What is Active Directory?

Active Directory Security

Active Directory serves as a central point for managing users and devices in nearly any network environment. When users login, Active Directory authenticates them as legitimate users (authentication), giving them access only to data they are authorized to view.

AD is built around three core logical structures: domains, forests and trees. Each domain consists of one or more organizational units used to categorize objects within AD.

What is Active Directory?

Active Directory is a Windows network directory service that centrally manages information regarding an organization’s internal IT resources, such as users and devices such as printers. Furthermore, it enables security settings of an entire network to be efficiently administered so only authorized users are allowed access to workstations and any protected information stored therein.

AD Database comprises three fundamental logical structures: domains, trees and forests. A domain consists of objects organized logically within an organizational hierarchy. Multiple domains may then be combined together in the form of a tree to form part of a forest that shares configuration files, catalogs schemas and applications between its domains.

AD DS installations turn one server into the primary domain controller and enable access to information stored in its database. Other servers in a domain share its directory data via replication service; changes made at one domain controller are then automatically replicated across servers so as to maintain consistency within its database across servers and trust relationships between domains allow users to move seamlessly without losing permissions or identities.

Understanding AD Security

Active Directory allows you to centrally manage user, device, application and security settings from one central location. It authenticates network users and grants secure access to shared resources; for example printers and file servers can be made automatically available only when members of certain security groups log on.

AD DS also integrates seamlessly with Kerberos, a network authentication protocol that uses encrypted messages to prevent unauthorized access. This integration enables you to seamlessly authenticate users in a network using just one set of credentials – increasing security while simplifying administrative tasks.

AD DS’s organization feature is also invaluable: organizing domain objects into organizational units (OUs). OUs provide structure to a domain and make its administration simpler; they can be created based on geographical or management criteria and contain additional OUs; they should also serve as the appropriate level in which group policies (GPOs) should be applied.

AD DS offers three core logical structures, domains, forests and trees. A domain serves as a management boundary that contains all AD objects belonging to one organization; multiple domains grouped together form a forest that allows multiple organizations to share objects; trusts can connect different forests together.

Security vs. compliance

Administering AD with the proper tools allows you to monitor and respond quickly to what’s happening in your environment, from misconfigured Group Policy Objects that could allow unapproved access, to monitoring password changes for reuse of weak or expired ones. Furthermore, AD can also help identify privileged account activity resulting from either accidental error or exploited privilege escalation vulnerabilities used to deepen compromised accounts.

AD DS offers additional services, including Active Directory Federation Services – which enables multiple devices and applications to use one set of credentials across networks – and Active Directory Certificate Services, which offers digital certificates that enable secure communications over the internet. AD DS features a schema defining its classes of objects and attributes; global catalog search facilities; replication service to distribute changes throughout networks.

Utilizing the proper tools, you can monitor and report on critical changes to AD security in real-time, helping ensure it satisfies compliance requirements. For instance, alerts about disabled accounts, non-expiring passwords and those with low encryption strength settings can be easily identified and addressed promptly. You may even detect and quickly respond to suspicious login activity such as after-hours logins or unusually high failed log on attempts quickly enough.

Reasons Active Directory Security Is Critical

AD is widely utilized and provides users with one point of entry into network services. Furthermore, AD can help IT streamline administrative work while strengthening security measures.

An active directory is a server-based hierarchical structure that stores information about objects – like shared files, printers and computer accounts – within a network. Each object in an active directory is assigned an unique security identifier with associated attributes that define its class.

AD is unlike traditional databases in that it allows IT administrators to quickly search and locate directory data while also making real-time changes to objects – like passwords – such as changing properties instantly. Features of AD include a query and index mechanism, replication service that disseminates directory data and global catalog that contains every object within a forest.

As with all software, AD can contain security flaws. Therefore, IT must ensure they install and apply security patches as soon as they become available. Furthermore, following the principle of least privilege ensures users only possess permissions necessary for fulfilling their duties and reduces the risk of an unauthorized attack. Finally, an account decommissioning process must also be established so user accounts and devices that no longer serve a purpose are decommissioned properly.

Active Directory security best practices

Active Directory offers users and administrators greater convenience compared to previous Windows NT versions, in which user accounts were stored on each PC separately. Users can access resources and devices across the network with one logon while administrators can manage directory data and organizational structures from anywhere on the network.

With built-in replication and redundancy capabilities, each domain controller (DC) keeps a copy of the entire Active Directory database. Changes made on one DC are instantly propagated across other DCs so they all receive the latest information allowing centralized management of network security and access rights throughout an enterprise.

Cyber attackers have proven that even one privileged account can pose a severe threat, whether by stealing files from shared folders, spreading to connected services or altering security settings for their own gain. To help mitigate risks associated with these accounts, a best practice would be granting only those necessary for their roles access.

To achieve this goal, utilize group accounts for roles with sensitive responsibilities instead of issuing individual permissions. Once listed in Discretionary Access Control Lists (DACLs), these accounts can help minimize potential compromise points in an organization’s network environment. The right DACL can significantly lower this number.

