Active Directory (AD), which Microsoft first released with Windows 2000 Server Edition, is now nearly two decades old.
Nonetheless, Active Directory remains one of the most important technology frameworks for modern IT professionals to understand. This is true not just for those who help deploy and manage Windows systems, but also those in the Linux and Unix world, since Unix-like systems can be managed through AD.
That’s why understanding the tools available for working with AD is a must for many IT professionals today. Keep reading for an overview of Microsoft Active Directory and the tools available for working with it.
What is Active Directory?
In a nutshell, AD is a service that allows you to manage users, groups, and permissions across multiple desktops, servers, and other devices.
AD was designed to help SysAdmins manage multiple users in a large environment. While it’s easy enough to handle things like password setup and file permissions manually when you’re dealing only with a single computer and a handful of users, you can’t feasibly manage hundreds of user accounts across dozens of devices by hand.
Active Directory solves this issue by performing services such as user authentication and group-based access control automatically, based on policies that admins set up from a central server.
In order to work with AD, admins must understand a number of terms whose meaning is not often obvious for the uninitiated. While a complete list of Active Directory terminology is beyond the scope of this article, the most important terms to know include:
- Objects: In AD, an object is any type of—well—object that can be registered and managed through Active Directory. An object could be a computer, a server or a user account, for example.
- Domains: A domain is a collection of objects, along with information to identify them and control how they are used.
- Organizational units (OUs): A group of objects within a domain to which policies can be applied. An OU represents the smallest set of objects that can be controlled via a single set of Active Directory policies.
Active Directory Challenges
While AD simplifies user and account management in many ways, it is not without its challenges. There are a number of pain points that admins typically face when working with Active Directory, which are detailed below.
Keeping Data Up-to-Date
In a large computing environment, it’s typical for users to join and leave on a recurring basis. This happens, for example, whenever a new employee joins the company, or moves from one department to another.
If you administer an Active Directory domain, you probably spend a significant amount of time updating user accounts to deal with these changes. You also have to keep other AD components (like user groups and organizational units) up-to-date.
Managing Multiple Domains
One of AD’s most powerful features is the ability to support multiple domains—meaning collections of different “objects,” which could be user accounts, computers or another type of resource. This makes it possible to create complex hierarchies of resources and apply different policies to them.
However, keeping track of multiple domains can be a challenge when the domains become too numerous. Admins can control this challenge by limiting the number of domains they set up, but that often requires sacrificing granularity and flexibility.
Enforcing Security Best Practices
Ideally, Active Directory should be configured to require users to update passwords on a periodic basis. It should also minimize access control; unless a given user or group needs access to a particular resource, the access should not be available.
The challenge with enforcing these security best practices is that they require manual effort to set up and maintain. AD cannot automatically determine the ideal password or access control policies for a given organization.
Exporting Active Directory Data
In the event that you need to export Active Directory data for migration or backup purposes, doing so can be challenging. Microsoft’s native tools provide some support for this process, but they still require a fair amount of manual effort.
Integrating with Unix-like Systems
Connecting Linux-based or other Unix-like assets to an Active Directory domain can be challenging. Protocols like LDAP make it possible to achieve this integration, but again, Microsoft’s native Active Directory tools provide limited support for this task.
Managing Extended Attributes
Setting up and updating extended attribute data for AD domains (such as user pictures and company logos) is another task that is not well supported by Microsoft’s native tools. Admins must therefore manage it manually, unless they take advantage of third-party tools that were designed to streamline extended attribute management.
Integration with Public Clouds
AD was designed well before cloud computing became a common part of most companies’ infrastructures. Although Active Directory has been updated to support public cloud resources, this type of integration can be awkward. This is especially true when using AD in conjunction with clouds other than Azure (Microsoft’s own public cloud).
Policy Enforcement and Monitoring
AD was designed to establish and manage policies related to users, groups and access control, not to enforce or monitor those policies. The latter tasks require third-party tools.
Pros and Cons of ADAC and ADUC for Active Directory Management
Active Directory Administrative Center (ADAC) and Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC) are Microsoft’s official tools for managing Active Directory resources. As such, they are the first tools that admins typically turn to.
These tools have some advantages. For one, they are installed by default on Windows Server. They are also officially supported by Microsoft. They provide graphical user interfaces for managing Active Directory configurations and resources. And they have a long track record of use in enterprises.
However, while Active Directory Administrative Center and Active Directory Users and Computers may be helpful for basic Active Directory management task, these tools may not be enough when supporting more complex, large-scale Active Directory environments.
If your AD environment requires minimal management then using ADAC and ADUC may be sufficient for your needs. It can use Remote Desktop or a similar tool to achieve remote access and manage data and policies created on outdated versions of the software. However, keep in mind that data can only be exported into .txt or .csv file formats, and cleaning up metadata can be difficult using these tools. The ADUC or ADAC graphical interface may indicate one state, while in fact, low-level data is in a different state. Reconciling inherited data following an Active Directory migration or upgrade can also be particularly challenging using Microsoft’s official tools, as is managing data and policies that were created on outdated versions of the software.
Using Non-Native Tools for Active Directory Management
For more complex use cases, third-party tools like Dameware® can come in handy. Well-designed, third party-tools provide multiple features, such as:
Automatic Agent Installation
With Dameware, agents are deployed automatically to host devices so that they can be managed with AD through the Dameware console. Automatic deployment is designed to save setup time and help ensure more comprehensive coverage of the environment.
Managing Multiple Domains from One Console
Having to switch between multiple computers in order to manage different AD domains can be tedious and waste admins’ time. Third-party tools can make it easier to manage multiple domains from a single console.
Support for Extended Attributes
With tools like Dameware, adding and managing extended attributes for AD domains may be more simple. Data like user photos can be integrated seamlessly into an Active Directory management framework.
Third-party tools help to make Active Directory object export simple and fast. They can eliminate the need to perform tedious manual processes and offer more flexibility than ADAC and ADUC for deployment formats.
In short, third-party tools can provide a level of centralization that native Active Directory tools lack. With a tool such as Dameware, one tool and one console can offer admins what they need for management of multiple domains spread across large infrastructures.
Active Directory is a must-know for most IT professionals today. That is likely to remain the case for years to come as AD remains the go-to directory service for on-premises as well as cloud-based infrastructures.
While Microsoft offers useful native tools for managing AD, these tools often don’t provide all of the advanced features required to address the many pain points that admins commonly face when working with AD. Effective, efficient Active Directory management requires pairing native tools with third-party solutions that are designed to provide more functionality and user-friendliness than native tools alone.
To see for yourself how much easier Active Directory management can be with the help of third-party tools, try the Dameware remote administration solution for free.
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