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© Rakhesh Sasidharan


Active Directory: Operations Master Roles

Active Directory is a multimaster database. Which means it has no single master – any of the domain controllers (the read-write ones) can make changes to the Active Directory database. However, there are some tasks that necessarily need a single domain controller to be the one in charge. You can still make changes from any domain controller, but they will check with a select domain controller to ensure there’s no conflicts in making the change or perhaps ask this Domain Controller to actually make the change.

There are five such tasks where Active Directory behaves as a singlemaster database. For these tasks only a designated Domain Controller can update the database. Mind you, not all tasks need to be performed by the same Domain Controller. A Domain Controller that can carry out a particular task is one that holds the role to carry out that task. All five roles can be in a single Domain Controller, or they can be in separate Domain Controllers. Any Domain Controller holding a particular role is said to be the Flexible Single Master Operator (FSMO) for that task.

As you know a domain is part of a forest. A single forest can contain multiple domains. Two of these roles are held by a single Domain Controllers in the entire forest. Three of these roles are held by single Domain Controllers in the particular domain. Thus a forest with a single domain has 5 roles, while a forest with two domains has 8 roles (2 for the forest and 3×2 for each domain). The roles are automatically assigned when the forest/ domain is created. The first DC in the forest has the two forest roles assigned to it; the first DC in a domain has the three domain roles assigned to it. Administrators who have appropriate rights can then move these roles to other DCs.

Forest-wide roles

These are roles held by a Domain Controller/ Domain Controllers across all domains in the forest. These roles can be on any DCs in the forest, not necessarily the forest root domain.

Schema Master

The DC holding the Schema Master role is the only one that can update the AD schema. The schema is Active Directory’s blueprint. It is what defines the sort of objects the directory can contain and what attributes can be set for these objects. The schema is set at the forest level and shared by all domains in the forest. Administrators rarely need to update the schema except when installing programs that add new attributes to the objects. For instance, Exchange installs require a schema update as the objects now contain additional attributes such as the email address.

The schema itself is stored in Active Directory in a separate partition and replicated to all DCs. The schema partition is an instance of a dMD (Directory Management Domain) class object. All DCs in the forest thus have a copy of the schema and can read it, but only the DC holding the Schema Master role can write to it. This way there can be no conflicts if multiple DCs try and update the schema.

The current version of the schema can be found using ADSI Edit, connect to the Schema context and check the objectVersion attribute.


Via command-line the schema can be checked using repadmin /showattr:

Or PowerShell:

My domain is at the schema version of Windows Server 2012 R2. If I were to install Exchange the schema version will change (each version of Exchange has its own schema version). When I extend the schema or run adprep /forestprep the DC with the Schema Master role is the one that’s responsible. In fact, the adprep /forestprep command must be run on the DC with the Schema Master role.

The “Change Schema Master” right is required to transfer/ seize the Schema Master role to a different DC. By default only the Schema Admins group members have this right.

More about schema and how it works can be found in this TechNet article.

Domain Naming Master

Remember my post on DCDiag where I introduced the Partitions container (CN=Partitions,CN=Configuration,DC=forestRootDomain) in the Configuration NC? This container has objects of class crossRef that are cross-references to all domain partitions/ naming contexts in the forest. Well, the DC holding the Domain Naming Master is the only one that can make changes to this container – which means it is the only one that can add/ remove/ rename/ move domains in the forest and authorize creation/ deletion of application NCs. This way there’s one DC in the forest who is responsible for the forest-wide namespace. Conflicts are avoided as multiple DCs can not make changes here. 

The “Change Domain Master” right is required to transfer/ seize the Domain Naming Master role to a different DC. By default only the Enterprise Admins group members have this right.

Domain-wide roles

These are roles that are held by Domain Controllers in each domain.

PDC Emulator

The PDC Emulator – so named because it emulates a Primary Domain Controller (PDC) of Windows NT domains – has many functions:

  • It tries to maintain the latest password for any account by having all other DCs forward password changes to the PDC. (This can be avoided for PDCs over WAN links via a registry key).
  • If a user authenticates with a DC and fails, before informing the user so the DC will check with the PDC whether password is valid. This avoids situations where the password was changed on a different DC and the one the user is authenticating against isn’t aware of the change.
  • Account lockouts are processed on the PDC.
  • Group Policy Management tools default to the PDC to make changes. (You can choose a different DC however).
  • The PDC in each domain is the primary source of time for that domain. The PDC in the forest-root domain is the primary time source for all these other PDCs – and hence the primary time source for the forest.
  • The AdminSDHolder process I blogged about earlier runs on the PDC.
  • Since Windows Server 2012 DC cloning is supported. This requires the PDC to be online, available, and running Windows Server 2012 or higher.

