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Active Directory vs. Azure AD, Do we need both?


We may never see this level of rivalry between two products of a parent company ever again, as seen in Microsoft Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) and Microsoft Azure Active Directory (AAD). Cloud architects and engineers sometimes find it challenging to choose which directory to store, manage and secure data.

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As workplace structure changes and companies look for ways to improve operations and accommodate more SaaS solutions necessary for their day-to-day business, heads of business are beginning to have the “active directory on-premise vs Azure” discussion more regularly.

Preference is often the ultimate decider in these scenarios. However, we intend to take a cursory look at both directories, how they apply to your operations, which best suits your organization and how to migrate from an on-prem active directory to Azure.

Azure Active Directory vs. On-Premise Active Directory

Active Directory is a database where the devices you need to get work done are plugged into. An active directory runs on a windows server and allows an organization’s administrators to secure and store data and manage and restrict access by setting user-specific permissions.

They are in the exact physical location of the organizations they serve. The components of an active directory include the schema, global catalog, query and index mechanism and replication service. Each part ensures that administrators can define user attributes, store and sort data and distribute them on demand.

Azure Active Directory is often called the cloud equivalent of an active directory. Administrators of organizations use the cloud service to manage and control identities and access Software as a Service (SaaS) apps like Office 365 and other external resources. 

The Azure AD can be used as a standalone directory or as part of a hybrid setup when paired with its on-premise counterpart. However, Azure AD cannot handle operations specific to the on-premise solution because it is not a domain controller. 

Although Azure Active Directory Domain Services (Azure AD DS) has removed the need for domain controllers in Azure, reducing the number of virtual machines to be maintained, many businesses are better acquainted with AD, which makes migrating to Azure a challenge.

Similarities Between Azure Active Directory and On-Premise Active Directory

AD and AAD share some striking similarities. First, they are both directories that help organizations structure employee access to information on the server. Without streamlined access to the database, your company’s operations can be messy because information above an employee’s pay grade is not easily accessible. 

User identity verification is essential to partitioning database access. Irrespective of the directory of choice, you can create a user authentication process that employees must pass before accessing the server’s information. They also support multi-factor authentication for privileged access or routine checks to confirm that somebody else hasn’t stolen your password.

With both directories, you can control what users can do with the information. You can grant employees read access to documents in a folder and grant higher administrative staff read and write access to the same records. 

Differences Between Azure Active Directory and On-Premise Active Directory

Identity Management

Managing administrative rights on using AD involves using domains, organization units and request-response protocols like LDAP and groups. On the other hand, AAD comes built-in with a role-based access control (RBAC) system where you can delegate access to apps, identity systems and server resources. You can customize access to be available for only a period and specific workflow using Privileged Identity Management. 

Provisioning Users and External Identities

Organizations using AD can create users manually with Microsoft Identity Manager or a proprietary provisioning system. However, external identities are made in a dedicated forest managed by an administrator to prevent continued access beyond the specified time. 

For AAD, you can create user classes using cloud-based HR systems and sync AD user accounts and information to the cloud in a hybrid setup. AAD comes with a particular external identity with a unique identity class from where you can manage validity.

Infrastructure and SaaS Apps 

AD supports SaaS apps only with a federation system (ADFS) but works incredibly well with infrastructure apps because it forms the basis of components like DHCP, WiFi, VPN and DNS. 

Organizations can integrate and configure SaaS apps supporting SAML, OAuth2 and WS to use AAD authentication. The service is intended more for accessing apps than controlling network infrastructure components like AD.

Mobile, Windows Desktops and Linux Workloads

AD does not support Linux and mobile devices without using third-party apps. Organizations must configure Linux machines as a Keberos realism if they are to be used for authentication. You can domain join several windows devices and manage them with AD using Group Policy, System Center Configuration Manager or any third-party solution you choose. 

AAD works well with Microsoft Intune, making mobile phones and windows desktops accessible for evaluations during authentication processes. Unix OS-based devices and VMs can access the identity system and resources using managed identities. Alternatively, you can transfer workloads based on these OS to cloud-based containers, which you can then manage with managed identities. 

Can Azure Active Directory Replace On-Premise?

The short answer to your question is: yes, you can. However, choosing AAD over AD is more complex than you might think. AAD can handle everything else and, in most cases, even better than AD can. However, if using domain controllers is an essential part of your daily operations, it will be challenging to move operations to AAD. 

