ADFS or Password Sync: Which one do you use?

I’ve run into a number of people who get confused about this subject when trying to determine how to get their On-Prem accounts and Office 365 synced and working properly. Most often, people are making a comment somewhere that says, “Just use Password sync, it’s just as good and doesn’t require a server,” or something similar. While I wish this were true, it most absolutely is not. While both options fulfill a similar requirement (“I want my AD usernames and Passwords to work with Office 365”), they both do so in a completely different manner that can have a major impact on security, workflow, and administration of services.

Single Sign-On vs Same Sign-On

To see the difference here, you have to understand the terminology involved. The primary goal for synchronizing user accounts between Office 365 and Active Directory is to give users the ability to use the same username and password to use O365 that they use when logging in to their computer. There are two terms used to describe this relationship. Single Sign-On refers to technology that allows users to access numerous applications while only logging in once. You’ve probably used Facebook or Google’s version of this to access applications, games, or other software. Same Sign-On, however, allows a user to access multiple applications with the same username and password. If you have two bank accounts and use the same username and password to access them, you’re using a simplified version of Same Sign-on. Most Same Sign-on solutions in IT involve an application that reads username and password data used by one system and copies it to another system.

The biggest difference between the two technologies is that Single Sign-On allows you to authenticate one time and access all the applications that are tied to that sign-on system. Same Sign-On requires you to log in to all applications regardless of which or how many applications you’ve already logged into using that username and password.

Single Sign-on and Same Sign-on have a lot of similarities as well. They both allow you to use the same username and password and both simplify account management (theoretically). Most importantly, for Office 365 at least, they allow you to manage usernames and passwords in a single environment, rather than having to change passwords in multiple locations every time something needs to change. The way changes are accomplished is where the decision to use ADFS or Password Sync faces its biggest test.

ADFS is Single Sign-On, Password Sync is Same Sign-On

For the purposes of Office 365, which is what this article focuses on, ADFS is considered a Single Sign-On solution, while Password Sync is Same Sign-On. What does this mean for you, the IT administrator, when you are deciding how to set up your environment? It means you need to consider the following realities of each solution:

ADFS Issues

  1. ADFS requires more administrative overhead to function:
    1. ADFS is not a perfect solution and it does fail sometimes.
    2. Troubleshooting ADFS can be a daunting task. The error messages provided by ADFS are really poorly worded and generic, so a lot of digging in logs is required to really figure out where a problem is coming from.
    3. ADFS requires a trust between your environment and Office 365. Maintaining the trust takes some effort. ADFS relies on Digital Certificates that have expiration dates, so you have to make sure the certificates are updated before they expire or ADFS won’t work.
  2. ADFS is tricky to configure sometimes. The Office 365 setup for it has been streamlined, but there are occasional setup issues that can be difficult to resolve or confusing.
  3. If your ADFS server goes down for any reason, Office 365 can’t be accessed. This means that a High Availability ADFS cluster is very beneficial. It’s also expensive.
  4. In short, ADFS has a significantly higher cost to use than password sync, but it is also more secure.

Password Sync

  1. Password sync copies the “hash” for the AD password to Office 365. This means that if Office 365 gets taken over by hackers (very very unlikely, but still a potential concern), they also get to take over your network because they have all your password hashes. This doesn’t happen with ADFS.
  2. The Synchronization between Office 365 and AD occurs on a scheduled basis. This occurs every 30 minutes at a minimum, so if you change someone’s password in AD, you have to wait up to 30 minutes for the password to change in Office 365. This can be very confusing for users and result in a lot of time consuming support calls, particularly if you enable account lockout in Office 365. You can force syncs to occur, but this does add a good bit of administrative time to the password change process.

Issue Mitigation

There are some ways to get around the issues involved with each solution. For instance, Microsoft is currently working on a cloud-based version of ADFS that will allow you to have ADFS level security without the added infrastructure and administrative costs of an ADFS server/cluster. They also provide an “upgraded” version of Azure AD (which is the back-end system for account management in Office 365) called Azure AD Premium. AAD Premium costs about 4 dollars a month, but allows you to provide your users with self-service password reset features and adds attribute “write-back” capabilities that allow you to manage users in the cloud when using ADConnect, which isn’t possible otherwise, meaning you can change distribution group membership, user passwords, and other attributes in Office 365 and those changes will by written to your AD environment.

Decisions

In the end, the decision between ADFS and Password Sync is entirely up to you. If you have major regulatory governance requirements or are very concerned about security, ADFS is a very capable system that will greatly improve system security for Office 365. However, if you work for a small organization with little to no major security concerns, Password sync will provide you with a lot of benefit.

 

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