Manage Azure Active Directory without an Azure subscription (sort of)

Introduction to Azure Active Directory

Azure Active Directory is Microsoft’s cloud identity platform and the identity provider for all the services in the Microsoft Cloud ecosystem. It is a multi tenant global identity platform, available in all the Azure regions. If you have Office 365, Windows Intune or Microsoft Azure; you also have Azure Active Directory. To call it Azure Active Directory can sometimes be a little misleading because although it is part of the Azure platform, it exists outside the other services we generally associate with Azure, like Infrastructure-as-a-Service or Platform-as-a-Service. Even though Azure Active Directory shares its name with the Windows Server Active Directory Domain Services role we find in Windows Server, Azure AD offers a lot more than its earthbound namesake. Azure AD is not just a directory that stores information about users and groups, and authenticates them, it also has identity lifecycle management, advanced reporting, multi-factor authentication and support for OAuth, OpenID Connect and WS-* protocols. The complete feature set is too long to list here, and outside the scope of this post anyway. Azure AD is backed by a REST API called the Graph API.

Azure AD comes in three flavors; Free, Basic and Premium. The base offering, Free, can be used by anyone for almost anything. You could build your own webapp in AWS and use Azure AD as the identity provider for example. Like I mentioned, if you already have Office 365, you also have Azure AD. The Office 365 portal offers one view into Azure AD via the admin portal (portal.office.com).

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Another way to interact with Azure AD is via PowerShell. The Azure AD PowerShell module has over 70 cmdlets:

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As you can see from the list above, it is Azure AD that handles federation and directory integration with your existing on-premises directories, not Office 365.

Management of Azure AD

As we’ve seen there are several views into Azure AD; PowerShell, Office 365 or Windows Intune portals. But to manage the full set of available features in Azure AD we need to use the Azure Management Portal (manage.windowsazure.com).

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If you have an Azure subscription you either got an Azure AD tenant when you signed up, you created one in the Azure portal afterwards or you associated your existing Azure AD tenant with your Azure subscription. Either way that tenant then becomes visible in the Azure portal like in the screenshot above. From here you can manage all the base functionality of Azure AD like directory integration, domain verification, multi-factor authentication, reporting etc. You can also add users form other Azure AD tenants (provided you have access to the tenant in question) and add Microsoft Accounts (MSA).

Azure AD vs. Azure

There are several ways to get Azure AD without having an Azure subscription. Maybe you signed up for an Office 365 or Windows Intune trial, or something else. However you got an Azure AD tenant you now want to manage it from the Azure portal. But you cannot do that without a subscription. If you try to log on to the Azure Management portal with a Global Administrator from your Azure AD tenant you get an error telling you you do not have any active Azure subscriptions:

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What you are experiencing here is the dichotomy between Azure and Azure AD. Azure AD is a separate service from Azure with its own roles and permissions. A user account in Azure AD can have one of several roles inside the Azure AD tenant, but no roles in Azure. The roles in Azure AD are:

Organization role Description
User Regular user without any special privileges or permissions. Can read most information in the directory (tenant).
Password Administrator Resets passwords, manages service requests, and monitors service health. Password administrators can reset passwords only for users and other password administrators.
User Administrator Resets passwords, monitors service health, and manages user accounts, user groups, and service requests. Some limitations apply to the permissions of a user management administrator. For example, they cannot delete a global administrator or create other administrators. Also, they cannot reset passwords for billing, global, and service administrators.
Service Administrator Manages service requests and monitors service health.
Billing Administrator Makes purchases, manages subscriptions, manages support tickets, and monitors service health.
Global Administrator Has access to all administrative features. The person who signs up for the Azure AD tenant becomes the first global administrator. Only global administrators can assign other administrator roles. There can be more than one global administrator at your company.

More information about the Azure AD administrative roles is available here. These roles can be granted to either Microsoft Accounts or Azure AD accounts.

As mentioned Azure has its own permissions and roles. The only two roles at present is the Service Administrator and one or more Co-Administrators. The users assigned these roles can be either Microsoft Accounts or Azure AD accounts. The Azure Preview portal (portal.azure.com) has support for Role Based Access Control (RBAC) which gives more granular control of resources. The users assigned roles in RBAC are also either Microsoft Accounts or Azure AD accounts.

