OpenLDAP vs Active Directory – What’s the Difference ? (Explained)

OpenLDAP vs Active Directory – What’s the Difference ? This article will introduce Active directory with the Domains, Trees and Forests explained and then LDAP and OpenLDAP.  Please read below. 

Active Directory and Open Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (OpenLDAP) are two directory softwares. They play a crucial role in completing the Identity and Access Management (IAM) architecture of the company. Both offer different benefits and are based on different protocols.

But what’s the difference between AD and OpenLDAP?

OpenLDAP is more than a protocol and is a light LDAP directory software you can use in your organization. And on the other hand, AD is a directory service from Microsoft that organizes multiple IT assets like users and computers in an organization ecosystem.

Let’s move onto the elements of OpenLDAP vs Active Directory – What’s the Difference ? and describe their benefits separately.

What is LDAP

The open source, free implementation of the LDAP protocol is OpenLDAP. It’s a free and standard iteration that anyone can access. It offers robust features like a GUI interfaces and a suite of other functionalities and protocols and can be used on any platform.

OpenLDAP is a focused LDAP option that supports powerful computing platforms and is highly customizable. It offers excellent flexibility, but sometimes it can become challenging to navigate the software.

You require a significant amount of expertise to manage and implement OpenLDAP. Now let’s jump towards the topic’s core and check out the difference between the two directory services.

Benefits of LDAP

  • LDAP authenticates users.
  • LDAP reduces communication gap between users and Active Directory services
  • Supports multiple platforms with standard APIs for each platform.
  • It allows use of multiple independent directories.
  • The LDAP directory can be distributed across multiple servers.
  • Global naming model ensures unique entries.
  • It provides easy integration with other standards Directory like DNS server.
  • Uses TCP/IP and SSL.
  • Open source protocol with flexible architecture.

Now that you know the basics about LDAP, let’s understand Active Directory.

What is Active Directory

The other tool of our article OpenLDAP vs Active Directory – What’s the Difference ? is AD or Active directory. Microsoft creates multiple IT products like Windows Server, Windows desktops, Exchange and Sharepoint. Microsoft users don’t want to use different login passwords to access individual IT software.

The IT admins also want to group people and control their access to printers and computers. So Active Directory was created to simplify the management of computers and users by storing information regarding everything in a AD single directory.

Benefits of AD

Active Directory has the following pros:

  • Single Sign on for access to global resources based on their assigned roles and privileges. No need to enter password, username for every individual application you use.
  • Supports delegated administration.
  • Multiple password policies
  • Simplified resource location as there is no need for IT admins to manually assigned you to access individual applications. Admins can manage and secure network resources and security management.
  • No need to update your password or username in every application you have an account in.
  • Centralized resources and security administration.
  • Easily scalable. Supports millions of objects in a single domain.

The Active Directory sorts the assets into three tiers i.e.

AD Domains: Your company employees and computers with access to the same Active Directory database are part of a domain. It’s associated with the same organization or department inside the company. For example, if your company has an engineering department, it’s in the “Engineering Domain.”

AD Trees: The trust between the domains is defined by trees. It enables the IT admins to control the access of the users and devices and dictate who can access what part of the company’s online network.

Active Directory Forests: Domains are clubbed into forests for intercompany relationships or large organizations. The inter forest trust is built when a company acquires the other company. Both the employees of the companies can then access each other’s resources and work in a collaborative environment with no harm in security.

The communication and access right privileges are unique for these individual tiers of Active Directory.

AD security features

The Active Directory also has security features, like

  • Authentication: To access the desired resources on the network, the employees or the users have to provide the right credentials.
  • Security groups: IT admins can organize the users into groups and then assign them to apps for minimal administration.
  • Group policy: Multiple policies are used in Active Directory to define the access control of users to configure browser security settings or access computers remotely.

Active Directory has supported NTLM, Kerberos, and LAN Manager authentication protocols. It has supported multiple ways to authenticate users over its introduction. The security and usability of the authentication protocols have evolved every time.

The prime focus of Active Directory is to bring Microsoft technologies together to enable the users to access resources and allow IT admins to define their access.