The “Change PDC” right is required to transfer/ seize the PDC Emulator role to a different DC. By default the Domain Admins and Enterprise Admins group members have this right.

RID Master

Before talking about the RID Master it’s important to talk about RIDs.

Every security principal (i.e. objects to which one can assign security rights – for e.g. users, computers, security groups; but not distribution groups) in Windows has a Security IDentifier (SID). These are unique identifiers used by Windows internally when referring to objects. Both domain and standalone objects have SIDs. 

SIDs have a format like this: S-V-X-(48 bits of domain or standalone machine IDentifier)-(32 bits of Relative IDentifier (RID) value)

  • The underlined part can be thought of as a base SID. It is common for all objects in the same domain or standalone machine. 
  • The “S” is the letter “S”. It identifies what follows as a SID.
  • The “V” stands for the version of the SID specification.
  • The “X” is a number from 0-9. It defines the identifier authority value. For example, some objects (like Everyone) has the same SID everywhere. These are issued by a “World Authority” whose X number is 1. Most other objects – domain and standalone – have a value of 5 which stands for “NT Authority”. This Wikipedia page lists the values and authority.
  • The 48 bits of domain/ standalone machine ID are either assigned by the domain of which the object is a member (in which case it is generated at random when the domain was first created) or are assigned by the standalone computer of which the object is a member (in which case it is generated at random by Windows Setup when the OS was installed). All objects of the same domain/ standalone computer have this part common.Every domain in a forest has a unique ID (this domain ID is actually the machine SID of the first DC of the domain). 
    • There are some exceptions where the ID isn’t unique. For instance, if the object is a built-in user or group, the domain ID is 32 (irrespective of what domain it belongs to). That’s because these are built-in objects and so the domain/ standalone machine part doesn’t really matter. 
  • All the values mentioned above are common to all objects of the same domain/ standalone computer. What follows next – the 32 bits RID – is unique for each object. This is generated as follows:
    • For objects that are part of a standalone machine RIDs are assigned by the machine itself. Some accounts have a standard RID. For example the Administrator account always has RID 500. All user & group accounts start from RID 1000. RIDs are unique within the context of the machine and are assigned by the Local Security Authority (LSA) of the machine. 
    • For objects that are part of a domain the RIDs are assigned by the domain controller where the object was created. Some accounts have a standard RID. For example the Administrator account always has RID 500; Guest account always has RID 501; built-in Administrators group has RID 544; built-in Users group has RID 545; and so on (see this TechNet page for an exhaustive list). RIDs are unique within the context of the domain

And thus we come to the RID Master role. For domain objects the base SID is common for all objects. What varies is the RID. This needs to be unique in the domain. If every Domain Controller could assign a RID of its own there’s no guarantees of uniqueness. So what is required is some way of assigning each Domain Controller a block of RIDs it can assign to objects created on it. And in turn we need one DC that can hand out these block of RIDs and keeps track of what’s free for giving out next. The DC that performs this role is known to have the RID Master role. This DC hands out blocks of 500 RIDs to other DCs in the domain (the value 500 can be modified via registry).

This blog post by Mark Russinovich is a good intro to SIDs (as is this clarification by another blogger – must read if you read Mark’s post). This TechNet page is a good intro to SIDs and RIDs and definitely worth a read. From the latter I learnt that even though SIDs are used by Windows and Active Directory to grant/ deny permissions, Active Directory actually uses its own Globally Unique ID (GUID) to identify objects. These are globally unique (i.e. across the world), and although Active Directory can use GUIDs instead of SIDs it continues to use SIDs for backward compatibility. An object’s SID is stored in the objectSID property; an object’s GUID is stored in the objectGUID property. And, while the GUID is unique for life, the SID changes if the object is moved to a different domain (as that domain has its own domain ID and RID assignments). In case of such SID changes the past SIDs are stored in a property called sIDHistory

Some more bits and pieces on the RID Master:

  • Although there are 32 bits allocated for a RID, prior to Windows Server 2012 only 30 bits could be used. Thus the maximum RID value was 2^30 = 1073741823 (roughly a billion). 
  • The DCDiag command can be used to see RID allocation. The command is: dcdiag /test:RidManager /v – the /v switch is required to see the additional details. 
  • Starting from Windows Server 2012 it is possible to unlock the 31st bit for RID allocation. This requires modifying a hidden attribute. See this TechNet page for more info. Note, however, that Windows Server 2003 and 2008 cannot use these RIDs (Windows Server 2008 R2 can use these RIDs if a hotfix is applied). 
  • Server 2012 also warns for every 10% of the RID space usage (i.e. for every 100 million RIDs allocated). Also, it applies an artificial ceiling of 10% to the RID block – i.e. you can only allocate up to 90% of the roughly 1 billions RIDs. Once this ceiling is reached it has to be manually removed for further RIDs to be allocated (this gives administrators a chance to identify why their RID pool could be nearing exhaustion).  