Security vs. compliance

Active Directory offers various components that can help organizations authenticate users, manage network resource access, and control configuration of domain-joined computers. At its core lies Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS); most organizations employ one primary and several backup domain controllers for redundancy, performance, and business continuity purposes. When users login they connect to one of these domain controllers which in turn grant access based on administratively defined policies.

AD DS offers several additional services that can enhance its capabilities, such as LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol). LDAP allows companies to store usernames and passwords, printer connections, email addresses and static information in one central place for easy access; another optional service offered by Kerberos provides secure authentication of users.

The most frequent cyberattack involves gaining unwarranted entry to an employee workstation and then moving laterally through the system in an effort to steal or corrupt sensitive information. By monitoring changes to privileged account security settings, administrators can detect malicious activity before it causes harm. A change auditing solution like Change Auditor for Active Directory provides real-time user activity tracking as well as alerting administrators of important changes such as SOX, HIPAA, GLBA or PCIDSS regulations compliance reports for organizations to demonstrate compliance.

Active Directory Benefits

IT administrators need a central hub to store and organize information regarding users, devices and security if they hope to ensure smooth business operations. Without such an arrangement, keeping track of every detail could prove challenging and could compromise business operations.

Active Directory makes it simple to locate and access network resources such as printers, file shares and applications by organizing its information hierarchically; each tree’s root domain serves as the organizing unit (OU). Furthermore, this kind of system enables IT administrators to monitor user activity on the network as well as enforce security policies across it.

One easy way to conceptualize how this system operates is to compare it with your phone’s “Contacts” app: each contact (or object) has associated values that define them, including job titles and department information. Objects in Active Directory server also use this approach by assigning different values for every person or computer within an organization – helping keep everything updated when changes are made to user accounts or network information.

How to Reap the Benefits of Active Directory?

Active Directory offers many services, including authentication and authorization. As such, this centralized platform enables administrators to control user accounts and settings with ease from a central hub.

AD is organized logically into domains, forests and organizational units (OUs). The latter allows administrators to organize users, computers, applications and other network resources into manageable groups for easier management.

1. Adjust Default Security Settings

If you detect anomalous behavior on a network, such as unusual after-hours activity on privileged accounts or repeated login failures, it could indicate that threat actors have exploited Active Directory vulnerabilities to gain entry. This may involve privilege escalation; giving compromised accounts additional permissions over shared folders, printers and applications that give them extra authority and power.

Active Directory stores information on network resources (called objects ) in a structured data store that has been optimized to deliver optimal query performance. Such a centralized database offers numerous advantages, including:

Users logging onto the network are verified and authenticated once through Active Directory, then can access any network resources appropriate to their roles and privileges.

Centralized services can improve efficiency and lower operational costs. AD allows IT administrators to manage user accounts and security settings across an entire network from a central point, eliminating miscommunication while streamlining security management procedures. Replication also adds redundancy by ensuring one domain controller’s duties can be assumed by another domain controller to minimize downtime while increasing availability; standardizing desktop files, settings and more across devices becomes simpler too.

2. Use Backup and Recovery Processes

Active Directory provides IT teams with an effective means of centralizing information on network devices such as printers, desktops, and servers – helping ensure everything runs efficiently while reducing administration burdens. However, for maximum results a reliable AD backup and recovery solution must be in place.

Use of Microsoft’s Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) on an active server is the ideal way to ensure database integrity, as this creates a snapshot of system state that won’t alter active files while you backup.

However, it’s advisable to also back up an Active Directory database before shutting down a server in order to ensure database consistency.

No matter if your company uses a single forest or multi-forest design, having a comprehensive disaster recovery plan in place is critical to its survival. This includes backing up your unified directory and having ways to recover the data in case of site outage or ransomware attack.

Though the process of backing up and recovering a unified directory can be time consuming, tools exist that can make the task simpler. For instance, Bacula Enterprise’s Disaster Recovery Plugin makes restoring Active Directory data quick and painless, as well as shortening backup/recovery times so that your business is ready to respond to any situation, including full domain controller crashes.

3. Centralize Security Management and Reporting

Instead of forcing IT staff to oversee multiple systems and tools separately, AD offers one central point of control that enables admins to effectively oversee the network as a whole. This centralization helps increase efficiency by eliminating the time-consuming task of tweaking individual computer settings for every user – an inefficient and inconvenient process.

AD also allows organizations to distribute domain administration responsibilities using Organizational Units, creating smaller groups of users and devices which ultimately roll up into larger levels in AD. This ensures that the correct people are present at the right time while improving security by restricting who has access to sensitive information.

AD allows administrators to implement network-wide policies through Group Policy Objects that apply across all computers in their network, such as password restrictions, screen saver controls, standardizing desktop appearance and functionality and reducing IT costs by standardizing desktops, printers and other hardware appearance and functionality – ultimately improving organizational productivity while lowering IT expenses and costs. AD also helps prevent data breaches by only permitting authorized personnel access to privileged accounts while using multifactor authentication to safeguard these accounts from breach.

Sam is an experienced information security specialist who works with enterprises to mature and improve their enterprise security programs. Previously, he worked as a security news reporter.