- Active Directory (AD) is defined as a directory service that connects users with the network resources they need to accomplish their tasks.
- AD is Microsoft’s proprietary entity that runs on Windows Server and allows administrators to manage access permissions across networks.
- This article explains the fundamentals and importance of Active Directory and lists eight of its top alternatives.
Table of Contents
- What Is Active Directory?
- Importance of Active Directory
- Top Alternatives To Active Directory
What Is Active Directory?
Active Directory (AD) is a directory service that connects users with the network resources they need to accomplish their tasks. It is Microsoft’s proprietary entity that runs on Windows Server and allows administrators to manage access permissions across networks. AD first emerged in the Windows 2000 system, intending to provide directory services to complex IT environments.
The directory stores information about objects, wherein an object may refer to network elements such as a user, group, device, or application. AD is responsible for categorizing these objects based on name and attributes. For instance, the object user may include a user name, designation, access permissions, system password, etc.
The main service offered by Active Directory is Domain Service, also termed as ‘AD DS.’ It is a service that stores directory information and manages user interaction with the domain. When a user signs into a system or attempts to connect to a server on a network, AD DS performs the task of verifying user access. Technically, user access to any network resource is controlled by AD DS. Microsoft products such as Exchange Server and SharePoint Server rely on AD DS to provide access to network resources. The server hosting the AD DS is called a domain controller (DC).
Services offered by AD are used by organizations to control the activities going on within their IT framework. Hence, it is vital for companies to understand the basic structure of AD.
Active Directory structure
Active Directory stores data in a hierarchical structure that consists of domains, trees, and forests.
- Domain: A domain refers to a set of objects (users, peripherals, devices) that share a common AD database. It is recognized by a DNS name (xyz_company.com).
- Tree: One or more domains combine to form a tree. The tree has a common DNS root name. For instance, ecommerce.marketing.com, sales.marketing.com, and business.marketing.com.
- Forest: One or more trees sharing a common schema, directory configuration, or a global catalog are regarded as a forest. However, this does not have a continuous namespace like a tree. Forests act as a security boundary for organizational networks.
- Organizational Units (OU): Objects within a domain fall under OUs. These simplify administration and policy management as administrators can create functional, geographic, or business structures and then apply group policies to all these OUs. Moreover, OUs play a crucial role when it comes to the delegation of control over network resources to different administrators.
Other Active Directory services
With time, ADs have evolved, and Microsoft has incorporated an additional suite of services under the Active Directory umbrella.
1. Active Directory Lightweight Directory Services (AD LDS)
The lightweight version of Domain Services eliminates complex and advanced functionalities from directory services by cutting down on the use of domain controllers, forests, or domains. Such services are typically employed in small office setups.
For instance, let’s say a company stores all its router information in one directory. In this case, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) can be employed to search for a specific router, localize it on the network, and then connect to it securely. Here, LDAP represents an instance of AD LDS.
2. Active Directory Certificate Services (AD CS)
AD CS refers to services used to issue and manage digital certificates often seen in software security setups. Such security systems rely on public key technologies. The digital certificates provided by AD CS can be used to encrypt and sign digital documents. These certificates can further be used to authenticate computers, users, or devices on a network.
3. Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS)
AD FS allows individuals to use the single sign-on (SSO) feature to access applications and systems outside the corporate environment. It is much like a web-based feature that contractors can use to log on to a personal network and, at the same time, get authorized to access a client’s private network.
4. Active Directory Rights Management Services (AD RMS)
AD RMS is used as a security strategy by organizations to safeguard and protect documents using information rights management (IRM) policies. AD RMS enables individuals and administrators to define permissions to access documents, workbooks, and presentations.
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Importance of Active Directory
Active Directory makes the life of an administrator easy since it provides them with a centralized user and rights management platform. Organizations gain better control over computer and user configurations by implementing AD. Moreover, companies can keep their network and resources secure and organized without the need to deploy excessive IT resources.
Thanks to the benefits AD offers to organizations of all sizes, several companies today are implementing it as a necessity. According to a recent report by 6sense, in 2023, 18,132 companies from across the globe started using Microsoft Azure AD services. If we look at this from a geographical viewpoint, the U.S. is the top contributor with 51.96% of customers, followed by the U.K. with 9.52%, and Canada with 5.59% of customers.
As AD is being deployed at a large scale, it is important to consider why its implementation is inevitable for IT environments.
Active Directory Importance
1. Provides a master data repository
AD is a master repository that stores the identity information of users, applications, and network resources. The AD database can store the information of up to 2 billion objects. Moreover, AD gives flexibility to corporate users who intend to use the organization’s network from any remote location. This means remote users can access network resources from anywhere in the network, irrespective of their physical presence.
AD is key to administrators since the authentication and authorization of users and applications can be done from one master repository. Also, without directory services, identity information could be replicated in various systems, which can eventually complicate the task of administrators.
2. Facilitates minimal data replication
In complex businesses, multiple domain controllers are essential to run business operations. When identities are managed by a central database system, subdomain controllers are aware of the updates happening in the AD database. Thus, AD can delegate responsibilities to centralized domain controllers through organization tools to add, delete, or modify active or inactive identities/objects. Such synchronization facilities ensure that data is consistent across all domain controllers. As a result, organizations can make changes in their operations within a few clicks.
