Redefining the Directory for Modern IT Environments

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on August 3, 2021

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The following article is associated with a JumpCloud webinar on the role of a directory in modern IT environments featuring entrepreneurs Stephen O’Grady, Principal Analyst & Co-founder of RedMonk, and Tim Howes, Computer Scientist & Co-Creator of LDAP. Watch the full webinar recording here.

In 1999, Active Directory was born. This was around the peak of the Windows era, from both a market share and a penetration standpoint. In most enterprises, company-owned desktops—and often servers for certain workloads—were essentially all Windows and employees were coming into the office to work within the on-premise network. These factors led to a very homogenous directory world. 

This is clearly not the world we’re living in today. The way we work is changing, and IT environments are changing right alongside. Today’s IT admins are managing:

  • Remote work. The pandemic hit the gas pedal on the prevalence of remote work. While some companies are slowly returning to the office, many have shifted to a remote-first model, or a hybrid of both in-office and at-home work.
  • Mixed OS devices. Fleets are no longer Windows dominant and infinitely more complicated. Mac and Linux machines are thrown into the mix, as well as different device types such as smartphones and tablets.
  • Cloud migration. Prior to the release of AWS in 2006, IT infrastructure was directly controlled on-prem. Since then, cloud infrastructure as a service (IaaS) has increasingly become the dominant model.

In stark contrast to the historical homogeneity of on-prem, Windows-based IT environments, the defining characteristic of the modern IT landscape is heterogeneity. What does this mean from a directory standpoint? Well, it means things are getting more complicated. 

The Modern IT Environment Conundrum

The IT environments we see today are complex and multifaceted, with a variety of moving parts. IT admins can no longer worry about the corporate network alone, they have to worry about home WiFi networks as well. They may be managing Google Workspace, in addition to SaaS apps such as Salesforce, Slack, Atlassian, etc. There are different Dev environments to connect out to, Windows, Mac, and Linux devices, servers, and perhaps even employee-owned devices. 

On one hand, the freedom of choice in the tools used to get work done is a good thing. Employees have the opportunity to use the devices they prefer on the platforms they are the most comfortable with, rather than one standard, corporate-issued default. In fact, employees with the freedom to choose their tools perform 22% higher in performance reviews and are 17% less likely to leave an organization.

On the other hand, the freedom of choice comes with a cost. As the complexity of the IT environment increases, managing it becomes an equally complex task. Additional time and effort is required for both employee onboarding and offboarding. There is a lack of controls and visibilities, which puts security at risk, inhibits optimization, and makes troubleshooting more challenging.

Although there are many vendors that have popped up to tackle individual problems, many third party solutions actually make IT harder. Yes, these solutions are useful in the sense that IT admins have issues to address, and they want products and services to help them do that. But when all of these services that need to be individually managed are introduced into the IT environment, a whole new set of problems is created.

From a directory standpoint, if you’re using siloed, point solutions for identity, access, and device management, how do you coordinate between all of these different products and services in the absence of central visibility? Nobody wants to maintain multiple identities for employees across all of the different platforms, different devices, etc. In the aggregate, these individual solutions become a difficult challenge from a management perspective.

So how can we address the increasing complexity of our IT environments and the point solution problem as an IT community? When it comes to IT infrastructure, there is a massive opportunity for all types of companies to take a step back and evaluate: 

  • What are we building and what do we need to do? 
  • How do we enable secure, frictionless access to all of our IT resources?
  • Then, how do we manage everything in the most efficient way possible?

Let’s Reimagine the Directory for the Modern World

The old on-prem directory is siloed, Microsoft-centric, and leverages a proprietary protocol. This is in direct contrast to the new cloud directory that is open protocol, vendor-agnostic, and connects to all types of IT resources.

When we look at the jobs that need to be done in modern IT environments, they remain pretty much the same as they did twenty years ago. But in terms of doing these jobs, the challenges have changed materially because the environments we’re operating in have changed as well. It’s not necessarily that the solutions built in 1999 are deficient, or somehow wrong, or poorly designed. It’s just that they were designed for a very different world, and we now need to do these jobs in different ways.

In the context of directory, there is a base set of functions to tackle:

  1. Verify identity – adaptive MFA, password/SSH, key/biometrics management
  2. Verify device – policy management, certificates
  3. Verify network – location-based access, IP allow/deny list
  4. Authenticate – SAML 2.0, LDAP, RADIUS
  5. Authorize – role-based access, group-based access, conditional access

The guiding principle for managing these functions in today’s heterogeneous IT environments is that everything needs to interoperate. Users, devices, resources, and events all need to be connected to each other. They need to have the ability to all work together, regardless of their origins, regardless of what network they’re on, regardless of the operating system or device type. There is a huge opportunity for IT admins to unify all of these management tasks in one place: a modern cloud directory.

As you think about where your organization is at and what your strategy is moving forward, it’s worth considering the context of your IT environment. Don’t just focus on features or specific needs, but consider where the organization is going. What does your environment look like today, and what will it look like tomorrow? What might your environment look like in the next quarter or next year? What are the opportunities to help yourself move more quickly? Seek out areas of friction and do what you can to optimize those areas, or perhaps even automate them, to smooth out the path forward. 

It’s hard to predict the future, but we can be assured that the future holds more. More devices, more users, more applications, and more diversity of all those things. Designing your systems to accommodate more of what we see in the world today will help you be more agile in the future, whether it’s in managing your users, bringing more applications online, or other things. What you invest today will come back to you in large measure in the not-too-distant future.

Try a Modern Cloud Directory Platform for Free

Evaluate the potential of a cloud-based directory in your own IT environment and sign-up for JumpCloud Free today. Your first 10 users and 10 devices are free for as long as you need until you scale. During your first 10 days, be sure to take advantage of our premium 24×7 in-app chat support to help you get started. 

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