Always On VPN Split vs. Force Tunneling

Always On VPN Split vs. Force TunnelingDuring the planning phase of a Windows 10 Always On VPN implementation the administrator must decide between two tunneling options for VPN client traffic – split tunneling or force tunneling. When split tunneling is configured, only traffic for the on-premises network is routed over the VPN tunnel. Everything else is sent directly to the Internet. With force tunneling, all client traffic, including Internet traffic, is routed over the VPN tunnel. There’s been much discussion recently on this topic, and this article serves to outline the advantages and disadvantages for both tunneling methods.

Force Tunneling

Force tunneling is typically enabled to meet the following requirements.

Visibility and Control

By routing all the client’s Internet traffic over the VPN tunnel, administrators can inspect, filter, and log Internet traffic using existing on-premises security solutions such as web proxies, content filters, or Next Generation Firewalls (NGFW).

Privacy

Enabling force tunneling ensures privacy and protection of all Internet communication. By routing all Internet traffic over the VPN, administrators can be certain that all communication from the Always On VPN client is encrypted, even when clients access unencrypted web sites or use untrusted or insecure wireless networks.

Force Tunneling Drawbacks

While configuring force tunneling for Always On VPN has some advantages, it comes with some serious limitations as well.

Poor User Experience

User experience is often degraded when all Internet traffic is routed over the VPN. These suboptimal network paths increase latency, and VPN encapsulation and encryption overhead increase fragmentation, leading to reduced throughput. Most Internet traffic is already encrypted in some form, and encrypting traffic that is already encrypted makes the problem even worse. In addition, force tunneling short-circuits geographic-based Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) further reducing Internet performance. Further, location-based services are often broken which can lead to improper default language selection or inaccurate web search results.

Increased Resource Consumption

Additional resources may need to be provisioned to support force tunneling. With corporate and Internet traffic coming over the VPN, more CPU, memory, and network resources may be required. Deploying additional VPN servers and higher throughput load balancers to support the increase in network traffic may also be necessary. Force tunneling also places higher demands on Internet Service Provider (ISP) links to the corporate datacenter.

Split Tunneling

The alternative to force tunneling is “split tunneling”. With split tunneling configured, only traffic destined for the internal corporate network is routed over the VPN. All other traffic is sent directly to the Internet. Administrators define IP networks that should be routed over the VPN, and those networks are added to the routing table on the VPN client.

Security Enforcement

The challenge of providing visibility and control of Internet traffic with split tunneling enabled can be met using a variety of third-party security solutions. Microsoft Defender ATP recently introduced support for web content filtering. Also, there are numerous cloud-based security offerings from many vendors that allow administrators to monitor and control client-based Internet traffic. Zscaler and Cisco Umbrella are two popular solutions, and no doubt there are many more to choose from.

Recommendations

The general guidance I provide customers is to use split tunneling whenever possible, as it provides the best user experience and reduces demands on existing on-premises infrastructure. Enabling split or force tunneling is ultimately a design decision that must be made during the planning phase of an Always On VPN implementation project. Both configurations are supported, and they each have their merits.

In today’s world, with many applications accessible via public interfaces, force tunneling is an antiquated method for providing visibility and control for managed devices in the field. If required, investigate the use of Microsoft or other third-party solutions that enforce security policy in place without the requirement to backhaul client Internet traffic to the datacenter over VPN for inspection, logging, and filtering.

Additional Information

Whitepaper: Enhancing VPN Performance at Microsoft

Whitepaper: How Microsoft Is Keeping Its Remote Workforce Connected

Microsoft Defender ATP Web Content Filtering

Always On VPN Updates to Improve Connection Reliability

Always On VPN Updates to Improve Connection ReliabilityA longstanding issue with Windows 10 Always On VPN is that of VPN tunnel connectivity reliability and device tunnel/user tunnel interoperability. Many administrators have reported that Always On VPN connections fail to establish automatically at times, that only one tunnel comes up at a time (user tunnel or device tunnel, but not both), or that VPN tunnels fail to establish when coming out of sleep or hibernate modes. Have a look at the comments on this post and you’ll get a good understanding of the issues with Always On VPN.

Recent Updates

The good news is that most of these issues have been resolved with recent updates to Windows 10 1803 and 1809. Specifically, the February 19, 2019 update for Windows 10 1803 (KB4487029) and the March 1, 2019 update for Windows 10 1809 (KB4482887) include fixes to address these known issues. Administrators are encouraged to deploy Windows 10 1803 with the latest updates applied when implementing Always On VPN. Windows 10 1809 with the latest updates applied is preferred though.

Persistent Issues

Although initial reports are favorable for these updates and based on my experience the effectiveness and reliability of Windows 10 Always On VPN is greatly improved, there have still been some reports of intermittent VPN tunnel establishment failures.

Possible Causes

During my testing, after applying the updates referenced earlier both device tunnel and user tunnel connections are established much more consistently than before the updates were applied. I did encounter some issues, however. Specifically, when coming out of sleep or hibernate, VPN connections would fail to establish. Occasionally VPN connections would fail after a complete restart.

NCSI

After further investigation it was determined that the connectivity failure was caused by the Network Connectivity Status Indicator (NCSI) probe failing, causing Windows to report “No Internet access”.

Always On VPN Updates to Improve Connection Reliability

Cisco Umbrella Roaming Client

In this instance the NCSI probe failure was caused by the Cisco Umbrella Roaming Client installed and running on the device. The Umbrella Roaming Client is security software that provides client protection by monitoring and filtering DNS queries. It operates by configuring a DNS listener on the loopback address. NCSI probes are known to fail when the DNS server is running on a different interface than is being tested.

Resolution

Microsoft released a fix for this issue in Windows 10 1709. The fix involves changing a group policy setting to disable interface binding when perform DNS lookups by the NCSI. You can enable this setting via Active Directory group policy by navigating to Computer Configuration > Administrative Templates > Network > Network Connectivity Status Indicator > Specify global DNS. Select Enabled and check the option to Use global DNS, as shown here.

Always On VPN Updates to Improve Connection Reliability

For testing purposes this setting can be enabled individual using the following PowerShell command.

New-ItemProperty -Path “HKLM:\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\NetworkConnectivityStatusIndicator\” -Name UseGlobalDNS -PropertyType DWORD -Value 1 -Force

Third-Party Software

As Always On VPN connectivity can be affected by NCSI, any third-party firewall or antivirus/antimalware solution could potentially introduce VPN connection instability. Observe NCSI operation closely when troubleshooting unreliable connections with Always On VPN.

Additional Information

Windows 10 1803 Update KB4487029

Windows 10 1809 Update KB4482887

Cisco Umbrella Roaming Client Limited Network Connectivity Warning

Network Connectivity Status Indicator (NCSI) Operation Explained

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