DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) Configuration Guidance

DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) Configuration GuidanceThe DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA), first introduced in Windows 8, provides DirectAccess connectivity status information as well as diagnostic support on the client. The NCA validates that DirectAccess is working end-to-end by attempting to reach internal resources defined by the administrator during the configuration of DirectAccess. NCA configuration and operation is a source of much confusion. This article serves to provide best practice configuration guidance for the NCA to ensure optimum and reliable operation.

NCA Operation

When a DirectAccess client is outside the corporate network, it will attempt to establish a DirectAccess connection any time it has an active Internet connection. After a DirectAccess connection is made, the NCA will attempt to validate DirectAccess connectivity by verifying availability of corporate resources as defined in the DirectAccess configuration (Remote Access Management console, Step 1, Edit, Network Connectivity Assistant).

If the NCA can reach the defined internal corporate resource(s), the DirectAccess connection is verified end-to-end and it will report the connection status as “Connected”. If it fails to connect to any internal corporate resource, it displays “Connecting”.

DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) Configuration Guidance

Figure 1. NCA successfully validated internal corporate resource connectivity.

DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) Configuration Guidance

Figure 2. NCA failed to connect to one or more corporate resources.

NCA Configuration

When first installing DirectAccess, the Remote Access Setup wizard will collect information to be used by the NCA, including corporate resources, helpdesk email address, and DirectAccess connection name. It will also provide the option to allow DirectAccess clients to use local name resolution.

Note: The NCA settings configured in the Remote Access Management console pertain only to Windows 8.x and Windows 10 clients. They are not used by Windows 7 clients at all.

DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) Configuration Guidance

Intuitively it would appear that information needs to be entered in the Resource and Type fields. However, it is recommended to leave this blank when first configuring DirectAccess. This is because the Remote Access Setup Wizard will automatically populate this field later. Specifying a resource during initial configuration will result in two entries being included, as shown here.

DirectAccess Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) Configuration Guidance

As you can see, the Remote Access Setup wizard automatically added the resource directaccess-WebProbeHost.<internal domain.>. A corresponding DNS record is created that resolves this hostname to the internal IPv4 address of the DirectAccess server. In this configuration, the DirectAccess server itself serves as the corporate resource used by the NCA.

Multiple Corporate Resources

Having more than one resource to validate connectivity to the internal network is problematic though. If there are multiple entries specified, they must ALL pass a validation check from the client to report the connection status as “Connected”. Some administrators configure multiple entries with the mistaken belief that it will provide redundancy for the NCA, but it actually has the opposite effect. Having more than one entry only increases the chance of a false positive.

NCA Configuration Best Practices

It is recommended that only a single corporate resource URL be defined for the NCA. The default directaccess-WebProbeHost running on the DirectAccess server can be used, or, alternatively, another internal web server can be specified if desired. Any web server will work, including Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS), Apache, NGINX, and most Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs) or load balancers. HTTPS is not required for the web probe host, only HTTP. If using an internal web server, ensure that it is highly available.

Do NOT use the Network Location Server (NLS) as a corporate resource! The NLS is exempted from the Name Resolution Policy Table (NRPT) on the client and is not reachable over DirectAccess. This will result in the NCA failing and reporting a “Connecting” status perpetually. In addition, avoid the use of PING for validating internal corporate resources. Ping uses ICMP which is inherently unreliable and commonly blocked by host and intermediary firewalls, making it an unreliable indicator of corporate network connectivity over DirectAccess.

Summary

The NCA is a crucial and often misunderstood component in the DirectAccess architecture. Follow the guidance outlined here to ensure that the NCA works reliably and effectively in your environment.

Additional Resources

DirectAccess Clients in Connecting State when using External Load Balancer
Planning and Implementing DirectAccess on Windows Server 2016 on Pluralsight
Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 book

Top 5 DirectAccess Troubleshooting Tips

Top 5 DirectAccess Troubleshooting TipsDirectAccess is a thing of beauty when everything is working as it should. When it isn’t, troubleshooting can be quite challenging. DirectAccess relies on many Windows platform technologies such as Active Directory for authentication, PKI for certificate management, group policy for settings deployment, IPsec for encryption, and IPv6 for transport. With so many dependencies, locating the source of the problem can be a difficult and daunting task.

I’m frequently called upon to help organizations of all sizes with DirectAccess troubleshooting. While this post is not intended to be a detailed, prescriptive guide for DirectAccess troubleshooting, I did want to share some common troubleshooting tips based on many years of troubleshooting DirectAccess.

