Adaxes

Softerra Adaxes – Several Months In

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Softerra Adaxes is an Active Directory management & automation tool which I’ve grown very fond of.

First I reviewed Softerra Adaxes, then I actually bought Softera Adaxes and even did a brief case study for them. I thought it would now be good to share how far we’ve come through using this tool, and what the experience is like for those considering this option of automation. Here’s my thought process and how I personally approached the rollout, along with my experiences along the way:

Initially to me, the idea of having an ‘Outlook rules’ style approach to building a system that automated user management was enough to me. We’d been creating accounts manually for a long time, and the process was documented but took 20 minutes or so to perform. There was also a lot of room for human error, especially when someone was interrupted while creating an account.

There was of course the ‘selfish’ reason of not wanting to do these user management tasks myself, but it’s hard to pass those tasks off with the inherit risks or lack of knowledge of the tools being used to ease the process. This is what had held me off writing my own giant PowerShell script to automate all the steps.

After mucking around with the Adaxes basics, I started to realise that this software solution seemed to actually deliver on what I was personally looking for – something that wasn’t complex, but also let me define whatever criteria, business rules and caveats to the user creation process that I wanted. On top of that, there was inbuilt webpages where I could deliver these options to other staff requiring no software installs, and the ability to show or lock down whatever I chose, to both control and protect the Active Directory environment.

It did take a few weeks to set up properly, but I wouldn’t have really spent more than an actual day’s worth of work in those few weeks doing it. That was just to create a new user in all the various systems I wanted, with our unique user setting requirements. I wouldn’t say the entire system is so simple and easy to navigate that you can get cracking, but it’s also not complex. Once you find the setting or understand how Adaxes achieves a solution, it’s not difficult to set things up.

The inbuilt functionality of website templates – where you can create multiple sites displaying whichever fields you like to whichever users you like – is a good way to deliver the solution to end users. You can have a page for IT and another page for Finance with completely separate functions to best fit each use case.

For me, it was great that I could create websites with zero programming requirements. It’s all driven by a GUI, and somehow it’s still very flexible in what it can do. It might be frustrating to someone who actually writes code, but that’s not who would normally be using this solution. I really feel it’s aimed at someone like me, the IT Pro/Sys Admin who wants to automate and allow others to use the tools, without needing to code or expect others to run PowerShell commands themselves.

adaxes1Basic site with one option – menu and right side options can even be hidden if required.

Once I’d finished the user creation process and published the method of doing so to a website, I had internal staff muck around with it and use it, purely for new user creations. The feedback I received was immediately positive – that 20 minute or so process had been reduced to a few minutes, and even generated out an email saying the account creation was done. This in itself to me was the tick of a successful project, and I knew I could do a lot more around automation and empowering others to do repeatable tasks.

Some of the problems I hit on the user creation automation were:

  • After upgrading from Lync 2010 to Skype for Business 2015, there were intermittent errors popping up for creating a SfB user. This was a known problem to Softerra, and took several months to resolve with a new version of Adaxes. I did have a workaround luckily, so it only took some rule modifying to work around it until a proper solution was found.
  • ‘User unknown’ – I ran into some problems where I’d create the user or enable them for Exchange, but then the next command wouldn’t find the account. Adaxes was faster than what other systems could replicate changes, so some tactful ‘start-sleep’ PowerShell command steps during the workflows to allow replication to occur before the next step triggered. This does mean that the overall process can take a minute or two, and the person who triggered the user creation has to wait for it to finish.
  • Not all functionality was available that I needed in the GUI. For example, creating a Skype for Business user is easy, but you can’t assign a policy. Instead you need to use PowerShell commands to do what you want. That took a bit longer and needed more testing, but wasn’t much of an issue once I found that out.
  • When a new user was created that already existed (e.g. another John Smith – john.smith) I hadn’t considered that scenario. I asked in the Adaxes forums and was told how to run some pre-checks to make sure the username and phone number were unique and bomb out if they weren’t, rather than half creating an account and having to clean it up afterwards.
  • The upgrade process isn’t painful when a new version of Adaxes comes out (which came out while I was doing the user creation and I wanted to try upgrading early on), but there’s a few more steps than next, next finish. An uninstall is required with backing up a few files, then a fresh install and importing what you backed up. I’m hoping that will be streamlined a bit in the future.

