What is Azure Active Directory?

Back to basics! This is the first post in a series of posts, where I will dive into Azure Active Directory, and all the features around it. Not because Azure Active Directory (Azure AD or just AAD) is new, but because I think there is a gap in understanding exactly what role AAD plays when it comes to Azure, Office 365, Enterprise Mobility Suite, Dynamics Online etc.

If I was asked to describe Azure AD, with 1 sentence it would be:

Azure AD is an online service, to provide identity management for Microsoft’s own services, and 3rd party services.

So It’s an online version of Active Directory?

I hear this all the time. And well, to some point, yes. While it’s a very good way to understand Azure AD, it’s also a very good way to not understand it. Let’s rule out some of the common mistakes I hear:

I can deprovision my domain controllers and just use Azure Active Directory for all my clients and servers!
Nope, Azure AD is not here to replace your domain controllers. There might be some companies who can do this, but the vast majority is not anywhere near that point.

I don’t need Azure AD, because I don’t want to use Azure!
Well, then don’t. Just understand that Azure AD is not only for Azure, despite the name. It’s also used for other Microsoft services, and if you use services that are not Microsoft based, there is a good chance you’ll be able to use Azure AD for authentication to these services. More on that later.

I already have Office 365, and now I need another identity service for Azure?

Nope, it’s the same identity service, behind both offerings. Actually, you should make sure you don’t create a new Azure AD for Azure, if you already have Office 365, and vice versa.

I don’t get it, how does Azure Active Directory compare to Active Directory then?

Think about it this was. Your on-premises Active Directory, is made up from a couple of Domain Controllers. But why did you install those to begin with? Because you wanted to introduce a centralized identity solution, for the services you run on your servers.

For example, your email might be based on Microsoft Exchange Server, which uses Active Directory as it’s identity service. In the same way, Azure Active Directory is used for Exchange Online.

Do you use Skype for Business (Lync/OCS)? Active Directory provides identities for this service too. And again, the online equivalent of this service, Skype for Business Online, uses Azure Active Directory in the same way.


And just like you can install all kinds of other services, and use Active Directory for identity, you can do the same with Azure AD. A good example is ServiceNow, which exists in an on-premises version, and a cloud-based version. The on-premises version can use Active Directory for idenity management, while the cloud-based version can authenticate through Azure AD.

I could keep going, but I think you get the point by now.

Do I have users and groups?

Yes! Just like your on-premises AD, Azure AD has users and groups. Depending on the service you use with Azure AD, you can assign permissions on a group level. There are also all kinds of cool features, like self-service password reset, self-service group membership, multi-factor authentication etc. But I’ll get back to all of that.

Do I Need a subscription for a Microsoft service to get Azure AD?

Nope! You can go ahead right now, and create a new Azure Active Directory tenant.

WAIT! Tenant? What’s that?

Glad you asked! In the world of Azure AD, a tenant is just a customer. Again, think back to your on-premises AD. You have an Active Directory in your company (you might have multiple, but I’ll keep it simple). It’s the IT department’s responsibility to keep this service running, while the company is consuming the service. Keeping this service up and running cost some money, which the company has to pay for. So you might say that the company is a customer, to it’s very own IT department – in fact that’s how many companies run their IT.

Ugh, I can’t justify a cost to get an online version of my Active Directory!

No problem, there is a free version of Azure AD for you to consume. It’s of course limited in functionality, but you will get very far with this version.

Let’s try to sign up for an Azure Active Directory tenant.. Go to: https://account.azure.com/organization

Here you will see the following page. Before you fill out everything and sign up, read the next paragraph below the picture.


See the “DOMAIN NAME” field? This is important. Very important! I’ve had a few customer who signed up, started consuming services, and then wanted to change that specific part. You can’t. It’s a “start-from-scratch” operation, and you do not want to do this if you started using SharePoint Online or something like that, trust me.
Usually I recommend my customers to use their company name (or Organization Name, as Microsoft says). For my own purpose, I got cloudpuzzles.onmicrosoft.com for all my personal stuff.

What if my company name is taken?
Well, if it’s a generic name and lot’s of companies around the world use it, you should probably just add your country code or something like that. If you have a special name, and you are pretty sure no one else would be using it, it might mean someone in your company already signed up for an Azure AD. This could be part of an Office 365 trial for example. That’s not unusual.. What makes it worse it, it’s also not unusual that no one knows about this trial, so no one has access to the tenant. You *might* be able to talk to Microsoft folks, and have them check the owner of the tenant, but there is no official process of doing this. If you don’t know who to ask, try reaching out to your favorite Microsoft partner, they might be able to push some buttons.

Besides the domain name, you also need to create a new user ID. This is the first account in the Azure AD (just like the administrator account in on-premises Active Directory). Personally I prefer to not make this personal, like “jesper@awesomecloud.onmicrosoft.com”. This is because the account will exist, even if I quit the company. No one want’s that. Instead, I treat this account as a “break glass” user, for emergencies only, and name it something like “cloudadmin”. I’ll talk more about securing this account, in a later post.

You fooled me! I’ve signed up, and now it want’s me to create an Azure susbcription!!!

After signing up, you are forwarded to a login page. If you login with the account you just created, you will see this:


Don’t worry. This is just a cheap trick from Microsoft Smile Instead, go to https://portal.azure.com or https://aad.portal.azure.com. From there you are able to play with your Azure AD, with no requirements to sign up and enter a credit card.

Okay, I’m ready to learn this!

As mentioned above, you now have access to two portals:

https://portal.azure.com – this is everything Azure related; Azure AD, Virtual Machines, web apps, databases, automation.. you name it!

https://aad.portal.azure.com – this is the things that are related to Azure AD. Same UI as above but without all the extra things, you might not be tempted by.. Yet Winking smile

Besides the portals, you can also use PowerShell to interact with your directory. More info on that here: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/powershell/azure/active-directory/install-adv2?view=azureadps-2.0

Where does the users come from?

When working with Azure AD, users can be sourced from multiple locations.

First of is the “Azure Active Directory” sourced users. These are users that you create in your Azure AD. Everything on these users, are controlled through your Azure AD; Username, properties, password, email address – anything you can imagine.

Second source is Windows Server AD. This is where things gets interesting, in my opinion – at least if you have a Windows Server AD (or on-premises AD, if you will). By using Azure AD Connect (a tool from Microsoft), you can synchronize user accounts from on-premises AD to Azure AD. This way your users will have the same username, and password, to use with online services, as they use on-premises through Windows Server AD.

If you are using ADFS, you can also integrate this with Azure AD, to provide Single Sign-On. But again, this post is the basics, so I’ll cover that later on.

Another source of users, is guest users from other Azure Active Directories. If for example you need to give an external user access to an application in your organization, you can invite them to your Azure AD and assign permissions. For me as a consultant, this makes it very easy to help customers, as I can use my own company account to access their environments. And often we (my workplace) has better security on our accounts, so it’s a win for us too.

Can I get rid of the *.onmicrosoft.com domain?

Yes. As long as it’s a public domain, like cloudpuzzles.net, you can add it to your Azure Active Directory. You will need to validate ownership through DNS records though, so make sure you have access to this. If you synchronize users from your on-premises AD, you will need to add the domain as a UPN suffix there too. I will go into much more details about this in a later post too.


What’s Next?

In the next post, I will guide you through the portal, and the different versions of Azure Active Directory.

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