Blog
User Access Management

Streamlining AWS Access for Growing Startups

Nishant Thorat
March 27, 2024
5 min read
Y

our startup is thriving and running on AWS. Your development environment is performing well, and your team is achieving new milestones every day. However, as your company expands, managing access to your AWS cloud infrastructure becomes a hidden challenge. What was once perfect for a small, closely-knit team can quickly become complicated as your workforce grows and your AWS presence expands.

This blog post will guide you through the evolving dance of AWS access control. It will show you how to adapt your approach as your startup scales, ensuring security without compromising agility. We will discuss the limitations of basic IAM users, the benefits of centralized identity management, and the capabilities of AWS IAM Identity Center with Just-In-Time access. At the end of this article, you will have a clear roadmap for securing your AWS environment as your startup reaches new heights.

The Early Days: Simple IAM Users for Everyone

In the exciting early days of your startup, your AWS environment may feel like a well-oiled machine. With a small, trusted team, keeping things simple is key. This often translates to using Identity and Access Management (IAM) users for (almost) everyone.

Here's how it usually works:

Individual IAM Users: Each team member gets their own IAM user account. This provides a basic level of accountability, allowing us to track who is doing what in the AWS environment. This approach has its benefits. It's easy to set up and manage for a small team. Everyone has the access they need to get their jobs done, fostering a fast-paced development environment.

AWS IAM User

These IAM users act like digital keys, granting access to specific AWS resources and services.  Imagine - each user has their unique key to access the AWS cloud.

IAM User unlocks specific resource access
  • Machine Identities: Beyond human users, you might also create IAM users for your application instances running on EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) or other AWS services. These "machine users (identities)" provide a secure way for your applications to interact with other AWS resources without needing human intervention.
  • Broad Permissions: In the fast-paced startup environment, efficiency is crucial. You might initially assign broad permissions to IAM users, allowing them to perform a wide range of actions within your AWS account. This can get things done quickly, but it also comes with a security risk. If an IAM user's credentials are compromised, an attacker could gain full access to your AWS environment

While this approach works for a small, close-knit team, it has limitations. The reliance on broad permissions can create vulnerabilities if an IAM user's credentials are compromised. Additionally, the lack of granular access controls makes it difficult to track specific activities within your AWS environment.

As your team grows and your AWS footprint expands, these limitations become more pronounced.  Moving forward, a more robust access control strategy will be essential to maintain security and compliance.

Growth Spurt: Corporate Identity and Federated Access

As your startup grows and your team expands, managing individual IAM user accounts and permissions for each employee can become challenging and prone to errors. This is where centralized identity management comes into the picture.

Centralized identity management allows you to utilize your existing corporate identity systems such as Google Workspace or Okta to manage access to your AWS account(s) through federated access. Federated access acts as a bridge between your corporate identity provider (IdP) and AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM).

When working in the AWS environment, you have two options for configuring the IAM federation. You can either do it at the individual AWS account level or use AWS SSO at the AWS Organizations level. For short-term, small-scale deployments, the former option is generally preferred.

With the IAM federation, users first authenticate with an external IdP (such as Okta, Active Directory, or Azure AD) using their corporate credentials when attempting to access AWS resources. If the authentication is successful, the IdP sends a security token to AWS, which then verifies the token and grants the user temporary access based on predefined permissions within IAM.

Identity Federation
Image credit: AWS 

.This approach offers several benefits:

  • Improved Security: By utilizing your existing identity system, you can ensure that only authorized users have access to your AWS environment, reducing the risk of unauthorized access due to compromised IAM user credentials.
  • Simplified User Management: You no longer need to create and manage individual IAM users for each team member. Instead, users can use their existing corporate credentials to access AWS resources.

This approach also enables the use of Single Sign-On (SSO), allowing users to access multiple AWS accounts and applications with a single login. This enhances user experience and reduces login fatigue. It is highly recommended to use AWS SSO with AWS organizations to configure the IAM federated access over configuring the SSO for individual AWS accounts. 

Moving forward, centralized identity management with federated access and SSO becomes the foundation for securing your AWS environment as your startup scales.

Scaling Challenges: SSO and Complexities

Federated access using Single Sign-On (SSO) may seem like the perfect solution for startups that are expanding. It allows users to access all their cloud resources with just one login, making it easier to use and increasing productivity. However, as your AWS presence grows, this method can become more complicated and reveal some hidden complexities.

