Difference between Azure Entra ID aka Azure AD and Microsoft Active Directory

In the realm of digital identity management, two prominent players stand out: Azure Active Directory (AAD) now known as Azure Entra ID and Windows Server Active Directory (AD). While both serve the fundamental purpose of identity and access management, they operate in distinct environments and cater to different needs. Understanding the nuances between Azure Active Directory and Windows Server Active Directory is essential for businesses navigating the complexities of modern IT infrastructures.

Architecture and Deployment:

Windows Server Active Directory: Traditionally deployed on-premises, Windows Server Active Directory serves as the cornerstone of identity management in Windows environments. It relies on domain controllers within an organization’s network to authenticate and authorize users and devices.

Azure Active Directory: Designed for the cloud era, Azure Active Directory operates as a cloud-based identity and access management service. It provides identity services across cloud and hybrid environments, enabling seamless authentication and authorization for cloud-based applications and resources.


Scope and Scalability:

Windows Server Active Directory: Primarily tailored for on-premises environments, Windows Server Active Directory excels in managing identities and resources within a corporate network. While it offers scalability through domain forests and trusts, expanding its reach beyond the corporate network may require complex networking configurations.

Azure Active Directory: Built for scalability and versatility in the cloud, Azure Active Directory supports a wide range of authentication scenarios for cloud-based applications, Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings, and hybrid environments. Its global reach and integration with Microsoft cloud services make it an attractive choice for organizations embracing digital transformation.

Authentication and Access Control:

Windows Server Active Directory: Utilizes protocols like Kerberos and NTLM for authentication within the on-premises domain environment. Access control is enforced through group policies and access control lists (ACLs) applied to resources hosted within the Windows domain.

Azure Active Directory: Offers a diverse set of authentication methods, including OAuth 2.0, OpenID Connect, and SAML, to accommodate modern authentication requirements. Role-based access control (RBAC) and conditional access policies enable granular control over access to cloud resources, with support for multi-factor authentication (MFA) and identity protection features.

Integration and Hybrid Capabilities:

Windows Server Active Directory: Integrates seamlessly with on-premises Windows-based services and applications, such as Exchange Server and SharePoint. Hybrid configurations with Azure AD Connect extend its reach to Azure Active Directory, facilitating identity synchronization and single sign-on (SSO) capabilities for hybrid environments.

Azure Active Directory: Provides robust integration with Microsoft 365, Azure services, and thousands of third-party applications through Azure AD App Gallery. Azure AD Connect enables directory synchronization between on-premises Active Directory and Azure AD, facilitating hybrid identity scenarios and centralized identity management.

Security and Compliance:

Windows Server Active Directory: Security measures in Windows Server Active Directory often rely on network perimeter defenses and traditional security practices, with updates and patches managed by the organization’s IT team. Compliance requirements may vary based on industry standards and regulatory mandates.

Azure Active Directory: Offers advanced security features such as Azure AD Identity Protection, which leverages machine learning algorithms to detect and mitigate identity-related threats. Compliance certifications, including SOC 2, ISO 27001, and GDPR, attest to Azure AD’s adherence to stringent security and privacy standards in the cloud.



User related differences 

user comparision between Azure AD and Windows Server AD

Application related differences

application comparison between Azure AD and Windows Server AD

Device related differences

device comparison between Azure AD and Windows Server AD

While Windows Server Active Directory and Azure Active Directory share the common goal of identity management, their architectures, capabilities, and deployment models cater to distinct IT landscapes. Organizations must evaluate their requirements, including cloud adoption strategies, scalability needs, and security considerations, to determine the most suitable solution or hybrid approach for their identity and access management needs. By understanding the differences between Azure Active Directory and Windows Server Active Directory, businesses can make informed decisions to empower their digital transformation journey.

Ashutosh Dixit

I am currently working as a Senior Technical Support Engineer with VMware Premier Services for Telco. Before this, I worked as a Technical Lead with Microsoft Enterprise Platform Support for Production and Premier Support. I am an expert in High-Availability, Deployments, and VMware Core technology along with Tanzu and Horizon.

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