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Active Directory replication between domain controllers is managed by the system administrator on a site-by-site basis. As domain controllers are added, a replication path must be established. This is done by the Knowledge Consistency Checker (KCC), coupled with Active Directory replication components. The KCC is a dynamic process that runs on all domain controllers to create and modify the replication topology. If a domain controller fails, the KCC automatically creates new paths to the remaining domain controllers. Manual intervention with the KCC will also force a new path.

The Active Directory replaces PDCs and BDCs with multimaster replication services. Each domain controller retains a copy of the entire directory for that particular domain. As changes are made in one domain controller, the originator communicates these changes to the peer domain controllers. The directory data itself is stored in the ntds.dit file.

Active Directory replication uses the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) over IP to conduct replication within a site. Replication between sites can utilize either RPC or the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) for data transmission. The default intersite replication protocol is RPC.

Intersite and Intrasite Replication

There are distinct differences in internal and intersite domain controller replication. In theory, the network bandwidth within a site is sufficient to handle all network traffic associated with replication and other Active Directory activities. By the definition of a site, the network must be reliable and fast. A change notification process is initiated when modifications occur on a domain controller. The domain controller waits for a configurable period (by default, five minutes) before it forwards a message to its replication partners. During this interval, it continues to accept changes. Upon receiving a message, the partner domain controllers copy the modification from the original domain controller. In the event that no changes were noted during a configurable period (six hours, by default), a replication sequence ensures that all possible modifications are communicated. Replication within a site involves the transmission of uncompressed data.


Security-related modifications are replicated within a site immediately. These changes include account and individual user lockout policies, changes to password policies, changes to computer account passwords, and modifications to the Local Security Authority (LSA).

Replication between sites assumes that there are network-connectivity problems, including insufficient bandwidth, reliability, and increased cost. Therefore, the Active Directory permits the system to make decisions on the type, frequency, and timing of intersite replication. All replication objects transmitted between sites are compressed, which may reduce traffic by 10 to 25 percent, but because this is not sufficient to guarantee proper replication, the system administrator has the responsibility of scheduling intersite replication.

Replication Component Objects

Whereas the KCC represents the process elements associated with replication, the following comprise the Active Directory object components:

  • Connection object. Domain controllers become replication "partners" when linked by a connection object. This is represented by a one-way path between two domain controller server objects. Connection objects are created by the KCC by default. They can also be manually created by the system administrator.

  • NTDS settings object. The NTDS settings object is a container that is automatically created by the Active Directory. It contains all of the connection objects, and is a child of the server object.

  • Server object. The Active Directory represents every computer as a computer object. The domain controller is also represented by a computer object, plus a specially created server object. The server object's parent is the site object that defines its IP subnet. However, in the event that the domain controller server object was created prior to site creation, it will be necessary to manually define the IP subnet to properly assign the domain controller a site.

When it is necessary to link multiple sites, two additional objects are created to manage the replication topology.

  • Site link. The site link object specifies a series of values (cost, interval, and schedule) that define the connection between sites. The KCC uses these values to manage replication and to modify the replication path if it detects a more efficient one. The Active Directory DEFAULTIPSITELINK is used by default until the system administrator intervenes. The cost value, ranging from 1 to 32767, is an arbitrary estimate of the actual cost of data transmission as defined bandwidth. The interval value sets the number of times replication will occur: 15 minutes to a maximum of once a week (or 10080 minutes) is the minimum; three hours is the default. The schedule interval establishes the time when replication should occur. Although replication can be at any time by default, the system administrator may want to schedule it only during off-peak network hours.

  • Site link bridges. The site link bridge object defines a set of links that communicate via the same protocol. By default, all site links use the same protocol, and are transitive. Moreover, they belong to a single site link bridge. No configuration is necessary to the site link bridge if the IP network is fully routed. Otherwise, manual configuration may be necessary.

Preventing Data Replication Collision

The Active Directory issues a unique identifier known as the Update Sequence Number (USN), which is given to every change made to an object. This number is incrementally changed whenever the object is modified. Each property of an object is also issued a USN. A source domain regularly communicates USN sequence changes to the peer domain controller. The latest USN is then registered in each domain controller to ensure the freshness of an object's current state. The Active Directory uses a timestamp only when changes are made at approximately the same time to the same object. At this point, in order to avoid data collisions, the change with the latest timestamp will be replicated by default. In all other cases, the Active Directory disregards the timestamping process.

In the next article in this series, we examine the specialized roles played by domain controllers.

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