What is the Impact of Upgrading the Domain or Forest Functional Level?

Hello all, Jonathan here again. Today, I want to address a question that we see regularly. As customers upgrade Active Directory, and they inevitably reach the point where they are ready to change the Domain or Forest Functional Level, they sometimes become fraught. Why is this necessary? What does this mean? What’s going to happen? How can this change be undone?

What Does That Button Do?

Before these question can be properly addressed, if must first be understood exactly what purposes the Domain and Forest Functional Levels serve. Each new version of Active Directory on Windows Server incorporates new features that can only be taken advantage of when all domain controllers (DC) in either the domain or forest have been upgraded to the same version. For example, Windows Server 2008 R2 introduces the AD Recycle Bin, a feature that allows the Administrator to restore deleted objects from Active Directory. In order to support this new feature, changes were made in the way that delete operations are performed in Active Directory, changes that are only understood and adhered to by DCs running on Windows Server 2008 R2. In mixed domains, containing both Windows Server 2008 R2 DCs as well as DCs on earlier versions of Windows, the AD Recycle Bin experience would be inconsistent as deleted objects may or may not be recoverable depending on the DC on which the delete operation occurred. To prevent this, a mechanism is needed by which certain new features remain disabled until all DCs in the domain, or forest, have been upgraded to the minimum OS level needed to support them.

After upgrading all DCs in the domain, or forest, the Administrator is able to raise the Functional Level, and this Level acts as a flag informing the DCs, and other components as well, that certain features can now be enabled. You'll find a complete list of Active Directory features that have a dependency on the Domain or Forest Functional Level here:

Appendix of Functional Level Features

There are two important restrictions of the Domain or Forest Functional Level to understand, and once they are, these restrictions are obvious. Once the Functional Level has been upgraded, new DCs on running on downlevel versions of Windows Server cannot be added to the domain or forest. The problems that might arise when installing downlevel DCs become pronounced with new features that change the way objects are replicated (i.e. Linked Value Replication). To prevent these issues from arising, a new DC must be at the same level, or greater, than the functional level of the domain or forest.

The second restriction, for which there is a limited exception on Windows Server 2008 R2, is that once upgraded, the Domain or Forest Functional Level cannot later be downgraded. The only purpose that having such ability would serve would be so that downlevel DCs could be added to the domain. As has already been shown, this is generally a bad idea.

Starting in Windows Server 2008 R2, however, you do have a limited ability to lower the Domain or Forest Functional Levels. The Windows Server 2008 R2 Domain or Forest Functional level can be lowered to Windows Server 2008, and no lower, if and only if none of the Active Directory features that require a Windows Server 2008 R2 Functional Level has been activated. You can find details on this behavior - and how to revert the Domain or Forest Functional Level - here.

What Happens Next?

Another common question: what impact does changing the Domain or Forest Functional Level have on enterprise applications like Exchange or Lync, or on third party applications? First, new features that rely on the Functional Level are generally limited to Active Directory itself. For example, objects may replicate in a new and different way, aiding in the efficiency of replication or increasing the capabilities of the DCs. There are exceptions that have nothing to do with Active Directory, such as allowing NTFRS replacement by DFSR to replicate SYSVOL, but there is a dependency on the version of the operating system. Regardless, changing the Domain or Forest Functional Level should have no impact on an application that depends on Active Directory.

Let's fall back on a metaphor. Imagine that Active Directory is just a big room. You don't actually know what is in the room, but you do know that if you pass something into the room through a slot in the locked door you will get something returned to you that you could use. When you change the Domain or Forest Functional Level, what you can pass in through that slot does not change, and what is returned to you will continue to be what you expect to see. Perhaps some new slots added to the door through which you pass in different things, and get back different things, but that is the extent of any change. How Active Directory actually processes the stuff you pass in to produce the stuff you get back, what happens behind that locked door, really isn't relevant to you.

