What’s the difference between Active Directory and Azure Active Directory?

What’s the difference between Active Directory and Azure Active Directory?

In one of our previous posts, we took a look at Active Directory (AD) and why small businesses in Toronto need it. More recently, Microsoft developed a cloud-based version of this service: Azure Active Directory (Azure AD). Let’s take a look at what active directory is, the difference between Active Directory and Azure Active Directory, and when your business would do well to use either one.

Wait — you just sold me on the benefits of using AD last time. Why do I need additional Microsoft Cloud services?

If you’re not using Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365, or other Microsoft cloud services, then yes, AD should be enough for your business. AD is for on-premises (on-prem) systems and resides on in-house servers called domain controllers.

Azure AD, on the other hand, is cloud-based. Organizations that use Microsoft’s cloud services are already using Azure AD as their identity and access management (IAM) tool by default. Therefore, if your firm has gone all-in on the cloud, then Azure AD may be all you need. However, if you have a hybrid environment, then you’ll need both on-prem AD and Azure AD.

What’s the difference between Microsoft Active Directory vs. Azure AD?

Since Azure AD is the newer tech between the two, we can expect it to be better than on-prem AD in some respects. Here’s a breakdown of the differences between Active Directory and Azure AD.

User Provisioning

In regular AD, admins need to either create user accounts manually or use an automated provisioning system like Microsoft Identity Manager to integrate the organization’s HR system with AD.

With Azure AD, user provisioning is accomplished more easily:

  • It can create user accounts automatically based on some cloud HR systems.
  • It can sync on-prem AD user accounts with Azure AD user accounts.
  • It automatically provides each user the apps that they’re allowed to access.

Administration and Access Rights

Granting and managing admin rights is simpler on Azure AD vs. Active Directory. This is because it already has predefined roles that can delegate privileged permissions to Azure AD’s identity system, the resources this system controls, and the apps that Azure AD interfaces with.

Furthermore, unlike on-prem AD, Azure AD has Privileged Identity Management, a service that provides clever ways to limit user access to sensitive information and critical resources. Some of these ways include:

  • Just-in-time access: Users who need access to sensitive information and critical resources must ask permission when they need access rights. These rights may be granted for a limited period of time (between 0 and 24 hours), after which the user will have to repeat the process if they need access again.
  • Just enough access: Admins can grant guests access to information and resources for a fixed period of time. For example, an intern might only stay in the company for three months, so admins can set that intern’s access to be automatically terminated once the three months have elapsed.

Credential Management

On-prem AD grants access to users when they enter the correct username and password, authenticate a certificate, or use the correct smart card. While Microsoft Active Directory does allow admins to enforce stringent password policies, such as password length and complexity, it does not go beyond that.

On the other hand, Azure AD automatically applies intelligent password protection so that no user would ever use weak or common passwords. Additionally, one of the benefits of Azure Active Directory is that it bolsters security by implementing multifactor authentication and passwordless authentication technologies such as biometrics, the Microsoft Authenticator App, and Fast IDentity Online security keys (hardware devices such as USBs that fulfill user authentication).

Architectural Differences

As far as Microsoft cloud services go, Active Directory vs. Azure Active Directory are structured a little bit differently.

AD consists of the directory schema, organizational units, as well as domains and forests. Directory schema is used to map out the type of information in the system and how and where it’s stored. Information can include birthdays, email addresses, physical addresses, and other confidential data.

Organizational units and domains give you the authority to categorize various users as you see fit (e.g., by department headings and job descriptions). The purpose of this is to grant certain users various levels of authentication into network locations and track their activity accordingly.

If you want to create a more in-depth or complex authentication process for certain users, then you can implement domains and forests.

Microsoft Cloud Services Benefits

As always, the login process for both cloud servers is highly regulated and secure, but in different ways. Microsoft Active Directory allows you to retain complete control over and access to your corporate networks without ever revealing the authentication information to Microsoft.

One of the benefits of Azure Active Directory is that it takes the security level up a few notches. Using a series of artificially intelligent devices, this system automatically recognizes potentially risky failed multifactor authentication attempts. Appropriate parameters such as location-based programming are used to determine whether there’s a potential security risk at play or if someone simply forgot their password and needs to reset it.

As a result, Azure Active Directory allows users to reset their passwords and regain access after following a rigorous multistep authentication process.

Lastly, Azure AD also has a state-of-the-art smart login system that quickly identifies valid authentication and login attempts from potential bad actors.

Device Management

With Azure AD, mobile device management can be initiated through Microsoft Intune. The only caveat is that you’ll have to install Windows 10 or higher on each device that’s added to the network for it to work.

So, we should really be using Azure AD, then?

Not quite. An all-cloud environment is still pretty rare, but if that’s the case for you, then Azure AD can be a full solution. In a hybrid environment, however, you must bear in mind that, on its own, Azure AD can’t apply group policies to servers or even to devices other than those running Windows 10.

To apply group policies, other solutions both within and outside of the Microsoft ecosystem may be required. As with any cloud service, Azure AD comes with many great features designed to be easy, but the compromise is that it lacks the flexibility and functionality that the full on-prem AD can provide for more complex hybrid environments.

Why Opt for XBASE Technologies as a Preferred Cloud Services Provider in Toronto?

Regular AD and Azure AD are both IAM tools, but that’s where their similarities end. To better know if you need one or the other or both, talk with XBASE Technologies and our Exponentially Better™ IT professionals. With our Microsoft cloud service management team on your side, your organization can take full advantage of everything the cloud has to offer. Schedule a FREE consultation today.