Always On VPN IKEv2 and SSTP Fallback

Always On VPN IKEv2 and SSTP FallbackA while back I wrote about the various VPN protocols supported for Windows 10 Always On VPN. The two most common are Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2) and Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP). The article covers in detail each protocol’s advantages and disadvantages. To summarize, IKEv2 provides the best security (when configured correctly!) and SSTP is firewall-friendly ensuring ubiquitous access. Ideally an Always On VPN connection will attempt to use the more secure IKEv2 first, then fallback to SSTP only when IKEv2 is unavailable. Unfortunately, Always On VPN connections do not work this way today.

IKEv2 and SSTP

IKEv2 and SSTP are not mutually exclusive. When using Windows Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS) as the VPN server, both protocols can be configured and enabled for VPN clients. To allow VPN clients to automatically select a protocol, the NativeProtocolType element in ProfileXML can be set to Automatic.

Always On VPN IKEv2 and SSTP Fallback

IKEv2 with SSTP Fallback?

In theory, with the NativeProtocolType set to Automatic, the Windows 10 client would first attempt to establish an IKEv2 connection, then fall back to SSTP if IKEv2 is not available. In practice, this is not the case.

SSTP Preferred over IKEv2

In operation, setting the NativeProtocolType to Automatic results in the Windows 10 client attempting to establish a VPN connection using SSTP first! If the SSTP connection fails, only then will IKEv2 be used. The only scenario in which I can imagine SSTP failing and IKEv2 being successful would be if SSTP is not supported by the VPN server. Sadly, this scenario may result in failed connections due to a bug in the way ProfileXML settings are processed. Details here.

VPN Strategy

The initial VPN protocol selection behavior is dictated by the VpnStrategy setting of the Always On VPN connection in the rasphone.pbk file. This file can be found under C:\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Network\Connections\Pbk. The documentation on the Microsoft website is terribly outdated and does not include the following important VpnStrategy settings pertinent to Windows 10 Always On VPN connections.

  • 5 = Only SSTP is attempted
  • 6 = SSTP is attempted first
  • 7 = Only IKEv2 is attempted
  • 8 = IKEv2 is attempted first
  • 14 = IKEv2 is attempted followed by SSTP

Always On VPN Default Behavior

For Always On VPN, when the NativeProtocolType is set to Automatic in ProfileXML, VpnStrategy is set to 6 by default, which means the connection will attempt to use SSTP first. If it fails, IKEv2 will be attempted.

Always On VPN IKEv2 and SSTP Fallback

If the NativeProtocolType in ProfileXML is set to IKEv2, VpnStrategy is set to 7 and only IKEv2 is used. A connection using SSTP is never attempted.

Workaround

Setting the VpnStrategy to 8 or 14 will force the client to attempt an IKEv2 connection first. However, this setting is dynamically updated by Windows and is subject to change. For example, if an IKEv2 connection fails and SSTP is successful, Windows will then set the VpnStrategy to 6 and all subsequent VPN connection attempts will use SSTP first. Because of this it will be necessary to update the VpnStrategy setting each time prior to establishing a VPN connection. This will require some clever scripting and perhaps automation using a scheduled task based on an event trigger. I will leave that custom configuration as an exercise for the reader. If you’ve developed something to address this challenge, please feel free to share in the comments below. 🙂

Additional Information

Always On VPN Protocol Recommendations for Windows Server RRAS

Always On VPN IKEv2 Security Configuration

Always On VPN Certificate Requirements for IKEv2

Always On VPN IKEv2 Load Balancing with KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer

Leave a comment

2 Comments

  1. Colin

     /  January 15, 2019

    I imagine Microsoft will eventually address this and have Automatic work as expected. They have already said they plan on addressing the manage-out issue (really looking forward to this one bwt).. this should just be another bug fix I would imagine? Might be better to just live with it for now rather than going custom script crazy just to have Microsoft come in and change the behavior.

    Reply
    • I expect the same. No doubt many customers are complaining about this behavior. Today, my advice is to pick one protocol or the other and go with it. If you really need the additional security of IKEv2, go with that and accept that there may be some coverage gaps. You can always provide a manual VPN connection using SSTP as a backup in those cases. If you don’t need the highest level of security, SSTP is an excellent choice that still provides very good security when configured correctly, and most likely meets the security requirements for most organizations anyway. When Microsoft gets this sorted out, then enabling automatic protocol selection might make more sense. 🙂

      Reply

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