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Active Directory: 10 years old and thinking cloud

Ten years ago, Microsoft released its Active Directory technology to skepticism that it could build an infrastructure technology to anchor user management and access control. Now the software is an integral part of nearly every corporate network and stands ready for its next frontier: public and private clouds.

Over the years, Active Directory (AD) has strengthened its shaky legs by improving scalability and flexibility, and adding features such as federation and rights management services. The directory today is part of nearly every task a user performs on a Windows-based network, plus there are tools to include Unix and Linux machines under the access controls in AD, and an army of third-party vendors.

Most recently, Microsoft unveiled plans for the Next Generation Active Directory (NGAD), a modular add-on that is built on a database and designed to add querying capabilities and performance never before possible in a directory. NGAD also is a reshaping of the programming model for Active Directory.

Microsoft touts groundbreaking “clip-on” for Active Directory

But it all started on Feb. 17, 2000, with the official release of Windows 2000, which featured the first ever network directory from Microsoft.

Directory technology had already been mastered by Novell and Banyan, along with others such as Sun. Still, Microsoft charged out of the gate with the intent of taking the industry by storm. And it succeeded. Today, Active Directory runs in more than 90% of the world’s 2,000 biggest companies, while the rest of the market picks up the leftovers.

AD is an integral part of Exchange, SharePoint and Office Communications Server, along with other Microsoft and third-party applications.

“Besides core file serving functions, Active Directory is the most deployed workload in Windows Server,” says Justin Graham, senior product manager for Windows. “And I would venture to say one of the most strategic workloads.”

Over the years Microsoft has added to Active Directory what the user base demanded, Graham says. While AD presented challenges, “we have accomplished a lot,” he says. “We have watched the industry and anticipated the shifts, and that will continue going forward.”

As with any nascent technology, there were growing pains, stumbling blocks and techniques to master on the rise upward. The directory slowed the uptake of Microsoft Exchange 2000, the very first Active Directory-enabled application, as users fretted over directory architectures, schema changes and configurations, for instance.

Even Microsoft’s IT department alerted users to take caution in building directory infrastructure.

In a February 2000 interview with Network World, Dave Gasiewicz, the lead architect for Microsoft’s internal IT department, said “if you want to live in hell right away, go to multiple forests.” The multiple forests architecture presented an administrative “boondoogle” and a very complex security model, Gasiewicz said. His frankness was appreciated more by users than Microsoft’s PR machine, but it was an indication that users were dealing with serious infrastructure technology.

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