Single Sign-On (SSO) vs Active Directory (AD)

By Zach DeMeyer Posted December 8, 2019

SSO vs. Active Directory | Dog Making a Tough Decision

As startups consider identity management, there are certainly questions to consider. Often, organizations ask about single sign-on (SSO) vs Active Directory® (AD).

What is Active Directory?

Active Directory is the premier, on-prem commercial directory service. Many IT organizations rely upon Active Directory as their core identity provider for authenticating resource access, which is offered as a complementary facet of Windows® Server.

Alongside vanilla AD, there are a host of added services available from Microsoft which, when combined, create the AD domain. The domain traditionally consists of any on-prem, Windows-based systems and applications managed through Active Directory.

As Microsoft’s core identity and access management (IAM) solution, naturally, AD works well in traditional Windows-based networks. However, AD struggles when non Windows or cloud-based resources come into play.

The Cloud Problem

The rise of the internet brought many innovations to the IT industry, but came with a major drawback: web applications, which require identity management for proper security, exist outside of the traditional domain. To combat this, Microsoft added another solution to the list of AD add-ons, called Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS), in 2003. 

AD FS uses limited support of the SAML 2.0 protocol to connect an AD identity to a web application. By doing so, AD FS widens the boundaries of the domain to include some web apps, making identity management considerably easier for IT organizations.

What is Single Sign-On (SSO)?

Given AD’s struggles with resources outside of the domain, there were a handful of third-party vendors that decided to create solutions to help extend AD identities to cloud-based and/or non-Windows resources. One particular sector of vendors focused specifically on web applications. Like AD FS, these vendors leveraged SAML 2.0 to extend AD identities to the cloud and created SSO tools, also known as first generation Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS) solutions.

Coincidentally, the original web application SSO solutions hit the market at almost the exact time as AD FS. Since Microsoft has always emphasized expansion in the computing space, SSO vendors honed their product, giving AD’s native tool a run for its money. As a result, today’s SSO solutions are quite refined, and popular additions to a core directory service.

Comparing AD and SSO

With those definitions in mind, let’s examine AD and SSO side by side. AD and SSO are very different; one is an on-prem directory service, the other a cloud-based, web app identity extension point solution.

AD FS and SSO, however, are very similar. Both solutions federate on-prem identities to cloud applications, filling a great need in modern identity management. Their core differences lie in the fact that AD FS exists on-prem while SSO tools live almost exclusively on the web.

As a point of note, it seems like Microsoft is looking to fill the role of AD FS on-prem with their Azure® Active Directory in the cloud. Azure AD is primarily a user management tool for identities in the Azure cloud suite, as well as Office 365™, but it also features limited SAML SSO capabilities akin to those of AD FS.

Do You Need Both AD and SSO?

The short answer to this question is no. Instead of implementing both, there is a cloud solution on the market that can replace either AD, SSO, or both solutions. This solution is a cloud directory service, the first of its kind, that reimagines AD for the modern era. This cloud directory service — JumpCloud® Directory-as-a-Service® — provides IT organizations the ability to manage their users, systems, applications, networks, infrastructure, and more, all from the cloud.

As such, Directory-as-a-Service allows IT admins to either extend their AD without the need for SSO or AD FS, or simply replace their AD instance altogether.

Extend AD

With a cloud directory service, IT organizations can use the cloud to push AD identities to non-domain bound resources like web applications or non-Windows systems, all while maintaining their existing on-prem infrastructure. This AD Integration capability keeps AD in the driver’s seat, giving admins the ability to make changes to these cloud-connected resources directly from their AD.

Replace AD

As a full reimagination of AD, a cloud directory service completely fills the role of AD and SSO in an organization. IT admins can use a cloud directory service to manage users, systems (Mac, Windows, and Linux), cloud apps and infrastructure, file servers, and more, with none of the on-prem hardware or technical implementation woes. This comprehensive identity management can be leveraged remotely from a single cloud-based admin console.

Learn More

If you want to end the debate of SSO vs AD with a cloud directory service, please contact us

Zach DeMeyer

Zach is a writer and researcher for JumpCloud with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. He loves being on the cutting edge of new technology, and when he's not working, he enjoys all things outdoors, making music, and soccer.

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