The central role of Active Directory in business environments
Deployment of and reliance upon Active Directory in the enterprise continues to grow at a rapid pace, and is more often becoming the central data storage point for sensitive user data as well as the gateway to critical business information. This provides businesses with a consolidated, integrated and distributed directory service, and enables the business to better manage user and administrative access to business applications and services.
Over the past 10+ years, Wanstor has seen Active Directory’s role in the enterprise drastically expand, as has the need to secure the data it both stores and enables access to. Unfortunately, native Active Directory administration tools provide little control over user and administrative permissions and access. The lack of control makes the secure administration of Active Directory a challenging task for IT administrators. In addition to limited control over what users and administrators can do within Active Directory, the database has limited ability in reporting on activities performed therein. This makes it very difficult to meet audit requirements, and to secure Active Directory. As a result, many businesses need assistance in creating repeatable, enforceable processes that will reduce their administrative overhead, whilst helping increase the availability and security of their systems.
Because Active Directory is an essential part of the IT infrastructure, IT teams must manage it both thoughtfully and diligently – controlling it, securing it and auditing it. Not surprisingly, with an application of this importance there are challenges to confront and resolve in reducing risk, whilst deriving maximum value for the business. This blog will examine some of the most challenging administrative tasks related to Active Directory.
Compliance Auditing and Reporting
To satisfy audit requirements, businesses must demonstrate control over the security of sensitive and business-critical data. However, without additional tools, demonstrating regulatory compliance with Active Directory is time-consuming, tedious and complex.
Auditors and stakeholders require detailed information about privileged-user activity. This level of granular information allows interested parties to troubleshoot problems and also provides information necessary to improve the performance and availability of Active Directory.
Auditing and reporting on Active Directory has always been a challenge. To more easily achieve, demonstrate and maintain compliance, businesses should employ a solution that provides robust, custom reporting and auditing capabilities. Reporting should provide information on what, when and where changes happen, and who made the changes.
Reporting capabilities should be flexible enough to provide graphical trend information for business stakeholders, while also providing granular detail necessary for administrators to improve their Active Directory deployment. Solutions should also securely store audit events for as long as necessary to meet data retention requirements and enable the easy search of these events.
Group Policy Management
Microsoft recommends that Group Policy be a cornerstone of Active Directory security. Leveraging the powerful capabilities of Group Policy, IT teams can manage and configure user and asset settings, applications and operating systems from a central console. It is an indispensable resource for managing user access, permissions and security settings in the Windows environment.
However maintaining a large number of Group Policy Objects (GPOs), which store policy settings, can be a challenging task. for example, Administrators should take special care in large IT environments with many system administrators, because making changes to GPOs can affect every computer or user in a domain in real time. However, Group Policy lacks true change-management and version-control capabilities. Due to the limited native controls available, accomplishing something as simple as deploying a shortcut requires writing a script. Custom scripts are often complex to create and difficult to debug and test. If the script fails or causes disruption in the live environment, there is no way to roll back to the last known setting or configuration. Malicious or unintended changes to Group Policy can have devastating and permanent effects on an IT environment and a business.
To prevent Group Policy changes that can negatively impact the business, IT teams often restrict administrative privilege to a few highly-skilled administrators. As a result, these staff members are overburdened with administering Group Policy rather than supporting the greater goals of the business. To leverage the powerful capabilities of Group Policy, it is necessary to have a solution in place that provides a secure offline repository to model and predict the impact of Group Policy changes before they go live. The ability to plan, control and troubleshoot Group Policy changes, with an approved change and release-management process, enables IT teams to improve the security and compliance of their Windows environment without making business-crippling administrative errors.
Businesses should also employ a solution for managing Group Policy that enables easy and flexible reporting to demonstrate that they’ve met audit requirements.
User Provisioning, Re-provisioning and De-provisioning
Most employees require access to several systems and applications, and each programme has its own account and login information. Even with today’s more advanced processes and systems, employees often find themselves waiting for days for access to the systems they need. This can cost businesses thousands of pounds in lost productivity and employee downtime.
To minimize workloads and expedite the provisioning process, many businesses view Active Directory to be the commanding data store for managing user account information and access rights to IT resources and assets. Provisioning, re-provisioning and de-provisioning access via Active Directory is often a manual process. In a large business, maintaining appropriate user permissions and access can be a time-consuming activity, especially when the business has significant personnel turnover. Systems administrators often spend hours creating, modifying and removing credentials. In a large, complex business, manual provisioning can take days. There are no automation or policy enforcement capabilities native to Active Directory. With little control in place, there is no way to make sure that users will receive the access they need when they need it.
Additionally, there is no system of checks and balances. Administrative errors can easily result in elevated user privileges that can lead to security breaches, malicious activity or unintended errors that can expose the business to significant risk. Businesses should look for an automated solution to execute provisioning activities. Implementing an automated solution with approval capabilities greatly reduces the burden on administrators, improves adherence to security policies, improves standards and decreases the time a user must wait for access. It also speeds up the removal of user access, which minimizes the ability of a user with malicious intent to access sensitive data.
