AWS Security Blog

How AWS SSO Active Directory sync enhances AWS application experiences

Identity management is easiest when you can manage identities in a centralized location and use these identities across various accounts and applications. You also want to be able to use these identities for other purposes within applications, like searching through groups, finding members of a certain group, and sharing projects with other users or groups. For example, when you use AWS Systems Manager Change Manager, you might want to search for groups or distinguish a user from a list of users with the same name based on their email address. You expect that the user and group details you see are consistent with the details that appear in a different application.

AWS Single Sign-On (AWS SSO) streamlines identity management by enabling you to connect an identity provider (IdP), such as the AWS internal directory or a range of partners and use the IdP identity information for access and collaboration within applications. Now you can get the same benefits when you connect your Microsoft Active Directory (AD) as your AWS SSO identity source. With the release of AWS SSO AD sync, you’ll be able to access AD groups, along with AD users, from AWS SSO-integrated applications, and use these groups and users for collaborative experiences. AD sync automatically brings identity information from your Active Directory into AWS SSO and makes this information available to you within applications. It makes sure that the user and group details you access in Amazon Web Services (AWS) stay consistent with information in Active Directory through periodic synchronizations.

In this post, I’ll walk you through key use cases that highlight how applications use the user and group information that is synchronized from Active Directory and how the AD synchronization capability works to make this possible.

Access control

Your ability to manage who can access which parts of an application or who has the necessary permissions to drive certain tasks within an application relies on the application’s ability to retrieve user and group information. It’s also important that any access that you configure is updated dynamically when there are any changes at the source. For example, if you define approval access to a group in an application and a member leaves the group when they change roles within the company, their group-based access within the application should be revoked. With AD sync, AWS SSO-integrated applications can utilize user and group information that is periodically updated, and therefore stays current.

Suppose you’ve set up an approval template in Systems Manager Change Manager for patching instances and want to require that all members of the IT Security Operations team approve any change requests created with this template. AD sync enhances this process by giving you the option to define approvers at the AD group level. If you have an IT Security Operations group in Active Directory and the group has permissions set up to access AWS SSO, this group will be available to you in Change Manager to select as an approver in your template. If a member of the IT Security Operations group switches roles and leaves the team, AD sync helps to ensure that the member’s access to approve patching-related change requests is revoked, by dynamically updating the IT Security Operations group in Change Manager once the member is removed from the group in Active Directory.

It’s common for teams at companies to work on cross-functional initiatives that involve sharing projects, reports, or dashboards with members of different teams for their review and feedback, or for collaboration. In such cases, you want to be able to easily search for users and groups within the application and share out relevant artifacts. AD sync makes it possible to access users and groups within AWS SSO-integrated applications, and you can then use this information for searching and sharing.

For example, if you use an AWS SSO-integrated application like AWS IoT SiteWise to create and share dashboards for metrics reviews with leadership or to collaborate with other teams in your organization, you’ll now be able to see all users with access to AWS. AD sync makes it possible for AWS IoT SiteWise to access all users, rather than only the users who signed in to AWS at least once.

Administrative efficiency

If you’re a platform admin or cloud admin who manages access to AWS SSO in your company, assigning users and groups with access to AWS accounts and resources is a routine task that requires administrative effort. Because AD sync periodically syncs AD groups into AWS SSO, you only need to pre-define access to resources for an AD group once. After that point, any new member, such as a new employee, who is added to the AD group in Active Directory will gain access to resources tied to the AD group. The new employee will also be added to AWS SSO through AD sync, and their information will stay current through periodic syncs. Therefore, the administrative effort involved on your end for managing users is reduced.

Similarly, if an employee leaves the company, you will no longer have to worry about deleting their information in AWS, because AD sync automatically deletes user and group objects that you delete in Active Directory. This simplifies your user lifecycle management and reduces the manual effort involved in the process.

How Active Directory sync works in the background

This new AD sync feature is for customers who want to use their AD identities with AWS SSO, without setting up a separate IdP, such as AD Federation Service or Azure AD. To use this capability, you must connect AWS SSO to your Active Directory by using AWS SSO with either AWS Directory Service for Microsoft Active Directory (AWS Managed Microsoft AD) or AD Connector. Learn more about using AWS Managed Microsoft AD and AD Connector.

AD sync brings in user and group information from your Active Directory and stores it in the AWS SSO identity store. Once this information is synchronized, AWS SSO-integrated applications can use the user and group information to deliver collaborative experiences, such as sharing a dashboard with other users.

AD sync obtains a list of users and groups to be synchronized from Active Directory based on the assignments that you make to AWS accounts and applications. It then syncs those users and groups (including the group members) into the AWS identity store, keeping the information updated through periodic syncs, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Active Directory synchronization of users and groups

Figure 1: Active Directory synchronization of users and groups

If a user has assignments based on attribute-based access-control (ABAC) and changes departments, attributes will automatically update at the next sync. If a user happens to sign in before the next sync, the attributes will be updated at sign-in to maintain consistency. The user will now see their assignments updated based on their new department.

AD sync also syncs in all members of a group, including sub-groups or nested groups. It flattens members of the nested groups, that is, it adds them to the parent group in the AWS SSO identity store. For example, if Group B is a member or nested group of Group A in Active Directory, then members of Group B are also synced into AWS SSO and added directly to Group A, as shown in Figure 2. So, only Group A can be used in AWS SSO accounts and applications.

Figure 2: Members of nested Group B flattened and added to parent Group A

Figure 2: Members of nested Group B flattened and added to parent Group A

If you delete a user or group in Active Directory, AD sync automatically deletes the user or group from the AWS SSO identity store. You won’t see the deleted identity appear in AWS SSO-integrated applications, either. However, if you only delete the assignments for a user or group, the user or group will remain in AWS SSO and won’t be automatically deleted.


In this blog post, I explained how user and group synchronization can help deliver better application experiences with less administrative effort. I also covered how the AWS SSO AD sync capability delivers this benefit for applications such as AWS Systems Manager and AWS IoT SiteWise. AD sync capability is available to you at no additional cost in all AWS Regions supported by AWS SSO. If you want to get started with AWS SSO or learn more about AD sync, see the AWS SSO User Guide.

If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below. If you have questions about this post, start a new thread on the AWS SSO forum or contact AWS Support.

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Sharanya Ramakrishnan

Sharanya is a Senior Technical Product Manager in the AWS Identity team. She enjoys solving customer problems through meaningful products, particularly in the dynamic security and identity space. Outside of work, Sharanya likes to travel and enjoys hiking and reading.