followed, LDAP has become a critical part of enterprise IT systems and the identity and access management (IAM) landscape. Now, it has extended to function in the cloud as well as on-prem, allowing companies to enable LDAP authentication for on-prem and remote users.

Because cloud LDAP is an implementation of the standard LDAP protocol, we’ll start by covering the basics of LDAP, then dive into cloud LDAP, how it works, and its role in IT architecture today.    

What Is LDAP?

In 1993, LDAP was developed as a lightweight version of the X.500 directory protocols that were in use at the time. Although it was created for Unix-based networks, it quickly adapted to work with other systems and networks. What started as a mere protocol has now expanded to include vendor-packaged LDAP software, servers, and, more recently, hosted LDAP services.

LDAP isn’t new, but despite its age, it’s still heavily utilized due to its flexibility, stability, and compatibility with certain applications. In fact, LDAP is still the go-to protocol for certain applications, storage systems, Linux servers, and more.

How LDAP Works

LDAP stores and indexes data from a directory to make it searchable. The LDAP protocol enables LDAP servers to communicate with clients, devices, and users in an on-premises network. LDAP actions can include adding, deleting, modifying, and searching LDAP directory information, as well as authentication and authorization: once someone correctly inputs their username and password, LDAP authenticates and authorizes them to access various IT resources including files, applications, servers, networking equipment and other resources that support LDAP.

LDAP data is stored in a hierarchical structure called a Directory Information Tree (DIT), which organizes data into LDAP-friendly branching structures that make it easier for admins to navigate and handle user access policies. Dive deeper into LDAP directory structure. 

How Is LDAP Traditionally Used and Set Up?

Technically, LDAP is a protocol. However, LDAP servers have come to market that encompass and instantiate the LDAP protocol in software that can be used to grant access to LDAP clients and ultimately end users. Before cloud LDAP, two of the most popular LDAP implementations were Microsoft Active Directory and OpenLDAP, a free open-source version of the LDAP protocol.

OpenLDAP

OpenLDAP, the free, open-source implementation of LDAP, was developed in 1998 and is one of the longest-standing LDAP implementations still in use today. OpenLDAP is a highly focused software that does not include a rich user interface or additional protocols. It also requires companies to host, configure, and manage their own directory servers. These manual configurations allow for significant flexibility and platform agnosticism. They can also be difficult to manage.

OpenLDAP’s minimal tooling and significant demand on IT teams has driven some companies to seek a more robust directory service. For years, Microsoft Active Directory was a common choice. 

Active Directory

Microsoft Active Directory (AD) is one of the most common directory services on the market. In contrast to OpenLDAP’s basic offerings, AD includes a GUI and additional tooling that streamline the setup, configuration, and maintenance process. 

With these add-ons, however, comes a loss in flexibility. While OpenLDAP is system-agnostic and works with *nix, Mac, Windows, and other systems, AD works best with Microsoft Windows-based computers and applications. As with many Microsoft products, it’s often best used in a Windows-based environment and often requires add-ons to gain better functionalities for managing other operating systems, adding complexity for businesses that use Mac, Linux, or other devices. 

Additionally, while AD does support LDAP, it’s not its preferred protocol, which is a proprietary version of Kerberos.

LDAP extracts information from AD by using queries — such as determining whether a user should have access rights to a particular IT resource, gathering attribute data about a particular user, and even modifying access rights based on what is within the AD database. For example, when an IT resource (such as a computer or application) looks up whether a user should have access to that particular resource, LDAP uses a process of searching and binding to discover the appropriate data. From there, the AD server responds — using the LDAP protocol — back to the IT resource with the proper information.

While AD is a popular directory service choice, it hasn’t evolved to meet the needs of increasingly cloud-based business models. AD uses an on-prem server and, because it wasn’t originally designed for the cloud, integrating it with cloud resources with add-ons like Azure AD can be complex. 

As companies realize the challenges around managing LDAP, several are now looking for more cloud-friendly solutions, like cloud LDAP. Let’s explore some of these challenges with managing LDAP and how cloud LDAP solves them.

Major Challenges with Managing LDAP

Directory Management Issues

Installing and configuring an open-source directory is no easy task. A directory needs to connect with other systems, such workstations, servers, applications, databases, networking gear, storage systems, and much more. In the case of LDAP, it is often difficult to connect to all of these different types of IT resources because many of them require a great deal of configuring — both on the server and client side. Further, managing users and groups correctly is also time-intensive, and, ironically, setting up and configuring LDAP can be difficult due to its immense flexibility. This is especially true with OpenLDAP.