Group Policy functionality has also been a source of worry for organizations considering the idea of fully migrating to AAD. They can now manage group devices by using the conditional access feature to check for device compliance before allowing access to your system servers to maintain a high level of security.

The initial concept of AAD was for it to be a simple solution for the users on an organization’s network to access Microsoft 365 services. They previously needed a federation system to access Microsoft 3645 services and other SaaS apps. 

Benefits of Migrating On-Premise Active Directory to Azure

While support is usually the only gripe concerning the migration of an organization’s activities from AD to AAD, there are several ways your business can benefit from transferring workloads. Here are some of them:

Better Security and Compliance Management and Maintenance

As needed, you can deploy more intricate security measures with Azure and detailed audits and reports. AAD makes it possible to set conditions that actively guide employees during verification and login attempts. These conditions also determine if the entity’s behavior matches that of the employee; the system asks for more secure multi-factor authentication.

Several other activities are automated and do not require system administrators to grant special access. These activities include but are not limited to password resets and provisioning new users in non-native Microsoft SaaS apps. This way, extra resources required for manually implementing these security measures are diverted to other operations, making your organization thrive thanks to better workforce efficiency.

Identity and Access Management 

Authenticating users and attaching their access levels to their identities are possible with both AD and ADD. However, it simplifies identity and access management because users and applications are stored at a central location. AAD allows managing users and assigning roles and access with accompanying self-service features to reduce IT staff workload.

More Cost-Effective Than AD

AAD is cheaper to run and maintain because you can automate most of the activities on the network. Because you do not own AAD because it is not located in your business premises, you only pay for the resources you use for as long as you use them. Alternatively, you would be responsible for the smooth and safe running of AD, which sometimes comes with the added cost of hiring a maintenance staff for the facility. AAD comes with zero licensure worries because you are not directly responsible for your server’s maintenance.

Essential for Zero Trust and SASE

Zero Trust is a security system that eliminates implicit trust by denying all access by an entity to a server until the completion of the verification process. The Zero Trust system follows the rule “never trust, always verify.” AAD is the first of the 12 steps to implementing Zero Trust identity management principles. When implemented, Zero Trust:

  • Ensures accurate infrastructure inventory
  • Improved user monitoring and security alerts
  • Makes the user experience better
  • Provides higher and better-streamlined security ratings
  • Guarantees the mobility and versatility of your apps, services and data

AAD is also essential for SASE (Secure Access Service Edge), a component critical to designing a Zero Trust system. SASE makes remote work environments easier to operate and manage an organization’s security system from one location.

Moving Your On-Premise Active Directory to Azure

Azure Active Directories give your business the upper hand regarding maintenance costs, technical superiority and flexibility, especially for corporations with large data structures and cloud footprints. 

Some may argue that some user devices with apps relying on legacy AD applications are a considerable bottleneck for the complete transition to Azure and call for a more dynamic hybrid setup. However, maintaining a hybrid active directory structure is not sustainable in the long run because you spend more time and workforce managing data on both servers instead of managing one. 

In addition, AAD now fully migrates and supports these applications that once caused substantial challenges to the CTO and heads of IT departments. First, establish a connection through synchronization between the initial directories on AD and Azure using Azure AD Connect. This allows you to authenticate external applications using Single Sign-On (SSO) with your internal AD account. 

Next, you implement Azure AD Domain Services to sync with AD and deploy Azure workloads that run on native AD services like domain join, group policy and authentication protocols (LDAP, Kerberos and NTLM). You can then undertake a complete migration to AAD, which can come with the presence of an AAD Domain Services on your Azure tenant.

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Migrate Your On-Prem AD to Azure for Outstanding Device Management and Security

Azure AD is worth the investment as it saves you time and resources that would have otherwise been dedicated to maintaining physical AD infrastructures, better secures your employees and the information on your server and manages the security compliance of devices on the network. Azure's cybersecurity, identity and information protection protocols are second-to-none in the industry. 

At ne Digital, we are dedicated to helping you partake in the immense benefits of migrating to Azure AD. We understand the technical challenges associated with setting up your Azure AD, and we are committed to helping you simplify your workload designs and migration to the cloud. Contact us today for your Azure cloud migration needs and ways we can help you stay ahead of the competition with our tailored services.

Topics: Azure

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