Microsoft delivers feature-rich SSL-VPN

Forefront Unified Access Gateway is enterprise-grade, software-based remote access tool

We tested Whale Communications' SSL VPN back in 2003 and the product didn't fare very well. Microsoft bought Whale in 2006, jettisoned some of the strange idiosyncracies of the product, dramatically simplified management, and subsequently integrated several Vista and Windows 7 technologies.

We tested Whale Communications' SSL VPN in 2003 and the product didn't fare very well. Microsoft bought Whale in 2006, jettisoned some of the strange idiosyncrasies of the product, dramatically simplified management, and subsequently integrated several Vista and Windows 7 technologies.

Test methodology

The latest version of the product, now called Forefront Unified Access Gateway 2010, offers a great SSL VPN feature set, especially when integrated into an existing Microsoft Windows network and when used to provide staff access to enterprise applications.

There are some weaknesses, such as support for non-Windows platforms and extranet support. But the product's strengths, including configuration, ease-of-use and single application publishing, bring it to the forefront of the SSL VPN marketplace.

SSL VPNs might not be as secure as you think

Forefront UAG, formerly known as Intelligent Application Gateway (IAG), is part of Microsoft's Forefront line of security tools. Forefront UAG distinguishes itself from most other SSL VPN products in three ways. First, it is a software-only solution licensed on a per-user basis. Although the underlying Windows and UAG server licenses aren't inexpensive and UAG won't share a server with other applications, being software-only makes it an affordable solution when licensing 250 or more simultaneous users, especially in organizations that have volume license agreements for Windows server.

Second, UAG provides some application layer firewalling capability. Most other SSL VPNs provide only minimal application-layer inspection of content, focusing on correctly rewriting URLs rather than blocking potentially hazardous URLs. UAG goes beyond this by providing some URL syntax checking, which can protect against some types of attacks, such as SQL injection.

List of four key components of an SSL-VPN

Third, UAG includes Microsoft's new DirectAccess technology, an IPv6-based feature that can simplify end-to-end VPNs by reducing the need for VPN gateways and easing the deployment of remote access VPNs across a Windows domain.

Included in Forefront UAG are large chunks of Forefront Threat Management Gateway (TMG), the recently re-named Microsoft ISA firewall product. However, TMG's main purpose in UAG is protection of the UAG server, and Microsoft places strict limits on what is and is not permitted with TMG.

In other words, if you were hoping for a full pure Microsoft firewall and SSL VPN solution in a single system, this isn't it. Forefront UAG also requires Windows 2008 Server R2 (a 64-bit only version of Windows).

Authorization angst

SSL VPNs start by authenticating the user, so we tested that first. Most deployments will probably use the built-in Active Directory links, which is a good thing, because we had a difficult time making any of the alternative authentication options work.

Officially, UAG offers a wide variety of other authentication sources, including RADIUS, several LDAP directories, as well as more obscure methods. We tested the ones we thought would be most useful, including Active Directory, LDAP, RADIUS and SecurID.

The good news is that we were able to make authentication work with all sources, with only minor restrictions. LDAP authentication, always one of the biggest bugaboos, is helped in UAG by the creation of templates for some common LDAP servers. However, if you have chosen to make any adjustments to the schema of those servers, you won't be able to use them with UAG. Since our server looked mostly like a standard Netscape LDAP server (one of the choices), we were able to authenticate successfully.

Where we ran into problems was in the authorization side of the house. In SSL VPNs, authorization is a critical feature that lets you build security policy differently for different groups of users. Most SSL VPNs, UAG included, use the concept of "groups" to provide access control.

We wanted to see how well we could get group information out of our authentication servers to the UAG. We found that UAG wouldn't work properly with any of the servers we tried, for different reasons each time.

With LDAP, since our server didn't match exactly the schema that UAG had built-in, our group hierarchy wasn't available, and UAG couldn't see it. With RADIUS, UAG's option to customize the extraction of group information was grayed out and, more importantly, we couldn't add these groups to our access control lists. With SecurID, we wanted to get group information out of Active Directory — a common approach for most enterprises using SecurID — but couldn't make that work either, even with a Microsoft guru on-site to help.

If your plans for UAG are exclusively built around a fairly standard Active Directory, and if you don't plan on using external sources for authorization (for example, if all authenticated users get the same services), then UAG's authentication features will be quick and easy to use. However, if you want to integrate your SSL VPN across other directory services besides Active Directory, UAG may not work well for you.

Endpoint security: Works fine on Windows

Endpoint security is a commonly-used feature in SSL VPNs because it lets the network administrator check compliance before letting a remote system connect to the VPN. Reflecting its pre-Microsoft heritage, Forefront UAG offers two separate ways of handling endpoint security: a comprehensive and extensive set of policy building blocks based on UAG-specific host checking software, or the option to simply defer to Microsoft's own NAC technology built into newer Windows distributions, Network Access Protection (NAP). If you want, you can also use both.

We dove deepest into the built-in policy tools, and found that we were able to create moderately sophisticated access control policies using a well-designed management system.

UAG offers the ability to define separate policies for the major operating system, Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. Each policy can have its own set of rules, defined using a typical Boolean logic. Our example policy let users in if they had Sophos Anti-Virus installed, running and up-to-date, along with either the Sophos or Microsoft personal firewalls installed and running. We tested to be sure that various "misconfigurations" would block us out, and UAG worked very well here.