Secure Delegation of User Privilege
Reducing the number of users with elevated administrative privileges is a constant challenge for the owners of Active Directory. Many user and helpdesk requests require interaction with Active Directory, but these common interactions often result in elevated access for users who do not need it to perform their jobs. Because there are only two levels of administrative access in Active Directory (Domain Administrator or Enterprise Administrator), it is very difficult to control what users can see and do once they gain administrative privileges.
Once a user has access to powerful administrative capabilities, they can easily access sensitive business and user information, elevate their privileges and even make changes within Active Directory. Elevated administrative privileges, especially when in the hands of someone with malicious intent, dramatically increase the risk exposure of Active Directory and the applications, users and systems that rely upon it. At Wanstor we have found through our years of experience of dealing with Active Directory that it is not uncommon for a business to discover that thousands of users have elevated administrative privileges. Each user with unauthorized administrative privileges presents a unique threat to the security of the IT infrastructure and business. Coupled with Active Directory’s latent vulnerabilities, it is easy for someone to make business-crippling administrative changes. When this occurs, troubleshooting becomes difficult, as auditing and reporting limitations make it nearly impossible to quickly gather a clear picture of the problem.
To reduce the risk associated with elevated user privilege and make sure that users only have access to the information they require, businesses should seek a solution that can securely delegate entitlements. This is a requirement to meet separation-of-duties mandates, as well as a way to share the administrative load by securely delegating privileges to subordinates.
Change Auditing and Monitoring
To achieve and maintain a secure and compliant IT environment, IT administrators must control change and monitor for unauthorized changes that may negatively impact their business. Active Directory change auditing is an important procedure for identifying and limiting errors and unauthorized changes to Active Directory configuration. One single change can put a business at risk, introducing security breaches and compliance issues.
Native Active Directory tools fail to proactively track, audit, report and alert administrators about vital configuration changes. Additionally, native real-time auditing and reporting on configuration changes, day-to-day operational changes and critical group changes do not exist. This exposes the business to risk, as the IT team’s ability to correct and limit damage is dependent on their ability to detect and troubleshoot a change once it has occurred.
A change that goes undetected can have a drastic impact on a business. E.g. someone who elevated their privileges and changed their identity to that of a senior member of the finance department could potentially access company funds resulting in theft, wire transfers and so forth. To reduce risk and help prevent security breaches, businesses should employ a solution that provides comprehensive change monitoring. This solution should include real-time change detection, intelligent notification, human-readable events, central auditing and detailed reporting. Employing a solution that encompasses all of these elements will enable IT teams to quickly and easily identify unauthorized changes, pinpoint their source, and resolve issues before they negatively impact the business.
Maintaining Data Integrity
It is important for businesses of all sizes to make sure that the data housed within Active Directory supports the needs of the business, especially as other applications rely on Active Directory for content and information.
Data integrity involves both the consistency of data and the completeness of information. For example, there are multiple ways to enter a phone number. Entering data in inconsistent formats creates data pollution. Data pollution inhibits the business from efficiently organizing and accessing important information. Another example of data inconsistency is the ability to abbreviate a department name. Think of the various ways to abbreviate “Accounting.” If there are inconsistencies in Active Directory’s data, there is no way to make sure that an administrator can group all the members of accounting together, which is necessary for payroll, communications, systems access and so on. Another vital aspect of data integrity when working with Active Directory is the completeness of information. Active Directory provides no control over content that is entered natively. If no controls are in place, administrators can enter information in any format they wish and leave fields that the business relies upon blank. To support and provide trustworthy information to all aspects of the business that rely on Active Directory, businesses should employ a solution that controls both the format and completeness of data entered in Active Directory. By putting these controls in place, IT teams can drastically reduce data pollution and significantly improve the uniformity and completeness of the content in Active Directory.
Most requests made by the business or by users require access to and administration of Active Directory. This is often manual work and there are few controls in place to prevent administrative errors. Active Directory’s inherent complexity makes these errors common, and just one mistake could do damage to the entire security infrastructure. With the lack of controls, the business cannot have just anyone administering Active Directory.
While it may be practical to employ engineers and consultants to install and maintain Active Directory, businesses cannot afford to have their highly-skilled and valuable employees spending the majority of their time responding to relatively trivial user requests. Self-service administration and automation are logical solutions for businesses looking to streamline operations, become more efficient and improve compliance. This is achieved by placing controls around common administrative tasks and enabling the system to perform user requests without tasking highly skilled administrators.
Businesses should identify processes that are routine yet hands-on, and consider solutions that provide user self-service and automation of the process. Automation of these processes reduces the workload on highly-skilled administrators, it also improves compliance with policies since automation does not allow users to skip steps in the process. Businesses should also look for self-service and automation solutions that allow for approval and provide a comprehensive audit trail of events to help demonstrate policy compliance.
Active Directory has found its home as a mission-critical component of the IT infrastructure. As businesses continue to leverage it for its powerful capabilities as a commanding repository, Active Directory is a vital part of enterprise security. Therefore, administrators must be able to control, monitor, administer and protect it with the same degree of discipline currently applied to other high-profile information such as credit card data, customer data and so forth. Because native tools do not enable or support the secure and disciplined administration of Active Directory, businesses must look for solutions that enable its controlled and efficient administration. These solutions help make sure the business information housed in Active Directory is both secure and appropriately serving the needs of the business.