Many Group Policy features rely on a well connected network for their success. However, not every connection is perfect or ideal; some connections are slow. The Group Policy infrastructure has always provided functionality to detect slow links. However, the means by which Group Policy determines this are different between operating systems prior to Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista.
Before Windows Server 2008 and Vista
Windows Server 2003, Windows XP, and Windows 2000 Group Policy uses the ICMP protocol to determine a slow link between the Group Policy client and the domain controller. This process is documented in Microsoft Knowledgebase article 227260: How a slow link is detected for processing user profiles and Group Policy (http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;EN-US;227260).
The Group Policy infrastructure performs a series of paired ICMP pings from the Group Policy client to the domain controller. The first ping contains a zero byte payload while the second ping contains a payload size of 2048 bytes. The results from both pings are computed and voila, we have the bandwidth estimation. However, using ICMP has some limitations.
Many “not-so-nice” applications use ICMP maliciously. This new found use increased ICMP’s popularity forced IT professional to take precautions. These precautions included blocking ICMP. The solution to block ICMP provided relief from the susceptibility of malicious ICMP packets, but broke Group Policy. Workarounds were created (Microsoft Knowledgebase article 816045 Group Policies may not apply because of network ICMP policies); But the update did not remove the ICMP dependency.
The Windows Server 2008 and Vista era
Windows 7 and Windows Vista to the rescue! These new operating systems implement a new slow link detection mechanism that DOES NOT use ICMP– but we already knew this. The question we will answer is how does the new Group Policy slow link detection work?
The easy answer to how the new slow link detection works is Network Location Awareness (NLA). This networking layer service and programming interface allows applications, like Group Policy, to solicit networking information from the network adapters in a computer, rather than implementing their own methods and algorithms. NLA accomplishes this by monitoring the existing traffic of a specific network interface. This provided two important benefits: 1) it does not require any additional network traffic to accomplish its bandwidth estimate– no network overhead, and 2) it does not use ICMP.
Group Policy using NLA
The question commonly asked is how does Group Policy slow link detection implement NLA. The actual algorithms used by NLA are not as important as what Group Policy does during its request to NLA for bandwidth estimation.
Locate a domain controller
A Group Policy client requires communication with a domain controller to successfully apply Group Policy. The Group Policy service must discover a domain controller. The service accomplishes this by using the DCLocator service. Windows clients typically have already discovered a domain controller prior to Group Policy application. DCLocator caches this information makes it available to other applications and services. The Group Policy service makes three attempts to contact a domain controller, with the first attempt using the domain controller information stored in the cache. The latter two attempts force DCLocator to rediscover domain controller information. Retrieving cached domain controller information does not traverse the network, but forceful rediscovery does. Domain controller information includes the IP address of the domain controller. The Group Policy service uses the IP address of the domain controller (received from DCLocator) to begin bandwidth estimation.
During bandwidth estimation
The Group Policy service begins bandwidth estimation after it successfully locates a domain controller. Domain controller location includes the IP address of the domain controller. The Group Policy service performs the following actions during bandwidth estimation.
All actions listed in this section generate network traffic from the client to the domain controller unless otherwise noted. I’ve included a few actions that do not generate network traffic because their results could be accomplished using methods that generate network traffic. These actions are added for clarity.
The first action performed during bandwidth estimation is an authenticated LDAP connect and bind to the domain controller returned during the DCLocator process. This connection to the domain controller is done under the user’s security context and uses Kerberos for authentication. This connection does not support using NTLM. Therefore, this authentication sequence must succeed using Kerberos for Group Policy to continue to process. Once successful, the Group Policy service closes the LDAP connection.
The user’s security context is relative to the type of Group Policy processing. The security context for computer Group Policy processing is the computer. The security context for the user is the current user for the current session.
The Group Policy service makes an authenticated LDAP connection as the computer when user policy processing is configured in loopback-replace mode.
Determine network name
The Group Policy services then determines the network name. The service accomplishes this by using IPHelper APIs to determine the best network interface in which to communicate with the IP address of the domain controller. The action also uses Winsock APIs; however, this action does not create any network traffic. Additionally, the domain controller and network name are saved in the client computer’s registry for future use.
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionGroup PolicyHistory is where the service stores these values. The value names are DCName and NetworkName.
The NetworkName registry value is used by the Windows firewall to determine if it should load the domain firewall profile.
Group Policy processing must know the site to which the computer belongs. To accomplish this, the Group Policy service uses the Netlogon service. Client site discovery is an RPC call from the client computer to a domain controller. The client netlogon service internally caches the computer’s site name. The time-to-live (TTL) for the site name cache is five minutes. However, TTL expiry is on demand. This means the client only checks the TTL during client discovery. This check is implemented by Netlogon (not the Group Policy service). If the cached name is older than five minutes from when the name was last retrieved from the domain controller, then the Netlogon service makes an RPC call to the domain controller to discover the computer site. This explains why you may not see the RPC call during Group Policy processing. However, the opportunity for network traffic exists.