Another critical issue with managing LDAP is that whether it is hosted on-prem, in your own data center, or via a cloud-hosted server, you are responsible for its uptime, security, monitoring, and more. That often means extra equipment, software, and increased costs. And, of course, more of your time to manage it. Often, the viewpoint is that LDAP can be free, but the open-source software is far from free when considering total cost of ownership. 

Similarly, with Active Directory, LDAP may be an included feature, but you’ll be responsible for all of the other costs associated with it, including software licensing, hardware, and all of the requisite technology to keep the directory service safe and operational.

Mixed Environments

Managing an IT environment that spans Macs, Linux, and Windows machines can be challenging for any IT pro. Active Directory is excellent with Windows devices. Linux-based LDAP servers can be great with Linux-based systems. But, what about Macs? AD won’t handle them well, and Macs are notoriously difficult to manage via the LDAP protocol, let alone via AD. 

LDAP has some well-documented and widely recognized limitations in managing devices. Authentication and authorization is one thing, and often with a great deal of configuration, it is possible to get devices connected to LDAP, but managing the device itself is essentially outside of the scope of LDAP. A directory solution needs to be able to manage user access to systems as well as the systems themselves to ensure secure, frictionless access.

Websites and SaaS Solutions

Software as a Service (SaaS) is increasing in popularity. SaaS providers are no longer just websites; they’ve extended into mobile applications and desktop solutions, providing a single location for individuals to use and access company data and records. LDAP doesn’t typically work well with web-based applications; they tend to favor other authentication methods, like SAML and OAuth. This disconnect can lead to additional complexities for users.

Solving Modern Business Challenges with Cloud LDAP

As more businesses moved to the cloud, challenges with traditional LDAP directories increased. Businesses needed to connect remote and on-prem users and devices to cloud applications, VPNs, networks, on-prem storage, and other resources. Cloud LDAP entered the market to solve these challenges and modernize the directory.

In contrast to traditional LDAP, cloud-based LDAP runs on LDAP-ready servers hosted in the cloud. Instead of clients communicating with an organization’s on-prem LDAP server, IT resources are pointed to the cloud-hosted LDAP server. As such, cloud LDAP enables organizations to be more agile with their digital transformation and cloud migration initiatives while ensuring that they can manage legacy applications, storage systems, networking equipment, and more. 

Further, cloud LDAP relieves companies of the burden of directory server installation, configuration, and management. A cloud LDAP solution doesn’t require an organization to worry about security, high availability, load balancing, and more; and, the service can cost-effectively scale up and down to whatever the organization’s needs are. 

What Are the Benefits of Cloud LDAP?

Cloud LDAP offers significant security, performance, and compliance benefits:

  • A service provider is responsible for keeping all software and servers secure, including patches and updates. Security teams are responsible for finding and remediating any vulnerabilities, penetration testing, and compliance activities.
  • A cloud LDAP service will take advantage of the latest hardware, along with a geographically distributed footprint to ensure very fast response times, all at the fraction of a cost of building your own LDAP infrastructure.
  • Cloud LDAP is always backed up, and data is encrypted in flight and at rest. Working with a security-conscious cloud provider can make compliance easier; they often start with strong compliance policies in place. (Always check your cloud LDAP provider’s security and compliance policies to ensure they align with your company’s.)
  • Cloud LDAP improves IT’s implementation experience because there’s no physical setup required. This can save hours of work per server.
  • It reduces costs based on the cloud’s pay-as-you-go pricing and no need for hardware or maintenance.
  • Cloud LDAP can be accessed from anywhere, so the organization doesn’t have to worry about personnel or IT resources being in different locations.
  • It provides the flexibility to grow as an organization evolves — it can expand with them without any additional installation or configuration.
  • It eliminates expensive software licenses for individual servers.
  • Cloud LDAP increases productivity by enabling IT teams to focus their time on other projects that require attention rather than installing, configuring, and setting up new databases, and managing updates for security patches

Try Cloud LDAP Free

Cloud LDAP provides a way for businesses to manage their directory services that meets the needs of cloud and hybrid-cloud environments. With cloud LDAP, companies no longer need to pay to acquire, configure, and manage on-prem cloud directories, saving time and money while still providing reliable access control and security for their data.

JumpCloud® is a cloud directory platform that offers cloud LDAP along with support for several other protocols like SAML, RADIUS, SCIM, WebAuthn, and more. It operates on a Zero-Trust security model, offering multi-factor authentication (MFA) and single sign-on (SSO) for security and easy user lifecycle management. 

JumpCloud is free to try: you can sign up for free and add your first 10 users and 10 devices at no cost. You even get free live chat support for your first 10 days so you can ensure you’ve optimized the platform to your environment. Try cloud LDAP with JumpCloud Free today. 

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