Multi-Account Management:  As your company grows, you may require multiple AWS accounts for different purposes such as development, testing, production environments, or regional deployments. Although federated access makes user login easier, it doesn't remove the need to set up SSO for each AWS account (unless AWS SSO is used). As the number of accounts increases, this can become a time-consuming and error-prone process.

Complex Permission Structures:  Managing user permissions across multiple AWS accounts can be challenging. Each account may have its own resources and policies, making it difficult to ensure that users have the appropriate level of access required for their tasks across all accounts. For instance, a developer may need access to development and testing environments, but not the production environment. Configuring these permissions manually across multiple accounts can be a nightmare. 

Increased Operational Overhead:  Maintaining multiple SSO configurations and managing complex permission structures across numerous AWS accounts can significantly increase operational overhead. This can lead to cloud/security teams spending more time managing and troubleshooting access than focusing on strategic initiatives.

Security Concerns: SSO, or Single Sign-On, can make it easier for users to access multiple AWS accounts. However, it's important to keep in mind that if a user account with extensive permissions is compromised, it could pose a major security risk. Typically, privileged cloud admin accounts have broad permissions and access to all AWS accounts. In the event of a single point of failure, a significant security breach could occur. That being said, there are alternative ways to manage access as your startup grows, which we'll explore in the next few sections.

Taming the Beast: AWS IAM Identity Center

As your startup grows and you start managing multiple AWS accounts, you'll realize that managing user permissions can get complicated. That's where the AWS IAM Identity Center comes in. It acts as a central control tower for all your AWS access needs. The IAM Identity Center is a single point of entry for managing both users and their access to all your AWS accounts. You can even use your existing corporate identities from services like Google Workspace or Okta to ensure a consistent login experience for your users.

Simplified Permissions Management: The Identity Center simplifies permission management by allowing you to define permissions based on user roles and assign those roles to users or groups while enforcing least privilege principles.

Streamlined Operations:  Consolidating user and access management in a single console, Identity Center simplifies your operational processes. For instance, you can add a new employee and grant them access to the appropriate AWS resources from a centralized location. 

To streamline your AWS management, consider following these strategies:

Image Credit: AWS

Set up break glass access for emergencies. It's vital to have an alternative way to access your cloud environment in case of failures or emergencies. This ensures that you can still access your cloud infrastructure when your external identity provider or AWS Identity Center encounters issues.

Break Glass Access for emergency access
Configure break-glass access for emergency access

Setting up the break glass access makes sure you still have access to your cloud infrastructure even in case of failures or emergencies.

  • Using Infrastructure as Code (IaC) for managing permission sets

IAM Identity Center lets you bundle permissions into permission sets that can be created with inline policies, AWS-managed policies, and customer-managed policies. With IaC, you can automate and simplify this process and assign specific permissions to certain SSO Groups or users. For example, you can create an SSO Group named Security that has all security team members and assign SecurityAudit permissions to all AWS accounts in the AWS Organization.

The IaC code should also be able to provision break glass access roles in each AWS account. This role should be only assumable by “break access” users in the management account via trust policy. 

So far, we have examined AWS access from both a user experience and security standpoint. The principle of least privilege (PoLP) is a crucial step in reducing the attack surface, from a security perspective. However, there is another dimension to consider - the temporal aspect of how long these permissions are available to the IAM user. By combining these two dimensions, you can further strengthen your AWS security.

The Final Step: Just-In-Time Access with Identity Center

We have discussed how AWS IAM Identity Center, when used in conjunction with AWS SSO and Organizations, provides a strong foundation for managing access in a multi-account AWS environment. However, what if you could further minimize the security risks associated with privileged access? This is where Just-In-Time (JIT) access becomes relevant. Picture a scenario where users are granted temporary access to perform specific tasks within your AWS environment. This is the true power of JIT access!

The Problem of Long-Standing Privileges:  There are times when users may need temporary elevated permissions to perform specific tasks, despite the Identity Center enforcing least privilege through role-based access control (RBAC). For example, a developer might need admin access to deploy a new application to a production environment. However, assigning an IAM role with these elevated permissions permanently can create a security vulnerability. This is because the user will have access to the role, which means they have the potential to misuse the elevated privileges, even unintentionally. Additionally, IAM roles are often not revoked in time, especially when quarterly access reviews are performed.

