Feds call for directory assistance

Migrating from Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT Server operating system to the current Windows 2000 platform offers many cost and operational advantages for federal agencies, if they follow good planning and testing processes.

Yet concerns about an important though optional component of Windows 2000 — Active Directory — haunt some deployments and have stalled others altogether.

Active Directory is like a giant telephone book organized to present a logical view of information about all the users and computer resources in a Windows 2000 network. As such, it can play a key role in managing a network and act as a central resource to other software applications so that they don't have to maintain directories of their own.

As Microsoft's customers and others in the industry have sorted through the trade-offs involved with Active Directory, many of the deployment issues are much clearer now. However, some will not be fully resolved until Microsoft releases new versions of its server operating system and a related directory management product.

But that hasn't stopped many systems administrators from biting the bullet and adopting Active Directory. IDC and Aelita Software Corp. surveyed information technology managers who use Windows server products and found that 64 percent had begun moving to Windows 2000 server as of September 2001.

"The vast majority of study participants who are moving to Windows 2000 will also deploy Active Directory," said Al Gillen, research manager of systems software at IDC. Federal users are part of that majority.

"Since the Army has more than a 95 percent Microsoft NT 4.0 and Exchange 5.5 [e-mail] user base, Active Directory is inevitable," said Lt. Col. Mike McHargue, team leader of the Army's Advanced Technology Integration Group.

Despite Active Directory's numerous benefits, many administrators have expressed concern about the security trade-off when choosing a single-forest design over a multiforest design. Under the forest, which sits atop Active Directory's three-tier hierarchical structure, are domains and then organizational units.

Here's the problem: If you design the Active Directory structure with only one forest, people who have master systems administrator rights to that forest get the keys to the kingdom. But if you divide that kingdom into multiple forests and grant administrator rights on a forest-by-forest basis, you limit the damage any one person can do, but you also increase the administrative work.

"When Microsoft released Active Directory in February 2000, they said the right way to design and implement Active Directory was with one forest, one domain and multiple organizational units," said John Enck, research director of server and directory strategies at Gartner Inc. "The reality is that people want more autonomy than is granted in that model. I've seen federal and state agencies burn up months fighting over what the boundaries are."

A source close to NASA's Windows 2000 and Active Directory migration has witnessed the same struggle. "Security concerns related to a single forest have held up the transition to Windows 2000 and Active Directory at NASA for more than a year," the source said. "The master administrator has rights over every domain and device in that single forest and can reach down to any workstation."

However, some agency officials, such as those at the Census Bureau (see box, Page 38) and the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, decided that the benefits of a single-forest design outweighed the security risks. Of its 18 sites and 120,000 users across the country, AFMC has migrated 70,000 users to Windows 2000 and Active Directory as part of its Enterprise Directory Service Initiative project.

AFMC has managed the security risks of a single-forest design by setting strict operational policies. For instance, users with the appropriate clearance can only log in as administrators when a task requires such privileges. Otherwise, they must use regular — more limited — accounts for routine use of network resources, such as Internet access, explained Enrique Panzardi, a network systems engineer at AFMC.

"Mitigating risk has more to do with people and processes than with technology," he said.

Part of the solution also involves having good information about how the directory is configured, including who has administrative rights and how many user accounts were created during a certain time period. For this information, AFMC has turned to a couple of the many third-party products available for Windows directory migration, reporting and security assessment.

To manage its mix of Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Active Directory, AFMC uses Aelita Software's Enterprise Directory Reporter for keeping tabs on user accounts and Enterprise Delegation Manager for designing and managing network privileges.

"The AFMC bought off the [General Services Administration] schedule and has licensed 120,000 users for each product," said George Sidoris, director of federal sales for Aelita Software.

The Army's migration project, called Army Enterprise Infostructure Transformation, uses a multiforest Active Directory approach demarcated along regional boundaries, McHargue said. The Army uses NetPro Computing Inc.'s DirectoryAnalyzer and DirectoryInsight and Quest Software Inc.'s FastLane Active Roles.

"Active Roles was designed for managing the delegation of permissions inside Active Directory," said David Waugh, vice president of product marketing at Quest Software.

Although a multiforest design provides many security boundaries, each forest must be administered independently, because Windows 2000 and Active Directory don't currently offer cross-forest administration or synchronization capabilities.

For those, users must wait for the follow-up to Windows 2000 — .Net server, which is due for release at the end of the year. Another tool that is expected to help is Microsoft Metadirectory Services (MMS) 3.0, an add-on tool designed to synchronize data across forests that is due in January 2003. The Army is keeping tabs on Microsoft's progress on both products through a joint development program with the company for the next version of Exchange (code named Titanium) and MMS 3.0.

Of course, other software providers are also keeping an eye on developments. "Microsoft is resolving the Windows 2000 and Active Directory problem with multiple forests in .Net server," said Gil Kirkpatrick, NetPro's chief technical officer. For example, to simplify administrative activities, .Net server will enable identities in one forest to be recognized in another, he said.

Trust relationships only work in one direction in Windows NT. In other words, if A trusts B, B does not necessarily trust A. In Windows 2000, trust relationships go in both directions. But .Net server adds three-way trusts, which should ease the amount of configuration required for complex environments.

Lance Horne, directory services program manager for Microsoft Federal, explained it this way: "If A trusts B and B trusts C, then A trusts C transitively."

Although it appears that .Net server with MMS 3.0 will make multiple forests easier to manage, good planning and testing are, as always, the best ways to minimize challenges when migrating to new technology.

Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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