FSMO Roles

Earlier in this series, I talked about how domains in Windows NT were all encompassing. Like Active Directory domains, Windows NT domains supported the use of multiple domain controllers. Remember that domain controllers are responsible for authenticating user logons. Therefore, if a domain controller is not available then no one will be able to log on to the network. Microsoft realized this early on and designed Windows to allow multiple domain controllers so that if a domain controller failed, another domain controller would be available to authenticate logons. Having multiple domain controllers also allows the domain related work load to be shared by multiple computers rather than the full burden falling on a single server. Although Windows NT supported multiple domain controllers within a domain, one of these domain controllers was considered to be more important than the others. This was known as the Primary Domain Controller or PDC. As you may recall, a domain controller contains a database of all of the user accounts within the domain (among other things). This database was called the Security Accounts Manager, or SAM database. In Windows NT, the PDC stored the master copy of the database. Other domain controllers within a Windows NT domain were known as Backup Domain Controllers or BDCs. Any time that a change needed to be made to the domain controller’s database, the change would be written to the PDC. The PDC would then replicate the change out to all of the BDCs in the domain. Under normal circumstances, the PDC was the only domain controller in a Windows NT domain to which domain related updates could be applied. If the PDC were to fail, there was a way to promote a BDC to PDC, thus enabling that domain controller to act as the domain’s one and only PDC. Active Directory domains do things a little bit differently. The Active Directory uses a Multi master replication model. What this means is that every domain controller within a domain is writable. There is no longer the concept of PDCs and BDCs. If an administrator needs to make a change to the Active Directory database, the change can be applied to any domain controller in the domain, and then replicated to the remaining domain controllers. Although the multimaster replication model probably sounds like a good idea, it opens the door for contradictory changes. For example, what happens if two different administrators apply contradictory changes to two different domain controllers at the same time? In most cases, the Active Directory assumes that the most recent change takes precedence. In some situations, the consequences of a conflict are too serious to rely on this type of conflict resolution. In these cases, Microsoft takes a stand point that it is better to prevent a conflict from occurring in the first place than to try to resolve the conflict after it happens.

To handle these types of situations, Windows is designed to designate certain domain controllers to perform Flexible Single Master Operation (FSMO) roles. Essentially this means that Active Directory domains fully support multimaster replication except in certain circumstances in which the domain reverts to using a single master replication model. There are three different FSMO roles that are assigned at the domain level, and two additional roles that are assigned the forest level.

Where are the FSMO Roles Located?
For the most part, the FSMO roles pretty much take care of themselves. It is important however for you to know which domain controllers host these roles. By default, the first domain controller in the forest hosts all five roles. As additional domains are created, the first domain controller brought online in each domain holds all three of the domain level FSMO roles. The reason why it is so important to know which domain controllers hold these roles is because hardware eventually gets old and is decommissioned. I once saw a situation in which a network administrator was preparing to deploy an Active Directory network for his company. While waiting for the newly ordered servers to arrive, the administrator installed Windows onto a junk PC so that he could begin playing around with the various Active Directory management tools. When the new servers finally arrived, the administrator configured them as domain controllers in the already created domain rather than creating a new forest. Of course this meant that the junk PC was holding the FSMO roles for the domain in the forest. Everything worked fine until the administrator decided to remove the “junk” PC from the network. Had he properly decommissioned this server, there would not have been a problem. Being inexperienced though, he simply reformatted the machine’s hard drive. All of a sudden the Active Directory began to experience numerous problems. If this administrator had realized that the machine that he had removed from the domain was hosting the domain and forest’s FSMO roles, the problems could have been avoided. Incidentally, in a situation like this there is a way of seizing the FSMO roles from the deceased server so that your network can resume normal operations.

What are the FSMO Roles?
I will talk more about the specific functions of the FSMO roles in the next article in this series. I do however want to quickly mention what these roles are. As you may recall, I mentioned that there are three domain specific roles, and two forest specific roles. The domain specific roles include the Relative identifier, the Primary Domain Controller Emulator, and the Infrastructure Master. Forest level roles include the Schema Master and the Domain Naming master. Below is a brief description of what these roles do:

Schema Master: maintains the authoritative copy of the Active Directory database schema. Domain Naming Master: maintains the list of domains within the forest. Relative Identifier Master: responsible for ensuring that every Active Directory object at a domain receives a unique security identifier. Primary Domain Controller Emulator: acts as the Primary Domain Controller in domains containing domain controllers running Windows NT. Infrastructure Master: the Infrastructure Master is responsible for updating an object’s security identifier and distinguished name in a cross domain object reference. As I explained in Part 7 of this article series, there are five different FSMO roles. Two of these roles exist at the forest level, and three of the roles exist at the domain level. The Forest level roles include the Schema Master and the Domain Naming master, while the domain level FSMO roles include the Relative Identifier Master, Primary Domain Controller (PDC) Emulator, and Infrastructure Master. I actually debated as to whether or not to discuss FSMO roles so early in this article series. Ultimately I decided to go ahead because FSMO roles are so important to supporting Active Directory functionality. As I’m sure you probably know, in order to be able to function, the Active Directory requires that the DNS services are accessible and that the domain have at least one domain controller. When an Active Directory based network is initially created, the first domain controller to be brought online is almost always configured to act as the network’s DNS server. This same domain controller is also assigned all five of the FSMO roles. If other domains are created within the forest, then the first domain controller within each domain will host the FSMO roles for that domain. The forest level FSMO roles are only hosted on a single domain controller regardless of the number of domains in the forest. I tell you this because I want to talk about what will happen if a domain controller that is hosting the FSMO roles fails. If the domain controller that contains the forest level FSMO roles fails, you are definitely going to notice the problem. It isn’t that the FSMO roles themselves are all that critical to the network’s operation, but rather that the domain controller that hosts the forest level FSMO roles is usually also hosting the DNS services, which are considered critical to Active Directory. If the DNS services were hosted on a separate server and the domains within the forest each had more than one domain controller, you probably wouldn’t even notice the failure for a while (unless you had monitoring software to alert you to the failure). Usually, there are no immediate consequences to an FSMO role failure, but some rather strange symptoms will develop later on if the problem is not corrected. That being the

case, it is important to know the signs of an FSMO role failure. It is also important for you to know how to determine which server is hosting each FSMO role. That way, if symptoms matching that of an FSMO failure occur, you can check to see which server is hosting the role that may have failed, and can then begin the troubleshooting process on that server.

