We often begin our workdays by logging into the computer with a username and password. Shortly after verification, you are granted access to all resources you need and your day proceeds. But, there’s a good chance you haven't stopped to think about what’s happening behind the curtains.
Throughout the day, whether you're accessing shared files, printing documents, or sending emails, Active Directory ensures that you have the appropriate permissions and security settings in place. It's like having an assistant who handles network management so that you can concentrate on your work.
In this article, we will demystify what an Active Directory is and how it works.
What is Microsoft's Active Directory?
Active Directory, developed by Microsoft, is a directory service specifically designed for Windows domain networks.
As an integral part of the IT infrastructure, it manages resources within a network environment. Active Directory facilitates centralized management of users, computers, groups, and other network resources, offering administrators a comprehensive platform to control access to these resources.
Unlike other directory services, such as cloud-based solutions, Active Directory is designed for managing network resources in on-premise Microsoft environments. Thus, it may not be the best option for organizations that heavily rely on cloud-based or hybrid infrastructure.
Active Directory provides a robust framework for authentication, authorization, and resource management. It contributes to the smooth operation and security of Windows domain networks within on-premise environments.
How Does It Work?
Active Directory works by organizing data into objects and categorizing them based on their attributes and names. These objects can be entities such as users, computers, groups, and resources within a network environment. Once installed, it manages all these objects stored within its server and database.
Each object in Active Directory has specific attributes that define its characteristics and properties. For example, a user object may include attributes such as username, password, email address, and department affiliation, while a computer object may include attributes such as hostname, IP address, and operating system version.
Active Directory can be used for several functions, but the main one is its domain services. Let’s have a deeper look into Active Directory Domain Services:
Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS)
AD DS is the cornerstone of Active Directory. It manages user authentication and controls access to network resources. At its core, AD DS helps administrators ensure secure access for users while overseeing which parts of the network they can utilize.
Although Windows devices can be part of an Active Directory environment, they cannot run Active Directory Domain Services. This highlights the distinction between client devices and the domain controllers responsible for managing the Active Directory infrastructure.
For effective functioning, Active Directory Domain Services are organized hierarchically. To understand the trust relationships within AD DS and achieve effective network management, it is important to look into the hierarchy.
Hierarchy of Domain Services
The chronological order in which the AD DS appears is:
- Organizational unit
The Domain works as the foundational unit. Trees and Forests are then used to encompass multiple domains. Within domains, administrators can further organize resources and users using Organizational Units (OUs) and Containers. This hierarchical structure enables effective management and control of resources and users within a network.
Active Directory Trust Terminologies
Terms such as one-way trust, two-way trust, trusted domain, and transitive trust define the relationships between domains, dictating how authentication and access permissions are propagated across the network.
Additionally, concepts like intransitive trust, explicit trust, cross-link trust, and forest trust delineate more intricate trust scenarios within and across domain boundaries. Shortcut trusts, realm trusts, external trusts, and private access management (PAM) trusts cater to specific security and access requirements, ensuring flexibility and control in diverse network environments.
What is AD Used for?
Active Directory is a popular choice for organizational IT infrastructure due to its user-friendly identity and access management features. Its versatility extends beyond basic user authentication, encompassing a range of essential services.
This service enables organizations to create and oversee digital certificates; electronic documents that confirm the identity of individuals, devices, or organizations in a networked environment.
The certificates provide a secure means of communication, data encryption, and user and device authentication. Organizations use them to manage the entire lifecycle of digital certificates, including issuance, renewal, revocation, and validation, on a centralized platform.
Lightweight Directory Services (LDS)
LDS offers a simplified and lightweight directory solution. It is made for applications that need directory services with fewer resources and a smaller footprint than a full Active Directory domain.
LDS stores and manages directory data, enabling efficient querying and retrieval of information. It is commonly used where a standalone directory service is needed.
Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)
LDAP is an industry-standard protocol used to access and query directory services such as Active Directory. It offers a platform-independent way for applications to interact with directory services, which includes searching, retrieving, and modifying directory data.
LDAP has many practical applications, including user authentication, authorization, and directory synchronization. It enhances seamless integration between applications and directory services, making centralized management possible.
Rights Management Services (RMS)
This provides data protection capabilities to safeguard sensitive information within an organization. RMS allows organizations to define and enforce access rights and usage policies for sensitive documents and emails.
Through RMS protection, organizations control who can access, view, modify, print, or forward protected content, within and outside the organization. It also enables the tracking and auditing of protected content. This informs organizations how sensitive information is being accessed and used.
Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS)
AD FS enables single sign-on (SSO) authentication across different platforms, within and outside the organization.
It establishes trust relationships between identity providers like Active Directory and service providers like cloud-based applications, which allows access to multiple applications using a single set of credentials.
AD FS supports various authentication methods, including passwords, smart cards, and multi-factor authentication. It offers organizations flexibility and security when implementing SSO solutions.
Benefits of Active Directory
Active Directory benefits organizations in many ways, as explained below:
- Safeguarding – It keeps your critical data, applications, and credentials from unauthorized access.
- Data Organization – The hierarchical structure enables IT teams to handle user authentication, authorization, and resource management efficiently.
- Centralized backup – Ensures that critical data is securely backed up and readily accessible in the event of data loss or system failure.
- Scalability – Organizations can expand their infrastructure seamlessly as their business grows, without compromising performance or security.
- Robust auditing capabilities – Organizations can track user activities, changes to configurations, and security events. This helps in maintaining compliance with regulatory requirements and identifying potential security threats.
- Group policy management – Administrators can enforce consistent security settings, configurations, and restrictions. This ensures compliance with organizational policies.
- Seamless integration with other systems.
What is AD Management and Monitoring?
Active Directory management is about the administration of access privileges for user groups and accounts. It is the process of controlling who gets access to what resources, ensuring the protection of sensitive data.
On the other hand, AD monitoring involves keenly examining the Active Directory environment using various technologies and tools. The primary objective is to ensure the functionality and health of Active Directory and its components.
It helps administrators identify potential issues, such as performance bottlenecks or security vulnerabilities. Through it, they can take proactive measures to address issues before they impact the organization's operations.
The safety and security of the entire network environment rely on proper AD management and directory. Without effective management practices in place, there is a risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.
Are You Getting the Most out of Active Directory?
Need some help understanding all this? Getting AD deployed effectively? Ensuring you’re using it correctly? Active Directory is a complicated set of technologies deeply integrated with other Microsoft products, and it takes an experienced partner to have everything working cohesively.
CrucialLogics is a Microsoft Gold Partner experienced in a host of Microsoft technologies. Whether you need to get your Active Directory straightened out, a security review, an Office 365 deployment, or if you’re going through a merger or acquisition, we can walk you through the entire process to help you get the most out of your network infrastructure.