What is Active Directory? Why do you need it?

Posted by AlbusBit on December 21, 2022 · 9 min read

If you’ve ever set up a Windows server or network, you’ve probably come across Active Directory - or AD. Microsoft AD provides system administrators with a set of tools for managing resources on a network.

It’s designed to simplify the experience of using Windows for both administrators and end-users - and is an essential tool for any IT department.

What is Active Directory? What are the key benefits and capabilities of the tool? Why is it important for Windows networks? How can you get started?

In this blog post, we’ll answer all of your questions about Microsoft Active Directory and discuss some of its most important features. Let’s go!

Table of Contents

What is Active Directory?

Active Directory is a directory service provided by Microsoft for the Windows Server operating system. A directory is a hierarchical structure that stores data and information about objects on the network.

Microsoft AD enables administrators to manage the resources within a network and provides a centralized location for storing and managing object data.

What sort of information does Active Directory handle and store?

  • User accounts: AD stores information about users who are authorized to access network resources, such as their names, passwords, and group membership.
  • Computers: The tool stores information about computers that are part of the domain, including their names, IP addresses, and operating system versions.

Other objects include:

  • Printers & network peripherals
  • User groups
  • Shared folders
  • Applications

A directory service like Windows AD can authenticate and authorize requests to use network resources such as printers, file services, and local applications. This makes AD a crucial tool for maintaining file security and access permissions.

What is Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS)?

Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) is a core function within Active Directory that handles identity management by storing information about user accounts and permissions.

What features does AD DS provide? These include:

  • Security certificates
  • Single Sign-On (SSO)
  • File access permissions
  • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol

This service stores information about your user accounts and authenticates their credentials whenever a request is made to access a network resource.

Many Windows server protocols - including Exchange Service, Group Policy and Remote Desktop Protocol - rely on AD DS to function.

What are the benefits of using Active Directory?

Active Directory allows network administrators to control and manage network resources. Here are some key benefits of Microsoft AD:

Centralized user and resource management

Active Directory provides a single, centralized location for storing and managing user and resource data.

As a result, you can control access to resources, enforce security policies, and track and monitor activity. If your AD is well maintained, every user will have access to the resources and shared files they need.

Improved security

With Active Directory you can set up and enforce security policies, such as password policies, access permissions, and authentication to control and protect network resources.

This helps to secure your network and protect against unauthorized access and avoid data breaches.

Easy user and device management

Active Directory makes it easy to create and delete user accounts, set up user permissions, and manage devices, such as computers and printers.

This will also save time for your end-users as it ensures their user accounts and passwords work across devices and network applications.


Active Directory is designed to support large networks with a high number of users and resources. In fact, it can easily handle millions of objects.

It is highly scalable, meaning it can easily grow and adapt as your business needs expand.

What are some key features of Active Directory?

How does Active Directory work? How are these directories structured and organized? Let’s discuss some key features of Windows AD and explore how the platform works!

Domain Controllers

Microsoft AD stores information about objects on a network in a database. The servers that host and provide access to this database are known as domain controllers.

This server handles requests for authentication from users within your network, using AD DS to authenticate credentials and provide access.

Organizational Units (OUs)

Organizational Units are a type of container in Active Directory that can be used to organize and manage objects, such as users, computers, and groups.

This allows you to create a hierarchical structure that reflects how your company uses its network resources, making it easier to manage objects and apply group policies.

Group Policy

Group Policy allows administrators to define and enforce policies for a group of objects - such as multiple users and computers.

It can simplify the management and maintenance of a network by standardizing configurations and settings across your network. It ensures that policies and AD settings are consistent across your network, providing an added level of security to your systems.

How do you get started with Active Directory?

To get started with Active Directory, you will first need to install and configure a Windows Server machine as your domain controller. You’ll then need to add objects to a directory, such as user accounts and computers.

  • Install Windows Server:You will need to install Windows Server on a machine that will serve as your domain controller. You’ll also need to promote it using the Active Directory Domain Services Installation Wizard.
  • Create a domain:During this process, you will be prompted to create a new domain or join an existing domain.
  • Create user accounts and groups:Once your domain is set up, you can begin creating user accounts and groups. The Active Directory Users and Computers tool can help you manage accounts and assign permissions to users and groups.
  • Configure group policies:You can use the Group Policy Management Console to create and manage group policies for your domain.

And, that’s it! Your Windows AD will be set up. You’ll need to regularly maintain your directory - including removing user accounts and adjusting permissions - to keep your network safe.

Want to explore the installation procedure in more detail? Check out Microsoft’s official documentation for a more involved step-by-step guide.

How to get reports from your Active Directory domain?

As you can see, Active Directory stores a lot of different data and is responsible for several important services. That's why it's good to stay up-to-date on the current data in your domain so that it runs safely and you can act quickly if something isn't up to date. Read more about this topic here - How to pull Active Directory reports.


Microsoft Active Directory is an essential part of any Windows network. Correctly installing a domain controller and configuring your directory will ensure your network resources are allocated effectively and securely.

It ensures that user accounts and permissions are set up correctly and that your end-users can use their credentials on any application or device they need to use.

If your organization has migrated to the cloud, perhaps you should explore Azure AD - Microsoft’s cloud directory service. It’s a modern identity as a service (IDaaS) solution that provides your business with secure authentication across all of your cloud apps.

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