3. Enables periodic audits
Auditing is essential for organizations to stay up to date on new and emerging security threats. AD allows periodic audits of events occurring in identity infrastructure, such as object authentication or user access violation. With a central database in place, such threat data can easily be collected and used for troubleshooting purposes.
4. Provides network security
AD acts as a security tool that safeguards an organization’s network from external threats. Higher-level management authorities and key stakeholders can also use AD to set permissions for network resources and applications for other administrators or users. Additionally, since AD is structured hierarchically, objects within the AD tree or forest can inherit permissions from parent objects. Such features assist in identifying corporate or remote users uniquely and securely.
Administrators can also duly update access permissions within one database, which reduces the chances of incorrect or outdated configuration in the directory.
5. Allows single sign-on functionality
An enterprise typically uses multiple applications within its framework. However, each of these applications employs its own authentication mechanisms. Since AD supports SSO features, users can sign in with one set of credentials and get access to other independent software systems used by the enterprise. In simple words, users need not sign in every time to gain access to a newer application. Once a user gets authenticated on a computer system, the credentials of that session are used to authenticate other AD-integrated applications.
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Top Alternatives To Active Directory
It would be an understatement to say that privacy is a major concern for all organizations. Microsoft has already provided a solution to this through Active Directory. However, several other players are operating in the market who are helping enterprises secure their networks.
According to 2023 data from 6sense, the Identity and Access Management (IAM) market is dominated by Microsoft Active Directory with 33.48% market share, followed by Azure Active Directory (13.46%), Microsoft Azure Active Directory (10.37%), and AWS Identity and Access Management (5.54%).
These are the top alternatives to AD that are commercially available in the market:
1. Apache Directory
Apache Directory is open-source software designed by Apache Software Foundation. The solution is a Java-based directory server and is LDAP V3-certified. The directory was approved by Open Group and Eclipse-based databases in 2006. It can support additional codes owing to its integration with the Kerberos server.
Advanced features include a schema browser, Directory Services Markup Language (DSML) editor, LDAP editor/browser, and LDAP Data Interchange Format (LDIF) editor for the Eclipse-based directory server. Here, LDIF represents the LDA directory content, which shows one record for each object or entry. Additionally, new features can be incorporated into Apache Directory by upgrading Eclipse-based plugins.
2. Open LDAP
Open LDAP is an open-source tool designed under the OpenLDAP project. It’s an administration tool used for LDAP database control. It is typically regarded as a Windows LDAP client that allows you to browse, look up, create, change, and delete elements residing on the LDAP server.
Other features include scheme browsing, password management, export and import LDIF, and more.
FreeIPA is an open-source identity and authentication tool developed by Red Hat. It offers a suite of services such as identity management, audit services, and policies tailored for Linux and Unix computer networks. The current version of the project RHEL 6.2 (Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6) aims to incorporate several features AD offers.
Some of its key features include:
- Security information management solution that blends Linux (Fedora), 389 Directory Server, MIT Kerberos, and others
- Automated installation and configuration
- Expandable management interfaces, including CLI, WEB UI, and Python SDK
Samba is an open-source tool that runs on Unix platforms and coexists with Windows. While it operates in the Unix environment, the tool seamlessly talks to Windows clients. The directory allows you to shift from a Unix to a Windows network easily. As a result, you can access Windows files and print services without worrying about the underlying Unix system.
The Samba project relies on a CIFS implementation (Common Internet File System) to accomplish the above switching tasks. The project has already been shifted to several non-Unix host systems, such as NetWare, AmigaOS, and VMS.
5. Univention Corporate Server (UCS)
Univention Corporate Server is a server software that controls server applications, thereby managing IT operations. It has an integrated system to control multi-platform servers, clients, users, and services, including machines operated in UCS. Hence, the software is adopted by Debian GNU/Linux, a Linux-based operating system found in laptops, desktops, and servers.
UCS underwent an upgrade to Version 3.0, following which the software has started supporting AD’s features to administer machines that run on Microsoft Windows.
JumpCloud is a cloud directory that offers a centralized platform for system administration. The platform allows users to access files residing on Linux, Mac, and Windows systems. JumpCloud keeps the server software up to date, ensures server availability, and manages server operations. The directory has a trial version for users. However, the full-fledged version needs to be purchased via a premium subscription.
7. Lepide Auditor for Active Directory
Lepide Auditor for Active Directory has been designed to monitor, audit, and report changes as and when they are made. The tool can look for modifications made in the directory and uncover the ones that are not required. It allows you to check who made the changes, what they were, and when and where they were done. Moreover, the tool is equipped with a facility to notify whenever any change is made to the directory.
Some other features include customizable control panel views, building audit logs at one location, generating views to look for directory modifications and a panel for audited systems. The auditor can also detect risks, keep a check on common attack paths, and mitigate attacks in real-time.
Jxplorer is a cross-platform tool that can be run on Windows, Linux, and many other operating systems. It provides LDAP and DSML interfaces that enable you to monitor and manage an LDAP directory without using the traditional command line. It is a Java-based tool that is quite adaptable and easy to configure. It is available in free and paid versions for businesses.
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In summary, AD adds a layer of security within an organization’s network. It enables network admins to broadcast the necessary software and updates needed to keep the network safe and secure. Moreover, it allows administrators to monitor and keep track of users who have access to the network and what privileges each one has.
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