UAG's capabilities for Mac and Linux didn't work as well, although it was not for lack of trying. UAG has a policy definition language for both these operating systems. For example, we could have checked for the presence of any of 10 different Mac OS X personal firewalls. In our policy, that's what we selected. With Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome browsers, UAG simply refused to even start its endpoint compliance checking. With Firefox, we got an endpoint compliance check, but a false positive: even with Apple's firewall turned on, we couldn't get in.

It's possible — even likely — that with sufficient rooting around in the depths of UAG and our Mac clients we could make this work, but our testing shows pretty clearly that it doesn't work well out-of-the-box on these operating systems. Your best bet is not to count on EPS checking working on non-Windows operating systems.

Fortunately, UAG provides a fine-grained way to control how endpoint security affects access. You can require endpoint security to "pass" before even letting the user log in as a start. And, you can apply individual (and different) policies to each resource you make available through the SSL VPN. This is probably more control than most network managers will want, but it's nice that you have that flexibility.

Access control at the application layer

One of the key features of an SSL VPN is a greater focus on who is connecting. This lets the SSL VPN manager enforce user-focused access controls, rather than simply allowing everyone who connects to go everywhere in the network. UAG gives the administrator the option to define access controls on every resource individually, as well as to create virtual systems (UAG calls them "trunks") that have separate sets of resources, portal configurations and access controls.

For user-based controls, the network manager can block or allow access on an application-by-application basis at the user ID or group level (or both). In addition, UAG makes a distinction between "upload" and "download" type activities. These aren't done at the user/group level, but at the application level. This means that you can, for example, prohibit all authenticated users from uploading .MP3 files to your Exchange Webmail server, but allow them to download them.

A third type of access control is the ability to broadly control allowed and disallowed URLs for every Web-based application available through the UAG gateway. This URL-specific application control is one of the bits of nice intellectual property in the UAG SSL VPN that isn't found in most other SSL VPNs.

Net results/score card

UAG isn't necessarily a full-fledged application-layer firewall, but it has a considerable amount of intelligence about what is acceptable for Web traffic through the VPN. This helps to reduce the possibility that an authenticated user will try to crack through internal applications, because UAG doesn't allow URLs that aren't allowed for that particular application.

Of course, giving UAG the capability to understand what is and isn't legal for each of your applications doesn't happen without some work. UAG has built-in to its configuration knowledge of all of Microsoft's major enterprise applications, including Exchange Server, Office Communicator and SharePoint. (This is a change from earlier versions of UAG, which also had support for non-Microsoft applications.) If your own application isn't included, you can write rules using UAG's GUI to add it to the configuration, or you can simply let the defaults take effect.

The one place where UAG's access controls really didn't measure up was in offering remote network access (usually called network extension). With network extension, the SSL VPN turns into a more traditional VPN concentrator, giving broad network access to users who have installed the (Windows only) client software.

However, access controls don't really apply within UAG. Instead, you use the underlying firewall that protects the UAG server, Microsoft's Forefront Threat Management Gateway, to provide broad-based access controls, but you can't apply them on a per-user or per-group basis through UAG. DirectAccess, Microsoft's new IPv6-based VPN technology, is included in UAG but also does not have any type of granular access controls.

Management: A mixed bag

Management is handled through a Windows-based application. The management tool can control a single UAG gateway, or a group of servers acting as a single gateway, but can't control multiple independent gateways. Generally, UAG management is well done and easy to use. We had a half-day of training from Microsoft during our testing and quickly felt comfortable with the application management. Although UAG sits on top of both Windows 2008 R2 and Forefront Threat Management Gateway firewall, you don't have to dive into either of those products very often.

The configuration tool also includes context-sensitive help which is, for the most part, quite well done. In many important areas, terms are not defined and necessary details are missing, so additional work is needed, but overall the help is there when you need it — an important feature in a product that comes without a manual.

UAG uses a commit model for configuration changes, although there is no versioning or rollback capability. However, when you do commit changes ("activate" in UAG), the gateway management interface takes care of any changes to the underlying TMG configuration. The commit step actually got annoying during our testing, because each change-test cycle requires about a 2-minute delay (on a very unburdened multi-core HyperV server) to activate, which slows down the cycle considerably.

Monitoring and logging tools showed mixed results in our testing. UAG includes a Web-based monitoring tool that can display the status of the entire UAG gateway, including relevant event log messages. During normal operations, this will probably be sufficient. However, debugging and troubleshooting tools are poorly handled. As we were trying our various tests, we were constantly in the dark about why and how something wasn't working. When UAG works right, you don't care; when it's not working right, you have almost no way to figure out what is happening or why there's a problem.

We found a number of unfinished edges in the product, such as in portal customization and network extension management, but following the 80/20 rule, most network managers will find their configuration and day-to-day management experience to be straightforward and efficient.

Impressive interoperability

One of the most important parts of an SSL VPN is the proxying of Web pages from the original server, through the VPN, to the end user's browser. With a ton of technologies on Web sites, including Flash and Javascript, and with techniques such as AJAX, this is getting harder each year.

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