After the user creation process was settled, I started to create more automation tasks. Deprovisioning was an obvious one, and was a lot easier than user creation as well as taking a lot less time to set up. This command would clean up all the bits and pieces from an account, including home drives and Exchange settings (along with moving the mailbox to a different database). This was rolled out relatively quickly.

I should also note, the logging is very helpful. If someone triggers a command from the website, they can see if it was successful or not, or where it failed. It made testing easy to do, but I was also able to read through logs via the GUI on the server to find out more about what failed and why.

adaxes2Updating options on one of the web interfaces – no coding required.

I then decided to wait for common scenarios to come up and build them as needed. We often had ‘returning staff’ which if their Active Directory account still existed, I couldn’t use my user creation method when the account already exists. This took a rethink of how I’d designed my rules so far, and decided to re-do a lot of it in a more modular fashion. Because there’s the ability to copy and paste rules, this was a lot easier than I expected. The end result was that I’d have a list of modules to run against a task – e.,g. a new user would call commands such as ‘enable email’ and ‘enable Skype for Business’ which my new ‘returning staff’ would call ‘re-enable email’ but the same ‘enable Skype for Business’ command as a new user. This now meant I could move a mailbox from one database to another and unhide the user from the Global Address Book when they returned, but because all users have their Skype for Business disabled, that step was the same in either scenario.

Another valuable idea I had was to let users control the membership of Active Directory groups that they were the owner of. After some mucking around, I created a website solely for that purpose. The great part about it was that whomever logged onto the site (with passthrough authentication so no extra typing required) could only see groups they were an owner of, based on the Manager field in Active Directory. This gives anyone in the company who is in control of a group, the ability to add or remove members without any IT assistance required. Perfect for application owners who control who can get to their application or not via a security group.

My next task will be the automation of a user name change. With the updated modular design, I can copy out the steps that I need and modify them to my new requirements; of course finding the hour or two to build and test this is the hardest part. (Note: Between the week of writing this and publishing, I’ve now done it.

I’ll give praise to both the Adaxes forums and their helpdesk support via email- almost always, within 24 hours max (and usually 4-5 hours) I’d get a specific and clear answer on how to do something I couldn’t work out personally, and it was from someone who knew the product rather than a basic 1st level helpdesk type response.

I hope this gives a real impression of my experience and opinion of Softera Adaxes at a high level, after using it for an extended time. There’s no real gaps to the product that I’ve found. and you can pick and choose as to how much customisation you want to do through PowerShell scripting. I’m still happy with the product, and it will continue to evolve with us.

Adaxes User Management Customisation

At the start of 2016, I reviewed a product called Softera Adaxes, which automates user management. I’m a big fan of it, and have been continually using it since (yes I’m a paying customer!).

The more we’ve used it, the more refined my rules have been. Sometimes they need to be adjusted to cover a scenario I didn’t consider (such as, a new starter with a hyphen in their last name, but not wanting the hyphen in the username). Other times it’s been a new requirement, and a re-think on how the rules need to be modified to cover new scenarios.

How Easy Was It To Change?

I’m happy to report that these changes have been quite easy to do. You need to be careful and think about changes before you do them. One trick for testing new user creations was to not send out email alerts if a certain field had the word ‘Test’ in it, which let me test the system live without other staff getting advised. Pretty simple, but effective:

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Since using it, I’ve learnt through both trial and error, as well as Softerra support, several improvements on how to manage my rules based on my personal requirements. I thought it would be a good idea to share these tips which should help both new and existing users.

One quick one that Adaxes Support on their forums helped me with, was stopping a new user creation before it started, if the username already existed. A quick ‘Before User Creation’ business rule created with this script ensures the task will bomb out with a nice message, rather than potentially making changes on an existing user that were unwanted.

For the bigger picture on how I’d designed Adaxes for new users, I’d originally created a bunch of steps in the business rules for ‘After User Creation’. I had a big runsheet of many ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ for a new user, but then had a thought; what if I want to re-enable a disabled user? None of these rules could be applied, because they’re against a new user. I don’t want to delete and re-create the account as that causes a lot of 3rd party app issues. Adaxes Support helped me on this one again, and suggested Custom Commands instead.

