Seeing the domains through the forest: What you need to know to build your career in Directory Services technologies
Published Apr 04 2019 01:50 PM 2,489 Views
First published on TechNet on Jan 30, 2009
Hi, Steve again. I thought I would speak through a series of posts about what knowledge is critical to fulfilling the Windows Server Domain Admin role. This topic carries a ton of breadth and depth knowledge. As a beginning, you have to find out where all this knowledge and training is located. My goal is to get you started down this path so you are exposed to different technologies that you will need to understand and master in order to become a Domain or Enterprise administrator.

The process of building the depth of knowledge required may take years to acquire. With some help and guidance I hope to reduce this time to several months. For other folks that have already started on this path or are already fulfilling this role, there may be topics that I reference that may hold some value for them as well. A lot of great information for Windows Server 2003 exists and I will focus on these resources.

As I go through this blog there will be links to more information. The links will consist of required reading to achieve our goal of being domain admin ready. It may take weeks to progress through this blog for some folks. I intend to develop follow up blogs that discuss in more detail, especially focused on ideas revolving around the design portions for Active Directory (AD). I would like to present some examples of a theoretical company’s environment and build an actual AD design.

So let’s get started. You have been using a computer for your personal use and you have just been hired to the helpdesk at your company to manage user accounts.

Microsoft has published an enormous library of technical information and other information on TechNet. What is TechNet? Well, that would be a blog unto itself, but as a quick reference you can find the technical libraries for most of our products there . You will also find educational resources, downloads, event information, webcasts and newsgroups. Microsoft also provides a learning portal designed for IT Professionals here .

Let’s talk about design first; each company has to choose an AD design. The simplest is a single forest/single domain where all of your accounts are stored in one domain. By default the first domain you create is the forest root domain, you can add more domains to your forest as a child domain of the root or add new domains as a separate tree in the forest. So how do you decide how many domains should you have? The vast majority of companies can live comfortably within one forest, but may require multiple domains within the same forest for a variety of reasons. This link discusses planning an AD deployment and choosing a logical structure. The more complicated your design the more time and effort required to manage your environment. You might ask yourself if your company requires more than one group of administrators to manage computer and user accounts and requires isolation of data or resources for security purposes. If the answer is clearly yes then you can plan on having more than one domain. You want to try to match your company structure to your AD structure whenever possible as a general rule of thumb. Domains quite often are used to isolate and group resources and normally domain administrators don’t have access to resources within another domain. You also decide that locality might play an important role in domain structure. It may be due to network isolation or even language differences but several companies have chosen to isolate different geographic locations into separate domains. In order to choose the correct design for your company you will need to engage participants from all of your business divisions so they can share their requirements for resources.

AD allows admins to create logical containers within a domain that allows you to group resources for control and/or manageability. These items are called Organizational Units or OU’s for short. You may decide to create an OU structure for User Accounts that is separate from Group Accounts or Computer Accounts. You can further refine your collections of accounts based on business function or geography.

AD also supports using objects to describe the physical organization of your network. For example, a site is defined by one or more network subnets. AD sites control what AD resources within the domain or forest a client should use. Typically we want our clients to use resources within their local site rather than traversing to other sites.

By now, you are probably getting the picture that AD design is flexible enough to support a wide variety logical models. As an exercise you might consider an AD design for a large international company named Contoso. Just to make it easy say we have 30,000 employees in Redmond, WA, USA and 8,000 in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Right from the start you are going to have questions where you will need to engage other business divisions to get answers. For instance, the first question you might want to answer is; “Is one forest enough or should I isolate a segment of our business entirely and setup a trust between two forests?” The next question might be “Should I use one domain or should I use multiple domains to organize and manage my resources?” You should also engage the network experts in your organization to understand how best to map the physical structure of your network into AD.

The steps in choosing a design are critical to the success of a company’s IT infrastructure. Even though it seems like there is no “right” answer there are definitely going to be “wrong” answers. The best advice I can give is design a few models and start discovering the pro’s and con’s of each design.

Choosing a Namespace

There are fewer factors involved in choosing a namespace design. This document covers your choices well. Different business divisions might have some requirements with regards to namespace and they will need to be engaged in this discussion. You will find this discussion loops into the AD design as well and can be considered jointly.

What to put where?

Ok let’s say we have selected a namespace and we know how many forests, domains and sites fit our company best. What’s our next step in AD? We need to choose structure for where our accounts in AD will be stored. We want to choose a logical structure that makes our objects in AD easy to find and manage. You do this by creating OU’s within your domain. Some choices you may make are creating OU’s for either user and computer accounts or combining them. Keeping them separate will make manageability easier. You may group similar machines in the same OU or you may break out accounts based on business function or geographic location.