OpenLDAP vs Active Directory – What’s the Difference ?

AD is a directory service focused on storing the device and user data in the central location for Microsoft Window based device, application, network and file access. It has more features than OpenLDAP and uses multiple protocols like LDAP and Kerberos. Whereas OpenLDAP uses only LDAP as its primary protocol.

The AD offers features like GPO (Group Policy Objects) for Windows devices and GUI and is more robust overall. OpenLDAP focuses on the LDAP protocol and offers greater depth than AD to match AD.

The more comprehensive functionalities offered by AD focus on the commercial aspect of the Microsoft solution, and its usage is not free of cost. On the contrary, OpenLDAP is a free, open source directory software.

You also need to acquire a license to run AD and set up on premise equipment to make it functional; because of that, you need to take care of the maintenance and hardware cost. OpenLDAP is more customizable and flexible with the implementation and AD offers different capabilities even outside the LDAP protocol.

It all boils down to your requirement whether you want the ease of use of AD or more flexibility that OpenLDAP offers. OpenLDAP servers are more suitable and compatible for organizations that leverage cloud infrastructure or data centers as a service technology.

On the contrary, if the organization leverages Windows based applications and systems ,Azure cloud infrastructure, and other Microsoft ecosystems, the combination of Azure AD and Active Directory is more beneficial. But even in this scenario, multiple IT organizations leverage OpenLDAP also because of Azure AD’s inability to support LDAP for cloud infrastructure.

Now that you know the difference between the two directory services, let’s discuss the shortcoming of the two.

Cons of AD and OpenLDAP

Some believe that neither OpenLDAP nor AD is the right option for your (IMI) identity management infrastructure. But why is it so?

No doubt, both AD and OpenLDAP offer different benefits for organizations, but they are a bit outdated and require different solutions to complete your IAM architecture.

AD offers overall robust features, but it can get complex when expansion with addons takes place like Azure AD to manage dispersed and diverse environments. Also, Microsoft shows interest in supporting non Windows platforms, but it considers Azure and Windows before others competitors’ solutions.

The flexibility OpenLDAP offers can be challenging and cause troubles for beginners. Its server configuration can be complex, and it becomes challenging to maintain directory integrity, match app dependencies and modify directory schema or data with business scalability and changes.

The OpenLDAP can operate in the cloud but is limited to the LDAP protocol, and AD uses multiple protocols but doesn’t work on the cloud. You need different addons like Azure to integrate AD with the cloud, but that doesn’t allow your organization to separate from their on prem directory.

AD also requires integrations and addons to be compatible with the non Windows devices and deliver the same results as Windows based devices.

Both the directories cannot greatly centralize user management which causes security vulnerabilities, inconsistencies, and additional management work for your IT teams.

So you can’t ignore the limitations both OpenLDAP vs Active Directory that they offer, and if you feel you can cope with the limitations, you need to decide which one is suitable for your business.

OpenLDAP vs Active Directory – What’s the Difference ? Conclusion

Multiple organizations choose OpenLDAP for its cost saving and flexibility. If you have a team of skilled engineers, they can configure OpenLDAP based on your company’s requirements.

Moreover, it’s compatible with any operating system like Mac and Linux. So if your company is looking for these specifications, you can choose OpenLDAP.

But if your company environment is based on Windows and Microsoft and is fully homogeneous, then AD should be your preferred choice.

Your IT admins can seamlessly perform management tasks using the Windows based AD, which can help them improve their effectiveness and efficiency. If your company has a non Windows based OS ecosystem but still wants to choose AD, you need addons and integrations to support the files servers and networking gear.

Also, if your team of engineers is less experienced, it becomes easier to choose AD as it offers a simple to use GUI for managing groups and users and configuring settings. Doing the same can be an uphill battle as OpenLDAP lacks the interface.

The final choice is yours and you have a decision to make. We hope it is  the right one for your infrastructure.

Avatar for Hitesh Jethva
Hitesh Jethva

I am a fan of open source technology and have more than 10 years of experience working with Linux and Open Source technologies. I am one of the Linux technical writers for Cloud Infrastructure Services.

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