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 and Azure Multifactor Authentication

Introduction

DirectAccess and Azure Multifactor AuthenticationDirectAccess can be configured to enforce strong user authentication using smart cards or one-time passwords (OTP). This provides the highest level of assurance for remote users connecting to the internal network via DirectAccess. OTP solutions are commonly used because they require less administration and are more cost effective than typical smart card implementations. Most OTP solutions will integrate with DirectAccess as long as they support Remote Access Dial-In User Service (RADIUS).

DirectAccess and Azure Multifactor Authentication

Azure Authentication-as-a-Service

Azure Multifactor Authentication (MFA) is a popular OTP provider used to enable strong user authentication for a variety of platforms, including web sites and client-based VPN. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with DirectAccess. This is because Azure MFA uses a challenge/response method for which DirectAccess does not support. To use OTP with DirectAccess, the user must be able to enter their PIN and OTP immediately when prompted. There is no provision to begin the authentication process and wait for a response from the OTP provider.

PointSharp ID Multifactor Authentication

An excellent alternative to Azure MFA is PointSharp ID. PointSharp is a powerful OTP platform that integrates easily with DirectAccess. It is also very flexible, allowing for more complex authentication schemes for those workloads that support it, such as Exchange and Skype for Business.

DirectAccess and Azure Multifactor AuthenticationEvaluate PointSharp

You can download a fully-functional trial version of PointSharp ID here (registration required). The PointSharp ID and DirectAccess integration guide with detailed step-by-step instructions for configuring DirectAccess and PointSharp ID can be downloaded here. Consulting services are also available to assist with integrating PointSharp ID with DirectAccess, VPN, Exchange, Skype for Business, Remote Desktop Services, or any other solution that requires strong user authentication. More information about consulting services can be found here.

Additional Information

PointSharp Multifactor Authentication
Configure DirectAccess with OTP Authentication
DirectAccess Consulting Services
Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016

DirectAccess and OTP with PointSharp ID Webinar

Integrating multifactor authentication is essential for providing the highest level of security and assurance for DirectAccess clients. Smart cards work well for this, but they impose a heavy burden in terms of expense and administrative overhead. A more effective alternative is to use a One-Time Password (OTP) solution such as PointSharp ID.

DirectAccess and PointSharp ID Webinar

To learn more about the PointSharp ID OTP solution and how it integrates with DirectAccess, join me for a live webinar on Tuesday, July 27, 2106 at 10:00AM PDT where I’ll discuss the following topics.

  • What DirectAccess security risks can be mitigated with OTP?
  • What are the supporting infrastructure requirements for OTP authentication?
  • How to integrate the PointSharp IP solution with DirectAccess

You can register for this free live webinar here.

Configuring Multiple Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess Instances

DirectAccess in Windows Server 2012 R2 supports many different deployment configurations. It can be deployed with a single server, multiple servers in a single location, multiple servers in multiple locations, edge facing, in a perimeter or DMZ network, etc.

Global Settings

There are a number of important DirectAccess settings that are global in scope and apply to all DirectAccess clients, such as certificate authentication, force tunneling, one-time password, and many more. For example, if you configure DirectAccess to use Kerberos Proxy instead of certificates for authentication, Windows 7 clients are not supported. In this scenario it is advantageous to have a second parallel DirectAccess deployment configured specifically for Windows 7 clients. This allows Windows 8 clients to take advantage of the performance gains afforded by Kerberos Proxy, while at the same time providing an avenue of support for Windows 7 clients.

Parallel Deployments

To the surprise of many, it is indeed possible to deploy DirectAccess more than once in an organization. I’ve been helping customers deploy DirectAccess for nearly five years now, and I’ve done this on more than a few occasions. In fact, there are some additional important uses cases that having more than one DirectAccess deployment can address.

Common Use Cases

QA and Testing – Having a separate DirectAccess deployment to perform testing and quality assurance can be quite helpful. Here you can validate configuration changes and verify updates without potential negative impact on the production deployment.

Delegated Administration – DirectAccess provides support for geographic redundancy, allowing administrators to create DirectAccess entry points in many different locations. DirectAccess in Windows Server 2012 R2 lacks support for delegated administration though, and in some cases it may make more sense to have multiple separate deployments as opposed to a single, multisite deployment. For example, many organizations are divided in to different business units internally and may operate autonomously. They may also have different configuration requirements, which can be better addressed using individual DirectAccess implementations.

