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Win Server 2008 Directory Services, AD Database Mounting Tool

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One of the more involved aspects of managing Active Directory infrastructure is handling its recovery. This results primarily from the distributed and dynamic characteristics of its content, its dual nature (comprising of hierarchical database and file-system based SYSVOL structure), as well as lack of friendly, intuitive interface that would simplify dealing with its idiosyncrasies. While it is reasonable to expect a forest- or domain-wide disaster would necessitate a complex and time-consuming endeavor, it might be surprising to realize that even restoring individual objects is far from straightforward, and presents a variety of unique challenges.

This article offers an overview and discuss how some of new features incorporated into Windows Server 2008 Directory Services could help with their remediation.

Fundamentals of Recovery

In general, object recovery is accomplished by either performing an authoritative restore or reanimating the tombstone of a deleted object, depending on whether a valid System State backup is readily available. For more details, refer to the Microsoft Knowledge Base article 840001, the length of which should give you an idea about magnitude of the effort involved.

However, even with clear instructions describing each of implementation steps, additional caveats must be taken into consideration. The first one (increasing complexity of authoritative restore) concerns identifying the most appropriate backup set. In this case, your decision depends on the ability to establish point in time when an undesired change or deletion took place. This, in turn, determines which backup set contains target data in its correct state.

Unless you have invested extra resources and money in developing Active Directory monitoring and auditing solution, such determination might be difficult or even impossible to make without performing at least a few restores. This is a time consuming process, consisting of restarting a domain controller in Directory Services Restore Mode, restoring Active directory Database from one of available backups, and running ntdsutil command line utility, attempting to extract the right object). The second one, applicable in the same context and relevant in case of deletions, results from limitations of ntdsultil interface, which expects you to provide Distinguished Name of each objects you want to restore. Again, this might be difficult to accomplish without being able to identify its previous status. The third one affects efficiency of reanimating tombstoned objects and relates to the fact that a deletion, besides renaming, and placing them in a designated Active Directory container hidden from majority of standard AD management tools also strips off most of their attributes. This leaves only a few such as, objectGUID, objectSID (and sIDHistory, if present) as well as sAMAccountName).

With additional information available from CN and lastKnownParent attributes, these are sufficient to locate them and perform undeletion. However, all the missing ones must be repopulated for the object to become fully functional, which requires, as in the first two cases, access to historical data.

Enter, Windows Server 2008 Domain

With Windows Server 2008-based domain controllers (regardless of the domain or forest functional level), each of these challenges become considerably easier to handle thanks to the Database Mounting Tool. Implemented as DSAMAIN.EXE command line executable, this utility allows you to launch backups of Active Directory or Lightweight Directory Services (previously known as Active Directory Application Mode or simply ADAM) databases in the read-only state. This facilitates browsing content via any program capable of communicating via LDAP over an arbitrary set of ports (this includes majority of standard AD management tools, including Active Directory Users and Computers, Active Directory Domains and Trusts, Active Directory Sites and Services, ADSIEdit or LDP.EXE).

Although DSAMAIN.EXE is most frequently associated with the new Active Directory snapshot feature (which our next article will discuss in detail), its functionality extends to any standard backup created with Windows Server 2008 (as well as any third-party programs that leverages Volume Shadow Copy Service) from which Active Directory database (NTDS.DIT file) can be extracted. Note that this applies to full volume and System State backups in the VHD format, as well as those created via ifm context of ntdsutil for the purpose of implementing Install from Media procedure.

DSAMAIN requires that the location of the database is specified via the -dbpath parameter. In addition, you must also designate an arbitrary integer value that will determine an LDAP port (paired with the -ldapPort parameter), which will be used for access to directory services. By default, providing this number automatically assigns the next three integers as ports utilized by SSL-based LDAP, Global Catalog (GC), and GC SSL access. However, you do have an option to modify this default assignment with /sslPort, /gcPort and /gcsslPort parameters). An optional -allowNonAdminAccess switch allows you to delegate permissions for viewing database content to non-Administrators. Without it, this ability is limited strictly to members of Domain Admins and Enterprise Admins groups.

