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Theodore Antonov
Theodore Antonov

Azure AD: How to Simplify Identity Governance and Compliance


What is Azure AD?




Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) is a cloud-based identity and access management service that provides single sign-on, multifactor authentication, conditional access, and identity protection for your users and data. It is part of Microsoft Entra, a suite of cloud services that help you secure your environment, manage your identities, and empower your productivity.


Azure AD enables your employees to access external resources, such as Microsoft 365, the Azure portal, and thousands of other SaaS applications, with a single identity. It also helps them access internal resources, such as apps on your corporate intranet or any cloud apps developed by your own organization.




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Azure AD offers different benefits to different roles in your organization:


  • IT admins can use Azure AD to control access to apps and app resources based on business requirements, automate user provisioning, enforce strong authentication policies, monitor user activities, detect risks, remediate incidents, and meet compliance standards.



  • App developers can use Azure AD as a standards-based authentication provider that helps them add single sign-on (SSO) to their apps that works with a user's existing credentials. They can also use Azure AD APIs to build personalized experiences using organizational data.



  • End users can use Azure AD to sign in to their apps from anywhere, manage their passwords, enroll their devices, request access to resources, review their sign-in activities, and more.



Azure AD has four editions: Free, Office 365 apps, Premium P1, and Premium P2. The Free edition is included with a subscription of a commercial online service such as Microsoft 365 or Microsoft Azure. The Office 365 apps edition is included with Microsoft 365 E1, E3, E5, F1, or F3 subscriptions. The Premium editions are available through your Microsoft representative or online purchase. They offer advanced features for enterprise-level identity management, threat protection, and governance needs.


Azure AD vs Active Directory




Azure AD is not a replacement for Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS), but rather an extension of it to the cloud. Active Directory is an on-premises identity solution that provides directory services, authentication services, group policy services, DNS services, certificate services, etc., Azure AD authentication and access management




One of the main benefits of Azure AD is that it provides a secure and convenient way for users to sign in to various resources, both in the cloud and on-premises, with a single identity. Azure AD also helps protect users and data from unauthorized access and malicious attacks with various features and capabilities, such as:


Single sign-on and multifactor authentication




Single sign-on (SSO) allows users to access multiple applications with the same username and password, without having to sign in again for each app. SSO reduces the hassle of remembering and managing multiple credentials, and improves the user experience and productivity. Azure AD supports SSO for thousands of pre-integrated SaaS applications, as well as custom applications that use standards like OpenID Connect, OAuth 2.0, SAML 2.0, or WS-Federation .


Multifactor authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security to the sign-in process by requiring users to provide another form of verification, such as a phone call, a text message, or a mobile app notification. MFA helps prevent unauthorized access even if a user's password is compromised. Azure AD supports MFA for all users and applications, and allows admins to configure policies based on user groups, locations, devices, or app sensitivity .


Conditional access and identity protection




Conditional access is a feature that allows admins to define and enforce policies that grant or block access to resources based on various conditions, such as user role, device state, location, network, app sensitivity, sign-in risk, or compliance status. Conditional access helps ensure that only the right people have the right access to the right resources under the right circumstances .


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Identity protection is a feature that detects and responds to potential identity-based risks in real time. Identity protection uses machine learning and heuristics to analyze user behavior and sign-in patterns, and generates alerts and reports on suspicious or anomalous activities. Identity protection also provides automated responses to mitigate risks, such as enforcing MFA, blocking access, or resetting passwords .


Passwordless authentication and certificate-based authentication




Passwordless authentication is a feature that enables users to sign in without using a password or a token. Passwordless authentication relies on biometric factors, such as fingerprint or face recognition, or cryptographic keys stored on devices, such as FIDO2 security keys or Windows Hello for Business. Passwordless authentication improves security by eliminating the risk of phishing, credential theft, or password reuse. It also enhances user convenience by simplifying the sign-in experience .


Certificate-based authentication is a feature that allows users to sign in with a digital certificate instead of a username and password. Certificate-based authentication uses public key infrastructure (PKI) to verify the identity of the user and the device. Certificate-based authentication can be used for scenarios where passwords are not feasible or desirable, such as smart card authentication or VPN authentication .


Azure AD application access and integration




Azure AD also provides a platform for integrating applications with identity and access management capabilities. Azure AD enables developers and admins to add SSO, MFA, conditional access, identity protection, provisioning, governance, and more to their applications. Azure AD supports various types of applications, such as:


SaaS apps with modern authentication




SaaS apps are cloud-based applications that are hosted by third-party providers and accessed via web browsers or mobile apps. Examples of SaaS apps are Microsoft 365, Salesforce, Workday, ServiceNow, Slack, etc. Azure AD integrates with thousands of SaaS apps using modern authentication protocols like SAML 2.0 or OAuth 2.0. Azure AD provides pre-built app integrations in the Azure AD gallery that can be easily configured with SSO and provisioning settings .


