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

Deployment Considerations for DirectAccess on Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Organizations are rapidly deploying Windows server infrastructure with public cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. With traditional on-premises infrastructure now hosted in the cloud, DirectAccess is also being deployed there more commonly.

Supportability

Interestingly, Microsoft has expressly stated that DirectAccess is not formally supported on their own public cloud platform, Azure. However, there is no formal statement of non-support for DirectAccess hosted on other non-Microsoft public cloud platforms. With supportability for DirectAccess on AWS unclear, many companies are taking the approach that if it isn’t unsupported, then it must be supported. I’d suggest proceeding with caution, as Microsoft could issue formal guidance to the contrary in the future.

DirectAccess on AWS

Deploying DirectAccess on AWS is similar to deploying on premises, with a few notable exceptions, outlined below.

IP Addressing

It is recommended that an IP address be exclusively assigned to the DirectAccess server in AWS, as shown here.

Deployment Considerations for DirectAccess on Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Prerequisites Check

When first configuring DirectAccess, the administrator will encounter the following warning message.

“The server does not comply with some DirectAccess prerequisites. Resolve all issues before proceed with DirectAccess deployment.”

The warning message itself states that “One or more network adapters should be configured with a static IP address. Obtain a static address and assign it to the adapter.

Deployment Considerations for DirectAccess on Amazon Web Services (AWS)

IP addressing for virtual machines are managed entirely by AWS. This means the DirectAccess server will have a DHCP-assigned address, even when an IP address is specified in AWS. Assigning static IP addresses in the guest virtual machine itself is also not supported. However, this warning message can safely be ignored.

No Support for Load Balancing

It is not possible to create load-balanced clusters of DirectAccess servers for redundancy or scalability on AWS. This is because enabling load balancing for DirectAccess requires the IP address of the DirectAccess server be changed in the operating system, which is not supported on AWS. To eliminate single points of failure in the DirectAccess architecture or to add additional capacity, multisite must be enabled. Each additional DirectAccess server must be provisioned as an individual entry point.

Network Topology

DirectAccess servers on AWS can be provisioned with one or two network interfaces. Using two network interfaces is recommended, with the external network interface of the DirectAccess server residing in a dedicated perimeter/DMZ network. The external network interface must use either the Public or Private Windows firewall profile. DirectAccess will not work if the external interface uses the Domain profile. For the Public and Private profile to be enabled, domain controllers must not be reachable from the perimeter/DMZ network. Ensure the perimeter/DMZ network cannot access the internal network by restricting network access in EC2 using a Security Group, or on the VPC using a Network Access Control List (ACL) or custom route table settings.

External Connectivity

A public IPv4 address must be associated with the DirectAccess server in AWS. There are several ways to accomplish this. The simplest way is to assign a public IPv4 address to the virtual machine (VM). However, a public IP address can only be assigned to the VM when it is deployed initially and cannot be added later. Alternatively, an Elastic IP can be provisioned and assigned to the DirectAccess server at any time.

An ACL must also be configured for the public IP that restricts access from the Internet to only inbound TCP port 443. To provide additional protection, consider deploying an Application Delivery Controller (ADC) appliance like the Citrix NetScaler or F5 BIG-IP to enforce client certificate authentication for DirectAccess clients.

Network Location Server (NLS)

If an organization is hosting all of its Windows infrastructure in AWS and all clients will be remote, Network Location Server (NLS) availability becomes much less critical than with traditional on-premises deployments. For cloud-only deployments, hosting the NLS on the DirectAccess server is a viable option. It eliminates the need for dedicated NLS, reducing costs and administrative overhead. If multisite is configured, ensure that the NLS is not using a self-signed certificate, as this is unsupported.

Deployment Considerations for DirectAccess on Amazon Web Services (AWS)

However, for hybrid cloud deployments where on-premises DirectAccess clients share the same internal network with cloud-hosted DirectAccess servers, it is recommended that the NLS be deployed on dedicated, highly available servers following the guidance outlined here and here.

Client Provisioning

All supported DirectAccess clients will work with DirectAccess on AWS. If the domain infrastructure is hosted exclusively in AWS, provisioning clients can be performed using Offline Domain Join (ODJ). Provisioning DirectAccess clients using ODJ is only supported in Windows 8.x/10. Windows 7 clients cannot be provisioned using ODJ and must be joined to the domain using another form of remote network connectivity such as VPN.