For example, the following command executed on a Windows Server 2008 system hosting a domain controller would make the Active Directory database (extracted from a VSS-generated backup to the D:Restore80408NTDSntds.dit) available for offline browsing on LDAP port 33389 to members of Domain Admins and Enterprise Admins groups. The full description of DSAMAIN syntax is available in Windows Server 2008 Technical Library:

DSAMAIN -dbpath "D:Restore80408NTDSntds.dit" -ldapPort 33389

If the database is in a consistent state and the port is not used by another service, you should receive a confirmation stating “Microsoft Active Directory Domain Services startup complete.” DSAMAIN launched in this fashion will remain active until you stop its execution with CTRL+C key combination, which triggers display of the “Active Directory Domain Services was shut down successfully” message and return of the command prompt. In the meantime, however, you can examine the copy of Active Directory just initiated using any LDAP-capable utility that allows you to target specific directory services instance, including the following:

  • Active Directory Users and Computers console – from the context-sensitive menu of Active Directory Users and Computers node at the top of the tree pane, pick Change Domain Controller… entry. In the resulting Change Directory Server dialog box, select “This Domain Controller or AD LDS instance” and type in the name of the domain controller on which you invoked DSAMAIN followed by the colon and the LDAP port number assigned to -ldapPort parameter (33389 in our example). Alternatively, you can launch the console directly from the Command Prompt by executing DSA.MSC /SERVER=DC_Name:LDAP_Port_Number.
  • Active Directory Sites and Services console – applying steps equivalent to the ones described above (using Change Domain Controller… entry in the context sensitive menu of Active Directory Sites and Services node in the tree pane) will enable you to connect to the configuration partition of Active Directory database. To accomplish the same from the command prompt, type in DSSITE.MSC /SERVER=DC_Name:LDAP_Port_Number.
  • Active Directory Domains and Trusts — again, the analogical steps are applicable when targeting an instance of Active Directory launched using DSAMAIN (via Change Active Directory Domain Controller… context sensitive menu of the Active Directory Domains and Trusts node in the tree pane of the console or by running DOMAIN.MSC /SERVER=DC_Name:LDAP_Port_Number from the Command Prompt).
  • ADSI Edit (ADSIEdit.msc) – this lower-level editor of Active Directory allows you to connect to all of its naming contexts (including application partitions) from within the same interface. This is done from the Connection Settings dialog box, displayed after selecting Connect to… option from the context sensitive menu of ADSI Edit node at the top of the tree pane. If you launch it from the domain controller where the DSAMAIN is running, correct LDAP entry should appear already in the Path text box. At this point, you simply need to choose one of naming contexts you intend to connect to (Default, Configuration, Schema, or RootDSE) and specify appropriate port number after clicking on Advanced…. command button.
  • LDP (ldp.exe) – provides the highest level of versatility, giving you the most direct access to Active Directory content. To access an instance loaded by DSAMAIN, after selecting Connect… option from the Connection menu, specify server name (or leave it blank if running the tool from the console) and port number. Next, use the Bind… item from the same menu and either specify Domain Admin or Enterprise Admin credentials (if logged on as a non-privileged account) or (otherwise) choose the option to “Bind as currently logged on user”. Finally, from the View menu choose Tree entry and type in a target base distinguished name you want to connect to or pick it from the listbox (as with ADSI Edit, you can connect to all partitions). Incidentally, LDP also allows you to stop a directory services instance loaded by DSAMAIN (which might be useful if you are connected via LDAP from a remote computer). To accomplish this, once you are connected and bound to it using appropriate credentials, select Modify entry from the Browse menu.

    In the resulting dialog box, type stopservice in the Attribute text box with 1 as its value (make sure that the DN path is empty), and follow by clicking on Enter and Run command buttons.

  • CSVDE.exe and LDIFDE.exe command line utilities can be used to perform extraction of arbitrarily selected attributes of Active Directory objects loaded via DSAMAIN (both rely on the value of -t parameter to designate LDAP port to connect to). For more information about their syntax, refer to CSVDE and LDIFDE Microsoft TechNet articles.

There is one additional, extremely convenient way of generating data that can be mounted using DSAMAIN.EXE that has been introduced in Windows Server 2008 domain controllers. This new method relies on point-in-time, Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) based captures (known as snapshots) of the content of a drive hosting Active Directory database. We will review their characteristics in more details in the next article.

This article was first published on

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