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In Security Last updated: March 1, 2023
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Find out the basics and functional knowledge on the virtual directory concept as well as how to create one in this super concise and easy-to-understand guide. 

A virtual directory service is crucial for medium, startup, and enterprise businesses that handle many user profiles of their employees in different applications. That is because you can not allow just anyone to access your intranet, internet, and on-site server resources. 

You need to streamline such access and control information consumption according to employee roles and projects. However, employees can create many software, websites, and server user accounts during their life cycle to do their job. 

Using an efficient virtual directory server, you get one source of truth for many user accounts linked to a few employees. It facilitates modern content access systems in enterprise workplaces like LDAP, IAM, Single Sign-On (SSO), and so on. If you are unsure what a virtual directory is and how it can help your business or career, keep reading!  

What Is a Virtual Directory?

What Is a Virtual Directory

A virtual directory server or virtual directory is the architectural protocol for identity access management (IAM). It gives businesses a unified and consolidated view of IAM information stored in various unrelated data repositories. As a system admin, you do not need to port the application and users to one infrastructure to let them access the required content to perform in their positions. 

You simply create a back-end abstraction layer on your native app or server by deploying a virtual directory. Then the VDS automatically resolves all requests based on different types of organization user accounts. For example, an employee of your organization can have four different types of login information, as mentioned below: 

  • A series of numbers as employee ID
  • A work email address from Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace
  • A physical security stick working as two-factor authentication
  • Disposable website or application usernames that the employee can generate on their own

A VDS can manage all these different types of user accounts and login credentials. Though the purpose and matching applications for these user profiles are different, VDS ensures that the employee gets access to the appropriate resources without exposing unapproved business resources.

The virtual directory also functions as an intermediate repository of identity data, and hence it is often called LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) middleware. It aggregates and gathers identity information from various apps and sources like the following:

  • Business or public databases
  • LDAP directories
  • Business or public applications
  • Web apps, web services, and websites

Why do Businesses Prefer a Virtual Directory?

Organizations needing secure apps and other business resources access use a virtual directory because this is more useful and efficient than conventional directory replication solutions significantly. 

A VDS can synchronize identity data across different data repositories without the need for app compatibility. Furthermore, unlike a conventional directory replication tool, a virtual directory can dynamically retrieve and normalize identity data from unrelated data stores. 

Traditional directory replication-based systems suffer from major issues like scalability constraints, identity data propagation issues, security vulnerabilities, and more. 

Since VDS behaves like a middleware between the software or application and the container or operating system where you need to run it, it does not carry burdens like propagation delays, scalability issues, etc.

How Does a Virtual Directory Work?

There are two primary elements in a virtual directory tool. The first one is the VD server. The client apps and workstations directly connect to this server. The second one is the VD manager. It is a desktop-based management interface (UI) for server configuration, mainly used by IT admins.

The incoming users for any enterprise app connect to the VD server. Authentication protocols like LDAP, DSML (Directory Services Markup Language), HTTP, etc., resolve the access request to the next level of authentication protocols.      

An example of architecture of a VDS system
Image Credit: Oracle

In the second level, app-specific authentication protocols take over the user’s request. For enterprise apps, LDAP redirects users to the requested apps. On the other hand, JDBC (Java Database Connectivity) protocol redirects users to business databases.

The above graphic is an example of a VDS tool where the images show the data flow pattern from the client application or workstation to a VDS.

Image Credit Oracle

In the above graphics for VDS workflow based on Oracle Virtual Directory (OVD):

  • The client app, computer, or mobile app connects to a business application on the organization server.
  • The business app then accesses a virtual directory to find, authenticate, and approve the incoming connection for resource requests using the VDS as if it is the standard LDAP server.
  • VDS transforms these incoming connection requests into native user authentication protocols for SQL databases, LDAP, web portals, ERP apps, etc.
  • The VDS then translates and personalizes the response received from the native identity sources like SQL, web services, LDAP, etc., and instructs the business app what to do: either grant access or deny depending on the business logic. 

How to Create a Virtual Directory

Mostly medium and enterprise businesses use a dedicated tool to create and manage virtual directories. Whatever the tool you use, the flow to create a virtual directory is as outlined below:

An example for creating virtual directory on Plesk
Image Credit: Plesk
  • Log in to your virtual directory tool.
  • Visit Websites & Domains and look for the domain name of your website. For applications, it would be a server address where you host the business app.
  • When on the root directory for a website or business app, click the Virtual Directories option on the VDS tool.
  • Now, go to the directory against which you want to create a VD and select Create Virtual Directory option.
  • When creating a VD, you must assign the followings:
    • A name for the virtual directory
    • Create a path for the virtual directory and assign a physical directory for it
    • Allow read and write permissions. You can use role-based access control systems to customize read and write permissions for individual employees or users.
    • Create a hypertext listing for the folders and subdirectories within the virtual directory.
    • The VDS tool should also give you the option to log VD accesses by employee IDs and other users.
    • You can also convert the VD into an IIS (Internet Information Services) application if you want to make it logically separate from other apps and websites. 