Here are my top 5 DirectAccess troubleshooting tips:

  1. Check Prerequisites – Before diving in and collecting network traces and scouring event logs for clues as to why DirectAccess isn’t working, it’s essential to start at the beginning. Often the source of trouble is missing or misconfigured prerequisites. For example, is the DirectAccess client running a supported operating system? Remember, clients must be running Windows 10 Enterprise or Education, Windows 8.x Enterprise, or Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate. Also, ensure that the Windows firewall is enabled on DirectAccess servers and clients, that certificates are installed and valid (trusted, correct EKU, etc.), and that the DirectAccess settings GPO has been applied to servers and clients.
  2. Validate External Connectivity – If you are following implementation and security best practices for DirectAccess, the DirectAccess server will be in a perimeter/DMZ network behind an edge firewall. The firewall must be configured to allow inbound TCP port 443 only. If the firewall is also performing Network Address Translation (NAT), the NAT rule must be configured to forward traffic to the DirectAccess server’s dedicated or virtual IP address (VIP), or the VIP of the load balancer. Watch for routing issues when using load balancers too. It’s a good idea to confirm external connectivity using the Test-NetConnection PowerShell command. Even better, use the open source tool Nmap for more thorough testing.
  3. Remove Third Party Software – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved DirectAccess connectivity issues by removing (not just disabling!) third party software on the client and/or server. It’s not uncommon for third-party security software to interfere with IPsec and/or IPv6 communication, both of which are vital to DirectAccess. If your DirectAccess troubleshooting efforts reveal no underlying issues with prerequisites or external connectivity, I’d suggest removing (at least temporarily) any third-party software and testing again.
  4. Isolate Environmental Issues – Occasionally other settings applied manually or via Active Directory group policy will interfere with DirectAccess. Examples include IPv6 being disabled in the registry, IPv6 transition technologies required to support DirectAccess are turned off, essential firewall rules for DirectAccess are disabled, or manipulating local security settings such as Access this computer from the network. To assist with troubleshooting it might be necessary to temporarily place DirectAccess clients and servers in their own dedicated Organizational Units (OUs) and block inheritance to isolate the configuration as much as possible. In addition, if DirectAccess clients are servers are provisioned using images or templates, testing with a clean build straight from the installation source (ISO or DVD) can be helpful.
  5. Check for Unsupported Configurations – If DirectAccess isn’t working, it might be possible the configuration you are trying to use is not supported. Examples including strong user authentication with OTP when force tunneling is enabled, provisioning Windows 7 clients when using Kerberos Proxy authentication, or provisioning Windows 10 clients when Network Access Protection (NAP) integration is enabled. These configurations won’t work and are formally documented here.

This is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive troubleshooting guide. For more information and additional DirectAccess troubleshooting guidance I would encourage you to purchase my book Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016, which has an entire chapter devoted just to troubleshooting. In addition, watch my DirectAccess video training courses on Pluralsight for details and information about DirectAccess installation, configuration, management, support, and troubleshooting. And if you’re still struggling to resolve a DirectAccess problem, use the form at the bottom of this page to contact me to inquire about additional troubleshooting help.

Additional Resources

Microsoft Windows DirectAccess Client Troubleshooting Tool
DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional
DirectAccess Troubleshooting with Nmap
DirectAccess Unsupported Configurations
Planning and Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Video Training Course on Pluralsight
Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Book

Need assistance with DirectAccess troubleshooting? Complete the form below and I’ll get in touch with you.

KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer Certificate Format Invalid

When implementing a KEMP LoadMaster load balancer, one of the first configuration tasks performed is importing root and intermediate Certification Authority (CA) certificates. When doing this, it is not uncommon to encounter the following error message.

Certificate Format Invalid.

KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer Certificate Invalid

To resolve this issue, .CER files must first be converted to .PEM format before being imported in to the LoadMaster. Using OpenSSL, .CER files can quickly be converted to .PEM with the following command.

openssl x509 -inform der -in example.cer -out example.pem

Optionally, .CER files can be converted to .PEM online here.

If the root and/or intermediate certificates are from an internal PKI, export the certificates using the Base-64 encoded x.509 (.CER) option. Certificates exported using this format can be imported directly in to the LoadMaster without first having to be converted to .PEM.

KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer Certificate Format Invalid

Pro tip: When entering the Certificate Name, it is not necessary to enter a file extension. The name will be appended with .PEM automatically upon import.

KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer Certificate Format Invalid

KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer Certificate Format Invalid

Additional Resources

DirectAccess Deployment Guide for KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancers

Maximize Your Investment in Windows 10 with KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancers

DirectAccess and the FREE KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer

Configure KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer for DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS)

Planning and Implementing DirectAccess Video Training Course on Pluralsight

Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Book

%d bloggers like this: