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How Does LDAP Authentication Work?

Today’s businesses rely on a growing list of professional applications to support mission-critical operations. In fact, The Wall Street Journal reports that 10% of businesses now have more than 200 applications in their tech stack, with figures for both small and large organizations rising in recent years. Large firms saw an increase of 68% over the past four years to reach an average of 129 applications, while smaller businesses grew to an average of 73 applications.

Given this proliferation of applications in today’s businesses, organizations need to ensure that their employees can reliably and securely access their applications. To do so, managed service providers (MSPs) should work with their customers to confirm that their authentication processes are set up properly and that important applications are able to consistently match end users’ credentials against a protected directory of organizational data, user login information, and more.

This is where Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) comes in. LDAP is a type of software protocol that allows individual users and applications to find and verify whatever information they need within their organization. LDAP has a wide range of use cases that fit under that umbrella, but most relate in some way to its effective integration with Microsoft’s Active Directory and other similar directory services.

By understanding the basics of LDAP and why it’s a critical protocol for tech-driven organizations, MSPs can help their customers better build and manage an effective database of organizational information. Secured properly, this directory (and the software protocol that connects it to business applications) can support employees and provide them with the tools they need to successfully carry out their roles.

What Is LDAP and How Does It Work?

LDAP was first introduced in 1993 by Tim Howes of the University of Michigan, Steve Kille of Isode Limited, and Wengyik Yeong of Performance Systems International. According to Howes, he and his co-inventors worked on LDAP in order to replace Directory Access Protocol (DAP), a more complex and demanding kind of directory access. By using less code in LDAP—hence the “lightweight”—the team hoped to make the protocol more accessible to those using common desktop computer systems.

Since then, LDAP has become an extremely popular program. For example, in 1997, LDAP.v3 was adopted as a standard for directory services. It also served as the foundation on which Microsoft built Active Directory, and has been instrumental in the development of today’s cloud-based directories—also known as Directories-as-a-Service.

Put simply, LDAP is the protocol or language that servers use to communicate with Active Directory and similar directory services. A version of Directory Access Protocol (DAP), LDAP is part of the X.500 standard for directory services in organizational intranets and across the internet. LDAP helps send messages between servers and client applications—messages that can include everything from client requests and server responses to data formatting.

On a functional level, LDAP works by binding an LDAP user to an LDAP server. The client sends an operation request that asks for a particular set of information, such as user login credentials or other organizational data. The LDAP server then processes the query based on its internal language, communicates with directory services if needed, and provides a response. When the client receives the response, it unbinds from the server and processes the data accordingly.

Why Do We Need LDAP?

LDAP has a diverse subset of use cases, but its most popular purpose is acting as a central hub for authentication. What is LDAP authentication? Well, LDAP is particularly useful at helping organizations store and access usernames and passwords within their network and across applications. With the right plugins, organizations can use LDAP as a way to store and verify basic credentials whenever users are attempting to access an LDAP directory or LDAP-enabled systems and applications. To do so, IT professionals can use Docker, Jenkins, Kubernetes, Open VPN, and Linux Samba servers. LDAP single sign-on is also a popular choice.

However, LDAP credentials aren’t just about usernames and passwords. The software protocol can also be helpful for managing other organizational attributes that can be important for employees across your business to have access to. For example, LDAP can help store addresses, telephone numbers, data on organizational structureand more—all of which make LDAP a useful tool for managing and protecting core user identities across an organization. Additionally, LDAP can connect users with information on network-connected assets and data, such as printers, files, and other shared resources.

Beyond these core use cases, LDAP is an essential tool in any business because of its interactions with the directory services—most commonly Microsoft’s Active Directory. As we’ll discuss shortly, LDAP is a means of communicating with Active Directory and connecting clients with the information they need that directory services actually store. By providing an efficient, shared language that different clients can all use, LDAP makes it easier for different assets to provide coordinated and coherent responses to client queries.

Is LDAP the Same as Active Directory?

While intimately related, LDAP and Active Directory are not the same thing. LDAP is a kind of software language used for directory services authentication—it simply provides the language and means of exchanging properly formatted messages between different clients. This is an essential step of the authentication process, but it does not provide the underlying infrastructure that directory services such as Active Directory deliver.

Microsoft’s Active Directory, on the other hand, provides organizations with critical directory services. These services range from authenticating user credentials and core identities to handling group and user management. Essentially, Active Directory stores and manages domains, user information, and other shared resources across an organizational network. This is a must for organizations that need to be able to locate thousands of objects throughout their digital infrastructure and carefully regulate who has access to what resources.

In short, Active Directory stores user information and logs organizational digital policy at the user and group level. LDAP makes it possible to format queries that can extract the necessary information and communicate responses to those queries between clients. Together, LDAP and Active Directory make it possible for clients throughout businesses to access the information they need—and use the applications that they need—to execute their responsibilities.

What Is LDAP Security?

Because LDAP facilitates communication between clients and Active Directory, it deals with a considerable amount of sensitive information. From employee credentials and core user identities to the locations of critical files and business resources, the data ferried from Active Directory to clients via LDAP is important to protect from cybercriminals and other bad actors. This represents a unique opportunity for bad actors to intercept messages between Active Directory and clients making requests for valuable proprietary information.

While the LDAP authentication process can provide a base level of security by implementing a built-in layer of access management, bad actors may still try to eavesdrop on information moving from Active Directory to clients in order to learn how to access your digital infrastructure.  Accordingly, MSPs should work with their customers to add improved encryption to the LDAP authentication process. Doing so can make LDAP authentication more secure against both internal and external threats facing today’s businesses.

For example, using SSL/TLS encryption can add much-needed protection to the information shared via LDAP and bring additional security to communication channels. Additionally, the default port used during the LDAP authentication process—Port 389—is not secure on its own. In order to create a secure connection, organizations should consider additional security extensions. The LDAPv3 TLS extension can offer greater connection security, or the StatrTLS mode can help information move to a more protected TLS connection after connecting to the port.

What Products Are Helpful for LDAP?

Making the most of LDAP hinges on keeping business information secure and organized. Without properly protecting and storing information, organizations risk losing important institutional knowledge, suffering disruptions to business with their customers, and sullying their reputation as reliable partners. By properly maintaining organizational files and keeping data protected, however, MSPs can help customers retrieve, process, and act on the right information.

To keep this kind of information reliably protected, however, decision-makers need to invest in sophisticated IT tools capable of securing and backing up organizational data. Whether organizations suffer a cyber attack that complicates access to their own files or they have to enact business continuity plans after a crippling natural disaster, having duplicates of servers stored throughout IT infrastructure can keep a business operating smoothly.


Interested in learning more about how to securely backup your servers and critical applications? Explore our product suite to see how you can be prepared for potential disasters.

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