Always On VPN SSTP Load Balancing with F5 BIG-IP

Always On VPN SSTP Load Balancing with F5 BIG-IP The Windows Server Routing and Remote Access Service (RRAS) includes support for the Secure Sockets Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), which is a Microsoft proprietary VPN protocol that uses SSL/TLS for security and privacy of VPN connections. The advantage of using SSTP for Always On VPN is that it is firewall friendly and ensures consistent remote connectivity even behind highly restrictive firewalls.

Load Balancing SSTP

In a recent post, I described some of the use cases and benefits of SSTP load balancing as well as the offloading of TLS for SSTP VPN connections. Using a load balancer for SSTP VPN connections increases scalability, and offloading TLS for SSTP reduces resource utilization and improves performance for VPN connections. There are positive security benefits too.

Configuration

Enabling load balancing for SSTP on the F5 BIG-IP platform is fundamentally similar to load balancing HTTPS web servers. However, there are a few subtle but important differences.

Default Monitor

The default HTTP and HTTPS monitors on the F5 will not accurately reflect the health of the SSTP service running on the RRAS server. In addition, using a simple TCP port monitor could yield unexpected results. To ensure accurate service status monitoring, a new custom monitor must be created to validate the health of the SSTP service.

Custom SSTP Monitor

Open the F5 BIG-IP management console and follow the steps below to create and assign a new custom monitor for SSTP.

Create Monitor

1. In the navigation tree highlight Local Traffic.
2. Click Monitors.
3. Click Create.

Always On VPN SSTP Load Balancing with F5 BIG-IP

4. Enter a descriptive name in the Name field and from the Type drop-down list choose HTTP if TLS offload is enabled, or HTTPS if it is not.
5. In the Send String field enter HEAD /sra_{BA195980-CD49-458b-9E23-C84EE0ADCD75}/ HTTP/1.1\r\nHost:r\nConnection: Close\r\n\r\n.
6. In the Receive String field enter HTTP/1.1 401.
7. Click Finished.

Always On VPN SSTP Load Balancing with F5 BIG-IP

Assign Monitor

1. Below Local Traffic click Pools.
2. Click on the SSTP VPN server pool.
3. In the Health Monitors section select the SSTP VPN health monitor from the Available list and make it Active.
4. Click Update.

Always On VPN SSTP Load Balancing with F5 BIG-IP

CLI Configuration

If you prefer to configure the SSTP VPN monitor using the F5’s Command Line Interface (CLI), you can download the monitor configuration from my GitHub here.

TLS Offload

It is generally recommended that TLS offload not be enabled for SSTP VPN. However, if TLS offload is desired, it is configured in much the same way as a common HTTPS web server. Specific guidance for enabling TLS offload on the F5 BIG-IP can be found here. Details for configuring RRAS and SSTP to support TLS offload can be found here.

Certificates

When enabling TLS offload for SSTP VPN connections it is recommended that the public SSL certificate be installed on the RRAS server, even though TLS processing will be handled on the F5 and HTTP will be used between the F5 and the RRAS server. If installing the public SSL certificate on the RRAS server is not an option, additional configuration will be required. Specifically, TLS offload for SSTP must be configured using the Enable-SSTPOffload PowerShell script, which can be found here.

Once the script has been downloaded, open an elevated PowerShell command window and enter the following command.

Enable-SSTPOffload -CertificateHash [SHA256 Certificate Hash of Public SSL Certificate] -Restart

Example:

Enable-SSTPOffload -CertificateHash “C3AB8FF13720E8AD9047DD39466B3C8974E592C2FA383D4A3960714CAEF0C4F2” -Restart

Re-Encryption

When offloading TLS for SSTP VPN connections, all traffic between the F5 and the RRAS server will be sent in the clear using HTTP. In some instances, TLS offload is required only for traffic inspection, not performance gain. In this scenario the F5 will be configured to terminate and then re-encrypt connections to the RRAS server. When terminating TLS on the F5 and re-encrypting connections to the RRAS server is required, the same certificate must be used on both the F5 and the RRAS server. Using different certificates on the RRAS server and the load balancer is not supported.

Additional Information

Windows 10 Always On VPN SSTP Load Balancing and SSL Offload

Windows 10 Always On VPN SSL Certificate Requirements for SSTP

Windows 10 Always On VPN ECDSA SSL Certificate Request for SSTP

Windows 10 Always On VPN SSTP Connects then Disconnects

Windows 10 Always On VPN Load Balancing Deployment Guide for Kemp Load Balancers

 

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

SSL Certificate Considerations for DirectAccess IP-HTTPS

SSL Certificate Considerations for DirectAccess IP-HTTPSDirectAccess uses IPv6 exclusively for communication between the client and server. IPv6 transition technologies are used to support DirectAccess communication over the IPv4 public Internet. One of those IPv6 transition technologies, IP-HTTPS, uses HTTP for encapsulation and SSL/TLS for authentication of the DirectAccess server.

SSL Certificates

When configuring DirectAccess, an SSL certificate must be provided for IP-HTTPS. There are three different types of SSL certificates that can be used.

Public SSL Certificate – Using an SSL certificate signed by a public certification authority (CA) is the recommended best practice for configuring DirectAccess IP-HTTPS. This provides the highest level of assurance for DirectAccess clients connecting via IP-HTTPS.

Private SSL Certificate – Using an SSL certificate issued by the organization’s internal CA is an acceptable alternative to using a public SSL certificate in most cases. This can reduce the cost associated with obtaining the certificate, especially for multisite deployments.

Self-Signed Certificate – Using a self-signed certificate is not recommended and should be avoided in most deployment scenarios. A self-signed certificate provides no real assurance for DirectAccess clients. Crucially, using a self-signed certificate will disable support for null SSL and TLS cipher suites. This reduces the overall scalability and performance of the remote access solution.

SSL Certificate Considerations for DirectAccess IP-HTTPS

Figure 1. Null cipher suites not supported when using a self-signed SSL certificate for IP-HTTPS.

Certificate Requirements

The SSL certificate must include the Server Authentication (1.3.6.1.5.5.7.3.1) Enhanced Key Usage (EKU) Object Identifier (OID). It should use an RSA key of 2048 bits and be signed with SHA256. Using stronger keys provides no additional protection and should not be used. In addition, SSL certificates using ECDSA keys is not recommended, as they do not support null cipher suites.

Summary

In most cases, using a public SSL certificate is ideal. However, issuing a certificate from a private CA is also acceptable. Using self-signed certificates can be used for non-production testing and in very small production deployments, but should generally be avoided.

Additional Resources

DirectAccess IP-HTTPS SSL and TLS Insecure Cipher Suites

DirectAccess and Multi-SAN SSL Certificates for IP-HTTPS

Critical Update MS15-034 and DirectAccess

Microsoft Security Bulletin MS15-034 Vulnerability in HTTP.sys affects DirectAccessThe April 2015 monthly security update release from Microsoft includes a fix for a serious vulnerability in HTTP.sys. On an unpatched server, an attacker who sends a specially crafted HTTP request will be able to execute code remotely in the context of the local system account. DirectAccess leverages HTTP.sys for the IP-HTTPS IPv6 transition protocol and is critically exposed. Organizations who have deployed DirectAccess are urged to update their systems immediately.

More information can be found on MS15-034 here.

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