LDAP vs. Active Directory: What’s the Difference?

LDAP vs. Active Directory: What’s the Difference?
LDAP vs. Active Directory: What’s the Difference?

Some IT admins think that there are only two options available for directory service providers: Microsoft Active Directory or LDAP. However, there is another perspective involved.

Instead of choosing between Active Directory or LDAP, it's better to consider how to make the most of both systems.

Active Directory (AD) and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) are standard terms that we don't usually talk about what they do and how to use them well.

To help with this, we have outlined the main difference between LDAP and AD for better understanding and decision-making.

What is Active Directory?

Active Directory (AD) is a tool from Microsoft that helps Windows network systems manage user access. It includes a database (directory) and services that work together to verify user identities and permissions.

The directory stores user information like names, phone numbers, and logins, as well as device and network asset information.

Active Directory: Explained in Detail

A directory is like a file cabinet on your computer. It can have folders inside it (subdirectories), and those can have more folders inside (called child directories). The top-level directory is called the root directory.

Microsoft is home to various software, such as Windows, Exchange, and SharePoint. We, as users, don't want to remember different passwords for each app we use, and admins want to manage access to computers and printers.

Active Directory was made to make this easier by storing user and computer info in a single directory. Think about working at a company without a directory:

  • You'd have to enter your username and password for each app.
  • Admins would have to assign you to each app you need manually.
  • You'd have to change your password or name in every app you use.

What is Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)?

LDAP is a part of Active Directory (AD) as it's used for directory access. When clients search for objects like users or printers, LDAP queries relevant objects and returns the correct results.

LDAP helps users search for objects within Active Directory. For example, when a user wants to find a computer or group in Active Directory, LDAP searches and retrieves the relevant information.

LDAP administrators have access to the most significant amount of information and can add or remove data from the server as needed.

In addition to conventional roles, sub-admin or manager roles can be created with some administrator privileges, which is helpful for large companies and organisations with IT teams.

The Difference Between LDAP and Active Directory

LDAP, or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, is a typical protocol that lets you use Microsoft's Active Directory to store and share information about users, computers, and other objects.

Think of LDAP as a language that allows communication with Active Directory.

Just as Apache is a server that uses the HTTP language for communication, Active Directory is a directory server that uses the LDAP protocol.

AD authentication in LDAP focuses on exchanging information between clients and servers, including user details and contact information.

The Role of LDAP Active Directory Explained in Detail

LDAP Authentication process involves multiple levels of permission, and users obtain access to information and resources. Anonymous users have the least access, while company employees typically have access to the most relevant and helpful information.

There are two types of LDAP authentication: simple and Simple Authentication and Security Layer (SASL). Simple Authentication has three ways to authenticate:

  • Anonymous Authentication: gives anonymous status to LDAP
  • Unauthenticated Authentication: only for logging purposes, should not grant access
  • Name/Password Authentication: grants access based on a supplied name and password.

To use SASL Authentication, the LDAP server is linked to another authentication protocol. Then, the LDAP server sends a message to this authorisation service through a series of query-and-response messages (like a conversation), which results in either successful or failed authorisation.

Challenges of LDAP vs Active Directory

LDAP, as an older technology, has some challenges that organisations may struggle to overcome, such as

  • Its age and need for more suitability for cloud and web-based applications.
  • Setting up and maintaining LDAP (which typically requires an expert.)

Active Directory also has its drawbacks, such as

  • Being limited to Windows environments and potentially causing network downtime if it fails.
  • High setup and maintenance costs for Active Directory,
  • Requires on-premise infrastructure for legacy versions, which limits their capabilities.

Final Thoughts

In summary, LDAP is a protocol that lets users query directories, including AD, and authenticate users to access them. Alternatively, Active Directory is a Microsoft network directory service for managing users, devices, and services.

One typical AD service is Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS), hosted on a Domain Controller (DC) server. The main difference between a Domain Controller and Active Directory is that a DC is a server that runs AD to authenticate users and devices.

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