Disaster Recovery

Having a methodical and tested plan is key here. AD is an important component in the organization and we must maintain its availability. There are several scenarios that need to be covered in a plan developed to cover that potential event. Here are points of failure that should be included in a recovery plan:

  • Individual hardware failure on one DC
  • FSMO role holder failure
  • Malware infects one or all DC’s
  • Admin accidentally deletes data from AD
  • DNS server failure
  • Schema Corruption
  • Natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, etc)

Each one of these events or a combination is possible. You will need to work through these potential events and determine a clear and concise set of steps that need to be completed to resolve the problem.

Regular backup of AD is critical. Testing these backups to make sure you can quickly and easily restore the data is best practice. All too often backup is scheduled but it’s not running or you cannot restore the data.

FSMO Roles

What are FSMO roles and how should they be distributed in your environment? This varies based on forest size. In the smallest environments we might put all roles on one server. In a large environment we might choose to place each role on a different machine. The FSMO PDC Emulator (PDCe) role brings the highest volume of work. In a large domain you would probably want to make sure the DC hosting the PDCe role is isolated from performing other roles, such as: not targeted by LDAP based applications, deployment server, web server, file and print server etc… The FSMO roles are important to make sure the forest and domain have these roles assigned to a specific DC.

In addition to server selection we might also distribute the FSMO role holder by physical location. This maybe the most secure site or best network availability or highest number of client requests.


Many companies have time requirements for their computer systems. By default the PDCe FSMO role holder is at the top of the time pyramid for the domain. Other domain members use W32Time service to synchronize their system clocks. Keeping the PDCe synchronized with an accurate source will help keep you domain member’s time accurate.

Provisioning new accounts and Deployment

As domain admin you will need to know how new accounts are created . Question: “Will HR be creating user accounts within their own software and does that software create new user accounts in AD?”. Some environments have very complex user provisioning scenarios. In more simple scenarios the user account maybe created by an administrator and manually gets their mailbox created and user group membership configured. In more distributed environments the Account Operators group maybe used and in the most complex scenarios it maybe the Human Resources Dept or the hiring manager who creates the user accounts.

Group Policy

There is a lot of information that falls under the group policy umbrella that a domain admin needs to be familiar with. In a nutshell you can use group policy to configure computer and user configuration settings on machines throughout your domain. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with GPMC , the group policy management tool.

There are approximately 2,400 settings in Windows Vista that can be set in group policy. This gives the admins a good deal of flexibility in configuring computer and user settings. You use group policy not only to restrict the abilities of specific users in your domain but you can also enhance their experience through group policy as well.

There are several general categories that can be controlled including: Application Deployment, Certificate Enrollment and Trust, Logon-logoff-startup-shutdown scripts, Restrict Groups settings, Internet Explorer configuration, disk quotas, user folder redirection, user rights and security configuration, etc… The list goes on and on depending on your needs.

Group policy is also flexible; you can link group policies at a domain, site or OU level. Clients that have memberships in these containers either by direct membership or inheritance will receive these policies. Therefore, it follows that your design of AD can help ease the distribution of user and computer configurations.

Here again collaborating with different business divisions within your organization is a must. Workstations in the accounting department will most likely need different software and access to their local machines than users in the Marketing department. Similarly, web servers will have different configurations than domain controllers. You can individually set the configuration as part of an image during the build process or you can manually change a machines configuration, but when you want to change thousands of machines at once, Group Policy is definitely the way to go.

On top of normal GPO settings, we now have group policy preferences which increases the flexibility and extends the capability of what administrators can do with group policy.


As the domain admin you have the proverbial “keys to the kingdom” for the resources in your domain. Security is a big responsibility to protect your domain’s resources. Domain security access requires authentication. There are several levels of authentication and you will want to implement the highest level of security where possible.

Windows 2003 implements several authentication protocols: Negotiate, Kerberos, NTLM, Secure Channel, and Digest . It’s also extensible so other authentication protocols can be added.


NTLM is a challenge-response authentication mechanism. The client attempts to access a resource and is challenged for credentials by the server. The client sends the username and a hash of the user account’s password and the server attempts to authenticate your credentials on a domain controller in the user’s domain. Therefore, the server must chain back to the user’s domain to be authenticated. NTLM has several variations and this is only one iteration. You would also loop anonymous access under this category if the username and password are null the target machine will attempt to logon the user as anonymous. If the server resource accepts anonymous authentication then the client will get access.