Additional Resources

DirectAccess No Longer Supported in Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Server Software Support for Azure Virtual Machines

DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS) Guidance

DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS) Deployment Considerations for Large Enterprises

Provisioning DirectAccess Clients using Offline Domain Join (ODJ)

DirectAccess SSL Offload and IP-HTTPS Preauthentication with Citrix NetScaler

DirectAccess SSL Offload and IP-HTTPS Preauthentication with F5 BIG-IP

Planning and Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Video Training Course

Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Book

DirectAccess IPv6 Support for WorkSite and iManage Work

DirectAccess IPv6 Support for WorkSite and iManage WorkiManage Work (formerly WorkSite) is a popular document management system commonly used in the legal, accounting, and financial services industries. Historically, there have been issues getting WorkSite to function over DirectAccess, because WorkSite used IPv4 addresses and DirectAccess clients use IPv6. When a DirectAccess client is outside of the office, it communicates with the DirectAccess server using IPv6 exclusively, so applications that make calls directly to IPv4 addresses won’t work.

One way DirectAccess administrators could make WorkSite function was to use portproxy to create v4tov6 address and port mappings on the client. However, this method is error prone, difficult to troubleshoot and support, and doesn’t scale effectively.

The good news is that beginning with release 9, the iManage Work client application has been upgraded to support IPv6. However, it is not enabled by default. To enable IPv6 support for iManage Work, add the following registry key on the client side (not the server!). No other changes are required.

HKLM\Software\Wow6432Node\Interwoven\WorkSite\Server Common\

Type: REG_SZ
String: IP Address Family
Value: IPv6

DirectAccess IPv6 Support for WorkSite and iManage Work

You can also use the following PowerShell command to add this registry entry.

New-Item -Path “HKLM:\Software\Wow6432Node\Interwoven\WorkSite\Server Common\” -Force
New-ItemProperty -Path “HKLM:\Software\Wow6432Node\Interwoven\WorkSite\Server Common\”-Name “IP Address Family” -PropertyType String -Value IPv6 -Force

After validation testing is complete, deploy the registry setting via Active Directory group policy preferences to all DirectAccess clients and iManage Work will function perfectly over DirectAccess!

Additional Resources

Active Directory Group Policy Preferences on Microsoft TechNet

iManage Web Site

Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016

DirectAccess and NAT

One of the more common barriers to adoption for DirectAccess in Windows Server 2008 R2 and Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) 2010 is the strict requirement for two consecutive public IPv4 addresses to be assigned to the external network interface of the DirectAccess server. Many small and mid-sized businesses have only a single public IPv4 address, or have a very small range of public IPv4 addresses that are already in use. For large organizations, corporate security policies often dictate that Windows-based systems cannot be internet facing, and many object to having a domain-joined Windows system exposed directly to the Internet. Further complicating matters is the fact that deploying a Window Server 2008 R2 or Forefront UAG 2010 DirectAccess server behind a border router or edge firewall performing Network Address Translation (NAT) is explicitly not supported.

Beginning with Windows Server 2012, deploying the DirectAccess server behind a border router or edge firewall performing NAT is now fully supported. No longer is there a requirement to have public IPv4 addresses assigned to the DirectAccess server’s external network interface. In fact, DirectAccess in Windows Server 2012 can be deployed with a single network adapter, allowing the DirectAccess server to be completely isolated in a perimeter or DMZ network.

Windows Server 2012 DirectAccess Network Topology

Be advised that deploying a Windows Server 2012 DirectAccess server behind a NAT device will result in all DirectAccess client communication being delivered to the server exclusively using the IP-HTTPS IPv6 transition protocol. If you are using Windows 8 clients, there’s nothing to worry about in terms of performance and scalability because Windows 8 clients leverage NULL encryption for IP-HTTPS traffic. However, Windows 7 clients cannot utilize NULL encryption and will instead encrypt all DirectAccess client communication using SSL/TLS. DirectAccess communication is already encrypted using IPsec, so this presents a problem. Double encryption places high demands on the DirectAccess server’s CPU and memory and will significantly impact performance on the client and the server. It will also impede the scalability of the solution by dramatically reducing the number of DirectAccess clients supported on a single DirectAccess server.

So, if you’re planning to deploy a Windows Server 2012 DirectAccess server behind a NAT, and you are also planning to support a lot of Windows 7 clients, please proceed cautiously. Monitor the DirectAccess server performance closely during your pilot and, if at all possible, offload SSL/TLS off box using F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) or equivalent device.

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