Top 5 DirectAccess Troubleshooting Tips

Top 5 DirectAccess Troubleshooting TipsDirectAccess is a thing of beauty when everything is working as it should. When it isn’t, troubleshooting can be quite challenging. DirectAccess relies on many Windows platform technologies such as Active Directory for authentication, PKI for certificate management, group policy for settings deployment, IPsec for encryption, and IPv6 for transport. With so many dependencies, locating the source of the problem can be a difficult and daunting task.

I’m frequently called upon to help organizations of all sizes with DirectAccess troubleshooting. While this post is not intended to be a detailed, prescriptive guide for DirectAccess troubleshooting, I did want to share some common troubleshooting tips based on many years of troubleshooting DirectAccess.

Here are my top 5 DirectAccess troubleshooting tips:

  1. Check Prerequisites – Before diving in and collecting network traces and scouring event logs for clues as to why DirectAccess isn’t working, it’s essential to start at the beginning. Often the source of trouble is missing or misconfigured prerequisites. For example, is the DirectAccess client running a supported operating system? Remember, clients must be running Windows 10 Enterprise or Education, Windows 8.x Enterprise, or Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate. Also, ensure that the Windows firewall is enabled on DirectAccess servers and clients, that certificates are installed and valid (trusted, correct EKU, etc.), and that the DirectAccess settings GPO has been applied to servers and clients.
  2. Validate External Connectivity – If you are following implementation and security best practices for DirectAccess, the DirectAccess server will be in a perimeter/DMZ network behind an edge firewall. The firewall must be configured to allow inbound TCP port 443 only. If the firewall is also performing Network Address Translation (NAT), the NAT rule must be configured to forward traffic to the DirectAccess server’s dedicated or virtual IP address (VIP), or the VIP of the load balancer. Watch for routing issues when using load balancers too. It’s a good idea to confirm external connectivity using the Test-NetConnection PowerShell command. Even better, use the open source tool Nmap for more thorough testing.
  3. Remove Third Party Software – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve resolved DirectAccess connectivity issues by removing (not just disabling!) third party software on the client and/or server. It’s not uncommon for third-party security software to interfere with IPsec and/or IPv6 communication, both of which are vital to DirectAccess. If your DirectAccess troubleshooting efforts reveal no underlying issues with prerequisites or external connectivity, I’d suggest removing (at least temporarily) any third-party software and testing again.
  4. Isolate Environmental Issues – Occasionally other settings applied manually or via Active Directory group policy will interfere with DirectAccess. Examples include IPv6 being disabled in the registry, IPv6 transition technologies required to support DirectAccess are turned off, essential firewall rules for DirectAccess are disabled, or manipulating local security settings such as Access this computer from the network. To assist with troubleshooting it might be necessary to temporarily place DirectAccess clients and servers in their own dedicated Organizational Units (OUs) and block inheritance to isolate the configuration as much as possible. In addition, if DirectAccess clients are servers are provisioned using images or templates, testing with a clean build straight from the installation source (ISO or DVD) can be helpful.
  5. Check for Unsupported Configurations – If DirectAccess isn’t working, it might be possible the configuration you are trying to use is not supported. Examples including strong user authentication with OTP when force tunneling is enabled, provisioning Windows 7 clients when using Kerberos Proxy authentication, or provisioning Windows 10 clients when Network Access Protection (NAP) integration is enabled. These configurations won’t work and are formally documented here.

This is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive troubleshooting guide. For more information and additional DirectAccess troubleshooting guidance I would encourage you to purchase my book Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016, which has an entire chapter devoted just to troubleshooting. In addition, watch my DirectAccess video training courses on Pluralsight for details and information about DirectAccess installation, configuration, management, support, and troubleshooting. And if you’re still struggling to resolve a DirectAccess problem, use the form at the bottom of this page to contact me to inquire about additional troubleshooting help.

Additional Resources

Microsoft Windows DirectAccess Client Troubleshooting Tool
DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional
DirectAccess Troubleshooting with Nmap
DirectAccess Unsupported Configurations
Planning and Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Video Training Course on Pluralsight
Implementing DirectAccess with Windows Server 2016 Book

Need assistance with DirectAccess troubleshooting? Complete the form below and I’ll get in touch with you.

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

Does Windows 10 Professional Support DirectAccess?

This is a question I’ve received on more than one occasion. For some reason there seems to be a persistent rumor on the Internet that Windows 10 Professional is now a supported client for DirectAccess. I’m not sure where this rumor got started, but I’ll put it to rest right now – Windows 10 Professional is NOT a supported DirectAccess client! DirectAccess still requires Enterprise edition (with two exceptions) to take advantage of DirectAccess for secure remote access.

Supported DirectAccess Clients

The following is a complete list (as of this writing) of client operating systems that support DirectAccess.

