LDAP vs. Active Directory: Top 14 Differences You Should Know

    • Active Directory (AD) is a directory service organizations use to manage their users, devices, domains, and objects within a network.
    • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) is defined as a software protocol that manages directory services such as those offered by Microsoft Active Directory.
    • This article explains the critical differences between LDAP and Active Directory.

What Is Active Directory?

Active Directory (AD) is an organization’s directory service to manage its users, devices, domains, and objects within a network. Microsoft designed the directory to store login information to authenticate and authorize access to resources on a Windows domain network. AD runs on a Windows server. Besides authentication, the live directory offers key functionalities like group and user management, policy administration, and more.

AD’s first version was released in 2000, after which Microsoft released several directory-based identity services under the AD brand. Active directory stores data as objects organized using names and attributes. A set of objects that use one AD database is called a domain. Such domains with common schema and configuration are called a tree. A group of such trees is further called a forest. These forests constitute AD’s security framework.

Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) is the principal component of AD that validates users when they try to connect to any Windows-based system over the network. Moreover, it also assigns and enforces security policies to secure systems from external attacks. The servers that run AD DS are called Domain Controllers (DC). Typically, companies have several DCs that verify users and authenticate requests on the network.

Each DC stores the directory for its own domain. This includes users, devices, assets, applications, and security groups, along with copies of all such objects of other domains in the forest. The setup allows administrators to locate any domain object within the forest. Moreover, changes made on the directory of one DC are replicated across other DCs to keep them up to date. Changes include adding, updating, or deleting database entries.

Microsoft AD: Recent developments

Microsoft and its products rely on AD for its various on-premises and cloud operations. For instance, in December 2016, Microsoft launched ‘Azure AD Connect’ to integrate the on-premises AD system with Azure AD. The Azure AD Connect enabled a single sign-on (SSO) authentication feature for users that intend to use Microsoft’s cloud services, such as Microsoft Office 365.

Today, Microsoft’s AD is a commonly used directory service across offices and VPNs. According to Slintel’s March 2023 report, 33.42% of the global market uses Microsoft AD. Azure Active Directory is used by 13.52%, Microsoft Azure Active Directory is used by 10.42%, while AWS Identity and Access Management are used by 5.54%.

Microsoft AD supports Kerberos and LDAP, key to overall access management where logins from multiple devices and platforms are handled from one place. Other directory services that support LDAP include Red Hat Directory Service, OpenLDAP, Apache Directory Server, and more.

Apart from AD service, Microsoft offers a suite of technologies that include Lightweight Directory Services (AD LDS), Federation Services (AD FS), Rights Management Services (AD RMS), and Certificate Services (AD CS) for on-premise Active Directory related deployments.

Benefits of AD

The overall objective of AD is to have a centralized repository where all network resources can be stored. Moreover, it keeps the network components secure and organized without employing excessive IT resources.

Let’s understand some of the critical benefits of Active Directory.

      • It is easy to create user accounts, delete user accounts, and add new resources to the network.
      • It involves a simple process to reset the passwords of network objects.
      • Administrators can easily set access permissions for specific groups. For instance, setting up user groups that can share files and applications.
      • It is easy to establish an organization’s network hierarchy. For example, AD allows you to determine whether specific devices belong to your network.

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What Is Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)?

LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) is a software protocol that manages directory services such as those offered by Microsoft AD. LDAP helps users access, query, and manage information within a directory over a private network or public internet. LDAP enables effective directory management where users can add, delete, modify, and search entries in the directory database. Moreover, it simplifies user authentication and authorization to the directory.

Let’s draw an analogy to understand this better. Active Directory can be assumed to be a phone registry containing an individual’s or company’s contact details. On the other hand, LDAP can be considered the smartphone that uses the registry to connect to those individuals. Hence, LDAP can be regarded as a medium to connect to the Active Directory.

LDAP uses the X.500 standard to query and organize information from multiple web servers using various attributes. LDAP is a ‘lightweight’ (or simplified) version of DAP (Directory Access Protocol).

How does LDAP work?

Its operations begin when an LDAP user connects to an LDAP server. The process involves the following steps:

      1. A client or application requests a connection to the LDAP server.
      2. Next, the client sends a query to the server via the LDAP protocol.
      3. Next, the protocol scans through the directory, searches for relevant information, performs appropriate tasks, and sends the information back to the client.
      4. The client disconnects from the server once the query is addressed.

However, the administrator must define a few other parameters to optimize the search before the client fires the query at the LDAP server. For instance, this may include the search’s size limit, the time the server can spend processing the query, etc.

Also, before the LDAP server begins the eventual search operation, it is essential to authenticate the users and applications through the LDAP bind operation. This can be accomplished using one of the following two methods:

      • Simple authentication: This involves the simple process of entering the client credentials that get verified by the server. Upon successful verification, the client gets connected to the server. However, this is not secure as the credentials are transferred over the network in cleartext.
      • Simple Authentication and Security Layer (SASL): In this method, the LDAP server uses a secondary service, such as Kerberos, that uses encryption-based processes to verify user identities. Organizations that require more robust security measures can avail of this method.

