Avoiding AWS Access Keys

The AWS Well-Architected framework is a recommendation by AWS, summarized in an 80 page PDF document. After focusing on cost optimization in my first article, this article looks at one specific aspect of the security pillar.

Passwords are bad

Yes, passwords are bad. I don’t need to repeat that, right? Anyways, a few words on that: Managing passwords is a challenge. Especially when you have to manage and hand them out as a central team. First, you end up spending a lot of time resetting passwords, and potentially even managing the secrets in some “secure” store. Second, you have a security risk by keeping passwords active after employees left the company or simply by having the headache on how to protect a central credentials store.

Instead of using AWS IAM users, use AWS IAM Roles. Roles are a central piece of the AWS infrastructure, and every AWS service supports them. Notably EC2 can have an attached IAM profile. Once you attach an IAM instance profile, all calls to AWS services from that EC2 machine are invoked with the specified IAM role.

Custom applications

I often experience teams discussing how to securely store AWS Secret Keys in their development environment or tool they configure. Discussions are usually around how to pass them along to the build server and the production server. The answer is almost always: You don’t. Just ensure the EC2 machine uses an IAM Instance Profile (limited to the required permissions).

But wait, what about local development? I can’t assign an IAM Instance Profile to my machine. Again, don’t do anything in code. Instead, rely on well-documented credential configuration outside of your application (see example documentation for Node.js). Short version is to simply configure your user’s AWS credentials (~/.aws/credentials) and auto-rotate them on a schedule (mirri.js is a good tool to do that).

If you use federated logins to your AWS account, an alternative is to leverage AWS STS and automatically generate a temporary key every time you need one. This eliminates key rotation completely.

External services

There is also the case where you need to grant access to external services. For example, an external build server like Travis CI, a log collector like SumoLogic, etc. Some might have an option to configure an IAM Role with an enterprise subscription, but often the only way is to actually use access keys. So you’re tied to simply rotate them regularly. The key is to automate the log rotation. Felix is a tool that supports some external services, and definitely gives a baseline on how automation can be written.


Two weeks after I wrote this blog post, the AWS Security team came up with a great summary or a related topic. See Guidelines for protecting your AWS account while using programmatic access.