December 7, 2009

Day 7 - Active Directory naming is easy, right?

This article was written by Sam Cogan

Active Directory naming is easy, right? You've just got to pick a name for your domain; any name will do won't it?

This is the view many newcomers to Active Directory (AD) take, and it's the view I had when I was first introduced to AD. It often works, even for a while. Then, a few days or weeks down the line, you start to notice problems, or with greater understanding of how AD works, you realise that perhaps there was a better name. By this time, it is too late - the name is set in stone. Sure, you could rename it with the domain name rename tool (rendom), but it's likely to cause problems. Let's look at why AD naming can be problematic and what we can do to make things better.

Microsoft's decision to tie Active Directory closely to DNS, while making sense, has caused a lot of problems for inexperienced sysadmins. One of the most common problems I hear from new sysadmins working with AD for the first time is, "I setup Active Directory with our company's external domain name, but now no-one can get to the company website or ftp site!"

Why does this happen? If your AD domain is, AD will answer DNS queries for that domain, which likely fails to serve external services properly, such as your corp website at

Using your company's external domain name for DNS seems like the perfect idea at first. Limited understanding of how AD interacts with DNS has lead to a decision that may create problems and administrative overhead. Yes, there are potential solutions to this problem: implementing split brain (aka split view) DNS, changing your AD name, or installing IIS on every domain controller to perform redirects. But it's a scary prospect for a new sysadmin who's boss is about to explode because he can't get to their website and is often enough to put them off AD for good. So yes, you can use your external domain name for AD, but in my opinion, you shouldn't. It causes problems, so why give yourself the headache?

I've found there are a number of excuses people give for using the external domain name for AD, and I've used some of them myself. For example, "We had to use our external domain because we want to use that domain name for our UPN suffix". Truthfully, you can have as many UPN suffixes as you like by adding them in the Domains and Trusts MMC. Inexperience with AD may drive assumptions as above, but after digging into it, you will find that your assumptions may not be correct about what you think you need to use as your AD domain.

So, what AD domain name should we use? There are two common schools of thought on this subject: either something like example.local, or use a subdomain of your external domain (like, if you own Alternately, you can use a different external domain name, but this is not recommended for the general case.

The use of the .local extension came about because it allowed the separation of the AD domain from the registered internet domain (ie; without having to buy another domain. It's also easy to get an SSL certificate for a .local domain from a trusted SSL vendor, should you need one for internal resources. The alternative is to chose a real, unowned TLD to build your domain on, but you have the obvious risk of that domain being owned by someone else.

Maybe we have a good domain decision, now, with no extra cost? Maybe not! There are problems with using the .local domain. First, it's not a reserved TLD. While it's unlikely, it's possible that IANA could choose to delegate this TLD, opening it up for registration and causing potential name conflicts. Second, the use of .local can also cause problems if you have Apple computers on the network, as it is used by the Bonjour service. Finally, because .local domains are not controlled by a registrar, someone else could be using the same domain name in another AD instance. This problem will bite you when you need to establish trusts or merge domains with another AD instance - if both of you are using example.local you will have conflicts.

Despite these problems, the use of .local is still popular especially in small companies. Microsoft's Small Business server even suggests using this when using its configuration wizard to create an AD domain.

Besides naming with .local, you could choose the name as a subdomain of your external domain, such as, or buy an additional domain for AD only, such as Using something like or is pretty common today; Microsoft also recommends this. This is easy and ensures ownership of that domain (unless you forget to renew Using this method means that your AD DNS server is only responsible for this subdomain and will happily forward on requests for your external websites to servers.

AD naming seems easy, but as we've shown above, there are important considerations when choosing a domain name for your Active Directory domain. This advice, "be careful about seemingly-simple decisions," carries to many other spaces than AD.

Setting up an AD infrastructure should be planned carefully. The domain name choice should be a part of this planning. Consider how your network will be used, and how it will grow over time. If you don't own a public domain name, is it worth purchasing one now so you can ensure your AD domain name is reserved, even if you never use it on the internet. If you do have an external domain name already, try and keep your internal and external DNS separate, you'll appreciate it in the long run. Finally, never use a public domain name that you don't own, you never know who might snap it up and cause you problems!

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Scott said...

The company I work for now went the route of using our external domain name and splitting the domain. Unfortunately our main domain is used extensively for development and testing of websites that we create, so we had to maintain a large number of changes in two different places for everything to function perfectly.

About a year in, during a period when we were upgrading our Exchange server and our file server, I convinced them to let rebuild the AD from scratch. We purchased the ".net" TLD that matched our external domain and have used that ever since.

Don't use ".local" whatever you do. It's not just Apple that makes use of it. ZeroConf (aka Bonjour) is an open standard. SUSE can use it out of the box, iirc.

Anonymous said...

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Ghoshnik said...

good stuff!