Determine scope of management
The following Group Policy actions vary based on Group Policy processing mode. Computer Group Policy processing only uses normal Group Policy processing. However, user Group Policy processing can use normal, loopback-merge, and loopback-replace modes.
Normal Group Policy processing is the most common Group Policy processing actions. Conceptually these work the same regardless of user or computer. The most significant difference is the distinguished name used by the Group Policy service.
Building the OU and domain list
The Group Policy service uses the distinguished name of the computer or user to determine the list of OUs and the domain it must search for group policy objects. The Group Policy service builds this list by analyzing the distinguished name from left to right. The service scans the name looking for each instance of OU= in the name. The service then copies the distinguished name to a list, which it uses later. The Group Policy service continues to scan the distinguished name until for OUs until it encounters the first instance of DC=. At this point, the Group Policy service has found the domain name, which completes the list. This action does not generate any network traffic.
Example: Here is the list from a given distinguished name
Evaluate scope of management
The Group Policy service uses the list OUs to determine the Group Policy objects linked to each scope of management and the options associated with each link. The service determines linked Group Policy objects by using a single LDAP query to the domain controller discovered earlier.
LDAP requests have four main components: base, scope, filter, and attributes. The base is used to specify the location within the directory the search should begin, which is usually represented as a distinguished name. The scope determines how far the search should traverse into the directory; starting from the base. The options include base, one-level, and subtree. The base scope option limits the search to only return objects matching the filter that matches the base. The onelevel option return objects from one level below the base, but not including the base. The subtree option returns objects from the base and all levels below the base. The filter provides a way to control what objects the search should return (see MSDN for more information on LDAP search filter syntax). The attribute setting is a list of attributes the search should return for the objects discovered that match the filter.
The service builds the LDAP request with the following arguments:
Scope: Sub Tree
Filter: (|(distinguishedname=OU=xxx)( more OUs)(ends domainNC DC=))
Attributes: gpLink, gpOptions, ntSecurityDescriptor
Example: Scope of management LDAP search
Filter: (|(distinguishedname= OU=marketing,OU=hq,DC=na,DC=contoso,DC=com)
Determining the scope of normal Group Policy processing mode occurs in the security context of the applying security principal. The computer performs the LDAP query computer processing and the user performs the LDAP query for user processing. Merge and Replace are user-only processing modes, which occur under the security context of the user.
Replace user-processing performs an LDAP query using the computer’s distinguished name. Each component of the distinguished name is inserted into the filter portion of the LDAP query. The LDAP query filter parameter ends with the distinguished name of the domain (which is assembled using the parts of the computer’s distinguished name.
Merge user-processing performs two LDAP queries. The first LDAP query uses the distinguished name of the user object. The second query uses the distinguished name of the computer object. The Group Policy links returned from both queries are merged into one list. The Group Policy service merges these lists together by adding the Group Policy links returned from the computer query to the end of the list of Group Policy links returned from the user query. Concatenating the computer list to the end of the user list results with the Group Policy links listed in the order they apply.
Determine the Link Status:
The Group Policy service is ready to determine the status of the link between the client computer and the domain controller. The service asks NLA to report the estimated bandwidth it measured while earlier Group Policy actions occurred. The Group Policy service compares the value returned by NLA to the GroupPolicyMinTransferRate named value stored in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESoftwareMicrosoftWindowsNTCurrentVersionWinlogon, which is the preference key or, HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESoftwarePoliciesMicrosoftWindowsSystem, which is the policy key. The default minimum transfer rate to measure Group Policy slow link is 500 (Kbps). The link between the domain controller and the client is slow if the estimated bandwidth returned by NLA is lower than the value stored in the registry. The policy value has precedence over the preference value if both values appear in the registry. After successfully determining the link state (fast or slow—no errors), then the Group Policy service writes the slow link status into the Group Policy history, which is stored in the registry. The named value is IsSlowLink and is located at HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionGroup PolicyHistory. This value is an REG_DWORD value that is interpreted as a Boolean value; with a non-zero value equaling false and a zero value equaling true. If the Group Policy service encounters an error, it read the last recorded value from the history key and uses that true or false value for the slow link status.
Group Policy slow link detection has matured since the days of using ICMP for slow link detection. Today, Windows 7 and Windows Vista’s Group Policy services use NLA to sample TCP communication between the client and the domain controller, without sending additional network traffic.
– Mike Stephens