Active Directory Synchronization or Federation – Which One Should I Choose?

July 7, 2015   //   Cloud, , , ,

In the last few months, I’ve had many customers looking to move to Office 365 ask what the difference was between Active Directory Synchronization and Active Directory Federation. These customers needed to manage user identities and credentials in the cloud and wanted to know how these alternate solutions stack up in terms capabilities, cost and user experience. Below is a quick overview on the differences between Active Directory Synchronization and Federation.

What is Directory Synchronization?

Directory Synchronization is the integration of your On-premises Active Directory with an instance of Active Directory running in the Azure cloud. Synchronization essentially makes a copy of the on-premises directory objects and then propagates them to an Active Directory instance in the Azure cloud. After that, synchronization runs on a scheduled basis to push changes from the on-premises directory to the cloud instance. With few exceptions, synchronization only goes from on-premises to the cloud. If one were to create a new user on the Azure Active Directory tenant, that user would live only in the cloud and would never be propagated down to the on-premises directory. This would create a Cloud (only) Identity (see below) which would have its own login credentials and identity for Office 365 applications.

Over the years, there have been several products to effect directory synchronization. FIM, Microsoft’s Directory Synchronization (affectionately known as DirSync) and Azure Active Directory Sync Services tools (commonly referred to as AAD Sync). AAD Sync was the replacement for DirSync; however, both tools are being deprecated by Microsoft in favor of Azure Active Directory Connect. Learn more about Microsoft’s directory synchronization tools.

Since directory synchronization is much simpler to configure than single sign-on (SSO), the benefits of synchronization make it a great choice for many customer scenarios.

What is Federation?

Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS) can be used to provide federation and single sign-on capabilities for end users who want to access Office 365 applications. Windows Server 2012 R2 includes an AD FS role that can function as an identity provider or as a federation provider. An identity provider authenticates users to provide security tokens to applications that trust AD FS (e.g. Office 365 applications). A federation provider consumes tokens from other identity providers and then provides security tokens to applications that trust AD FS.

Comparison Summary


AAD Connect

Solution AdvantagesDisadvantages
  • Single server and simple deployment
  • Less cost, time and resource
  • If DirSync server down, users still be able to authenticate and logon to Office 365 cloud
  • More password prompts
  • Single identity but separate credentials, can be the same user name and password
  • User account authenticated by Office 365 cloud
  • No Fault tolerant and load balancing


ADFS

Solution AdvantagesDisadvantages
  • Less password prompts
  • Single federated identity and credentials
  • Better security
  • User account authenticated by ADFS
  • Fault tolerant and load balancing
  • Transparent Single sign-on since re-entry of the password is not required.
  • Client access filtering, which restricts access to Exchange Online to users based on their IP address.
  • Active Directory configured login time restrictions supported
  • Can include web pages for users to change their passwords outside the corporate network
  • Authentication decision is made on-premises
  • Password hashes are not synchronized to the cloud.
  • Immediate block of a user to remove access
  • Support for on-premises multi-factor authentication products.
  • Some on-premises to cloud hybrid scenarios require ADFS such as hybrid search.
  • ADFS on Windows Server 2016 will support conditional access control based on a device’s compliance state (not yet available).
  • Greater cost, time and resources to implement
  • Additional infrastructure
  • Best practice is to deploy AD FS and Web Application Proxy (WAP)
  • When ADFS services are down, users won’t be able authenticate to access Office 365.
  • Adds a potential point(s) of failure
  • SSL certificate from a public CA is require

 

What is the end user experience?

Directory synchronization does not provide SSO because a user that is already logged in on-premises will still have to log in separately to Office 365. However, since the end user will only have to remember one login and password, it will appear very similar (even though in reality there are two different credentials). It will prompt for credentials when, for instance, a user accesses his mailbox in Exchange Online even though he is logged onto a domain-joined client. When the application supports “remembering” or caching the login credentials (such as Outlook), the experience is even more similar because the only time the user is prompted for credentials is on the first connection, after a password change or possibly after a configuration change.

Synchronization should not be seen as a replacement for AD FS, but as an alternative for those that find it sufficient that users have the same password in Office 365 as they do on-premises.

Expected Application Experience

 

Outlook Web Access (OWA)Outlook 2010/2013ActiveSyncSharePoint, OneDrive, Office Web AppsSkype for Business
Cloud IdentityPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentials
AAD Sync/ConnectPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentials
AD FS (3.0)Internal: Transparent, External: Forms Based PromptPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsPrompt for credentials on first connect, Prompt for credentials on password change, Can remember credentialsInternal: Pop up to sign in, External: Forms Based PromptTransparent

How complex is your environment?

Many clients find that the added complexity, cost and maintenance effort of AD FS outweigh the almost imperceptible differences between synchronization and federation for straightforward use cases. However, that might change for clients who have more complex use cases requiring multiple identity providers or who have applications hosted in multiple cloud environments. The good news is that you can start with synchronization and then federation can be added as requirements dictate.

 

Let’s talk about managing your users on-premises and in the cloud. Contact SWC for help determining the best environment for your specific business needs.

 

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