The Advantages of a Virtual Directory 👍

  • Your business apps become faster and more reliable. The apps do not need to perform access request queries to various databases. The VDS tool functions as a middleware and handles all identity resolution queries. 
  • You can make your business apps more secure and gain more control over confidential business app data by consolidating and parsing all IAM and LDAP requests through a central VDS tool.
  • You can make identity data repositories more secure by decoupling identity consumers and user accounts from the repository. Thus, hackers have minimal chance of gaining access to the main VDS tool via phishing individual user accounts.
  • You can simply replicate a VDS across the organization to increase the load capacity—no need to redo the whole system and stall the business operations. 

The Limitations of a Virtual Directory 👎

  • VD can not modify the underlying database structure of identity information. Hence, if a business app requires a deeper hierarchy or a flattened list of identities, the VDS will not be able to serve that request.
  • Some VDS tools can not correlate the same users coming from different business apps or web portals. Hence, you must inquire about this shortcoming before buying a VDS tool.

Real-World Use Cases of Virtual Directories

  • VDS works as an identity data repository. It allows businesses to resolve user account connection requests through protocols like LDAP, IAM, SAML, etc., from multiple databases, physical app directories, and non-directory sources in a plug-and-play method. Your IT team does not need to configure different apps and databases for all the access management protocols.
  • You can centralize roles and accounts into a data repository using enterprise databases like Oracle. Then use a VDS tool to store the centralized identity data repository in Sun LDAP or Microsoft Active Directory. Thus, employees will need to remember fewer user accounts and passwords. 
  • Enterprises also use the VDS tool to allow Single Sign-On (SSO) using a common log-in ID across many business sites, apps, and databases within the organization’s virtual directories.   

Virtual Directory Learning Resources

Now that you have gone through some functional and basic details on the virtual directory, find below some learning resources for advanced knowledge:

Virtual directory A Clear and Concise Reference

If you are a network engineer or IT administrator of a digital business entity, you must read this book on virtual directory now.

Preview Product Rating Price
Virtual directory A Clear and Concise Reference Virtual directory A Clear and Concise Reference No ratings yet $81.54

Let’s say you are in charge of designing the VDS architecture for your company and buying a tool that serves the needs. You can not just buy any tool. First, you need to ask some inquisitive questions to explore possibilities around virtual directories. Thus, you will know what you will face and must resolve when the virtual directory system is up and running.

The book will guide you to ask important questions before setting up or procuring a VDS. Also, if you are a business interested in developing VDS solutions, you must read this book to find out loopholes and plug those holes.

The book helps you with the followings:

  • Virtual directory best practices
  • Diagnosing a VDS process to troubleshoot errors, discover security issues, and so on
  • Upgrade your company’s VDS guidelines and practices with the latest innovations and concepts in this niche.
  • Creating a self-assessment tool to audit the statuses of the VDS tools  

Virtual Directory A Complete Guide

If you want to become a master virtual directory engineer or IT admin, then you must check out this virtual directory guide on Amazon. It is a self-assessment book that helps you to assess or audit the status of the virtual directory servers in a digital business.

Preview Product Rating Price
Virtual Directory A Complete Guide - 2020 Edition Virtual Directory A Complete Guide – 2020 Edition No ratings yet $81.31

The book is your go-to resource for questions that you need to ask yourself when assessing the quality and performance of a VDS tool. Some example questions that the book helps you to answer are: 

  • What should be the communications policy for the success of the VDS project?
  • Is the VDS development plan on schedule or running behind schedule?
  • What data should be collected by the virtual directory project?
  • How to reduce the effort to manage VDS? 
  • How to ensure that the VDS project is delivering the results as expected?
  • How to plan the VDS purchase and implementation so that the cost of ownership stays within the budget?

The book is available as a paperback and Kindle edition. By buying the Kindle version, you can enjoy the lifetime free update to the book content as more research comes up in this niche. Although, if you love to read physical books, then you can go for the paperback edition of Virtual Directory: A Complete Guide.      

Wrapping Up

Virtual directory services have become indispensable in digital businesses where content access and flow of information must be controlled to protect intellectual property (IP) rights and keep business secrets secure. There have been many virtual directory server service providers active in the market.

If you decide to get a virtual directory for your business, use the learning resources mentioned above to choose the right service provider.

If you are a computer software or network engineer looking to explore a career in this niche technology, the above learning resources will also help.

Next, check these Active Directory administration and management tools.

  • Tamal Das
    Tamal is a freelance writer at Geekflare. After completing his MS in Science, he joined reputed IT consultancy companies to acquire hands-on knowledge of IT technologies and business management. Now, he’s a professional freelance content… read more
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