Kerberos is a more secure and efficient form of authentication than NTLM. It is the default authentication package in most cases beginng with Windows 2000. To summarize kerberos authentication, a client will ask for a service ticket for the server resource it wants to access. The client receives the ticket and forwards the ticket to the resource server to be authenticated. Wherever possible you would want to configure authentication to use Kerberos .


Certificates can be used for authentication as well. Certificate technologies have grown in scope and complexity over the past several years. More and more technologies are using certificates to increase security. So even though it’s not an authentication protocol it is used in conjunction with authentication protocols to increase security. For example, smartcard authentication uses a certificate that is installed on a physical card. The card is placed in a smartcard reader and the user provides a PIN to access certificates on the card. In this way its two factor authentication because we are using something we have, the smartcard, and something we know, the PIN, to provide authentication.

Certificates can also be used to increase security by encrypting the network traffic. Secure Sockets Layer, SSL is a well known method of encrypting traffic and can provide server identity. SMIME is another common scenario where users can encrypt and digitally sign their email.

We are seeing more and more companies implementing their own internal Certificate Authority infrastructure. Having a certificate authority for your domain allows you to assign both user and computer certificates through both automated and manual methods. Using these certificates can significantly increase the security inside and outside your network.


Authentication can be difficult to manage. Two very common scenarios are choosing authentication methods in SQL and IIS . It would be nice if all your applications in the enterprise supported Kerberos and you could just worry about one method but that’s not realistic. It may be an overwhelming task to determine the configuration of all applications. Where you would have concerns are scenarios where plain text or basic authentication is being used. You’ll want to restrict this behavior as much as possible and never use your domain admin credentials to access those applications. If however it is the only method that can be used at the very least the authentication should be encrypted using certificates.

Trusted domains

Domain admins must determine if they will allow a trust to be established with another domain or forest. Moving to 2003 forest level allows you to establish a forest level trust and therefore inherit trusts for domains within the other forest.

SSL- Secure Sockets Layer

We can use certificates to provide encrypted sessions to servers. The most common example with be using HTTP over SSL . In this case, we would issue a server certificate to the web server that would confirm the server’s identity and allow for users to establish an encrypted session. For internet facing web servers, normally you would purchase a certificate from a trusted authority.

Another example of using SSL internally within your organization is for LDAP over SSL. Typically our domain controllers service client request over port 389. We can leverage application that are LDAPS enable by installing a server authentication certificate on our DC’s.


These two technologies provide file encryption. Bitlocker was introduced in the Windows Vista operating system. It helps provide whole drive encryption that is seamless to the user. It helps protect both data and operating system files and is especially useful on laptops where a user may not be able to maintain physical security of the device. EFS is the technology we use to encrypt specific files on a computer. By default the domain admin is the recovery agent for all EFS files in the domain. These encryption technologies can remove your access to data and it may be lost. Care needs to be given to design a proper system where the domain admin decides who can use encryption and for what purposes. As well as who will be the recovery agent in case a client cannot decrypt their files.


Resource access is controlled through an access control list, (ACL), in most situations. Fundamentally, we need to determine whether we will create ACL’s based on users or groups. We recommend setting security on resources by using domain based groups when more than one user will be accessing the resource. Adding a user to that group gives them access to all those resources and, conversely, removing them restricts their access. Change management is much easier if group membership matches resource needs. Securing groups and controlling group membership is important as a domain admin to strike a balance between people that do not want to use any groups and those who would like a person to be a member of a 1000 groups.


Some businesses are required by government regulations to maintain auditing at a certain level. Outside of these bounds, security auditing needs to be controlled closely on the domain controllers. This would include not only capturing the data but also periodically reviewing the audit logs to confirm their content.

Domain Security policy

Password Policy – This is rather straight forward. Mainly need to determine the level of complexity, password expiration age and lockout threshold . Here, you want to have a secure password that changes on a regular basis but not so stringent that it costs your company money in lost productivity and helpdesk related issues. Complex passwords are the best way to increase security. On the other hand, there is a certain theory that a low account lockout threshold will increase security.

The lower the number for account lockout the more frequently accounts will be locked out. Any number less than 7 will most likely increase lockout dramatically.

Choosing the right combination of lockout threshold, duration and complexity will help keep everyone working with an acceptable level of password security.

Care should be given to examine specific accounts that handle sensitive data. Not only should the data be closely protected but also the accounts that are used to control that data. This may include company executives, domain administrators, HR and Finance employees and application service accounts.

Delegation of Control – Depending on your organization’s size you may have a highly distributed group of users that modify Active Directory objects. The goal would be to give each person responsible for AD management the least privilege required to perform their responsibilities.

