The rise of digital business has extended identity boundaries outside of the workplace and demanded new ways to manage user access effectively and efficiently - using powerful new tools to better help us safeguard our employees when they log in.
Today, IT security not only must manage workforce identity and employee access for local on-premises resources, but for a number of different types of users (customers and partners) across a variety of unique scenarios (different devices, cloud-based apps, hosting models).
It can be a daunting task to keep everyone’s usernames and passwords secure when there’s so many different environments and situations to consider. Ensuring authentication is seamless and streamlined so that everyone can still get what they need fast and easy is no small feat.
Hence, the importance of establishing the right framework and using the right tools.
Whether you’re cloud-first or exploring a hybrid cloud business model, a strong identity and access management (IAM) strategy is key to protecting staff and customers from threats with properly defined identity. It also improves operational efficiency and user experience. Backed by the right IAM solution, better management is more than achievable and you'll be on the way to Zero Trust security.
When it comes to leveraging cloud-based identity and access management capabilities for our digital workplaces, two market-leading solutions have jumped to the front of the pack: Okta Workforce Identity and Azure Active Directory from Microsoft. Both services eliminate much of the complexity associated with traditional identity and access tools while empowering digital businesses with more powerful IAM features - they even integrate well together thanks to Okta’s platform-agnostic identity architecture - and apply our identity settings for our users much faster.
User authentication security technologies like Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) and Single Sign-On (SSO) strengthen users’ security and identity across the organisation, and both Okta and Azure AD offer these important access capabilities for digital focused businesses.
A common question we get from customers is whether Okta and Azure Active Directory is better for their cloud identity needs. Our answer is all dependent on the business outcomes - but to understand that, you must first understand their key differences in capabilities.
In this article, we cover the high-level differences between Okta and Azure AD to help you determine which may be better suited to drive your identity and access management goals.
Okta vs Azure Active Directory: Top Access Management Solutions Leaders 2020
Why are Okta and Azure AD the top recommended solutions for organisational identity and access management? Why is Okta the clear leader in this.
For a number of years, both services have ranked highly by globally leading advisory experts such as Gartner - Okta and Azure AD are listed as two of the five market leading identity and access management solutions today in the latest Gartner Magic Quadrant for Access Management report.
Gartner defines the ideal IAM solution as a platform that “uses access control engines to provide centralised authentication, SSO, session management and authorisation enforcement for target applications in multiple use cases (B2E, B2B and B2C)” and also provides adaptive and contextual authentication technologies such as Multi-Factor Authentication while supporting 3 major modern identity protocols:
Meanwhile, Forrester Research ranked Okta as a leader and Microsoft’s Azure AD as a strong performer in the latest The Forrester Wave™: Identity as a Service (IDaaS) For Enterprise report. Both services are rated highly for their present features, market presence and strategy.
According to Gartner, 60% of all single sign-on (SSO) transactions are expected to use modern identity protocols like OAuth2 and SAML over proprietary approaches, up from 30% today. With Okta, followed by Azure AD both providing leading SSO products and support for these protocols, they’re future-proofed to ensure up-to-date IAM as you move into the cloud.
Both services offer the latest in authorisation processes of APIs using these protocols, a number of user authentication systems (adaptive MFA and SSO), self-service identity administration to make it easier for our IT personnel (managing user provisioning, role-based access and profile management) and streamlined passwords and permissions control.
In short, Okta and Azure AD are very capable when it comes to modernising your IAM.
So, what are the main differences between Okta vs Azure Active Directory?
What does Okta offer?
Okta is a cloud-based, SaaS-delivered identity and access management service that provides developers and organisations with enterprise-grade identity lifecycle management capabilities.
Okta provides a number of IAM products in two editions - for the workforce and for developers. For both groups, Okta offers user access administration, application integration and user provisioning, authentication and reporting and mobile identity security, in one unified platform. IT can configure Okta via an admin console, while staff logging in with SSO into SaaS and internal apps can access Okta via an end-user portal. Okta extends its identity capabilities to your internal systems and apps through the use of a software-delivered component called agents.
As mentioned earlier, Okta Workforce is a specific offering that packages a number of the vendor’s base identity products and add-ons, including SSO, MFA, Adaptive MFA, lifecycle management, user provisioning, Okta Mobile (SSO for mobile apps), and a reverse proxy called Okta Access Gateway for enabling authentication and authorisation for nonstandard apps (proprietary and internally-developed apps without pre-made integrations with Okta).
Three of Okta’s main services are Okta Single Sign-On, Okta Adaptive Single Sign-On and Adaptive Multi-Factor Authentication, which enforce stricter authentication and authorisation protocols when logging into the digital workplace from different devices and locations. It pulls user identities from one central repository, making access seamless for users and identities easier for IT to manage. The value of making user provisioning easier cannot be understated.
Okta: Native and third-party application integrations
Because Okta’s identity architecture is platform and vendor agnostic, it offers over 1,200 SAML integrations and over 6,000 pre-built integrations with third-party applications, human capital management systems (HCMs), social media providers and entire cloud platforms such as:
- Microsoft Office 365/Office 365
- Palo Alto
With Okta’s suite of identity products and management systems, your IT team can manage user identities with all of these SaaS applications via Okta instead of on an individual basis, making Okta optimal for businesses regardless of which cloud platform or digital apps they use.
Did we mention it’s also integrated with Microsoft Azure Active Directory, too?
Okta: Identity Management for IT and Users
For both IT admin and developers, Okta’s identity and access management products are highly streamlined for ease-of-use. You don’t have to be a coder to configure anything, as it uses GUI and API interfaces for administering all user management functions. For end-users, the self-service password reset and profile management is equally clean and simple, and uses a two-step MFA process (email, SMS or voice) to authorise any changes.
Okta: Authorisation, Authentication and Adaptive Access
At a high-level, Okta approaches user authorisation decisions based on three main factors: individual user attributes, AD security groups or other group memberships. Pulling this information from one central repository in Okta, the system then determines that user’s access for a specific application. The service uses adaptive access signals - historical login information, IP, geolocation or changes in new devices - and pre-set settings, such as behavior detection policies, to enable successful authentication. If your IT might need to configure multiple authorisation policies at the organisation or application level, Okta can accommodate.
Okta: Identity Standards for the Cloud
Okta supports all major modern identity authentication standards so that it can enable Single-Sign On for all standard cloud-based SaaS applications. This includes SAML 2.0, OAuth 2, OIDC, WS-FED and password vaulting and forwarding.
Okta: Identity Standards for On-Premises
Via the aforementioned Okta Access Gateway, organisations can enable modern authentication and authorisation capabilities for their core business applications running on-premises. The reverse proxy supports header-based web applications like Citrix and Palo Alto Networks. Currently, Okta has even been able to include helpful pre configurations for certain nonstandard applications for further streamlining.
Okta: User Authentication
When it comes to verifying user identity, Okta enables organisations to deploy a number of different authentication methods through its stateless API. Aside from the standard username and password method, you can eforce knowledge-based authentication via images, voice, SMS, mobile push notifications, device-based biometrics (fingerprints) and much more.
Okta: Monitoring and Reporting
Identity and access is often a complex to manage and requires in-depth visibility to make specific authentication and authorisation decisions. Okta includes reporting abilities via ThreatInsight, as well as event logging and structured data analysis to investigate data. You can link reporting features to SIEM platforms like SumoLogic for deeper analysis.
Why choose Okta as identity and access management solution?
Okta’s unique differentiation is its adaptive and contextual authentication products. It takes a continuous authentication approach to workplace identity - that is, always enforcing strict access standards for all users while still making it as painless and fast as possible for them to get the resources they need securely. It also offers built-in analytics reporting via ThreatInsight, which consolidates all user data from all logins made with Okta products across the enterprise environment so admins can leverage in-depth threat intelligence directly on their IAM platform. Okta also has a strength with its universal directory and unique capability with customer based identity, and is a clear leader in these scenarios.
What type of business is Okta best suited for?
Okta is ideal for all businesses, whether an emerging SMB or large-scale organisations that require a unified, single sign-on and MFA solution for numerous websites and critical applications. It integrates directly into your current authentication solution, whether that be Active Directory, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) or another form and can be used as the sole provider of authentication for further simplification of identity and access management across the entire business.
What is Azure Active Directory?
Microsoft Azure Active Directory (also called Azure AD) is a cloud-based directory, identity and access management service used to help staff sign in and access both external resources (SaaS applications like Microsoft Office 365) and internal resources (intranet, corporate network, proprietary applications, etc). Users only need to use one name and password to sign in with Azure AD governing identity, sending essential information to that app to pre-fill forms.
If your business has a subscription to Microsoft Azure public cloud, you need Azure AD to sign-in and access resources within Office 365 and Azure’s border services and employ SSO. All users - whether from Active Directory (AD) or other user stores — need to be provisioned into Azure AD first before authorisation is given for access to requested apps.
Because it is in-built into Azure, Azure AD Basic is available to all organisations with an Azure subscription. The second edition is Azure AD Premium, which has additional capabilities. Azure Active Directory’s IAM capabilities are intended to help both workforce, B2B and B2C scenarios, with Azure AD Premium specifically for B2C use cases - a separate license.
Microsoft’s in-built identity tools, and its user provisioning capabilities are closely linked with Active Directory and is widely used by many organisations already invested in the Microsoft Stack. Organisations that have Azure AD but no on-premises Active Directory can still provision and deprovision users from HCM systems like Workday via individual configuration, but for the most part all of these services are decentralised and require manual integration.
