A tool that reduces RAS connection chaos

In this month's Watch Your RAS, I'll look at the best-kept secrets of Remote Access Service (RAS): Microsoft Connection Manager (CM) and its counterpart, the Connection Manager Administration Kit (CMAK). These tools, which Microsoft introduced as part of the Windows NT 4.0 Option Pack, greatly reduce the management burden of supporting remote users.

Remote users aren't physically present to let you update their Dial-Up Networking (DUN) configurations with changes to phone numbers, Domain Name System (DNS) server addresses, and other items crucial to keeping these users in sync with your organization. Even when users' systems are up-to-date, users often complain about the complexity of establishing dial-up connections—especially connections involving secondary Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)-based connections.

Microsoft addressed this problem by developing CM, a RAS add-on that manages the process of establishing dial-up connections to remote networks. CM acts as a simplified front end to the client-side DUN component of NT or Windows 9x. However, to benefit from CM, you need to employ CMAK. CMAK creates a customized installation package that preconfigures CM's setup on your dial-up clients. You can use CMAK to create a custom installation that includes current phone book information, and to enable the client to automatically update its phone book with the most current version of this information each time it connects to your RAS server.

The Magic of CMAK
Using Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 and new NT services that install during the Option Pack setup, you can maintain and publish an up-to-date list of current dial-up RAS phone book entries, and enable remote users to automatically obtain these updates when they connect. Microsoft refers to this functionality as Connection Point Services (CPS). Microsoft provides these services via two components: Phone Book Server and Phone Book Administrator. Phone Book Server is a service that enables you to publish and automatically install on remote clients the latest access numbers for all your organization's Points of Presence (POPs). Phone Book Administrator is the tool you use to create and maintain these phone books. You no longer need to visit individual workstations to change a phone number or DNS server address, or spend hours on the phone walking remote users through the process of re-creating phone book entries after they delete their phone book. CMAK keeps remote users' RAS phone books up-to-date.

In addition to this functionality, CMAK consolidates the traditional two-step process of establishing secure PPTP-based connections to corporate networks (i.e., one connection to an Internet Service Provider—ISP—and one connection to the corporate PPTP RAS server). CMAK is PPTP-aware; as a result, the kit offers you an option during setup that lets you create a PPTP dial-up entry that CMAK will add to your users' phone books. CMAK handles this secondary connection as part of one virtual connection: Users click one icon to establish each of the individual connections required for access to the corporate network.

Firing Up CMAK
Install Internet Explorer (IE) 4.0 or later and the Option Pack (be sure to select the CMAK component during the Option Pack installation). Next, click the CMAK icon, which launches the main CMAK administration tool. After the tool launches, a setup wizard asks the necessary questions for CMAK to create a customized CM installation package, complete with custom phone book entries and DNS entries. You can alter CM's appearance to display customized logos, and you can change CM's dialog background, phone book icons, and animations for the connection-establishment process. After you complete these alterations, you have a custom installation package that you can deploy to your remote users. If you use CPS to update your phone book, you won't ever need to reconfigure those dial-up phone books.

If you manage many remote users, CM and CMAK are definitely worth your consideration. For more information about CM and CMAK, check out the Option Pack Help files or Microsoft's Web site (http://ieak.microsoft.com/cmak_overview.asp).