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Understanding Active Directory Services

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Microsoft spent a lot of effort tuning Active Directory in Windows Server 2003, to improve scalability and speed and to correct key deficiencies. In this sample chapter, you'll learn what's new, and how to take advantage of Active Directory's new features.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

CLASSIC NT HAS MANY ECCENTRICITIES—big and small—that limit its scalability and functionality. Many of these eccentricities stem from NT's clumsy, flat-file, Registry-based account management system. What is lacking in classic NT is a true directory service capable of handling the management chores for a network containing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of users, computers, groups, printers, shared folders, network appliances, and so forth.

The hallmark of modern Windows is an enterprise-class directory service called Active Directory. We're going to spend the next six chapters learning to configure, deploy, manage, and fix Active Directory. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce you to the components of Active Directory and how they fit together. We'll also take an initial look at the tools provided by Microsoft to access and modify the contents of Active Directory.

New Features in Windows Server 2003

Microsoft has done quite a bit of tuning on Active Directory in Windows Server 2003 to improve scalability and speed and to correct a couple of key deficiencies. Some of these updates might not make much sense until you read further, but here is a synopsis to use for reference. The first three features require having Windows Server 2003 on every domain controller:

  • Site scalability. The calculations for determining replication topology between sites have been streamlined. This corrects a problem where large organizations with hundreds of sites might experience replication failure because the topology calculations cannot be completed in the time allotted to them.

  • Backlink attribute replication. Group members are now replicated as discrete entities instead of replicating the entire group membership list as a single unit. This corrects a problem where membership changes made to the same group on different domain controllers in the same replication interval overwrite each other.

  • Federations. A new trust type called Forest was added to simplify transitive trust relationships between root domains in different forests. Using Forest trusts, it is possible to build a federation of independent Active Directory forests. This feature does not implement true “prune and graft” in Active Directory, but it goes a long way toward simplifying operations within affiliated organizations.

  • Simplified domain logon. Universal group membership can be cached at non-global catalog servers. This permits users to log on even if connectivity to a global catalog server is lost. This enhancement is coupled with a feature in XP where the domain\name result of cracking a User Principal Name (UPN) is cached locally. This permits a user at an XP desktop to log on with the format user@company.com even if a global catalog server is not available.

  • Application naming contexts. Windows Server 2003 introduces the capability to create new naming contexts to hold DNS record objects for Active Directory Integrated zones. One naming context holds domain zone records and one holds the _msdcs records used throughout a forest. These naming contexts make it possible to target replication of DNS zones only to domain controllers that are running DNS.

  • Eliminate piling onto new domain controllers. There is potential for a problem when an NT4 primary domain controller (PDC) is upgraded to Windows Server 2003. In this circumstance, all existing Windows 2000 and XP desktops will use the newly promoted PDC as a logon server. In Windows Server 2003, domain controllers can be configured to respond to modern Windows clients as if they were still classic NT domain controllers until sufficient domain controllers are available to handle local authentication. This feature is also available in Windows 2000 SP2 and later.

  • DNS diagnostics. Proper DNS configuration is critical for proper Active Directory operation. The Domain Controller promotion utility now performs a suite of DNS diagnostics to ensure that a suitable DNS server is available to register the service locator resource records associated with a Windows domain controller.

  • Fewer global catalog rebuilds. Adding or removing an attribute from the Global Catalog no longer requires a complete synchronization cycle. This minimizes the replication traffic caused by adding an attribute to the GC.

  • Management console enhancements. The Active Directory Users and Computers console now permits drag-and-drop move operations and modifying properties on multiple objects at the same time. There is also the capability of creating and storing custom LDAP queries to simplify managing large numbers of objects. The new MMC 2.0 console includes scripting support that can eliminate the need to use the console entirely.

  • Real-time LDAP. Support was added for RFC 2589, “LDAPv3: Extensions for Dynamic Directory Services.” This permits putting time-sensitive information in Active Directory, such as a user's current location. Dynamic entries automatically time out and are deleted if they are not refreshed.

  • Enhanced LDAP security. Support was added for digest authentication as described in RFC 2829, “Authentication Methods for LDAP.” This makes it easier to integrate Active Directory into non-Windows environments. Support was also added for RFC 2830, “LDAPv3: Extension for Transport Layer Security.” This permits using secure connections when sending LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) queries to a domain controller.

  • Schema enhancements. The ability was added to associate an auxiliary schema class to individual objects rather than to an entire class of objects. This association can be dynamic, making it possible to temporarily assign new attributes to a specific object or objects. Attributes and object classes can also be declared defunct to simplify recovering from programming errors.

  • LDAP query enhancements. The LDAP search mechanism was expanded to permit searching for individual entries in a multivalued Distinguished Name (DN) attribute. This is called an Attribute Scoped Query, or ASQ. For example, an ASQ could be used to quickly list every group to which a specific user belongs. Support was also added for Virtual List Views, a new LDAP control that permits large data sets to be viewed in order instead of paging through a random set of information. This change permits Windows Server 2003 to show alphabetically sorted lists of users and groups in pick lists.

  • Interoperability. Support was added for RFC 2798, “Definition of the inetOrgPerson LDAP Object Class.” This enhances interoperability with Netscape and NetWare directory services, both of which use the inetOrgPerson object class to create User objects.

  • Speedier domain controller promotions. The capability was added for using a tape backup of the Active Directory database to populate the database on a new domain controller. This greatly simplifies domain controller deployments in situations where it is not practical to ship an entire server.

  • Scalability. The maximum number of objects that can be stored in Active Directory was increased to over one billion.

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