Request demo

How Does Active Directory Work?

Active Directory (AD) is Microsoft’s solution to information management. Using Active Directory Domain Services, network administrators can access all the sensitive information available in an enterprise network, using a hierarchical structure typical of all directory services.

To help you make sense of IT roles and responsibilities, passwords, and other information that only privileged administrators should access, Active Directory offers policy-based directories to facilitate clear, structured management. 

Ensuring the security of your Active Directory domain is an essential aspect of Active Directory management. For optimum security in today’s cyberscape, Active Directory management requires a Zero Trust approach, which eliminates the risk of compromise at the highest level. 

This article will provide an introduction to how Active Directory works, and how Active Directory Domain Services are facilitating network organization, even as networks become increasingly complex.


What is Active Directory?
How Is Active Directory Structured?
Which Protocol Is Used By Active Directory?
What Are the Benefits of Active Directory?
Managing Active Directory Security
Securing Your Active Directory Infrastructure with PrivX


New call-to-action

What is Active Directory?

Active Directory (AD) was founded in 2000 and offers directory services for networks that use Windows domain services. Active Directory was to enable Windows users to manage networks using a centralized directory, where data is stored for administrative access. The directory contains important details about servers, resources, computers, scanners, and other in-network IT devices that are grouped together into units known as “domains”. 

Managing the Active Directory requires a hierarchical approach. Like other directories, access to all of the directory data is granted to a very small number of privileged users at the highest tier. Other users are given credentials to access information at their appropriate levels.

In Active Directory, there are several services that provide different administrative capabilities for domains, trees, and entire forests of users. Active Directory Domain Services is the service that offers security management, as well as convenient access to queries and filters. Aside from Domain Services, other AD services include Rights Management Services, Lightweight Directory Services, and more. Multiple domains are managed from the Active Directory global catalog, where network device data is centrally stored.

Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) is also the AD service that oversees privileged access management (PAM), which determines who can access which levels of information and when. Understandably, Active Directory has the potential to be a gold mine of sensitive data for cyber attackers, if compromised.

Because Domain Services are the headquarters of overall Active Directory security management, it’s critical that you protect Domain Services with a comprehensive PAM solution. PAM in Active Directory requires admins to continuously manage privileged accounts, protect and rotate passwords, and employ encryption solutions to protect data at rest and in transit.


How Is Active Directory Structured?

Like other directory services, Active Directory is structured hierarchically. At the top of the AD structure are forests — these are the ultimate security boundaries that unite objects in your inventory. Because forests offer the final security wall, objects within a tree can potentially interact with one another, but not with objects outside their forest. To interact with an object under another forest, an IT administrator will need to assign special permissions (known as a “trust”) between the two disparate objects. 

Some organizations may operate with just one forest, but larger businesses might use multiple forests to separate different employee groups that have no need for interaction. Within each forest, trees refer to the hierarchical structure of domains. Domains are a collection of objects that have related credentials, and multiple objects from a single administrative user or office can exist within one domain.

Which Protocol Is Used By Active Directory?

Within Active Directory’s forest-tree-domain structure, Domain Services allows you to manage your domain security from a server known as a domain controller. Each domain can have its own domain controller, which contains a working knowledge of the objects within its AD domain. Using a global catalog server, IT admins can manage multiple domain controllers within a single AD server. 

Traditionally, Active Directory domain controllers aren’t available from just any device. Domain Services run on specific protocols, which are available using infrastructure from Microsoft. These feasible protocols include DNS, LDAP, and Kerberos. It is also possible to deploy Active Directory Domain Services from the cloud using Microsoft Azure Active Directory.

What Are the Benefits of Active Directory?

For the past two decades, Active Directory has become an industry standard for network security and management. Although Active Directory has evolved from a purely on-premises service to a potentially hybrid or cloud-based service, there are several benefits that make Active Directory a highly secure — and user-friendly — way to manage your network. 

Active Directory uses a variety of effective methods for managing network security and user permissions. These include: 

  • Streamlined network management. Effective IT management requires a centralized control system, with an efficient interface. With Active Directory, you can view an intuitively-structured tree of domains, each with relevant objects and permissions available with a single click.
  • User-friendly access. End-users find AD to be a smooth experience, which helps to avoid frustration from customers and employees alike. With clear permission policies, users don’t have to log in any more than absolutely necessary, avoiding multiple layers of passwords or blocked access for something within their privilege. 
  • A wide range of AD services. Since its inception in 2000, Active Directory has taken many shapes and sizes. Whether you’re managing your network with on-premises Domain Services, or a hybrid/cloud Azure Active Directory, you can find AD services that match your enterprise needs. 
  • Secure device management. Administrators can identify objects based on a variety of security identifiers, like passwords and login times. All these identifiers are visible from Active Directory Domain Services, which offers a bird’s-eye view of domain objects, management hierarchies, and security protections.

Managing Active Directory Security

Because Active Directory offers a centralized management solution for passwords, access credentials, and security hierarchies, it’s crucial that you secure AD with a strong PAM solution. Cyber attackers often attempt to use passwords and other stolen credentials to access privileged user accounts. By providing privileged user management and no more data availability than absolutely necessary, Active Directory allows you to manage who can access what data and what each user is allowed to do.

Because Active Directory is the key to accessing so much sensitive information, industry audits, from HIPAA to SOX, require secure AD management. To ensure effective AD security, it’s important to minimize the permissions of each user in your organization. This basic principle of privileged access management allows you to minimize damage from a single password leak or an unintended insider threat.

In addition to managing permissions, AD security requires constant monitoring for security threats. This means you must regularly view Group Policy controls in your AD Domain Services and identify any potential vulnerabilities in your domain objects. By reviewing and updating Group Policy, you can ensure each object is accessible to only the most necessary users. Regular monitoring also allows you to identify security compromises by flagging suspicious changes to policies.

New call-to-actionSecuring Your Active Directory Infrastructure with PrivX

In Microsoft Active Directory, the “directory” is a collection of objects within a single domain. When it’s time to manage your IT infrastructure, each directory is different. Objects can include individual computers, scanners, printers, and users with specific permissions. Ensuring Active Directory security requires security monitoring for these domain objects, as well as access credentials for your entire organization. 

Enter PrivX. From the minds at SSH, PrivX syncs with Active Directory for a comprehensive PAM solution for Active Directory admins. PrivX is a Zero Trust solution that allows for automated password management — including automated password rotation and vaulting. Plus, PrivX offers passwordless access with ephemeral access certificates based on biometric authentication. This means you can maintain your current passwords while migrating to passwordless at a pace that suits you. 

For IT admins at all levels, PrivX offers a streamlined and automated approach to Active Directory security. You can keep audit trails, automate credential management, and keep track of on-premises or cloud-based AD environments. 

PrivX is improving security for Active Directory users, and it’s improving efficiency too. Learn more about how PrivX is bringing innovation to AD, and schedule a free demo today.