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EC2 Security

One thing that concerns me about using any online service is the security. When that service is a virtual server running in another country the risks are greater than average.

I’m currently investigating the Amazon EC2 service for some clients, and naturally I’m concerned about the security. Firstly they appear to have implemented a good range of Xen based security mechanisms, their documentation is worth reading by anyone who plans to run a Xen server for multiple users [1]. I think it would be a good thing if other providers would follow their example in documenting the ways that they protect their customers.

Next they seem to have done a good job at securing the access to the service. You use public key encryption for all requests to the service and they generate the keypair. While later in this article I identify some areas that could be improved, I want to make it known that overall I think that EC2 is a good service and it seems generally better than average in every way. But it’s a high profile service which deserves a good deal of scrutiny and I’ve found some things that need to be improved.

The first problem is when it comes to downloading anything of importance (kernel modules for use in a machine image, utility programs for managing AMIs, etc). All downloads are done via http (not https) and the files are not signed in any way. This is an obvious risk that anyone who controls a router could compromise EC2 instances by causing people to download hostile versions of the tools. The solution to this is to use https for the downloads AND to use GPG to sign the files, https is the most user-friendly way of authenticating the files (although it could be argued that anyone who lacks the skill needed to use GPG will never run a secure server anyway) and GPG allows end to end encryption and would allow me to verify files that a client is using if the signature was downloaded at the same time.

More likely problems start when it comes to the machine images that they provide. They have images of Fedora Core 4, Fedora Core 6, and Fedora 8 available. Fedora releases are maintained until one month after the release of two subsequent versions [6], so Fedora 8 will end support one month after the release of Fedora 10 (which will be quite soon) and Fedora Core 6 and Fedora Core 4 have been out of support for a long time. I expect that someone who wanted to 0wn some servers that are well connected could get a list of exploits that work on FC4 or FC6 and try them out on machines running on EC2. While it is theoretically possible for Amazon staff to patch the FC4 images for all security holes that are discovered, it would be a lot of work, and it wouldn’t apply to all the repositories of FC4 software. So making FC4 usable as a secure base for an online service really isn’t a viable option.

Amazon’s page on “Tips for Securing Your EC2 Instance” [3] mostly covers setting up ssh, I wonder whether anyone who needs advice on setting up ssh can ever hope to run a secure server on the net. It does have some useful information on managing the EC2 firewall that will be of general interest.

One of the services that Amazon offers is to have “shared images” where any Amazon customer can share an image with the world. Amazon has a document about AMI security issues [4], but it seems to only be useful against clueless security mistakes by the person who creates an image not malice. If a hostile party creates a machine image you can expect that you won’t discover the problem by looking for open ports and checking for strange processes. The Amazon web page says “you should treat shared AMIs as you would any foreign code that you might consider deploying in your own data center and perform the appropriate due diligence“, the difference of course is that most foreign code that you might consider deploying comes from companies and is shipped in shrink-wrap packaging. I don’t count the high quality free software available in a typical Linux distribution in the same category as this “foreign code”.

While some companies have accidentally shipped viruses on installation media in the past it has been quite rare. But I expect hostile AMIs on EC2 to be considerably more common. Amazon recommends that people know the source of the AMIs that they use. Of course there is a simple way of encouraging this, Amazon could refrain from providing a global directory of AMIs without descriptions (the output of “ec2dim -x all“) and instead force customers to subscribe to channels containing AMIs that have not been approved by Amazon staff (the images that purport to be from Oracle and Red Hat could easily have their sources verified and be listed as trusted images if they are what they appear to be).

There seems to be no way of properly tracking the identity of the person who created a machine image within the Amazon service. The ec2dim command only gives an ID number for the creator (and there seems to be no API tool to get information on a user based on their ID). The web interface gives a name and an Amazon account name.

The next issue is that of the kernel. Amazon notes that they include “vmsplice root exploit patch” in the 2.6.18 kernel image that they supply [2], however there have been a number of other Linux kernel security problems found since then and plenty of security issues for 2.6.18 were patched before the vmsplice bug was discovered – were they patched as well? The file date stamp on the kernel image and modules files of 20th Feb 2008 indicates that there are a few kernel security issues which are not patched in the Amazon kernel.

To fix this the obvious solution is to use a modern distribution image. Of course without knowing what other patches they include (they mention a patch for better network performance) this is going to be difficult. It seems that we need some distribution packages of kernels designed for EC2, they would incorporate the Amazon patches and the Amazon configuration as well as all the latest security updates. I’ve started looking at the Amazon EC2 kernel image to see what I should incorporate from it to make a Debian kernel image. It would be good if we could get such a package included in an update to Debian/Lenny. Also Red Hat is partnering with Amazon to offer RHEL on EC2 [5], I’m sure that they provide good kernels as part of that service – but as the costs for RHEL on EC2 more than double the cost of the cheapest EC2 instance I expect that only the customers that need the the larger instances all the time will use it. The source for the RHEL kernels will of course be good for CentOS (binaries produced from such sources may be in CentOS already, I haven’t checked).

This is not an exhaustive list of security issues related to EC2, I may end up writing a series of posts about this.

Update: Jef Spaleta has written an interesting post that references this one [7]. He is a bit harsher than I am, but his points are all well supported by the evidence.

2 comments to EC2 Security

  • Timothy Kay

    Thanks for the analysis. You point out that none of the Amazon stock AMIs are secure. You don’t suggest what we can do about it. Do you have any suggestion?

    – Tim

  • etbe

    Timothy: If you are an important customer of Amazon then you can raise the issue with them. If not then you can create your own AMIs from scratch (which is a lot more work than you would expect).

    I still haven’t worked out how to create an AKI, which is the next stage.