Now You’re Working With Modules

The idea was to make the whole design modular. Instead of having all the steps inside the ‘After User Creation’ business rule, move each step into it’s own custom command. From there, the custom commands can be called in order from the ‘After User Creation’ business rule. This reduced the Business Rule from 40 lines down to 9:

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Of course that complexity was moved to the Custom Commands, but as each grouping (e.g. Enable Email) was it’s own command, it became much cleaner and easier to read as well as manage.

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After chopping up all the rules this way, I created a dummy user. I was impressed that it worked perfectly first time! (side note – when you run something via the web interface, you’ll get back a very useful report on each step that ran and any errors. This is really helpful when troubleshooting.)

My next step will be to now create a ‘modify user’ rule that is for returning staff, and will call most of these modules. The ones that don’t fit for an existing account can just be replaced by a modified custom command for what I need.

Another basic point I worked out by going through this process, is that I should be more granular in where by business rules are pointing. Originally I pointed the ‘after a user is created’ business rule at my entire AD structure. After realising that I want a different process for contractor accounts, I narrowed down the rule to only point to the OUs that normal new users would be placed in, allowing for a different set of rules when a new user is created in the contractor’s OU.

Conclusion

One of the great things about all this, is that it’s easy to change your setup. There’s no re-writing from scratch – everything can be modified, or copy/pasted to where you want it to go.

I’m still really enjoying managing and using Softerra Adaxes, often with it sitting in the background for months while other staff use it for user management; with very little room for user error.

Softera sponsored the writing of this post.

Softerra Adaxes Identity and Active Directory Management Review

I’ve been asked to review many products (both hardware and software) on this blog. Many of the things I write about here are triggered by my experiences, which I think adds to the usefulness of the posts. Usually I decline, because I either don’t have an interest in the product, or don’t have the time to invest reviewing something that I can’t get a personal benefit out of the product in question.

Softerra Adaxes was one of these companies. After giving it a quick once over, my interest had been piqued. After extensive testing, I was actually happy to write a review of what the product does, and how I can see it helping people in businesses… so here is my take on the product. This is a sponsored post, but written by myself with my honest view on the product after extensive testing.

What is Softerra Adaxes?

First and foremost, this is an Active Directory (AD) Identity Management piece of software. It will talk to your AD environment (don’t worry, no schema changes required!) and give you a framework to allow automation. I’d previously looked at System Center Orchestrator (SCOrch) to look at the automation of user accounts such as creation, change, deletion – but it was too complicated for my liking. Most things required you to write your own code (PowerShell, .NET etc) and use what I’d call strange variable calls, instead of plain old nice code. To me, you have to wear a developer hat to use SCOrch for anything beyond very basic workflows.

Adaxes takes a different approach. Instead of writing your own code (which you can do still), much of it is driven in a similar way to how Outlook rules work. You can use the Adaxes Console, or Adaxes webpage to perform tasks such as ‘Create User’ – but you define the rules. For example, think of the ‘City’ field in AD. These are the rules you can set for it:

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Those rules then end up as the only choices via a drop-down menu:
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Having a default value if > 50% of your users are going to be in a particular city is a time saver. Same applies to being able to list several cities, and have a dropdown list to select them from – removing human error from typos. Forcing the property to being required also means it won’t be missed. To me, this gives immediate benefit in the user creation process, if the time is spent setting it up correctly.

User Creation in Adaxes

Once a user is created with your template, ‘Business Rules’ can kick in. These are more rules based on an event happening – such as a successful user creation. For me, I created business rules based on the City. If they’re in Sydney, then do all these things that applies to a Sydney person. This can be the creation of a home drive, but also can hook into Exchange or Lync to create their account in that environment too.

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The Exchange and Lync integration allow you to have a user fully set up without even needing to worry about it. The email alias can be pulled from the username, and normal email address policies apply for creation of SMTP addresses. You can specify which DAG the mailbox will be created on too. For Lync, it’s the same story. If you’re lucky enough to have Enterprise Voice, the user’s phone number can be used as a variable to create a Line URI for the user.

