Azure Active Directory (AD) provides a range of authentication methods to help you manage access to company devices, applications, and data across your organization. This ranges from multi-factor authentication methods like Microsoft Authenticator, all the way to passwordless methods like Windows Hello.
In this article, we'll discuss the different authentication methods available in Azure AD, talk about their benefits and drawbacks, and provide recommendations on which method is best for your organization. We'll also provide tips on how to get started with each option.
How Authentication Management Works in Azure AD
Azure Active Directory (Azure AD) is an identity and access management platform that enables organizations to authenticate users and grant them access to applications, services, and resources within their setup.
The authentication process in Azure AD starts with identity creation. This is the process of creating an identity for each user in the organization, including their name, email address, username, and password. After an identity has been created, it can be used to access to applications and services within the organization’s Azure AD tenant.
Once identities have been created, they need to be managed. In Azure AD, this is done through role-based access control (RBAC).
RBAC grants administrators complete control over what resources and applications users can access, helping to ensure that users only have access to the resources they need in order to do their job effectively.
Once identities have been created and managed in Azure AD, authentication must occur in order for users to gain access to applications or services.
Authentication occurs when a user attempts to log into an application or service by entering their necessary credentials. If all security requirements are fulfilled, the user is granted access. If not, the user must complete additional verification tasks before being granted access.
An Overview of Azure AD Authentication Methods
Azure AD provides a range of different authentication methods based on the security needs of your organization. These authentication methods can be sorted into three categories:
- Password-Based Authentication: Password-based authentication is the most common form of authentication used in Azure AD. This method requires users to enter a username and password when signing in. Passwords are encrypted before being stored in Azure AD, making them difficult to guess or crack.
- Multi-factor Authentication: Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is an additional layer of security that requires users to provide more than one form of identification when signing in. This can include a combination of something they know (such as a password), something they have (such as a phone or hardware token), or something they are (such as biometrics). By using MFA, organizations can reduce the risk of unauthorized access by requiring multiple forms of verification for each user account.
- Passwordless Authentication: Passwordless authentication is an emerging form of authentication that does not require users to remember or enter any passwords at all. Instead, it relies on other forms of identification such as biometrics, security keys, or one-time codes sent via SMS or email. This type of authentication eliminates the need to remember complex passwords and reduces the risk associated with phishing attacks.
Password-Based Authentication in Azure AD
Password-based authentication is the most basic authentication method available in Azure AD. It involves the following steps:
- User Enters Credentials: The first step in the password-based authentication process is for the user to enter their username and password. This information is sent to Azure AD for verification.
- Azure AD Verifies Credentials: Azure AD will then verify the user credentials against its database of valid user accounts. If the username and password are valid, then the authentication process will proceed to the next step.
- User Accesses Protected Resources: Once the user has been authenticated, they will be granted access to protected resources such as applications or services that are available through Azure AD.
- Session Timeout or Log Out Occurs: Once the user logs out of their session or it times out due to inactivity, their access to protected resources will be revoked. They will then need to authenticate again if they wish to access these resources.
Multi-Factor Authentication in Azure AD
Azure AD Multi-factor authentication (MFA) creates an additional layer of security when accessing applications and services by requiring users to provide multiple pieces of evidence when logging into their accounts. These may include a password, fingerprint, or code sent to a mobile device. That helps protect your organization from unauthorized access and data leaks.
Azure AD provides several types of multi-factor authentication methods for organizations to choose from:
- Voice Call Authentication: This method requires users to receive an automated call on their mobile phone that includes a verification code for them to enter in order to log in.
- Text Message Authentication: With this method, users receive a text message with a one-time verification code they must enter in order to log in.
- Microsoft Authenticator: This method sends a verification code as a push notification to the user’s smartphone, through a mobile app called Microsoft Authenticator.
- OATH Authentication: OATH stands for Open Authentication. It’s a secure protocol that uses an OATH token shared with the user to generate one-time passwords (OTPs).
Passwordless Authentication in Azure AD
This type of authentication eliminates the need to use passwords and relies instead on alternative forms of authentication to access accounts. Some of the available authentication methods in the passwordless category in Azure AD:
- Microsoft Authenticator App: This is a mobile app that can be used to quickly and securely sign in to accounts without entering a password. It uses push notifications, one-time codes, or biometrics such as face recognition or fingerprint scanning to authenticate users.
- FIDO2 Security Keys: These are physical keys that are used to securely sign in to accounts using public key cryptography. They generate a unique code each time they are used, making them extremely secure for accessing an account.
- Windows Hello for Business: This is an advanced biometric authentication method that uses facial recognition technology or fingerprint scanning for secure access to accounts and data stored on Windows devices.
Which Azure AD Authentication Method Is Right For You?
Are you still trying to figure out which Azure AD authentication option is right for you? Here are a few tips to help you decide:
- Understand Your Security Requirements: Analyze the security requirements of your organization to decide which authentication method is the most suitable. For example, if you are dealing with sensitive data, then you may want to opt for a sign-in method with a higher authentication strength, such as passwordless authentication.
- Consider User Experience: It's important to consider the user experience when selecting an authentication method. Passwordless authentication can be a great choice for improving security, but it may also require additional setup steps that could be time-consuming and complex for users. Additionally, users may not be familiar with these authentication methods, so it is important to provide adequate training and documentation for users.
- Pay Attention to Scalability: The number of users in your organization will determine the scalability of an authentication method. Password-based methods can be easily scaled up or down depending on the number of users while multi-factor or passwordless methods may require more advanced infrastructure and additional setup steps that could make scaling difficult.
- Understand Cost Implications: Cost should also be taken into consideration when selecting an authentication method, as some methods might have a higher cost associated with them due to specific hardware requirements or additional licenses required for each user.
Simeon Cloud: The Ultimate Authentication Management Platform for Azure AD
Simeon Cloud is a configuration management platform for Azure AD and Microsoft 365. It uses configuration-as-code technology to automate the administration of Azure AD tenants using its own unified dashboard.
What can you do with Simeon?
It allows you to configure the full range of Azure AD authentication policies using an intuitive no-code interface, while providing detailed audit logging, backup and restore, as well as multi-tenant management functionalities for system administrators.
Using Simeon, you can easily configure identity management and conditional access policies for your tenants and revert them back with a single click if anything goes wrong. Moreover, you gain access to detailed reports and email notifications each time a user makes a change to your authentication management policies in Azure AD.
Want to learn more about how Simeon can help you manage authentication for Azure AD tenants in Microsoft 365? Sign up for a free demo!