  • Windows 10 Enterprise
  • Windows 10 Education
  • Windows 8.1 Enterprise
  • Windows 7 Enterprise
  • Windows 7 Ultimate

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

If you are running a version of Windows that is not Enterprise edition (with the exception of Windows 7 Ultimate and Windows 10 Education) DirectAccess will not work. Be careful, because you can still provision non-Enterprise SKUs such as Windows 10 Professional for DirectAccess. All of the DirectAccess settings will be applied without issue and everything will look perfectly normal, but DirectAccess won’t work. The telltale sign on Windows 8.x and Windows 10 clients is that you won’t be able to start the Network Connectivity Assistant (NCA) service (NcaSvc). When you attempt to do so you will receive the following error message:

Failed to start service 'Network Connectivity Assistant (NcaSvc)'

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

Identify OS Version

You can verify the operating system SKU by looking at the output of systeminfo.exe or by going to the control panel under System and Security and clicking System.

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

Upgrade from Windows 10 Professional to Enterprise

A new feature introduced in Windows 10 allows you to easily upgrade the product SKU without having to perform an in place upgrade or reinstall the entire operating system from scratch. So, if you have Windows 10 Enterprise licenses and you want to upgrade a Windows 10 Professional device to Enterprise (for example you want to enable your new Surface Pro 4 to use DirectAccess!) you can simply provide the enterprise product license key in Windows 10 to upgrade. You can provide a new product key by navigating to Start | Settings | Update & Security | Activation | Change Product Key, or run changepk.exe from the Run dialog box or the command line.

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

Enter your Windows 10 Enterprise product key and then click Start Upgrade.

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

After the system reboots it will have been upgraded to Enterprise edition and now work as a DirectAccess client.

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional

DirectAccess and Windows 10 Professional
Summary

With Windows 10, it’s easy to upgrade from Professional to Enterprise edition by simply providing the Enterprise edition product key. This works great if you have just a few machines to upgrade, but if you are planning to upgrade many machines I would recommend creating a deployment package using the Windows Imaging and Configuration Designer (ICD), which is included with the Windows 10 Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK) and can be downloaded here. Once you’ve upgraded your Windows 10 Professional devices to Windows 10 Enterprise you can begin provisioning them for DirectAccess!

DirectAccess consulting services now available! Click here for more details!

DirectAccess and Windows Server 2012 R2 Core

Important Note: The ability to switch back and forth between the full GUI and core versions of Windows was removed from Windows Server 2016. If you are deploying DirectAccess on Windows Server 2016, you must install server core initially. More details here.

DirectAccess and Windows Server 2012 R2 Core

Windows Server Core is an operating system configuration option that does not include a Graphical User Interface (GUI). Server Core was first introduced with Windows Server 2008 and originally included only a limited number of supported roles. With each subsequent release, Microsoft continues to add support for additional roles on Server Core. Beginning with Windows Server 2012, the Routing and Remote Access (RRAS) role, which includes DirectAccess, is a supported workload on Server Core.

Advantages of Server Core

There are a number of important advantages that come with running DirectAccess on Server Core. Server Core has a greatly reduced attack surface compared to the full GUI version, which is positive from a security perspective. Server Core also features a dramatically reduced footprint, consuming less RAM and disk space. System startup times are faster, and this refactored installation option also reduces servicing requirements (patching), eliminating many reboots and increasing availability and overall system uptime.

DirectAccess and Windows Server 2012 R2 Core

Figure 1 – Windows Server 2012 R2 Core Desktop (Yes, that’s it!)

Server Core Configuration

DirectAccess is a workload that lends itself well to running on Server Core, and I highly recommend leveraging this configuration whenever possible. Based on my experience, I suggest performing initial configuration and testing of the DirectAccess solution with the GUI installed, and then removing the GUI just before placing the DirectAccess server in to production. Removing the GUI can be accomplished by executing the following PowerShell command:

Remove-WindowsFeature Server-Gui-Mgmt-Infra –Restart

Once the server has been converted to Server Core, all administration must be performed at the command line on the server, or remotely from a management server or workstation using the command line or GUI administration tools. You can install the Remote Access Management console on any Windows Server 2012 R2 server using the following PowerShell command:

Install-WindowsFeature RSAT-RemoteAccess

Optionally you can download and install the Windows Server Remote Administrations Tools (RSAT) on a Windows client workstation, if desired.

Minimal Server Interface Configuration

If you prefer to be able to manage the DirectAccess server locally using the GUI, consider enabling the Minimal Server Interface. Minimal Server Interface is a configuration option that lies between Server Core and the full GUI interface. It features some of the benefits of Server Core, while at the same time providing local access to GUI management tools such as the Remote Access Management console. You can configure Minimal Server Interface using the following PowerShell command:

Remove-WindowsFeature Server-Gui-Shell -Restart

You can access the Remote Access Management console by entering RaMgmtUI.exe from the command line.

Revert to Full GUI

If at any point in the future you require the GUI for some reason, re-installing it can be accomplished using the following PowerShell command:

Install-WindowsFeature Server-Gui-Shell –Restart

Summary

With the Unified Remote Access role supported on Windows Server Core, consider implementing DirectAccess using this option to improve the security and increase the availability of your remote access solution. You’ll find that almost all ongoing server maintenance and support can be accomplished remotely using GUI tools, or locally using PowerShell. And if you ever need the GUI again, you can always add it back if necessary!

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