Group assignment and cloud app discovery




Group assignment is a feature that allows admins to assign users or groups to applications in bulk. Group assignment simplifies app access management by reducing the need for manual assignments and ensuring consistent permissions across users. Group assignment also enables dynamic membership rules that automatically add or remove users from groups based on their attributes .


Cloud app discovery is a feature that allows admins to discover and monitor the cloud applications that are used in their organization. Cloud app discovery collects data from network traffic logs or browser extensions, and provides insights into app usage patterns, risks, performance issues, etc. Cloud app discovery helps admins identify shadow IT apps that are not managed or secured by Azure AD, and take actions to integrate them or block them .


Application Proxy and Secure Hybrid Access




Application Proxy is a feature that allows users to access on-premises web applications that use Windows Integrated Authentication (WIA), header-based authentication, or form-based authentication. Application Proxy works by installing a connector on a server in the same network as the web app, and publishing the app through the Azure AD portal. Application Proxy enables SSO, MFA, conditional access, and identity protection for on-premises web apps without requiring VPN or firewall changes .


Secure Hybrid Access is a feature that allows users to access on-premises applications that use legacy authentication protocols, such as Kerberos, LDAP, RADIUS, or header-based authentication. Secure Hybrid Access works by integrating Azure AD with third-party solutions, such as F5 BIG-IP APM, Zscaler Private Access, or Akamai EAA. Secure Hybrid Access enables SSO, MFA, conditional access, and identity protection for on-premises legacy apps without requiring VPN or firewall changes .


Azure AD identity governance and administration




Azure AD also provides a framework for managing the lifecycle and access of identities and resources in your organization. Azure AD helps you ensure compliance and governance with various features and capabilities, such as:


Role-based access control and delegated administration




Role-based access control (RBAC) is a feature that allows admins to assign roles to users or groups that grant them permissions to perform specific tasks in Azure AD or other Microsoft services. RBAC helps admins enforce the principle of least privilege and reduce the risk of unauthorized actions. Azure AD offers built-in roles, such as Global Administrator, User Administrator, Application Administrator, etc., as well as custom roles that can be defined by admins .


Delegated administration is a feature that allows admins to delegate some administrative tasks to other users or groups without granting them full admin rights. Delegated administration helps admins distribute the workload and improve efficiency. Azure AD supports delegated administration for scenarios such as password reset, group management, app management, etc .


Automated user provisioning and HR-driven provisioning




Automated user provisioning is a feature that allows admins to automate the creation, update, and deletion of user accounts in Azure AD and other applications. Automated user provisioning helps admins reduce manual errors and save time. Azure AD supports automated user provisioning for thousands of SaaS applications using the SCIM 2.0 standard or custom scripts .


HR-driven provisioning is a feature that allows admins to sync user data from HR systems to Azure AD and other applications. HR-driven provisioning helps admins ensure data accuracy and consistency across systems. Azure AD supports HR-driven provisioning for HR systems such as Workday, SAP SuccessFactors, etc .


Terms of use, access reviews, and entitlement management




Terms of use is a feature that allows admins to define and enforce policies that require users to accept terms and conditions before accessing resources. Terms of use helps admins comply with legal and regulatory requirements and document user consent. Azure AD supports terms of use for scenarios such as GDPR compliance, data privacy policies, code of conduct policies, etc .


Access reviews is a feature that allows admins to review and verify the access rights of users or groups to resources. Access reviews helps admins maintain the principle of least privilege and reduce the risk of overprovisioning. Azure AD supports access reviews for scenarios such as guest user access, group membership, application access, role assignments, etc .


Entitlement management is a feature that allows admins to create and manage packages of access rights to resources. Entitlement management helps admins simplify access management and empower users with self-service capabilities. Azure AD supports entitlement management for scenarios such as onboarding new employees, changing roles or projects, collaborating with external partners, etc .


Privileged Identity Management and Entra governance




Privileged Identity Management (PIM) is a feature that allows admins to manage the lifecycle and access of privileged accounts and resources in Azure AD or other Microsoft services. PIM helps admins reduce the risk of insider threats and malicious attacks by applying the principle of just-in-time (JIT) and just-enough-access (JEA). Azure AD supports PIM for scenarios such as activating admin roles on demand, approving role requests, auditing role activities, and enforcing MFA or time limits for privileged access .


