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Secrets in AWS

Managing secrets in the cloud

Moving hosted services to cloud-based archictectures has introduced a lot of different pain points, some new, some pre-existing that become more of an issue. One such issue is secrets1.

There have been a number of different discussions and solutions for this problem, including:

The main question here is: “How do you expose secrets to only those services that require them, without exposing them to those that don’t, and at the same time make their lifecycle (rotating/replacing/expiring) easy to maintain?”

Managing secrets in AWS

The folks at $job.current asked me to come up with a secrets management solution last year. We’re fully-hosted in the AWS cloud, so your requirements may be different. Here were mine:

  • Find an official AWS service. If none exist, find a whitepaper published by Amazon detailing a recommended approach.
  • It should use KMS (Amazon’s Key Management Service) to encrypt the secrets.
  • It should be Highly-Available (HA) and Fault-Tolerant, such that it can withstand failure of a single instance.

We wanted to avoid having to stand up an entire cluster on virtual machines (EC2 instances, in this case) and instead leverage any AWS service designed to be fault-tolerant/HA.

My choices

Before I selected anything, I wanted to see if there was an official way to manage secrets in AWS. At the time I looked, Amazon recommended a combination of encrypted S3 buckets containing credentials or config files and IAM roles2. It leverages the reliability of S3, but it’s still a very manual process to get everything set up, especially for existing hosts and services.

I narrowed down the candidates to a handful. They were generally in one of two categories:

Vault is the most-commonly used here. Two knocks against it though:

  1. Requires setting up and maintaining a cluster of EC2 instances.
  2. Doesn’t use KMS.

The knocks against Confidant and Keywhiz are similar. However, Confidant does use KMS.

Credstash and Biscuit, on the other hand, use DynamoDB to store credentials, and KMS to encrypt/decrypt them. The main difference between them is the language they’re written in: Credstash is written in Python, Biscuit in Go. Sneaker is similar, but stores things in S3 buckets.

The choice, at the time

I ended up choosing Credstash for the following reasons:

  • It’s written in Python, a language with which $job.current was comfortable.
  • It uses AWS services (KMS and DynamoDB) that are designed for HA/Fault-Tolerance, and that can be given access to via IAM roles and policies.

In particular, the fact that Credstash could use a binary to print credentials to stdout meant I could run an application directly from the command line without having to store credentials in a config file, like so:

java -Dsome.property="$(credstash get prd.some.property)" -jar someapp.jar

Using Credstash did come with a few downsides though:

  1. You still need a way to automate the creation/modification of secrets, as well as publish their existence for other engineers to use.
  2. Getting Credstash on the host means ensuring Python is available with the proper modules installed via some method like pip or virtualenvs. Pycrypto is a requirement, which must be built for the same architecture it’s running on.

Enter Parameter Store

Credstash worked pretty well for a while, but those downsides mentioned were still ones I wanted to address, and they became more apparent the more secrets we relied upon, and the more environments they were used in.

Luckily, Amazon releases new features all the time, and especially around the month of November, during its annual re:Invent conference. Last year (2016) was no exception, and the service that interested me the most was EC2 Systems Manager. Originally named SSM (for Simple Systems Manager), it was a way to automate Windows hosts, both those running in AWS as well as on premise (i.e., in physical datacenters). Things like the Run Command could be used to run arbitrary scripts against running EC2 instances in an ad-hoc fashion, or as part of an automation.

The big change the came out of re:Invent was that a lot of the services within SSM that were Windows-only were now available for Linux instances, and came as part of the standard EC2 console. The most useful part to me was their official secrets store: Parameter Store.

Like Credstash, it uses KMS to encrypt/decrypt secrets (when using the SecureString type). Better, though, is that it comes as part of the AWS SDK. You can use secrets within your own favorite language instead of being forced to set things up outside of the application. It’s also trivial to use from the command line with the AWS CLI (which comes for free with Amazon Linux, but is also pretty easy to install on your favorite distro). The above example would be something like this in AWS CLI:

java -Dsome.property="$(\
  aws ssm get-parameters \
  --names prd.some.property \
  --with-decryption \
  --output text \
  --query Parameters[0].Value \
)" -jar someapp.jar

Caveats

There are a few restrictions that may make Parameter Store a non-starter for some:

Update 2017-03-09: I’ve just learned from Amazon that they’ve made an unannounced update to these limits. I’ve listed the changes below:

  1. There is a soft-limit of 100 1000 parameters per account (may be one that can be increased in the future similar to other soft-limits).
  2. Each parameter can be at most 1024 4096 characters long. This would prevent you from being able to use it for something like a cryptographically-strong GPG key or SSL certificate. For larger secrets, Amazon still recommends encrypted S3 buckets.

That said, the fact that Amazon now has a widely-available and official secrets management solution that can be managed by their powerful IAM policies makes my job a lot easier, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking to avoid setting up extra infrastructure in AWS.


  1. When I say “secrets”, I’m including anything that shouldn’t be shared publicly in plaintext, like database passwords or RSA keys. [return]
  2. https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/security/using-iam-roles-to-distribute-non-aws-credentials-to-your-ec2-instances/ [return]