Describe the concept of hybrid identity


Many organizations are a mixture of both cloud and on-premises applications. Regardless of whether an application is hosted on-premises or in the cloud, users expect and require easy access. Microsoft’s identity solutions span on-premises and cloud-based capabilities. These solutions create a common user identity for authentication and authorization to all resources, regardless of location. We call this hybrid identity.

An important consideration for organizations that operate in a mixed cloud and on-premises environment (hybrid model) is determining the right authentication method for their Azure AD solution, for their organization. This is an important decision in an organization’s journey to the cloud and how users will sign in and access applications. It's the foundation for the organization’s modern IT infrastructure on top of which organizations will build their security, identity, and access management solution using Azure AD. Lastly, once an authentication method is established it becomes more difficult to change because it can disrupt users’ sign-in experience. When it comes to authentication of hybrid identities, Microsoft offers several ways to authenticate.

  • Azure AD Password hash synchronization.
  • Azure AD Pass-through authentication
  • Federated authentication

These hybrid authentication options, described below, require an on-premises active directory. Additionally, Azure AD Connect, an on-premises Microsoft application that runs on a server, is required, and serves as a bridge between Azure AD and the on-premises Active Directory.

Azure AD connect manages the synchronization to Azure Active Directory

Azure AD Password hash synchronization. Azure AD password hash synchronization is the simplest way to enable authentication for on-premises directory objects in Azure AD. Users can sign in to Azure AD services by using the same username and password that they use to sign in to their on-premises Active Directory instance. Azure AD handles users' sign-in process.

The Active Directory domain service (AD DS) stores passwords in the form of a hash value representation, of the actual user password. With Azure AD password hash synchronization, the password hash is extracted from the on-premises Active Directory instance using Azure AD Connect. Some extra security is applied to the password hash and then it's synchronized to the Azure Active Directory authentication service. When a user attempts to sign in to Azure AD and enters their password, the password is run through the same hashing algorithm and additional security that was applied to the version stored in Azure AD, as part of the synchronization. If the result matches the hash value stored in Azure AD, the user has entered the correct password and is authenticated.

With password hash synchronization, Azure AD Connect ensures the password hash is sync'ed between the on-premises Active Directory and Azure AD. This enables user authentication to take place against Azure AD rather than against the organization's own Active Directory instance. A benefit of this approach is that password hash synchronization provides highly available cloud authentication. On-premise users can authenticate with Azure AD to access cloud-based applications, even if the on-premise Active Directory goes down.

Azure AD Password hash synchronization topology diagram.

Azure AD pass-through authentication. Azure AD pass-through authentication allows users to sign in to both on-premises and cloud-based applications using the same passwords, like password hash synch. A key difference, however, is when users sign in using Azure AD, pass-through authentication validates users' passwords directly against your on-premises Active Directory. Password validation doesn't happen in the cloud. This can be an important factor for organizations wanting to enforce their on-premises Active Directory security and password policies.

Azure AD pass-through authentication also uses Azure AD Connect but has the additional requirement of running one or more authentication agents. These agents serve as intermediary between Azure AD and the on-premises Active Directory in the process of authenticating users.

When a user tries to access an application to which they aren't already signed in, they get redirected to the Azure AD sign-in page to enter their username and password. Azure AD will encrypt the user password with the public key of the Authentication Agent. The on-premises Authentication Agent retrieves the username and encrypted password from Azure AD, decrypts the password with its private key, and validates the username and password against Active Directory. Active Directory evaluates the request and provides a response (success, failure, password expired, or user locked out) back to the agent, who then notifies Azure AD. If the response indicates success, then Azure AD will respond by authenticating the user.

The use of authentication agents running on a server, means a larger infrastructure footprint is required, when compared to password hash synchronization. Also, because pass-through authentication validates against the on-premises Active Directory with dependency on authentication agents running on servers, consideration should be given to distributed, redundant software and hardware to provide high availability of sign-in requests. Otherwise, if your datacenter suffers outage, authentication to Microsoft 365 services would no longer be possible.

Azure AD pass-through authentication topology diagram.

Federated authentication. Federation is recommended as an authentication for organizations that have advanced features not currently supported in Azure AD, including sign-on using smart cards or certificates, sign-on using on-premises multi-factor authentication (MFA) server, and sign-on using a third party authentication solution.

In federated authentication, Azure AD hands off the authentication process to a separate trusted authentication system, such as on-premises Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS), to validate the user’s password. This sign-in method ensures that all user authentication occurs on-premises.

Federated authentication uses Azure AD Connect but also requires additional servers to support federation, resulting in a larger infrastructure footprint.

Organizations that decide to use Federation with Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS), can optionally set up password hash synchronization as a backup in case their AD FS infrastructure fails.

Federated authentication topology diagram.