Identity Governance

Identity Governance Challenges in Complex Active Directory Environments

Identity Governance Challenges in Complex Active Directory Environments

Organizations often find themselves grappling with complex Active Directory (AD) environments. Whether due to mergers, acquisitions, or organic growth over time, many companies now operate in multi-domain scenarios that span both on-premises and cloud infrastructure. While these hybrid environments offer flexibility, they also present significant challenges for identity governance and administration (IGA). Let's explore some of the key hurdles faced by IT teams in managing identities across complex AD landscapes.

And, we know that security best practices would tell you.. “That’s easy, don’t have multiple domains!” or “That’s easy, don’t use nested groups!” But, the practical reality is that there’s not enough budget in the world to ACTUALLY do that in practice. 

The Most Common Challenges of Managing a Complex AD Landscape

1. The Hybrid Conundrum

Many organizations maintain hybrid environments, combining on-premises Active Directory with cloud-based Azure Entra ID (formerly Azure AD). This setup allows companies to leverage modern cloud capabilities while retaining control over legacy systems. However, it also introduces complexities in identity management such as:

- Synchronization issues between on-premises AD and Azure Entra ID

- Differing capabilities and limitations between the two platforms

- Challenges in maintaining consistent access policies across environments

2. Nested Groups: A Double-Edged Sword

Nested groups in Active Directory can simplify administration by allowing for hierarchical access structures. However, they also introduce complications like:

- Increased complexity in understanding and managing permissions

- Difficulties in troubleshooting access issues

- Limited support for nested groups in Azure Entra ID, particularly for certain scenarios like app role assignments and group-based licensing

3. Multi-Domain Mayhem

Organizations with multiple AD domains face additional challenges including, but not limited to:

- Complexity in managing identities across different domains

- Difficulties in implementing consistent access policies

- Challenges in consolidating identity information for governance purposes

4. The Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) Gap

While RBAC is a best practice for access management, it's not fully supported in hybrid AD environments:

- Azure Entra ID doesn't support RBAC for hybrid setups, as AD groups can't be added to Entra Roles

- This limitation hampers efforts to implement consistent, scalable access control across the entire environment

5. Foreign Security Principals: A Necessary Complexity

Foreign Security Principals (FSPs) allow for cross-domain access without duplicating user accounts. While powerful, they add another layer of complexity:

- Difficult to manage and understand, especially at scale

- Challenges in auditing and reviewing access granted through FSPs

- Potential security risks if not properly managed

These issues and complexity ultimately lead to…

The Access Review Conundrum

There’s no disputing that conducting thorough access reviews in complex AD environments is a daunting task. There are many reasons for this, but here’s a few of the most common:

- Manual processes are time-consuming and error-prone

- Native tools often lack support for nested groups and multi-domain scenarios

- Flattening group structures and consolidating data requires significant effort and expertise

- Difficulties in providing comprehensive audit trails for access changes

What Can I Do About It Now?

The main issue is ensuring that trust relationships between domains are actively being reviewed and governed. 

What not to do: Wait for your auditors to “discover” you have been granting access to resources and applications that aren’t part of your current process controls (we’ve seen it happen, it doesn’t end well).

The most straightforward step to accomplishing this goal is to build a view of those relationships.  Since Active Directory and EntraID don’t really play well together in this kind of environment, you’ll need your AD administrators to do some coding.  

Here are the steps you’ll want to take:

  • Identify all your domains and resources within those domains
  • Download the full list for each domain, including foreign security principals
  • Consolidate this into a single spreadsheet/dataset
  • Programmatically link the foreign security principals in one domain to the flattened groups in another
  • Recursively flatten group nesting into a “flat” list of access (Protip - here lies dragons, watch for infinite loops!)
  • This gets you a dataset you can then break up into a manual review 


Complex Active Directory environments are a business reality. Your governance question becomes:

  1. Do you live with it, and do the right thing manually? This is undoubtedly the most expensive and painful of your current options.
  2. Do you live with it, and hope nobody notices? This option does ease the possible burden, but also puts your team and organization at risk, opening you up to ramifications like failed audits, security breaches, and more.
  3. Do you live with it, and not even realize you are exposed? Like the option before it, access that isn't transparently exposed is also easily missed and opens you up to risk and repercussions.
  4. Do you invest in a solution that works?

How can Clarity Security Help?

Clarity has a different take on complex Active Directory environments.  We would rather handle it as it is, not force expensive migrations and consolidation to fit a “best practice” that isn’t realistic.

Clarity natively supports hybrid multi-domain Active Directory environments, foreign security principles and nested groups.  We’ve helped customers discover over-assigned domain admin privileges, months on manual access review data prep, and simplify their access review lifecycles. 

Schedule a call with a member of our team to see our IGA platform in action.

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