DirectAccess Network Location Server Guidance

Introduction

The Network Location Server (NLS) is a critical component in a DirectAccess deployment. The NLS is used by DirectAccess clients to determine if they are inside or outside of the corporate network. If a DirectAccess client can connect to the NLS, it must be inside the corporate network. If it cannot, it must be outside of the corporate network. It is for this reason that the NLS must not be reachable from the public Internet. A client configured for DirectAccess will probe the NLS when it first starts, and on subsequent network interface status changes.

What is the NLS?

The NLS itself is nothing more than a web server with an SSL certificate installed. Beginning with Windows Server 2012, the NLS can be collocated on the DirectAccess server itself. Although there may be scenarios in which this is acceptable, it is generally recommended that NLS be configured on a server dedicated to this role.

NLS Configuration

Any web server can be used, including IIS, Apache, Nginx, Lighttpd, and others. You can also use an Application Delivery Controller (ADC) like the F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM), as described here. The web server must have a valid SSL certificate installed that includes a subject name that matches the NLS FQDN (e.g. nls.corp.example.com). The DNS record for the NLS must configured using an A host record. A CNAME DNS entry will not work. In addition, the NLS must also respond to ICMP echo requests.

DirectAccess Network Location Server Guidance

DirectAccess Network Location Server Guidance

The certificate can be issued by an internal PKI or a public third-party Certificate Authority (CA). A self-signed certificate can be used if the certificate is distributed to all DirectAccess clients and servers, but this is not advisable. To avoid possible service disruptions, the NLS should be made highly available by deploying at least two NLS in a load balanced configuration.

What Happens if the NLS is Offline?

If the NLS is offline for any reason, remote DirectAccess clients will be unaffected. However, DirectAccess clients on the internal network will mistakenly believe they are outside of the corporate network and attempt to establish a DirectAccess connection. If the DirectAccess server is not accessible from the internal network, the client will be unable to connect to any local network resources by name until the NLS is brought online or other actions are taken.

Collocation Issues

As mentioned previously, it is possible in some scenarios to collocate the NLS on the DirectAccess server. This is probably acceptable for proof-of-concept deployments, but any production deployment should have the NLS configured on a server dedicated to this role. If the NLS is located on the DirectAccess server and the server is offline for any reason, DirectAccess clients on the internal network will be unable to access local resources by name until the DirectAccess server is back online.

Don’t Use Existing Web Application Servers

Occasionally I will encounter a scenario in which an administrator who wants to avoid implementing additional infrastructure will use an existing internal web application server for the NLS, such as a SharePoint server. Although this will work, it quickly becomes an issue when remote DirectAccess clients need to access the server. Since the NLS is not resolvable or reachable externally, connectivity will fail, preventing DirectAccess clients from reaching the internal application.

Summary

The NLS is a vitally important piece of the DirectAccess architecture. DirectAccess clients use the NLS to determine their location, and if the service is unavailable for any reason (planned or unplanned) internal DirectAccess clients will be negatively affected. The NLS isn’t necessarily complicated, as it is nothing more than a web server with an SSL certificate installed. However, don’t overlook the importance of this service, and make sure it is highly available to avoid any potential network connectivity issues.

Additional Resources

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

Configure KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer for DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS)

Configure Citrix NetScaler for DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS)

Configure F5 BIG-IP for DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS) 

DirectAccess Deployment Guide for KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancers

DirectAccess Deployment Guide for Kemp LoadMaster Load BalancersA few months ago I had the opportunity to work with the folks at KEMP Technologies to document the use of their LoadMaster load balancers for Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess deployments. DirectAccess has several critical single points of failure which can benefit from the use of a load balancer. Typically Windows Network Load Balancing (NLB) is used in these scenarios, but NLB suffers from some serious limitations and lacks essential capabilities required to fully address these requirements. The use of an external third-party load balancer can provide better load distribution and more granular traffic control, while at the same time improving availability with intelligent service health checks.

Working with the LoadMaster was a great experience. Installation was quick and simple, and their web-based management console is intuitive and easy to use. The LoadMaster includes essential features that are required for load balancing DirectAccess servers, and advanced capabilities that can be leveraged to enhance geographic redundancy for multisite deployments.

DirectAccess Deployment Guide for KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancers

KEMP offers the widest platform coverage with their solutions, including dedicated hardware appliances, virtual appliances for multiple hypervisors including Hyper-V, cloud-based including Microsoft Azure, as well as bare metal support for installation on your own hardware. You can download a fully functional free trial here.

You can view and download the Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess Deployment Guide for the KEMP LoadMaster load balancing solution here.

