LDAP is the core protocol behind AD. Directory access is performed via LDAP—whenever a client performs a search for a specific object in AD (say for a user or a printer), LDAP is being utilized to query relevant objects and return the correct results.
Users obtain access to information and resources through a process of LDAP authentication, which usually involves multiple levels of permission. Anonymous users have the least access to information—if they have access at all—because there is no information that identifies these users and allows them to be authenticated. They might, for instance, see only employee names without access to contact information.
A majority of users—typically company employees—are granted access to the kind of information that may be especially relevant or useful to them on a day-to-day basis. Administrators essentially function as the LDAP administrators, and have access to the greatest amount of information. They can also add or remove data from the server as needed. In addition to these conventional roles, it’s also possible to create subadminster or manager roles with some of the privileges of an administrator, which can be helpful to IT teams in large companies and organizations in particular.
LDAP and Data Breaches
Due to the importance of AD to the makeup of the IT structure of most companies and organizations, it tends to be a prized target for hackers and other malicious actors. By accessing a single user account, these actors can put sensitive data such as passwords and files at risk. If that account belongs to an administrator, the level of vulnerability is potentially even greater. In the worst-case scenario, the integrity of the entire IT infrastructure could be in jeopardy if AD accounts are compromised.
This is where LDAP becomes especially important. Through its authentication role, LDAP serves as the main line of defense against malicious attacks on an AD. But how does this authentication role work? And how effective is it?
LDAP offers two main methods of authentication to keep your data safe. The first, called simple authentication, uses a distinguished name and password in what’s called a bind request for authentication from the server. This method is widely supported among directory services and is the more common of the two methods.
Simple authentication is also very easy to use—it simply requires sending the fully qualified distinguished name of the client to the server, along with the client’s clear-text password. However, because the authentication data (the password) can be read from the network, it puts users at risk of snooping—an important security downside to consider. To avoid exposing the password in this manner, organizations can utilize simple authentication within an encrypted channel if supported by the LDAP server.
For enhanced security, what’s called the simple authentication secure layer (SASL) method may be preferable. Unlike simple authentication, this latter method decouples authentication mechanisms from application protocols, making your directory less vulnerable to those who would seek to compromise your data and inflict harm. For this reason, the SASL method has witnessed widespread use and increasing popularity.
AD and LDAP Takeaways
It should be clear by now that AD and LDAP are not equivalent, but can work in concert to the benefit of your company or organization. AD is a directory service for Microsoft that makes important information about individuals available on a limited basis within a certain entity. Meanwhile, LDAP is a protocol not exclusive to Microsoft that allows users to query an AD and authenticate access to it.
When combined, AD and LDAP serve essential functions for empowering your company or organization with essential knowledge—knowledge that is simultaneously accessible internally and secure from external actors who might wish to access it. In this day and age, when digital security can simply never be comprehensive enough, it is impossible to overstate the importance of IT experts understanding these concepts and applying them in ways appropriate to their business.
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