Always On VPN and the Future of Microsoft DirectAccess

Since the introduction of Windows Server 2012 in September of 2012, no new features or functionality have been added to DirectAccess. In Windows Server 2016, the only real change aside from bug fixes for DirectAccess is the removal of Network Access Protection (NAP) integration support.

Always On VPN and the Future of Microsoft DirectAccessFigure 1. Remote Access Setup wizard with NAP integration option in Windows Server 2012/R2.

Always On VPN and the Future of Microsoft DirectAccess

Figure 2. Remote Access Setup wizard without NAP integration option in Windows Server 2016.

DirectAccess Roadmap

It’s clear to see that Microsoft is no longer investing in DirectAccess, and in fact their field sales teams have been communicating this to customers for quite some time now. Microsoft has been actively encouraging organizations who are considering a DirectAccess solution to instead implement client-based VPN with Windows 10.

Always On VPN

New features introduced in the Windows 10 Anniversary Update allow IT administrators to configure automatic VPN connection profiles. This Always On VPN connection provides a DirectAccess-like experience using traditional remote access VPN protocols such as IKEv2, SSTP, and L2TP/IPsec. It comes with some additional benefits as well.

  • Conditional access and device compliance with system health checks
  • Windows Hello for Business and Azure multifactor authentication
  • Windows Information Protection (WIP) integration
  • Traffic filters to restrict VPN network access
  • Application-trigger VPN connections

DirectAccess Deprecated?

There has been rampant speculation that Microsoft plans to deprecate and retire DirectAccess. While that may in fact be true, Microsoft has yet to make a formal end-of-life announcement. There’s no reason DirectAccess and VPN couldn’t co-exist, so it’s not a certainty Microsoft will do this. However, there’s also no need to have multiple remote access solutions, and it is abundantly clear that the future for Microsoft remote access is Always On VPN and not DirectAccess.

Always On VPN and the Future of Microsoft DirectAccess

Source: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-server/remote/remote-access/vpn/vpn-top#advanced-vpn-connectivity

Always On VPN Advantages and Disadvantages

Windows 10 Always On VPN has some important advantages over DirectAccess. It has some crucial limitations as well.

Advantages

  • Always On VPN supports non-Enterprise Windows 10 client SKUs (Windows 10 Home and Professional)
  • Always On VPN includes support for granular network access control
  • Always On VPN can use both IPv4 and IPv6
  • Always On VPN is infrastructure independent. In addition to supporting Windows RRAS, any third-party network device can be used such as Cisco, Checkpoint, Juniper, Palo Alto, SonicWALL, Fortinet, Sophos, and many more

Disadvantages

  • Always On VPN works only with Windows 10. It is not supported for Windows 7
  • Always On VPN cannot be managed natively using Active Directory and group policy. It must be configured and managed using Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), Microsoft Intune, or PowerShell

DirectAccess or Always On VPN?

Should you deploy DirectAccess today or implement Always On VPN with Windows 10 instead? That depends on a number of factors. It’s important to understand that DirectAccess is fully supported in Windows Server 2016 and will likely be for many years to come. If DirectAccess meets your needs today, you can deploy it with confidence that it will still have a long support life. If you have reservations about the future viability of DirectAccess, and if you meet all of the requirements to support Always On VPN with Windows 10, then perhaps that’s a better choice. If you’d like to discuss your remote access options in more detail, fill out the form below and I’ll get in touch with you.

Additional Resources

NetMotion Mobility as an Alternative to DirectAccess

DirectAccess vs. VPN

Always On VPN Deployment Guide for Windows Server 2016 and Windows 10

Planning and Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Video Training Course on Pluralsight

Managing and Supporting DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Video Training Course on Pluralsight

Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Book

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

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