Migration – If you have currently deployed DirectAccess using Windows Server 2008 R2 with or without Forefront UAG 2010, migrating to Windows Server 2012 R2 can be challenging because a direct, in-place upgrade is not supported. You can, however, deploy DirectAccess using Windows Server 2012 R2 in parallel to your existing deployment and simply migrate users to the new solution by moving the DirectAccess client computer accounts to a new security group assigned to the new deployment.

Major Configuration Changes – This strategy is also useful for scenarios where implementing changes to the DirectAccess configuration would be disruptive for remote users. For example, changing from a single site to a multisite configuration would typically require that all DirectAccess clients be on the LAN or connect remotely out-of-band to receive group policy settings changes after multisite is first configured. In addition, parallel deployments can significantly ease the pain of transitioning to a new root CA if required.

Unique Client Requirements – Having a separate deployment may be required to take advantage of the unique capabilities of each client operating system. For example, Windows 10 clients do not support Microsoft Network Access Protection (NAP) integration. NAP is a global setting in DirectAccess and applies to all clients. If you still require NAP integration and endpoint validation using NAP for Windows 7 and Windows 8.x, another DirectAccess deployment will be required to support Windows 10 clients.

Requirements

To support multiple Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess deployments in the same organization, the following is required:

Unique IP Addresses – It probably goes without saying, but each DirectAccess deployment must have unique internal and external IPv4 addresses.

Distinct Public Hostname – The public hostname used for each deployment must also be unique. Multi-SAN certificates have limited support for DirectAccess IP-HTTPS (public hostname must be the first entry in the list), so consider using a wildcard certificate or obtain certificates individually for each deployment.

Group Policy Objects – You must use unique Active Directory Group Policy Objects (GPOs) to support multiple DirectAccess deployments in a single organization. You have the option to specify a unique GPO when you configure DirectAccess for the first time by clicking the Change link next to GPO Settings on the Remote Access Review screen.

Configuring Multiple Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess Instances

Enter a distinct name for both the client and server GPOs. Click Ok and then click Apply to apply the DirectAccess settings for this deployment.

Configuring Multiple Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess Instances

Windows 7 DirectAccess Connectivity Assistant (DCA) GPOs – If the DirectAccess Connectivity Assistant (DCA) v2.0 has been deployed for Windows 7 clients, separate GPOs containing the DCA client settings for each individual deployment will have to be configured. Each DirectAccess deployment will have unique Dynamic Tunnel Endpoint (DTE) IPv6 addresses which are used by the DCA to confirm corporate network connectivity. The rest of the DCA settings can be the same, if desired.

Supporting Infrastructure

The rest of the supporting infrastructure (AD DS, PKI, NLS, etc.) can be shared between the individual DirectAccess deployments without issue. Once you’ve deployed multiple DirectAccess deployments, make sure that DirectAccess clients DO NOT belong to more than one DirectAccess client security group to prevent connectivity issues.

Migration Process

Moving DirectAccess client computers from the old security group to the new one is all that’s required to migrate clients from one DirectAccess deployment to another. Client machines will need to be restarted to pick up the new security group membership, at which time they will also get the DirectAccess client settings for the new deployment. This works seamlessly when clients are on the internal network. It works well for clients that are outside the network too, for the most part. Because clients must be restarted to get the new settings, it can take some time before all clients finally moved over. To speed up this process it is recommended that DirectAccess client settings GPOs be targeted at a specific OUs created for the migration process. A staging OU is created for clients in the old deployment and a production OU is created for clients to be assigned to the new deployment. DirectAccess client settings GPOs are then targeted at those OUs accordingly. Migrating then only requires moving a DirectAccess client from the old OU to the new one. Since OU assignment does not require a reboot, clients can be migrated much more quickly using this method.

Summary

DirectAccess with Windows Server 2012 R2 supports many different deployment models. For a given DirectAccess deployment model, some settings are global in scope and may not provide the flexibility required by some organizations. To address these challenges, consider a parallel deployment of DirectAccess. This will enable you to take advantage of the unique capabilities of each client operating system, or allow you to meet the often disparate configuration requirements that a single deployment cannot support.

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