Other third party systems can be manipulated by running a PowerShell script or program easily enough, or if you want to start getting tricky… there’s the Adaxes SDK for API.

When it’s all done, you can even trigger an email to alert staff that a user has been created, which could be used to alert other departments of any manual processes they need to do once a user is ‘born’.

Even better, is the easy built-in security roles. You can give HR access to create a user via the native Adaxes web page. No software required, HR follow the bouncing ball of the webpage and see a prompt for any required field, and requests can be configured to require approval before being actioned too.

What Else Can Adaxes Do?

I’ve focused on User Creation so far, because that was the first benefit I saw from Adaxes – but there’s a bunch more this software solution can do. Softerra themselves list many of the features of the product, but it’s a very open framework where you can make the software do what you need to happen.

  • Group Management

Due to the granular security model they use, you could consider end user management of groups. Email group management for end users is already possible from Microsoft Exchange, but you can’t do the same with security groups. I can see a big benefit in letting key users manage a selection of security groups which could allow things such as access to network drives and folders, access to software or permissions to an internal resource such as a SharePoint site and so on. If you’re in a Microsoft environment, everything should be security based via AD groups anyway, so this is a much nicer solution than giving those key end users an Active Directory User and Computers console.

  • Password Expiration Notifcation

There are several built in examples of ‘Scheduled Tasks’ – including some I’ve written my own script for! The ‘Password Expiration Notifier’ does exactly what I wrote here, which is to notify end users via email when they have certain days left before their password expires. My preference is to have all of these tools and triggers in a central location where all the right people can see what’s going on with ease, which is better than having Windows based scheduled tasks scattered around your servers being harder to find and manage.

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Although I encourage everyone to know PowerShell, the reality is we all have different skills and priorities. Having middle-ware that manages the smarts, and shows you in an easily readable format reduces company risk in both managing automation as well as staff time in making changes should be at least investigated for it’s potential value. The above example out of the box had only the 7 day notification, so I copied and pasted the rules below it, and set the trigger to also happen at 1 day, matching my script. That was 10 seconds of work.

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  • Clean Up Old Computer Records

Another example of a built in Scheduled Task is the ‘Inactive Computer Deleter’. Simply, it does a daily check for computer objects to see if they’ve been inactive for more than 12 weeks. If true, it changes the ‘When Marked Inactive’ property of the computer to the current date and time. It won’t delete the computer until it has approval, and you can tell it who to get the approval from. Tasks like this should save you time as well as helping to secure your network from rogue devices.

  • Office 365 User Management

There is also Office 365 support, which can automate tasks such as user creation, or license management. At the time of writing, an Office 365 CAL can’t be auto assigned to an Office 365 user when synced from Active Directory, but Adaxes can automate that step for you.

Conclusion

To me, the above is enough of a business case to at least consider Softerra Adaxes. Some time needs to be invested to make the software do what you want to do – every businesses’ user management processes are different. If you’re currently using just a PowerShell script, you could use that from Adaxes and build the workflow and web interface management around it for starters, then migrate tasks to Adaxes as you find time.

I can’t find many weaknesses in this solution – there’s provision for resiliency by having more than one server, the product seems secure and stable. I would like to see more built in options on what you can do out of the box (to Softerra’s credit, there is a lot of options already and is highly configurable). I noticed that I couldn’t specify some extra parameters in Lync beyond the basics of user creation, such as which policies to apply to a user. This will have to be done by calling a PowerShell script I’d write instead.

There’s also a bit of a learning curve around applying security and using the interface – not that it’s difficult, and the online documentation is extensive, but you’ll need to do a bit of tutorial reading to understand the product and how to configure it to your liking.

I also really like the potential of giving end users control over certain things. Empowering users that make decisions to act on those decisions themselves is a time saver – as is having an incredibly easy workflow approval process that doesn’t need a complicated workflow engine and a team of developers behind the scenes.

Overall, I really liked the product and the direction they have taken it. I personally recommend checking it out, and am actually in the process of implementing it in my current workplace as a result of this review, as a paid product!

 

Other Adaxes videos are available on YouTube, along with pricing available on their website (there’s also a 30 day trial – install is very simple).