The global catalog contains a complete replica of all objects in Active Directory for its Host domain, and contains a partial replica of all objects in Active Directory for every other domain in the forest.
The global catalog is a distributed data repository that contains a searchable, partial representation of every object in every domain in a multidomain Active Directory forest. The global catalog is stored on domain controllers that have been designated as global catalog servers and is distributed through multimaster replication. Searches that are directed to the global catalog are faster because they do not involve referrals to different domain controllers.
In addition to configuration and schema directory partition replicas, every domain controller in a Windows 2000 Server or Windows Server 2003 forest stores a full, writable replica of a single domain directory partition. Therefore, a domain controller can locate only the objects in its domain. Locating an object in a different domain would require the user or application to provide the domain of the requested object.
The global catalog provides the ability to locate objects from any domain without having to know the domain name. A global catalog server is a domain controller that, in addition to its full, writable domain directory partition replica, also stores a partial, read-only replica of all other domain directory partitions in the forest. The additional domain directory partitions are partial because only a limited set of attributes is included for each object. By including only the attributes that are most used for searching, every object in every domain in even the largest forest can be represented in the database of a single global catalog server.