Entra governance is a feature that allows admins to manage the lifecycle and access of Entra resources, such as Azure subscriptions, resource groups, management groups, etc. Entra governance helps admins ensure compliance and governance with policies, initiatives, blueprints, and management groups that define and enforce the rules and standards for Entra resources. Azure AD supports Entra governance for scenarios such as creating and assigning Entra roles, managing Entra subscriptions, applying Entra policies, etc .


How to get started with Azure AD?




If you are interested in using Azure AD for your organization, here are the steps to get started:


  • Create an Azure account. You can sign up for a free trial or a pay-as-you-go subscription at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/free/. You will need a Microsoft account or a work or school account to create an Azure account.



  • Create an Azure AD tenant. A tenant is an instance of Azure AD that represents your organization and contains your users, groups, apps, and other resources. You can create a new tenant or use an existing one at https://portal.azure.com/#create/Microsoft.AzureActiveDirectory. You will need to provide a domain name and a country or region for your tenant.



  • Add users and groups to your Azure AD tenant. You can add users and groups manually, import them from a CSV file, sync them from an on-premises Active Directory, or provision them from an HR system or an app. You can also invite guest users from other organizations or personal accounts to collaborate with you. You can manage your users and groups at https://portal.azure.com/#blade/Microsoft_AAD_IAM/ActiveDirectoryMenuBlade/Overview.



  • Add applications to your Azure AD tenant. You can add applications from the Azure AD gallery, register custom applications, or publish on-premises applications. You can configure SSO, MFA, conditional access, identity protection, provisioning, governance, and more for your applications. You can manage your applications at https://portal.azure.com/#blade/Microsoft_AAD_IAM/StartboardApplicationsMenuBlade/AllApps/menuId/.



  • Use Azure AD features and capabilities to secure and manage your identities and resources. You can explore the various features and capabilities of Azure AD at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/active-directory/fundamentals/active-directory-whatis. You can also learn more about best practices and scenarios for using Azure AD at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/active-directory/fundamentals/active-directory-scenarios.



FAQs about Azure AD




Here are some common questions and answers about Azure AD:


  • Q: How much does Azure AD cost?



  • A: Azure AD has four editions: Free, Office 365 apps, Premium P1, and Premium P2. The Free edition is included with a subscription of a commercial online service such as Microsoft 365 or Microsoft Azure. The Office 365 apps edition is included with Microsoft 365 E1, E3, E5, F1, or F3 subscriptions. The Premium editions are available through your Microsoft representative or online purchase. They offer advanced features for enterprise-level identity management, threat protection, and governance needs. You can compare the features and pricing of the different editions at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/details/active-directory/.



  • Q: How many users and groups can I have in my Azure AD tenant?



  • A: The Free edition supports up to 500,000 objects (users, groups, devices, etc.) in a single directory. The Office 365 apps edition supports up to the maximum number of objects supported by the Microsoft 365 subscription. The Premium editions support unlimited objects in a single directory.



  • Q: How do I migrate from Active Directory to Azure AD?



  • A: There is no direct migration path from Active Directory to Azure AD. However, you can use Azure AD Connect to sync your on-premises Active Directory users and groups to Azure AD. This way, you can leverage the benefits of both solutions without losing any functionality or data. You can also use tools like ADMT or MIM to migrate other objects or attributes from Active Directory to Azure AD.



  • Q: How do I troub leshoot issues with Azure AD?



  • A: Azure AD provides various tools and resources to help you diagnose and resolve issues with Azure AD. Some of the tools and resources are:



  • Azure AD portal: The portal provides a dashboard that shows the health and performance of your Azure AD tenant, as well as alerts and notifications for any issues or incidents. You can also use the portal to view and manage your users, groups, apps, roles, policies, reports, etc.



  • Azure AD Connect Health: This is a service that monitors the health and performance of your Azure AD Connect sync and federation services. It provides alerts, diagnostics, analytics, and remediation guidance for any issues or errors.



  • Azure AD Troubleshooting Guides: These are documents that provide step-by-step instructions and best practices for troubleshooting common scenarios and problems with Azure AD. You can find the guides at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/active-directory/fundamentals/active-directory-troubleshoot.



  • Azure AD Support: This is a service that provides technical support and assistance for Azure AD customers. You can contact Azure AD support through the portal, phone, email, or chat. You can also access the online community forums and knowledge base articles for self-help.



I hope you found this article helpful and informative. If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to leave a comment below. Thank you for reading!


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