So now we know that you can have two sets of permissions and roles; one for Azure AD and one for Azure. We have also established that to fully manage your Azure AD tenant you need access to the Azure Management Portal, but for that you also need an Azure subscription. You could create a an Azure trial subscription with your Azure AD Global Administrator account, but that might be more than you bargained for and requires registering a credit card and managing that subscription. Or you could add the Azure AD Global Administrator to an existing Azure subscription you have, but that will require you to use an MSA to do the linking and the account must be added as a co-admin, thus granting full access to your entire Azure subscription. This is not a good security practice. You could also manage Azure AD directly with PowerShell, but this would not give you full access to all features.

The optimal solution to this would be to let Azure AD Global Administrators log on to the Azure Management portal without a subscription to manage just Azure AD, or to have a separate portal for just Azure AD, but that is not possible. There is however an option that comes pretty close.

Azure AD only Azure subscriptions

With a special Azure offer code we can sign up for a subscription that does not require a credit card, is not a trial subscription, and that only gives access to Azure AD. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Make sure you use a clean browser or browser tab where you are not already signed in to any Microsoft services, either Azure AD based or MSA based.
  2. Use the following URL:
    https://account.windowsazure.com/signup?offer=MS-AZR-0110P
  3. Select Sign in with your organizational account and sign in with the Global Administrator account of your Azure AD tenant.
  4. Complete the Azure sign up form, note that the only thing you need to do is verify your mobile phone number.
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  5. Hit Sign up and you will be forwarded to the Azure Account portal while your subscription is set up.
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  6. Hit Portal to be forwarded to the management portal:
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You now have access to manage the full feature set of Azure AD in the management portal without having to sign up for a trial or pay as you go subscription. This subscription has the following characteristics:

  • It is a regular Azure subscription
  • It has a subscription ID that can be managed and associated with EA
  • It will not expire or incur charges
  • It can only manage Azure AD services
  • You can assign licenses for Azure AD Basic or Free since these are purchased over licensing agreements as opposed to Azure consumption
  • You cannot create any other Azure resources except those related to Azure AD; these are Directory, ACS and MFA
  • You can add other co-admins and change the service admin from the account portal
  • The account that signed up for this subscription is also the account admin and has access to the account portal

Further steps

Now that you have access to the full management experience through the Azure portal you can add other Azure AD tenants that you want to manage. The only way to accomplish this is to use a Microsoft Account (MSA). The MSA directory (formerly Live ID) is the only directory from which everyone can read user objects, both other MSAs and Azure AD users. This makes it possible to “bridge” two Azure AD tenants and make one MSA, or Azure AD account, a Global Administrator of both tenants. You still need to create a the special type of Azure subscription described in this post though. Here are the overall steps:

  1. Create an Azure AD only subscription for the first Azure AD tenant following the steps in the previous section.
  2. Select or create a suitable Microsoft Account
  3. Make the MSA a co-admin in your Azure subscription
  4. Make the MSA a Global Admin in your Azure AD tenant
  5. Make the MSA a Global Admin of the other Azure AD tenant you want to manage in your Azure subscription. This can be done either by creating another Azure AD only subscription or in the full Azure portal if the Azure AD tenant in question is associated with an existing subscription. Ask an admin for help if needed.
  6. You now have one MSA that is both a Global Admin in your Azure AD only Azure subscription, a co-admin on your Azure AD only subscription and a Global Admin in another Azure AD tenant you want to add and manage from your Azure AD only subscription.
  7. Log in to the Azure AD portal with the MSA
  8. Both directories should now be visible
  9. Since the MSA can read from both Azure AD tenants you can now add Azure AD accounts from one to the other.
  10. Create a user in the second Azure AD tenant that is sourced from the first Azure AD tenant by selecting New User and then User in another Windows Azure AD directory.
  11. Make the new user a Global Administrator of the directory.
  12. If you wish you can now remove the MSA from both directories and the Azure subscription and only use Azure AD accounts.

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