DirectAccess IP-HTTPS Performance Issues

DirectAccess IP-HTTPS Performance IssuesPerformance issues with DirectAccess are not uncommon. In fact, there are numerous threads on Microsoft and third-party forums where administrators frequently complain about slow download speeds, especially when using the IP-HTTPS IPv6 transition technology. Based on my experience the problem does not appear to be widespread but occurs with enough regularity that it is worthy of further investigation.

DirectAccess Design

The inherent design of DirectAccess is a major limiting factor for performance. DirectAccess uses a complex and heavy communication channel, with multiple layers of encapsulation, encryption, and translation. Fundamentally it is IPsec encrypted IPv6 traffic, encapsulated in HTTP, and then encrypted with Transport Layer Security (TLS) and routed over IPv4. It is then decrypted, decapsulated, decrypted again, then converted back to IPv4. The high protocol overhead incurred with multiple layers of encapsulation, encryption, and translation result in increased packet fragmentation, which further reduces performance.

DirectAccess Performance

Even under the best circumstances, DirectAccess performance is limited by many other factors, most notably the quality of the network connection between the client and the server. DirectAccess performs reasonably well over high bandwidth, low latency connections. However, network performance drops precipitously as latency increases and packet loss is encountered. This is to be expected given the design of the solution.

Intermediary Devices

It is not uncommon to find intermediary devices like firewalls, intrusion detection systems, malware scanners, and other security inspection devices limit the performance of DirectAccess clients. In addition, many security appliances have bandwidth caps enforced in software for licensing restrictions. Further, incorrect configuration of inline edge devices can contribute to increased fragmentation, which leads to poor performance as well.

Slow Downloads over IP-HTTPS

Many people report that download speeds seem to be artificially capped at 355Kbps. While this seems to be a display bug in the UI, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that, in some scenarios, DirectAccess is incapable of high throughput even over high-quality connections. Some who have deployed DirectAccess and VPN on the same server have reported that download speeds are only limited when using DirectAccess over IP-HTTPS and not with VPN using Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), which also uses TLS. This has led many to speculate that the issue is either a bug or a design flaw in the IP-HTTPS tunnel interface itself.

TCP Window Scaling Issues

In some of the network traces I’ve analyzed I’ve seen evidence that seems to support this theory. For example, a network trace taken when downloading a file over DirectAccess with IP-HTTPS showed the TCP window never scaled beyond 64K, which would seriously impede performance. Interestingly this doesn’t seem to happy when the client uploads files over IP-HTTPS. Clearly something unusual is happening.

Microsoft KB Article

Microsoft recently released a vaguely-worded KB article that appears to lend credence to some of these findings. The article seems to acknowledge the fact there are known issues with DirectAccess performance, but it lacks any specific details as to what the root cause is. Instead, it simply advises migrating to Windows 10 Always On VPN.

Summary

DirectAccess IP-HTTPS performance issues don’t appear to affect everyone, and the problem only seems to apply to file downloads and not to other types of traffic. However, there is mounting evidence of a systemic issue with DirectAccess performance especially over IP-HTTPS. Customers are advised to closely evaluate their uses cases for DirectAccess and if remote clients are frequently required to download large files over a DirectAccess connection, an alternative method of file transfer might be required. Optionally customers can consider evaluating alternative remote access solutions that offer better performance such as Windows 10 Always On VPN or third-party solutions such as NetMotion Mobility.

Additional Resources

Always On VPN and the Future of DirectAccess

What’s the Difference Between DirectAccess and Always On VPN?

NetMotion Mobility as an Alternative to Microsoft DirectAccess

DirectAccess IPv6 Transition Protocols Explained

Introduction

From a client perspective, DirectAccess is an IPv6-only solution. The DirectAccess client communicates with the DirectAccess server exclusively using IPv6. However, IPv6 is not widely deployed, so the most common scenario will find your DirectAccess clients and servers on the IPv4 Internet.

To facilitate DirectAccess client to server communication with IPv6 when the client is on the IPv4 Internet, IPv6 transition protocols are employed. These protocols effectively tunnel IPv6 packets in IPv4 packets. DirectAccess makes use of three IPv6 transition protocols for client to server connections – 6to4, Teredo, and IP-HTTPS.

DirectAccess Transition Protocols

6to4 – The 6to4 IPv6 transition protocol works by encapsulating IPv6 packets in IPv4 packets using IP protocol 41. 6to4 does not work when the client or the server is behind a NAT, so this IPv6 transition protocol is only used when the client and server are assigned public IPv4 addresses. DirectAccess clients with public IPv4 addresses aren’t common though, and there are some challenges with the stability of 6to4. From experience I can tell you that 6to4 often fails when clients use a cellular Wi-Fi hotspot, for example. For this reason it is generally recommended that you proactively disable this transition protocol to avoid potential issues in the future.

TeredoTeredo is an IPv6 transition protocol that is designed to work when a DirectAccess client (but not the DirectAccess server) is behind a NAT. It works by encapsulating IPv6 packets in IPv4 packets using UDP on port 3544. Teredo will be used any time the DirectAccess client has a private IPv4 address, or when the client has a public IPv4 address and the 6to4 protocol is unavailable (e.g. 6to4 is disabled, or outbound access to IP protocol 41 is restricted by firewall policy). To support Teredo, the DirectAccess server must be configured with two consecutive public IPv4 addresses. In addition, Teredo uses ICMP for NAT detection (e.g. cone, restricted, symmetric), so ICMPv4 echo requests must be allowed inbound to any host with which the DirectAccess client communicates.

IP-HTTPSIP-HTTPS is an IPv6 transition protocol that works by encapsulating IPv6 packets in IPv4 packets using HTTP with SSL/TLS. It is the IPv6 transition protocol of last resort, and will be used any time that 6to4 or Teredo aren’t available. The advantage to using IP-HTTPS is ubiquitous firewall access. Any network with access to the public Internet should, at a minimum, allow outbound HTTP and HTTPS. In some deployment scenarios, IP-HTTPS can be disadvantageous. For example, when Windows 7 DirectAccess clients leverage this IPv6 transition protocol, IPsec-encrypted traffic is encrypted again using SSL/TLS. This double encryption results in high processing overhead and often translates to poor performance and limited scalability. Windows 8 and later clients do not suffer this limitation, as they support null encryption which eliminates the negative effects imposed by double encryption. For the best results using IP-HTTPS, use an application delivery controller to offload SSL, or deploy Windows 8 or later clients. In any case, do not collocate the client-based VPN role on the DirectAccess server, as doing so will remove support for null encryption completely and force even Windows 8 and later clients to perform double encryption for IP-HTTPS traffic.

DirectAccess Server Configuration

To support the 6to4 and Teredo IPv6 transition protocols, the DirectAccess server must be configured with two network interfaces; one internal and one external. The DirectAccess server must have public IPv4 addresses assigned to its external network interface. For Teredo in particular, the DirectAccess server requires two consecutive public IPv4 addresses. Beginning with Windows Server 2012, DirectAccess provides support for DMZ/perimeter network deployment behind a NAT device using RFC1918 private IPv4 addresses with either one or two network interfaces. In this deployment scenario, the DirectAccess server only supports the use of the IP-HTTPS IPv6 transition protocol. 6to4 and Teredo are not available when the DirectAccess server is located behind a NAT device and these IPv6 transition protocols should be disabled on all DirectAccess clients.

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