For ease of use we create specific groups with Active Directory to achieve common tasks: Server Operators, Account Operators, Backup Operators etc… These groups have predefined access to domain resources. Other actions may be non-standard and require specific permissions in Active Directory. Several applications write to Active Directory and their service accounts will need specific access rights. Typically this would be applications that may need Enterprise Admin permissions to install. In addition, they may create specific groups particular to their application that allows them to write to Active Directory. Microsoft Exchange is a good example.

ACLs on AD objects – For the most part, the default permissions on an object within Active Directory will be acceptable. It can be very difficult to manage and troubleshoot access problems when you are not using a standard approach to control access. Setting specific restrictions to particular objects is where administration can turn into a nightmare. Make sure strict change control and documentation is enforced whenever making changes to AD. Keep in mind Active Directory will outlast many of your administrators. Nobody wants to be in a position where you are trying to back out changes that were completed a year ago without documentation of what changes were made.

Core Network Technologies

Although these technologies are managed and mostly controlled by our networking group, domain admins need to understand the concepts associated with network design and administration. At the core, TCP/IP is our primary communication protocol suite.

DHCP is how our hosts get network addresses that are dynamically assigned and how we configure clients for DNS registration, Wins and DNS discovery.

WINS is older technology for NetBIOS name resolution that is still in use in many networks.

DNS is more critical to a fully functioning and distributed AD environment. Netlogon is used to register the domain controller records in DNS. These records allow client to discover domain roles and services within their AD site.


Users are accessing our network in greater frequency outside of the LAN. In order to work closely with your network counterparts you need to understand some of their technologies . These would include but are not limited to: Routing, Remote Access, VPN, IPSec , Wireless , RDP, etc…


There are two types of firewalls that you will encounter: the one at the edge of your network’s boundaries and one installed on workstation/server computers. While the network team will manage the perimeter firewall, the firewall installed on your clients and servers may be managed by Group Policy and, hence, in the domain admins’ realm.

For the firewalls on the perimeter, you will need to be familiar with the ports that are required to be open.

Distribution of Domain and Forest Roles

The FSMO roles: Schema Master and DomainNaming Master are forest based roles. The PDCe, RID Master and Infrastructure Master are domain specific roles. In a small domain scenario you may have all 5 roles installed on the same server. In larger environments you will most likely decide to distribute these roles to separate machines, and in the case of having more than one domain in your forest, you will need to host these roles on multiple machines. Usually the roles are hosted on machines in the data center or hub site. As far as the roles are involved the PDCe role hosts a lot more activity then all the other roles combined.

Global Catalog (GC) server placement is also a concern for efficiency. GC’s are required for logon and need to be distributed efficiently. Having a GC present in remote sites will help to significantly reduce the amount of logon traffic and the time required for logon. Conversely, a GC in a remote site will consume network bandwidth during replication cycles.

Active DirectorySchema

The schema is the base configuration for Active Directory. It defines the types of objects that will be created inside the database. Changes to the schema can be difficult or impossible to be undone. As the domain is upgraded to new versions there is typically going to be a schema update associated. Other applications may also extend the schema such as Exchange or third party applications. Before any schema update, ensure a rollback or recovery process is in place. Removing an upgrade to the schema is may not be possible or corruption of the schema may cause permanent malfunction of AD. You will need to be a member of the Schema Admins group to be able to modify the schema and the modification needs to take place on the Schema Master.


The configuration container has a lot of information stored there but very little that will be actively managed. For instance, there is information about the configuration of the active directory forest and their associated partitions. This includes information about AD sites and Enterprise services such as Certificates and Exchange email. Extended Rights inside AD are defined here such as changing the FSMO role holders. There is just one configuration per forest so whatever is written here is available to all domains in the forest.

Domain partition

This is where all of your user, computers and groups are stored. But if you enable advanced features in AD Users and Computers snapin, ADUC.MSC you will see a lot more data is contained in the system container. There is information associated with the AdminSDHolder process which protects your admin accounts from loosing permissions to AD, Domain DNS information and Group policy is also stored here. Rarely, if ever, will you modify any items in the system container using ADUC. It would be wise to restrict delegation to this container. On the other hand, the AD delegation wizard makes distributing permissions to other admins or account management people easy.

DNS Partitions

You can store and replicate DNS information for the forest and for specific domains to DC’s. Active Directory integrated zones are stored in AD. Standard primary zones are stored as files on the DNS server.

Active Directory Tools

Just to mention a brief description of the core toolset a domain admin may use on a regular basis or under emergency conditions.

  • Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC) – MMC, Create, Find and manage computer, user and group accounts.
  • Active Directory Sites and Services – MMC, Create and manage AD sites, subnets and site links.
  • Active Directory Domains and T
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