What is Active Directory?

Active Directory is Microsoft's identity solution. It is part of Windows Server, and controls access to all the resources (computers, shared folders, printers, etc.) in a network. Active Directory is likely an important part of any software-as-a-service offering. Here are the things it contains.

Domains
A domain is the container and namespace for all objects in the directory. Active Directory cooperates with the DNS server built into Windows Server, so the AD domain is synonymous with the DNS domain.

Organizational Units and Groups
Both organizational units (OUs) and groups are ways to collectively manage rights. They each describe a collection of users, computers, or shared objects (like folders and printers). You can define rights and policies at either the OU or group level, and those rights and policies apply to all members.

The difference between an OU and a group is one of ownership. An OU owns the objects it contains. It is a strict hierarchy. A group, however, is a loose collection. An object can be a member of more than one group, but it can belong to at most one OU.

OUs typically break a domain down by region or department. All objects in the OU are typically geographically located, served by the same IT team, and under the same management. Groups, on the other hand, typically break a domain down by role. All objects in the group serve the same function, regardless of their OU.

Trees and forests
In AD vernacular, you'll hear people talk about trees and forests. Besides inspiring obvious puns about not being able to see things, these terms can cause confusion. There are no explicit objects in AD called "tree" or "forest". These are just concepts for how domains relate.

A domain has a dotted distinguished name -- a.k.a. a DNS name. For example, I have a domain called "mallardsoft.com". In my virtual lab, I defined another domain called "mlp.mallardsoft.com". Since they share a common root, these two domains together form a tree. Any domain that ends in "mallardsoft.com" is part of this tree.

Domains deeper in the tree implicitly trust those higher up. So "mlp.mallardsoft.com" trusts "mallardsoft.com". But you can establish a trust relationship across trees. When you do, the conglomeration of trees defined by the web of trust is a forest. The domain at the center of this web of trust is sometimes synonymous with the forest itself.

Best Practices
The best advice I've found related to Active Directory is to keep it simple. Always start with just one domain, until you are compelled to create more. Don't define a domain tree to represent regional or organizational divisions; that's what OUs are for. And don't join domains into a forest unless you really need to merge two disparate trees.

Don't go crazy creating many nested OUs or groups. You don't need to represent your entire org chart in AD. Just define a few high-level departments in which members tend to share resources, and roles in which member tend to share responsibilities.

For software-as-a-service, create an OU specifically for your users. Don't let them get mixed up in your internal OUs. Users and employees can peacefully coexist within one domain, but they should never occupy the same OU.

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