Tag Archives: Azure

Exchange 2016 Database Availability Group and Cloud Witness

When implementing a Database Availability Group (in Exchange 2010 and higher) you need a File Share Witness (FSW). This FSW is located on a Witness Server which can be any domain joined server in your internal network, as long as it is running a supported Operating System. It can be another Exchange server, as long as the Witness Server is not a member of the DAG you are deploying.

A long time ago (I don’t recall exactly, but it could well be around Exchange 2013 SP1) Microsoft started to support using Azure for hosting the Witness server. In this scenario you would host a Virtual Machine in Azure. This VM is a domain joined VM, for which you most likely also host a Domain Controller in Azure, and for connectivity you would need a site-2-site VPN connection to Azure. Not only from your primary datacenter, but also from your secondary datacenter, i.e. a multi-site VPN Connection, as shown in the following picture:

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While this is possible and fully supported, it is costly adventure, and personally I haven’t seen any of my customers deploy it yet (although my customers are still interested).

Windows 2016 Cloud Witness

In Windows 2016 the concept of ‘Cloud Witness’ was introduced. The Cloud Witness concept is the same as the Witness server, but instead of using a file share it is using Azure Blob Storage for read/write purposes, which is used as an arbitration point in case of a split-brain situation.

The advantages are obvious:

  • No need for a 3rd datacenter hosting your Witness server.
  • No need for an expensive VM in Azure hosting you Witness server.
  • Using standard Azure Blob Storage (thus cheap).
  • Same Azure Storage Account can be used for multiple clusters.
  • Built-in Cloud Witness resource type (in Windows 2016 of course).

Looking at all this it seems like a good idea to use the Cloud Witness when deploying Windows 2016 failover clusters, or when deploying a Database Availability Group when running Exchange 2016 on Windows 2016.

Unfortunately, this is not a supported scenario at this point. All information you find on the Internet is most likely not officially published by the Microsoft Exchange team. If at one point the Cloud Witness becomes a supported solution for Exchange 2016, you can find it on the Exchange blog. When this happens, I’ll update this page as well.

More information

Using a Microsoft Azure VM as a DAG witness server – https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dn903504(v=exchg.160).aspx

Azure AD Connect Pass-Through Authentication

At Ignite 2017 it was announced that Pass Through Authentication (PTA) has reached General Availability (GA) so it is a fully supported scenario now.

But what is PTA? If Office 365 there are Cloud Identities, Synced Identities and Federated Identities. The first two are authenticated in Azure Active Directory, the last one is authenticated against on-premises Domain Controllers. For this to happen you need an ADFS infrastructure, consisting of multiple internal ADFS servers and multiple WAP (Windows Application Proxy) servers in the DMZ acting as ADFS proxies. Oh, and all servers need to be load balanced as well to provide redundancy and scalability.

PTA on the other hand is built on top of Azure AD Connect, and as such an interesting extension of the Synced Identities. PTA installs an agent on the Azure AD Connect server (AuthN agent) which accepts authentication requests from Azure AD and sends these to on-premises Domain Controllers. The advantage of authentication against on-premises Domain Controllers is that no passwords (or password hashes to be more precise) are stored in Azure Active Directory.

My first thought was how an authentication mechanism based on an asynchronous replication tool (Azure AD Connect synchronizes accounts every 30 minutes, and passwords within 2 minutes) ever be a reliable and safe solution. The last thing you want to happen is that you cannot authenticate to any service in the Microsoft cloud, because your Azure AD Connect server is busy doing other stuff (like automatically updating its engine for example ).

My second thought was how secure this could be. There’s no inbound connection to the Azure AD Connect server, there’s only an outbound connection on ports 80 (only used for SSL certificate revocation lists) and 443. And the communication itself should be secured as well, so…. But now that PTA is generally available more information becomes available, and things become clearer.

Authentication flow

For authentication to happen PTA uses a ‘service bus’ in Azure. The service bus is a standard Azure solution where application can store system messages in the service bus and where other applications can use these system messages. Using a service bus, you can create an asynchronous but reliable communication mechanism.

When logging to an Office 365 service the credentials are requested by Azure Active Directory, nothing new here. The credentials are encrypted and stored in the service bus. The AuthN agent on the Azure AD Connect server has a persistent connection to Azure AD and to the service bus, and retrieves the encrypted credentials from the service bus, decrypts them and presents them to the on-premises Domain Controller. The Domain Controller response (success, failure, password expired or user locked out) is returned to the AuthN agent and stored it on the service bus. Azure AD picks up this response and the user can continue working (or not of course, depending on the Domain Controller response).

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Continue reading Azure AD Connect Pass-Through Authentication

Upgrade to Azure Active Directory Premium

Recently I was working with a customer who wanted to move from Exchange 2010 on-premises to Exchange Online. This customer had a lot of Mac clients (both internally and externally). Since Mac clients are not a member of the Active Directory domain I asked how these users changed their Domain password. “Using OWA” was the answer, which makes sense.

This poses a problem in Office 365, since the change password feature is not available in Exchange Online (nor in Exchange 2013/2016 on premises BTW). I have to admit, you can change a password in the Microsoft Online Portal, but this only works when using Cloud Identities, and not when you’re synchronizing user account with their password from an on-premises Active Directory.

One nice feature in Office 365, or more specifically in Azure Active Directory is the option to implement Password writeback. This way users can change their password in Office 365, and the new password will be synchronized to your on-premises Active Directory. This is not only very interesting for customers using Mac clients, but also for customer that have (a lot of) users working remotely, without direct access to on-premises Active Directory.

Activating password writeback consists of two steps:

  • Implementing self-service password reset in Office 365.
  • Implementing password writeback.

To enable the self-service password reset functionality you need an Azure AD Basic or Azure AD Premium subscription. An overview of Azure AD options is available on the Azure Active Directory Pricing page. Continue reading Upgrade to Azure Active Directory Premium

Password never expire in Office 365

When creating user accounts and Mailboxes in Office 365 the default Microsoft password policy is applied, which means you have to change your password every 90 days.

While it is a best practice to change your password on a regular basis not every customer is too happy with this. I can think of one exception and that’s a service account, this makes sense to have the password set to never expire.

To change this option for user accounts in Office 365 you have to use the Windows Azure Active Directory PowerShell module to connect to Office 365 using the following commands:

$msolcred = get-credential

connect-msolservice -credential $msolcred

Continue reading Password never expire in Office 365