For IT admins, Azure AD is popular due to its powerful features in controlling user access to apps and resources based on business requirements. You can set up mandatory MFA, automate user provisioning between existing Windows Servers and cloud apps like Office 365, and automatically meet compliance requirements due to Azure’s strict SLAs.
Azure AD is also popular due with app developers, as it’s easier to use the service as a standards-based approach for adding SSO to apps to work with pre-existing credentials compared to other IAM solutions. It also provides APIs for creating personalised experiences using organisational data, though much of these features are in the premium version.
Azure Active Directory: Native and third-party application integrations
Azure AD may be Azure-centric owing to its Microsoft origins, but this identity and access service houses thousands of out-of-the-box application connectors (integrations) that make it as extensive any other platform-agnostic IAM solution.
- Google Analytics
- Microsoft Office 365/Office 365
- Palo Alto
That includes helpful integration with Okta, too, to extend your IAM capabilities further.
Azure Active Directory: Authorisation, Authentication and Adaptive Access
Azure AD currently has Basic and Premium (paid) licenses that vary in monitoring, security reporting, and mobile access features. The Basic tier provides user and group management, SSO and self-service password change as part of the base package, but adaptive features are mostly locked to the Premium tier. Azure AD Premium currently offers additional adaptive access capabilities such as Azure AD Premium’s EMS Conditional Access, which enables IT admins to configure user access based on pre-set conditions, similar to Okta’s Contextual Access Management. It uses geolocation, endpoint device characteristics, user behaviour analytics, threat analytics and other methods to provide proper user authorisation.
Azure Active Directory: Identity Standards for the Cloud
Azure Active Directory: Identity Standards for On-Premises
Compared to Okta, Azure AD is a little bit more limited in its support for non-standard (i.e. proprietary, legacy and internal applications on-premises) than Okta. Only its Premium tier offers a reverse proxy integration option but those non-standard apps that can be connected this way must be integrated Windows Authentication and Kerberos Constrained Delegation. If your company has a large number of internal apps that need to be integrated with Azure AD for enhanced identity and access management, it’s a little harder to pull off compared to Okta. In addition, the B2C version of Azure AD does not support legacy and pripotary target system architectures, limiting your on-premise gateway options further.
Azure Active Directory: User Authentication
Azure AD Premium (not the Basic tier) supports voice call, mobile push, SMS, third-party OATH-based tokens and OTP apps for user authentication. It does support biometrics (face, fingerprints) authentication method as well, but only via Windows Hello, a separate product. Azure AD B2C only supports SMS and voice call for authentication, with all others needing custom configurations to be set up separately.
Azure Active Directory: Monitoring and Reporting
Azure AD is very good when it comes to monitoring and reporting over identity and access-related queries and logging functions, though that is due to its native integrations with the broader Microsoft Azure suite such as Azure Monitor Logs, a powerful analytical engine used for audits. If you extend Azure AD with Monitor Logs, you can get deeper information about user sign-ins, risk factors, threat detection, and so on.
Why choose Azure Active Directory for an identity and access management solution?
Azure AD ultimately offers very strong adaptive and contextual authentication through conditional access rules and extensive user authentication systems - and is an competent solution if your organisation is particularly invested in the Microsoft Azure cloud stack.
What type of business is Azure Active Directory best suited for?
Azure AD is recommended for SMB and large-scale organisations with deep investment in the Microsoft software stack (Microsoft Office 365, Teams, etc) due to its in-built functionality with these core applications - and given that a lot of it’s Basic tier is already included in Azure subscription licenses. If you need a deeper level of identity and access management capabilities, you must factor in the cost to upgrade to a Premium tier license.
It’s clear from both reports from Gartner and Forrester Research and general adoption rates among businesses around the world that Okta is the leader for organisations that invest in IAM solutions as the core of their digital transformation journey. The business case also stacks up, as when you include more of the advanced use cases, such as customer identities, and if you need to leverage some of the capabilities such as Universal Directory, and ease of use, Okta becomes a clear winner.
Therefore, based on overall versatility for business scenarios, we recommend Okta due to its platform-agnostic identity architecture. Its compatibility and flexibility in working with all public cloud platforms and over 6000 applications makes it one of the easiest and cost-effective identity solutions on the market, and the fact it enjoys deep integration with Azure AD means your business can get the best of both worlds and use both solutions if your budget allows.
Also important, especially for larger organisations is the integration into other identity related solutions, such as Privileged Access Management (PAM) or Identity Governance and Administration (IGA) solutions, which are critical to any Cyber Security stack.
For more information on Okta, download our free whitepaper on 3 reasons you need a modern identity platform.