Additional Resources

Video: Enable Load Balancing for DirectAccess

Configure KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer for DirectAccess Network Location Server (NLS)

DirectAccess Single NIC Load Balancing with KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancers

DirectAccess and the Free KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer

Webinar Recording: DirectAccess Load Balancing Tips and Tricks

Webinar Recording: DirectAccess Multisite with Windows 10 and KEMP LoadMaster GEO

Webinar Recording: Maximize Your Investment in Windows 10 with DirectAccess and the KEMP LoadMaster Load Balancer

Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 book

 

Hotfix Available to Disable NRPT on Windows 8.x DirectAccess Clients

Updated April 9, 2015: The hotfix referred to in this article is now included in the November 2014 update rollup for Windows 8.1 and Windows Server 2012 R2. You will receive an error message when installing this update on Windows 8.x clients with the update rollup installed. More details here.

The Network Location Server (NLS) is a critical infrastructure component for DirectAccess deployments. The NLS is used by DirectAccess clients to determine if the client is located inside or outside of the corporate network. If the NLS becomes unavailable, DirectAccess clients that are already outside the corporate network are unaffected. However, DirectAccess clients that are inside the corporate network will mistakenly believe that they are outside and the Name Resolution Policy Table (NRPT) will be enabled, forcing name resolution requests for hosts in the internal namespace to be sent to the DNS64 service running on the DirectAccess server. If the DirectAccess server is unreachable from the internal network (a common scenario for a variety of reasons), DirectAccess clients inside the corporate network will be unable to connect to any local network resources by name until the NLS is once again reachable.

Configuring the Network Connectivity Assistant to Allow DirectAccess clients to use local name resolution does not resolve this issue. Although it sounds intuitive, it doesn’t resolve this specific issue where the NLS is unreachable.

Hotfix Available to Disable NRPT on Windows 8.x DirectAccess Clients

When the option to Allow DirectAccess clients to use local name resolution is enabled, the client can only choose to disconnect (use local name resolution) after it has successfully established a connection to the DirectAccess server. If the DirectAccess connection shows that it is still connecting, the option to disconnect is not available.

Hotfix Available to Disable NRPT on Windows 8.x DirectAccess Clients

To address this issue, Microsoft has released update KB2953212 for Windows 8.x clients that allows the disabling of the NRPT regardless if the client has successfully established a DirectAccess connection. With this update, if a DirectAccess client is located on the corporate network and is unable to reach the NLS, the user will be able to disable the NRPT (effectively disconnect DirectAccess) and once again connect to resources on the corporate network.
Hotfix Available to Disable NRPT on Windows 8.x DirectAccess Clients

This update is certainly no excuse not to deploy your NLS in a highly-available configuration using Windows Network Load Balancing (NLB) or a third-party external load balancer (hardware or software), but it can be a life-saver if your NLS becomes unavailable for any reason. I’d recommend deploying this update to all of your Windows 8.x DirectAccess clients soon.

For more information and to download the hotfix, click here.

Cannot Apply Remote Access Setup Wizard Settings in Windows Server 2012 R2

When configuring Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess with a dedicated network location server, the Remote Access Setup Wizard may fail with the following error:

The configuration was rolled back successfully. The URL specified for the network location server cannot be resolved to an IP address.

Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess Name Resolution Issue

However, the name can be resolved successfully and when stepping through the remote access setup, validation of the network location server is successful.

Windows Server 2012 R2 DirectAccess Name Resolution Issue

This has been identified as an issue with the DNS client in Windows Server 2012 R2. Microsoft has now released a hotfix to resolve this problem. For more information, click here.

Windows Server 2012 DirectAccess Network Location Server Not Working Properly

After configuring a Windows Server 2012 DirectAccess server to use an intranet-based Network Location Server (NLS), you may notice that the operations status in the remote access management console indicates a critical problem with NLS, when in fact you can browse the NLS server from the DirectAccess server.

DirectAccess Network Location Server Issue

The issue here is that the DirectAccess server, in addition to being able to successfully connect to the NLS using an HTTP GET, must also be able to ping the NLS server. However, inbound ICMP is often blocked on web servers which results in the DirectAccess server marking the service as failed. The issue can be quickly resolved by modifying the host firewall policy to allow inbound ICMPv4 echo requests. For example, in my test lab I’m using a Microsoft Windows Server 2012 server with Internet Information Services (IIS) installed. A new access rule can be added to the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security (WFAS) by executing the following PowerShell command:

New-NetFirewallRule -Name “Allow Inbound ICMPv4 Echo Request” -DisplayName “Allow Inbound ICMPv4 Echo Request” -Protocol ICMPv4 -IcmpType 8 -RemoteAddress 172.16.1.241, 172.16.1.242 -Profile Domain -Action Allow -Enabled True

Note that my lab server is domain joined, so I’ve specified the WFAS profile to be the Domain profile. In addition I’ve included the IPv4 addresses assigned to the internal network interfaces of my two DirectAccess servers. You’ll need change the command as required to work in your environment.

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