Just-In-Time Access Explained:  Consider a situation where users are granted elevated permissions only for the precise duration they require to perform a particular task. This is the fundamental concept of Just-In-Time (JIT) access. With Identity Center, you can configure policies as permission sets that provide users with role-based access to AWS resources. These temporary permissions are typically valid for a brief period (e.g., minutes, hours, or days), significantly reducing the opportunity window for potential misuse.

Benefits of JIT Access:

  • Reduced Attack Surface: By minimizing the duration that users have elevated privileges, JIT access significantly reduces the attack surface for potential security breaches. Even if an attacker gains unauthorized access to temporary credentials, their window of opportunity to perform malicious actions is limited.
  • Improved Operational Efficiency: JIT access automates granting and revoking permissions, freeing IT resources from manual IAM policy management.

The JIT Request and Approval Process with CloudYali AccessGuard:

Just-In-Time (JIT) Workflow
JIT Access workflow
  1. User Request: Users request elevated access via CloudYali AccessGuard. They specify desired permissions, duration and justification.
  2. Approval Workflow: The CloudYali AccessGuard establishes a customizable approval workflow for access requests that may involve one or more approvers, depending on the access level required.
  3. Temporary Permissions Granted: CloudYali AccessGuard grants temporary permissions to users based on defined roles and duration through the IAM Identity Center once approved. This enables users to perform designated tasks with elevated access.
  4. Automatic Revoke: CloudYali AccessGuard automatically revokes temporary permissions upon expiration of the pre-defined timeframe. This ensures that elevated access is not left lingering, significantly reducing security risks.
JIT access with AccessGuard, IAM Identity Center and AWS Organization
JIT Access with IAM Identity Center and AWS Organization

Implementing just-in-time access to your AWS environment through CloudYali AccessGuard and AWS IAM Identity Center provides an additional layer of security. This approach involves granting temporary permissions based on roles, which minimizes the attack surface and enforces least privilege principles. As a result, your overall security posture is significantly enhanced.

CloudYali AccessGuard in action
CloudYali AccessGuard in action

The CloudYali AccessGuard provides access audit logs that can be used to demonstrate access compliance during security standard statutory audits such as SOC 2.

Conclusion

Managing AWS access control is an ongoing process that evolves with the growth of your startup. A one-size-fits-all approach won't work. While individual IAM users may seem convenient at first, they lack scalability and security for a growing team. Federated access with SSO simplifies login, but it becomes cumbersome with multiple accounts and complex permissions.

This is where the AWS IAM Identity Center comes in. Working together with AWS SSO and Organizations, it provides a centralized platform for managing users, accounts, and permissions across your entire AWS environment. It streamlines operations, enforces the least privilege principle, and offers valuable security benefits.

But that's not all. Just-In-Time access, implemented through IAM Identity Center and CloudYali AccessGuard, adds another layer of security by granting temporary, role-based permissions. This further minimizes the attack surface and enhances your overall security posture.

Nishant Thorat

Stay Informed

Get the latest updates, news, and exclusive offers delivered to your inbox.

By clicking Sign Up, you agree to our Terms and Conditions.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong. Please try again.
FEATURED BLOGS

Discover Our Featured Blogs

Stay up to date with our informative blog posts.

User Access Management

Streamlining AWS Access for Growing Startups

As your startup scales on AWS, managing access control becomes crucial. This blog post provides a roadmap for securing your cloud environment. You'll learn about the limitations of basic IAM users, the benefits of centralized identity management, and the capabilities of AWS IAM Identity Center with Just-In-Time access. By the end, you'll have a clear strategy to secure your AWS environment while maintaining agility.
Nishant Thorat
March 27, 2024
5 min read
AWS Cloud

Understanding Instance MetaData Service (IMDS)

Instance metadata service (IMDS) provides sensitive information. Understand IMDSv1 weakness and how IMDSv2 improves security. Identify IMDSv1 enabled instances across your cloud.
Nishant Thorat
February 11, 2024
5 min read
AWS IAM

10 Steps to Improve Your AWS IAM Hygiene and Keep Your Cloud Secure

Improving your AWS IAM hygiene is critical in protecting your cloud resources and data. By following these 10 steps, you can establish a robust security framework that protects your business from cyber threats. From reviewing your IAM policies to enabling MFA and monitoring your IAM activity, each step is designed to help you maintain the security and integrity of your AWS account.
Nishant Thorat
February 11, 2024
5 min read