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What is Azure Active Directory? Complete Guide for SMBs

Azure Active Directory

It is essential to ensure that your data and user accounts are secure by setting up access permissions and login security. However, identity verification can be challenging, especially in the cloud era.

That’s why Azure Active Directory is so popular with businesses of all sizes. This comprehensive identity as a service (IDaaS) solution modernises access management and provides your employees with a single sign-on (SSO) for all your cloud apps.

What is Azure Active Directory (AAD)? What are the benefits of using Azure AD? How does it differ from its predecessor, Windows Active Directory?

In this article, we’ll give you a complete overview of Azure Active Directory and what it means for your small-to-medium business.

What is Azure Active Directory?

Azure Active Directory is an enterprise identity service that provides your employees with a single sign-on (SSO), multi-factor authentication, and access management for your Azure services and cloud apps.

Azure AD affords your employees access to external cloud resources – such as Microsoft 365 apps, Azure portal, and thousands of other SaaS applications that use the AAD login system.

Who is Azure Active Directory for?

To secure your company’s internal resources and handle smart access permissions, it’s important to implement a multi-factor authentication (MFA) system.

Azure AD is used by IT admins and app developers to facilitate an easy SSO for applications and portals like a company’s intranet.

What is the difference between Azure Active Directory and Windows Active Directory? 

Windows Active Directory is Azure AD’s predecessor. It essential is a database of login credentials that help your company manage your Windows user accounts and systems.

Network resources such as printers, file services, and local applications can be authenticated and authorized with Windows AD.

Active Directory was a great tool for handling enterprise authentication for Windows and basic infrastructure & on-premise apps. However, AD lacks support for cloud or SaaS applications. This makes sense, as Active Directory was first launched in 2000.

Azure Active Directory is on the surface the cloud-based authentication solution to replace AD. But, Azure AD goes further – offering smart access management features, MFA and mobile devices managed through Microsoft Intune.

Azure AD replaces the outdated LDAP protocol with REST APIs, making it easier for developers and businesses to implement Azure AD’s SSO and authentication service into agile cloud apps.

What are the features of Azure Active Directory?

Before we cover the main benefits of Azure AD, let’s first discuss its main features:

  • As aforementioned, Azure AD can connect users and employees to SaaS apps via SSO.
  • Passwords can easily be lost or stolen. MFA is essential for any secure organisation – but some may choose to remove passwords altogether. Azure AD allows you to implement passwordless authentication using Windows Hello, authentication apps or a security key.
  • Azure AD can automatically detect identity-based risks and help IT admins investigate potential identity theft within your organisation. AAD’s Identity Protection regularly monitors users’ IP addresses, location, sign-in properties, device IDs and more to detect breaches.
  • Conditional Access streamlines access management for resources and applications in the cloud – automatically enforcing organisational policy. With CA, access control decisions can be based on identity-driven signals.
  • Organisations can centrally organise and manage their identities through hybrid identities.
  • Finally, Azure AD self-service lets employees perform password resets without helpdesk or IT staff involvement.

What are the benefits of using Azure Active Directory? 

Why should your business consider Azure AD for your authentication and SSO needs? What benefits does Azure AD have over competing identity services like Okta?

Tight and reliable security

The main purpose of an identity and access management platform is to secure accounts and protect your data. That’s why watertight security is key!

According to Microsoft, Azure has more security certifications than any other cloud provider. Microsft invests more than $1bn in cybersecurity annually and the corporation employs over 3,500 security experts to rigorously test Azure AD and ensure data security.

Seamless user experience

Azure AD transforms your employee and user experience by streamlining the login process. The service is designed with speed and convenience in mind – and Microsoft’s SSO provides one of the most robust, yet agile sign-in experiences in the business.

The integration using REST APIs connects cloud apps, and Microsoft 365 tools together. This reduces friction by limiting the need to sign in multiple times without compromising on security.

Quick deployment and transition

Microsoft has worked tirelessly to reduce the time it takes to deploy Azure AD – making the migration to the cloud-based IaaS platform as seamless as possible.

For example, Durham University looked to replace its ageing access management system with a modern solution as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university to transition to online teaching in just four weeks.

The University was able to fully transition from on-premises AD FS to Azure AD within this time frame. Both staff and students loved the user-friendly access solution that unified the sign-in experience of critical apps – such as Zoom, integration learning environments (ILE) and Microsoft 365 apps.

Easy integration with Microsoft 365 apps and others

Simply put, if your organisation already benefits from the Microsoft 365 ecosystem, Azure AD offers the quickest cloud migration path for your access management solution.

AAD’s SSO is tailor-made to work with Microsoft 365 apps and Azure cloud applications. Microsoft has poured plenty of resources into streamlining the setup with their own apps, and other popular SaaS apps like Zoom, Slack, Salesforce and SAP Cloud.

In fact, Microsoft offers hundreds of tutorials for integrating with common SaaS services.

Get your Azure Active Directory set up right with an MSP 

Azure AD is best used when its features are set up to provide a seamless experience. Many businesses half-bake their migration to Azure AD and miss out on efficiency and user experience gains.

The best way to ensure you’re setting up Azure AD right is to partner with a Managed Service Provider (MSP) to handle the transition for you.

Ready to upgrade your identity management solution? Get in touch with us to see how we can help you migrate to Azure AD. We’ll handle the move, set up your SSO for you and ensure your authentication tools are integrated perfectly with the apps you already

Contact us to get started!