Moreover, after user authentication, it is verified whether the user has authorization to access the requested network resources. When the client does not have the required privileges, the LDAP server denies the access request. 

Applications that use LDAP

LDAP establishes a centralized location for authentication. Its primary application is to validate users with Jenkins, Kubernetes, OpenVPN, and Linux Samba servers. Moreover, LDAP is used to manipulate directory server database as it can perform the following operations on it:

      • Add operations
      • Authenticate or bind sessions
      • Remove LDAP entries
      • Search and compare entries through commands
      • Alter existing entries
      • Abandon requests
      • Unbind operations

As discussed earlier, LDAP is used by active directories like Microsoft’s Active Directory, OpenLDAP, Red Hat Directory Server, and IBM Security Directory Server. Let’s understand the role of LDAP in each directory.

      • OpenLDAP: It is an open-source LDAP client developed for LDAP database management. The client program searches, creates, deletes, and modifies information on the LDAP server. Moreover, it allows users to manage and browse passwords using schema.
      • Red Hat Directory Server: It is a UNIX program that handles multiple network systems that run on an LDAP server. The program limits user access to directory data, restricts access privileges, and controls remote access to the LDAP server.
      • IBM Security Directory Server: It represents an LDAP tool of IBM. This implementation quickly creates and distributes user identities, security, and web applications.

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LDAP vs. Active Directory: 14 Key Differences

Active Directory is a network directory service linked to Microsoft users, devices, and services. While LDAP defines a protocol not connected to Microsoft, it allows users to query directories like AD. The partnership of AD and LDAP is crucial for companies that intend to secure their network from external actors and access breaches while making their confidential information accessible to internal and external parties.

Let’s discuss some of the critical differences between AD and LDAP.

Service LDAP AD
Name Lightweight Directory Access Protocol Active Directory
Standard LDAP is an open standard that can be used by anyone. Active Directory is a proprietary technology that can only be used by organizations with a license for Microsoft products.
Principle LDAP is an application protocol used to modify and query records in directory services such as Active Directory. Active Directory refers to Microsoft’s hierarchical directory database system that provides directory services, such as authentication, policy administration, user account management, etc., in a Windows environment.
Architecture LDAP is designed to be a simple, lightweight directory service that is highly scalable. Active Directory is a more complex directory service optimized for large, complex network environments.
Management LDAP can be managed through a command-line or basic GUIs. Active Directory uses the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), offering a rich management environment.
O.S. and application integration LDAP directories can be integrated with various operating systems, including Windows, Linux, and macOS. It also supports different SaaS-based applications. Active Directory is designed to integrate with the Windows operating system and other Microsoft products. However, AD integrates with other SaaS applications.
Integration with other technologies LDAP does not have integration with other tech. Hence, organizations that use Microsoft technologies find it less useful. Active Directory is integrated with most Microsoft products. Hence, organizations reliant on Microsoft technologies can easily manage their technology infrastructure.
Security It is less secure than Active Directory Active Directory offers better security than LDAP as it integrates easily with other Microsoft products, such as Exchange and SharePoint. Moreover, it can enforce policies and permissions at the directory level.
Ease of use LDAP is a technical protocol that requires a good understanding of the underlying technology which tries to access the directory databases. Active Directory provides a user-friendly interface and various management tools that help administrators manage the directory service with little technical knowledge.
Cost The cost of using LDAP varies based on two factors: firstly, the implementation process, and secondly, the resources required to maintain it. As Active Directory demands the need for a license for Microsoft products, the cost of using AD is higher than LDAP.
Ideal-for LDAP is ideal for small- and medium-sized organizations as it is lightweight, efficient, and easy to implement. Active Directory is suitable for larger enterprises that have complex IT requirements.
Interoperability LDAP is interoperable as it integrates easily with other systems, platforms, and authentication methods, such as Kerberos, Smart cards, Kubernetes, OpenVPN, etc. Active Directory is typically integrated with Windows and other Microsoft products. However, it is highly interoperable with other systems and platforms like Kerberos.
Device management It lacks device management features. Windows devices, users, and groups are managed using Group Policy Objects (GPOs).
Working It works on X.500 protocol. However, LDAP relies on the TCP/IP networking model rather than the OSI model. AD is a part of the ‘Windows Server OS’ where the data is stored as objects and attributes distributed within multiple domains, trees, and so on.

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LDAP is a go-to protocol for companies that require scalable directory service and is easy to use. Moreover, it is supported by several different operating systems, platforms, and applications. On the other hand, AD is a preferable option for organizations that require advanced directory service that can run in Windows network environments and have effective management capabilities.

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