If you carry this metaphor forward into the real world, if an application like Exchange uses Active Directory to store its objects, or to perform various operations, none of that functionality should be affected if the Domain or Forest Functional Mode changes. In fact, if your applications are also written to take advantage of new features introduced in Active Directory, you may find that the capabilities of your applications increase when the Level changes.

The answer to the question about the impact of changing the Domain or Forest Functional Level is there should be no impact. If you still have concerns about any third party applications, then you should contact the vendor to find out if they tested the product at the proposed Level, and if so, with what result. The general expectation, however, should be that nothing will change. Besides, you do test your applications against proposed changes to your production AD, do you not? Discuss any issues with the vendor before engaging Microsoft Support.

Where’s the Undo Button?

Even after all this, however, there is a great concern about the change being irreversible, so that you must have a rollback plan just in case something unforeseen and catastrophic occurs to Active Directory. This is another common question, and there is a supported mechanism to restore the Domain or Forest Functional Level. You take a System State back up of one DC in each domain in the forest. To recover, flatten all the DCs in the forest, restore one for each domain from the backup, and then DCPROMO the rest back into their respective domains. This is a Forest Restore, and the steps are outlined in detail in the following guide:

Planning for Active Directory Forest Recovery

By the way, do you know how often we’ve had to help a customer perform a complete forest restore because something catastrophic happened when they raised the Domain or Forest Functional Level? Never.

Best Practices

What can be done prior to making this change to ensure that you have as few issues as possible? Actually, there are some best practices here that you can follow:

1. Verify that all DCs in the domain are, at a minimum, at the OS version to which you will raise the functional level. Yes… I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised. What about that DC that you decommissioned but for which you failed to perform metadata cleanup? Yes, this does happen.
Another good one that is not so obvious is the Lost and Found container in the Configuration container. Is there an NTDS Settings object in there for some downlevel DC? If so, that will block raising the Domain Functional Level, so you’d better clean that up.

2. Verify that Active Directory is replicating properly to all DCs. The Domain and Forest Functional Levels are essentially just attributes in Active Directory. The Domain Functional Level for all domains must be properly replicated before you’ll be able to raise the Forest Functional level. This practice also addresses the question of how long one should wait to raise the Forest Functional Level after you’ve raised the Domain Functional Level for all the domains in the forest. Well…what is your end-to-end replication latency? How long does it take a change to replicate to all the DCs in the forest? Well, there’s your answer.

Best practices are covered in the following article:

322692 How to raise Active Directory domain and forest functional levels

There, you’ll find some tools you can use to properly inventory your DCs, and validate your end-to-end replication.

Update: Woo, we found an app that breaks! It has a hotfix though (thanks Paolo!). Mkae sure you install this everywhere if you are using .Net 3.5 applications that implement the DomainMode enumeration function.

FIX: "The requested mode is invalid" error message when you run a managed application that uses the .NET Framework 3.5 SP1 or an earlier version to access a Windows Server 2008 R2 domain or forest  


To summarize, the Domain or Forest Functional Levels are flags that tell Active Directory and other Windows components that all DCs in the domain or forest are at a certain minimal level. When that occurs, new features that require a minimum OS on all DCs are enabled and can be leveraged by the Administrator. Older functionality is still supported so any applications or services that used those functions will continue to work as before -- queries will be answered, domain or forest trusts will still be valid, and all should remain right with the world. This projection is supported by over eleven years of customer issues, not one of which involves a case where changing the Domain or Forest Functional Level was directly responsible as the root cause of any issue. In fact, there are only cases of a Domain or Forest Functional Level increase failing because the prerequisites had not been met; overwhelmingly, these cases end with the customer's Active Directory being successfully upgraded.

If you want to read more about Domain or Forest Functional Levels, review the following documentation:

What Are Active Directory Functional Levels?

Functional Levels Background Information

Jonathan “Con-Function Junction” Stephens