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

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 Manage Out and System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM)

The seamless and transparent nature of DirectAccess makes it wonderfully easy to use. In most cases, it requires no user interaction at all to access internal corporate resources while away from the office. This enables users to be more productive. At the same time, it offers important connectivity benefits for IT administrators and systems management engineers as well.

Always Managed

DirectAccess Manage Out and System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM)DirectAccess clients are automatically connected to the corporate network any time they have a working Internet connection. Having consistent corporate network connectivity means they receive Active Directory group policy updates on a regular basis, just as on-premises systems do. Importantly, they check in with internal management systems such as System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) servers, enabling them to receive updates in a timely manner. Thus, DirectAccess clients are better managed, allowing administrators to more effectively maintain the configuration state and security posture for all their managed systems, including those that are predominantly field-based. This is especially crucial considering the prevalence WannaCry, Cryptolocker, and a variety of other types of ransomware.

DirectAccess Manage Out

DirectAccess Manage Out and System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM)When manage out is configured with DirectAccess, hosts on the internal network can initiate connections outbound to remote connected DirectAccess clients. SCCM Remote Control and Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) are commonly used to remotely connect to systems for troubleshooting and support. With DirectAccess manage out enabled, these and other popular administrative tools such as VNC, Windows Remote Assistance, and PowerShell remoting can also be used to manage remote DirectAccess clients in the field. In addition, enabling manage out allows for the proactive installation of agents and other software on remote clients, such as the SCCM and System Center Operation Manager (SCOM) agents, third-party management agents, antivirus and antimalware software, and more. A user does not have to be logged on to their machine for manage out to work.

IPv6

DirectAccess manage out requires that connections initiated by machines on the internal network to remote-connected DirectAccess clients must be made using IPv6. This is because DirectAccess clients use IPv6 exclusively to connect to the DirectAccess server. To enable connectivity over the public IPv4 Internet, clients use IPv6 transition technologies (6to4, Teredo, IP-HTTPS), and IPv6 translation components on the server (DNS64 and NAT64) enable clients to communicate with internal IPv4 resources. However, DNS64 and NAT64 only translate IPv6 to IPv4 inbound. They do not work in reverse.

Native or Transition?

It is recommended that IPv6 be deployed on the internal network to enable DirectAccess manage out. This is not a trivial task, and many organizations can’t justify the deployment for just this one specific use case. As an alternative, IPv6 can be configured with an IPv6 transition technology, specifically the Intrasite Automatic Tunnel Addressing Protocol (ISATAP). ISATAP functions as an IPv6 overlay network, allowing internal hosts to obtain IPv6 addresses and routing information from an ISATAP router to support manage out for DirectAccess clients.

ISATAP

When DirectAccess is installed, the server is automatically configured as an ISATAP router. Guidance for configuring ISATAP clients can be found here. Using ISATAP can be an effective approach to enabling DirectAccess manage out for SCCM when native IPv6 is not available, but it is not without its drawbacks.

• Using the DirectAccess server for ISATAP is only supported with single server DirectAccess deployments.
• Using the DirectAccess server for ISATAP does work when using Network Load Balancing (NLB) with some additional configuration, but it is not supported.
• Using the DirectAccess server for ISATAP does not work when an external load balancer is used, or if multisite is enabled.

ISATAP with Load Balancing and Multisite

It is technically possible to enable DirectAccess manage out for SCCM using ISATAP in load-balanced and multisite DirectAccess deployments, however. It involves deploying a separate ISATAP router and some custom configuration, but once in place it works perfectly. I offer this service to my customers as part of a consulting engagement. If you’re interested in restoring DirectAccess manage out functionality to support SCCM remote control, RDC, or VNC in load-balanced or multisite DirectAccess deployments, fill out the form below and I’ll provide you with more information.

Additional Resources

ISATAP Recommendations for DirectAccess Deployments
DirectAccess Manage Out with ISATAP Fails on Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016
DirectAccess Client Firewall Rule Configuration for ISATAP Manage Out
Video: Windows 10 DirectAccess in action (includes manage out demonstration)

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