What Is OpenLDAP?

Written by Kate Lake on October 12, 2021

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OpenLDAP has been one of the most popular choices for implementing the LDAP protocol since its inception in 1998. However, as more LDAP and directory solutions enter the scene, understanding each and deciding which best suits your needs becomes more challenging. This blog will help you navigate this by covering OpenLDAP’s overview and history, discussing its benefits and drawbacks, and comparing it to other popular solutions on the market.

The History of OpenLDAP

OpenLDAP is an open-source LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) server software implementation. The LDAP protocol was developed in 1993 and adopted as the directory protocol standard not long after. Although more directory and authentication protocols have emerged, it remains a popular protocol. 

Different LDAP implementations (OpenLDAP being one of them) have developed to help IT admins configure and manage directories. Some of these implementations include branded software, like JumpCloud® and Microsoft Active Directory; and others, like OpenLDAP, are open source. Entering the scene in 1998, OpenLDAP was one of the first and remains one of the most popular open-source implementations of LDAP. 

OpenLDAP Overview

OpenLDAP is command-line driven software that allows IT admins to build and manage an LDAP directory. Due to its minimal UI and reliance on the CLI, it requires an in-depth knowledge of the LDAP protocol and directory structure. However, IT admins can supplement OpenLDAP with a third-party application, like phpLDAPadmin, which is a web application that allows admins to interact with OpenLDAP via a basic UI. Of course, because of it’s open source nature, it can be highly flexible and customizable.

OpenLDAP’s pure-LDAP approach differs from most LDAP software, which generally includes more features and functionality than OpenLDAP does. This makes OpenLDAP a tech-savvy option that suits technical use cases, like supporting Linux servers and Linux-based applications. Further, because it requires more expertise, OpenLDAP has historically been favored by the Ops crowd.

OpenLDAP Benefits

OpenLDAP often wins out over its competitors for its cost, flexibility, and OS-agnosticism. We’ll cover these below, and then dive into the OpenLDAP alternatives it’s most often up against.

Costs

OpenLDAP is free from a software perspective (of course, not free to implement if you include somebody’s time, hosting costs, etc.). This is a significant driving factor in its popularity, making OpenLDAP a common choice for startups and lean IT teams. 

While the software is free, however, OpenLDAP incurs hidden costs in its maintenance and management. Since it is generated as simple-source code that needs to be built into the “service,” the challenge of OpenLDAP is installing, configuring, and implementing the code into a working directory service instance. For MSPs, every additional client multiplies this challenge, as each individual customer generally requires their own OpenLDAP instance. Due to this hurdle, some organizations and MSPs opt for a more user-friendly and feature-rich option. 

OS-Agnosticism

OpenLDAP supports Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. This contrasts with other solutions, like Microsoft AD; as a Windows product, AD fares better with Windows than with other operating systems. 

OpenLDAP isn’t the only OS-agnostic solution, however. Other directory solutions, like JumpCloud, are OS-agnostic as well. 

Flexibility

Being open-source makes OpenLDAP incredibly flexible. Its minimal UI and code-reliant functionality don’t lock users into predetermined workflows; rather, IT can manipulate the software to do exactly what they need. This gives it broad applicability; however, the minimal interface also requires more expertise than competing solutions. We’ll get into this trade-off next.  

OpenLDAP Disadvantages

Manual-Intensive Configuration Management

With OpenLDAP, directory configuration and management are manual. This makes app additions and directory modifications difficult; keeping up with app dependencies and maintaining your directory’s format and integrity takes significant ongoing manual labor. This need for ongoing maintenance, combined with OpenLDAP’s reliance on code, means OpenLDAP requires significant expertise that’s available on an ongoing basis.

More Limited Toolset than Competitors 

While OpenLDAP is flexible in terms of how LDAP can be implemented, it is not generally considered to be a robust toolset. This is because OpenLDAP’s functionality is limited to implementing the LDAP protocol; other directory services, such as JumpCloud, work with several other protocols as well, broadening their capabilities which helps establish a more foundational technology for IT admins to build upon. 

Limited Scope

By only working with LDAP, OpenLDAP’s directory approach is more narrow than other solutions on the market. As SaaS and cloud-based solutions replace legacy-owned software, the number of protocols different solutions use to authenticate and authorize users is growing. Modern directory services have begun to follow suit with multi-protocol approaches. These allow the directory to unify more resources — not just those that are compatible with LDAP — and connect them with users. 

A robust multi-protocol directory like JumpCloud, for example, can unify resources that use LDAP, SAML, SCIM, RADIUS, and many other protocols. By comparison, OpenLDAP only works with LDAP-compatible resources. Because not all resources are likely to be compatible with LDAP anymore, this disperses resources and precludes the option of building a truly unified directory. 

OpenLDAP Alternatives

While there are many directory solutions out there, there are few big competitors OpenLDAP often goes up against. 

OpenLDAP vs. Active Directory 

AD is a popular directory solution that uses LDAP, but not LDAP alone. While OpenLDAP works solely with LDAP, AD works with several other protocols as well. For example, AD relies largely on Microsoft’s proprietary implementation of Kerberos for authentication. 

AD’s multi-protocol approach broadens its functionality in comparison with OpenLDAP. A rich GUI further enhances this functionality; however, just as OpenLDAP’s lack of UI grants it flexibility, AD’s feature set can be limiting. For one, AD is a Windows product that fares better with Windows than with other operating systems. This contrasts with OpenLDAP, which is OS-agnostic. 

Further, AD’s costs tie in with on-prem infrastructure; you have to pay for a Windows server to get access to AD. And as directories move to the cloud, companies are turning to AD’s cloud extension, Azure AD, which comes at a per-user cost. However, even with Azure AD, companies can’t fully separate from their on-premise infrastructure, which is costly to upkeep.

OpenLDAP vs. JumpCloud

JumpCloud is a completely cloud-based directory platform. Its multi-protocol approach — including LDAP, RADIUS, SAML, SCIM, and others — enables it to unify virtually all the resources users need to access, regardless of where they access them from. In remote and hybrid-remote environments, this is becoming more important as users are dispersed and rely more heavily on the cloud to complete their work. 

In contrast to OpenLDAP, JumpCloud is much more robust; OpenLDAP’s lack of compatibility with other protocols prevent it from unifying resources to the extent JumpCloud can. And while JumpCloud offers a rich GUI, it still offers the option for command-line implementation, which grants admins flexibility that’s comparable to OpenLDAP. 

JumpCloud also surpasses OpenLDAP in terms of features: in addition to directory services, JumpCloud offers multi-factor authentication, single sign-on, System and Directory Insights, and more. 

Finally, JumpCloud’s pricing scales by user and starts out just as free as OpenLDAP. The first 10 users and 10 devices you onboard with JumpCloud are free. 

Compare OpenLDAP and JumpCloud

Because both OpenLDAP and JumpCloud are free to try, we recommend testing each out in your own environment with a small subset or test environment. This will allow you to experience the pros and cons of each and evaluate which would work better for your team and environment. There’s no time limit on either solution, so you can take your time in assessing each solution. 

JumpCloud also comes with 24/7 premium live chat for your first 10 days to answer questions and help make sure you’ve optimized it to your environment. Try it out for free today.

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