The Schema Master
The Active Directory is really nothing more than a database, and like any other database, the Active Directory contains a schema. Unlike many other databases, the Active Directory’s schema is not static. There are any number of operations that require extending the schema. For example, installing Exchange Server requires the Active Directory schema to be extended. Any time that changes are made to the Active Directory schema, those changes are applied to the Schema Master. The Schema Master is by far the most critical of the FSMO roles, so Microsoft hides it from view. If you need to find out which server is hosting the Schema Master role, then insert your Windows Server 2003 installation CD, and double click on the ADMINPAK.MSI file that’s found in the CD’s I386 directory. When you do, Windows will launch the Administration Tools Pack Setup Wizard. Follow the wizard’s prompts to install the Administration Tools pack. When the installation process completes, close the Setup wizard and open the Microsoft Management Console by entering the MMC command at the Run prompt. When the console opens, select the Add / Remove Snap-In command from the File menu. When you do, Windows will display the Add / Remove Snap-in properties sheet. Click the Add button found on the properties sheet’s Standalone tab to reveal a list of available snap-ins. Select the Active Directory Schema snap-in from the list and click the Add button, followed by the Close and OK buttons. Now that the snap-in has been loaded, right click on the Active Directory Schema container and select the Operations Master command from the resulting shortcut menu. You will now see a dialog box that tells you which server is acting as the forest’s Schema Master.

The Domain Naming Master
As I have already explained, an Active Directory forest can contain multiple domains. It’s the Domain Naming Master’s job to keep track of these domains. If the Domain Naming Master were to fail, then it would be impossible to create or remove domains until the Domain Naming Master comes back online. To determine which server is acting as the Domain naming Master for the forest, open the Active Directory Domains and Trusts console. When the console opens, right click on the Active Directory Domains and Trusts container and select the Operations Masters

command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do, Windows will display the Domain Naming master.

The Relative Identifier
As you know, the Active Directory allows administrators to create Active Directory objects on any domain controller. The catch is that each object must have a unique relative identifier number. To prevent relative identifier numbers from being duplicated, the Relative Identifier Master allocates a pool of relative identifiers to each domain controller. When a new object is created within a domain, the domain controller that the object is being created on takes one of its relative identifiers out of its pool and assigns it to the object. When the pool is exhausted, the domain controller must contact the Relative Identifier Master for additional relative identifiers. As such, the eventual symptom of a Relative Identifier Master failure is the inability to create objects in the Active Directory. To determine which server is acting as the Relative Identifier for a domain, open the Active Directory Users and Computers console. When the console opens, right click on the listing for the current domain and select the Operations Masters command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do, Windows will display the Operations Masters properties sheet. You can determine which domain controller is acting as the Relative Identifier by looking at the properties sheet’s RID tab.

The Primary Domain Controller Emulator
Throughout this article series, I have talked about the role that the Primary Domain Controller (PDC) plays in Windows NT environments. The PDC emulator role was created to allow Active Directory domain controllers to co-exist with Windows NT domain controllers. The basic idea was that when an organization is being upgraded from Windows NT to Windows 2000 or to Windows Server 2003, the PDC is the first domain controller to be upgraded. At that point, the newly upgraded domain controller functions both as an Active Directory domain controller and as a PDC to the domain controllers that are still running Windows NT. Today the PDC emulator role is largely irrelevant because very few organizations still use Windows NT Server. If you need to determine which server in your domain is hosting the PDC Emulator role though, you can do so by opening the Active Directory Users and Computers console. When the console opens, right click on the listing for the current domain and select the Operations Masters command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do, Windows will display the Operations Masters properties sheet. You can determine which domain controller is acting as the PDC Emulator by looking at the properties sheet’s PDC tab.

The Infrastructure Master

In an Active Directory environment, a forest can contain multiple domains. Of course the implication of this is that Active Directory domains are not completely independent entities. They must occasionally communicate with the rest of the forest. This is where the Infrastructure Master comes into play. When you create, modify, or delete an object within a domain, the change will naturally be propagated throughout the domain. The problem is that the rest of the forest is not aware of the change. It’s the Infrastructure Master’s job to make the rest of the forest aware of the change. If an Infrastructure Master server fails then changes to objects will not be visible across domain boundaries. For example, if you were to rename a user account, the user account would still appear to have its old name when viewed from other domains in the forest. To determine which server is acting as the Infrastructure Master for a domain, open the Active Directory Users and Computers console. When the console opens, right click on the listing for the current domain and select the Operations Masters command from the resulting shortcut menu. When you do, Windows will display the Operations Masters properties sheet. You can determine which domain controller is acting as the Infrastructure Master by looking at the properties sheet’s Infrastructure tab.

Conclusion
As you can see, the FSMO roles play a critical role in the functionality of the Active Directory. In the next part of this article series, I will continue the discussion by talking about the structure of the Active Directory and the naming scheme used by Active Directory objects.

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