The Difference Between Active Directory and LDAP

When picking a directory service provider, you can choose between Active Directory and LDAP. Learn about their differences and working relationship here.

Many IT admins for Managed Service Providers (MSPs) believe that when you’re picking a directory service provider, you have only two choices - Microsoft Active Directory or LDAP. They could be right. 

BUT there is a different argument. The choice shouldn’t be so much about Active Directory or LDAP, but how to leverage them to work best for you. This is very much possible, especially with the many new and emerging innovations in the directory space.

AD Vs LDAP

 

To facilitate this understanding and reflection, we’ve laid out the key differences between Active Directory and LDAP. We’ve also explained their important relationship for an effective directory.

Before we do that, lets first understand what AD and LDAP mean. 

What is Active Directory (or AD)?

Active Directory, commonly known as AD, is a directory service implementation system that provides many network elated services in the Windows environment, including:

  • Authentication functionality,
  • Directory, 
  • Group and user management,
  • Policy administration, 
  • DNS based services, etc.

Microsoft’s Active Directory is the most commonly used directory service today. Users say that it is secure and easy to use and that it provides single sign-on and functions well over VPN and in business environments.

It provides admins with the ability to manage the security and administration tasks from a central location. And it stores all configuration and information details in a centralized database. Simply put, AD manages Windows devices through the Group Policy Objects (GPOs) service. 

What is LDAP?

Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (or LDAP) is an open and cross-platform standard protocol that offers directory services authentication. LDAP is used to access, maintain, and retrieve directory information services, usually over the IP network. 

Besides, the LDAP protocol defines the “language” used for client programs. This enables client applications to communicate with other directory services servers, including servers to servers.

Simply put, LDAP is a convenient way of speaking to the AD, i.e., it is an excellent protocol solution for Active Directory. 

What does LDAP Authentication mean?

LDAP ( in LDAP v3) has two authentication options:

  • Simple
  • SASL (Simple Authentication and Security Layer).

Simple LDAP authentication provides three authentication mechanisms:

LDAP Authentication

 

  • Unauthenticated authentication: is used for logging purposes only. This shouldn’t give clients access.
  • Password/Name authentication: Grants clients access the server based on their credentials – simple pass/user authentication isn’t secure, making it unsuitable for authentication without proper confidentiality protection and security.
  • Anonymous authentication: this authentification mechanism grants clients anonymous status (and access) to LDAP.

LDAP-SASL authentication works by binding the LDAP server to a different authentication mechanism, such as Kerberos. Through the LDAP protocol, the LDAP server can send an LDAP message (or information) to the other authentication service. This process initiates a series of challenge-response messages, whose results are either a successful authentication or a failure to authenticate.

What’s the difference between Active Directory and LDAP

While these services might appear similar when it comes to directory services, they have more differences than similarities, as shown in this table. 

Service

LDAP

AD

Meaning 

Lightweight Directory Access Protocol

Active Directory

Philosophy

LDAP is a program or application protocol for modifying and querying items in directory service providers such as Active Directory.

Active Directory is Microsoft's database based system that provides directory services, authentication, policy, DNS, and other services in a Windows environment. It is a centralized, hierarchical directory database with information on all the network’s user accounts.

Functionality

LDAP protocols help to communicate with AD

AD is a directory services database

Standard

LDAP is a standard, open-source

AD is Microsoft’s proprietary and requires a Microsoft Domain Controller

Supported platforms

Works outside the Windows structure or environment and more focused on the Linux/Unix environment.

Microsoft’s AD is largely a directory for Windows users, devices, and applications.

Flexibility 

Highly flexible 

Low flexibility 

Device Management 

No device management protocol 

Manages Windows devices through Group Policy Objects (GPOs).

How can Active Directory and LDAP work together 

We’ve known that Active Directory supports LDAP, which makes it possible to combine the two protocols to improve your data access and management.

What’s the role of LDAP in Active Directory

LDAP is the core protocol behind Active Directory. This means that AD performs all its directory access services through LDAP, including the Active Directory Service Interfaces (ADSI). Additionally, LDAP supports searches in AD. for instance, whenever a client searches an object in AD, such as for printers, computers, or users, LDAP performs the search (in one way or another) and returns the results.

LDAP can also offer a cross-platform access interface in Active Directory. Unlike AD, which is tied to Windows platforms only, LDAP is not attached to a particular platform. AD users can seek LDAP’s help to use virtually any platform when writing applications and scripts to access and manage Active Directory.

LDAP and Active Directory Takeaways

It is clear that AD and LDAP are not the same, but can work together successfully. Active Directory is a network directory service tied to Microsoft - users, devices, service. On the other hand, LDAP is an effective protocol, not tied to Microsoft, which allows users to query directories, including AD, and authenticate users to access it. 

When they work together, AD and LDAP are essential for empowering your organization with essential knowledge. This knowledge is simultaneously accessible externally and internally and is secure from external actors and access breaches.

Final thoughts

We believe this article has given you important insights into the difference between Active Directory and LDAP. 

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