The “Change RID Master” right is required to transfer/ seize the RID Master role to a different DC. By default the Domain Admins group members have this right.

Update: This is an interesting post worth reading. 

Infrastructure Master

A domain can contain references to objects in other domains. For instance, group members could be users in other trusted domains. If those objects have changes made to them (renames, deletions) in their domain, the domain which contain references to these objects wouldn’t know about these changes. So what is required is for someone to regularly check these references and update the other local DCs accordingly – that’s where the DC with the Infrastructure Master role comes in. 

When a group has members from another trusted domain, the group contains “phantom objects” in place of the actual object of the other domain. These phantom objects cannot be seen in LDAP or ADSI and they contain the Distinguished Name (DN), GUID, and SID of the referenced object in the other domain. When the remote object is added to a group the local DC where it is added creates the phantom object. Every 2 days (the period can be changed via a registry key HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\NTDS\Parameters) the DC holding the Infrastructure Master role goes through all the phantom objects in its domain and checks them against the Global Catalog (GC) (because the Global Catalog contains partial information of all objects across all domains in the forest). If there are changes or deletions it informs the other DCs of this. 

Here’s how the changes are passed on to the other DCs: 

  • The DC with the Infrastructure Master role creates an object of class Infrastructure-Update in the CN=Infrastructure,DC=DomainName container. 
    • If the original object was renamed, then the DNReferenceUpdate attribute of this object contains the new value. 
    • If the original object was deleted, then the DN is updated with a suffix (esc)DEL:GUID. (This is what happens when an object is usually deleted – even in the local domain. It is not really deleted, only “tombstoned” – wherein the object is moved to a special container, its DN is updated like above, and all its other attributes are removed. This way other DCs know the object is now deleted. Only after a certain period is this tombstoned object really removed from the database. Hopefully by this time the information has replicated to all other DCs and they know the object is to be deleted). See this blog post for a screenshot of how the DN looks.  
  • The DC now deletes the object it created. This tombstones the object as I described above (i.e. the DN of this object now has its DN suffixed with (esc)DEL:GUID and all other attributes – except the ones added above – are removed).  
  • The tombstoned object is now replicated to all other DCs in the domain. 
  • The other DCs see this deleted object of class Infrastructure-Update and update their copies of the phantom object accordingly. 

A side effect of the above process is that the Infrastructure Master role cannot be on a DC that’s a GC. If the Infrastructure Master were on a GC, it does not store phantom objects because it already knows of the remote objects (by virtue of being a GC). So there’s nothing to compare, and other DCs won’t be updated with any changes. 

That said, if all DCs in the domain are also GCs, then the placement of the Infrastructure Master role doesn’t matter (as all DCs will all have up-to-date info on remote objects). 

Also, if the Recycle Bin feature is enabled in the forest (for this all DCs must be Windows 2008 R2 and the forest functional level should be Windows Server 2008 R2 or above (as part of raising the functional level the schema is upgraded with some new attributes)) objects aren’t deleted via tombstoning as I described above. Instead, when an object is deleted it is only “logically deleted“. The object is moved to a special container and DN changed as before, but now its other attributes are not wiped, and a flag is set indicating the object that it is deleted and some additional attributes are set indicating how long the object will be kept in the logically deleted state (during which period it can be restored from the Recycle Bin without losing any of the attributes). Moreover, links to the “logically deleted” object are still maintained (because the object can be un-deleted any time). Because of these changes every DC is now responsible for updating references to objects in other domains by itself (I am not sure why!). Thus the Infrastructure Master role is no longer relevant once the Recycle Bin feature is enabled.  

The “Change Infrastructure Master” right is required to transfer/ seize the Infrastructure Master role to a different DC. By default the Domain Admins group members have this right.

The DC with the Infrastructure Master role is where you usually run the adprep /domainprep command. This command prepares the domain for any new DCs of a later version (for example installing a Windows Server 2008 DC in a Windows Server 2003 domain).

There’s some more stuff I wanted to write in this blog post. If I get a chance I’ll make another post with those …

Active Directory: Operations Master Roles by rakhesh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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