Active Directory: a New Product for a New Millennium
A history of Active Directory, its evolution to the cloud and why it is likely to continue to dominate the network and identity management space.
The year was 1999. Bill Clinton was president. Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears dominated the music charts. The IT world agonized about the Y2K bug shutting down the country’s infrastructure at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And Microsoft completed its new network management tool, Active Directory.
Microsoft first released Active Directory on top of Windows 2000, after the company had spent some time struggling to figure out how to roll a network operating system out to the public. However, the early version of Active Directory was a much more scaled-down version from what you see today, featuring a flat-file structure and a limit on the number of objects an administrator could add.
The original active directory
Although Microsoft completed and previewed Active Directory in 1999, it wasn’t released until a full year later, as part of Windows Server 2000. It was based on the principles behind the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), an open-source directory management tool created in 1993. Although Microsoft was inspired by LDAP, the company continued to improve its own tool over the years, adding new features with each release.
With Windows Server 2003, Microsoft took a big leap, introducing the Forest feature, which allows administrators to create a container full of domains, users, computers, and policies. The new release also lets administrators edit those forests, switching around the positions of various domains. Unfortunately, this change wasn’t compatible with Windows Server 2000, which meant domains still running on that older architecture could no longer support AD updates.
Preparing for a new decade
As the 2000s drew to an end, Microsoft was prepared to roll out even more advanced features for Active Directory. With Windows Server 2008, network administrators had access to a new feature called Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS). FS made it easier for users on corporate networks to sign on to applications and systems that weren’t within their own firewall.
Windows Server 2016 saw even more changes for Active Directory, including the ability to migrate AD environments to the cloud. This was in addition to security enhancements, even monitoring user accesses to keep networks secure.
The cloud generation
In 2016, Microsoft made major updates to address the growing trend toward cloud services. Azure AD Connect was designed to provide a single sign-on for the many users migrating to its Office 365 environment. The good news is, companies didn’t have to upgrade to Windows Server 2016 to enjoy the enhancement since it worked with Windows Server 2008, 2008 R2, 2012, 2012 R2 and 2016.
Today, Azure AD is required in order to sign on to any of Microsoft’s business services and the solution is free with any business subscription making it easy for users to access it. However, if you want advanced features like mobile security reporting, you’ll have to upgrade to Microsoft’s premium services.
Active directory in today’s market
Businesses today have a wide range of products that they can use for identity management, along with other solutions. Microsoft has remained dominant in the space, though, despite competition from big dogs like Google. When it comes to identity management Active Directory is still widely used, enjoying a 95 percent market share among Fortune 500 companies.
One thing Active Directory has going for it is the simple fact that Microsoft Office remains a fierce presence in the business space. Everyone from large corporations to small businesses to banks, hospitals, and government agencies use Microsoft’s suite of tools for daily operations. For that reason, it makes perfect sense that Active Directory would remain the tool of choice for companies that simply want to make sure everything meshes.
Still, as cloud technology continues to take over, Microsoft has to keep an eye on the competition. Google, in particular, wants to grab some of that market share and is working hard to make sure its own network management tools keep up. With cloud adoption on the rise the company continues to invest heavily on improving its features and cloud offerings.
Active Directory has come a long way since Windows 2000, but so has every other type of technology. With few competitors that can make a dent in its market share, Microsoft is likely to continue to dominate the network and identity management space for many years to come.