Operating Lambda: Building a solid security foundation – Part 1

Post Syndicated from James Beswick original https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/compute/operating-lambda-building-a-solid-security-foundation-part-1/

In the Operating Lambda series, I cover important topics for developers, architects, and systems administrators who are managing AWS Lambda-based applications. This two-part series discusses core security concepts for Lambda-based applications.

In the AWS Cloud, the most important foundational security principle is the shared responsibility model. This broadly shares security responsibilities between AWS and our customers. AWS is responsible for “security of the cloud”, such as the underlying physical infrastructure and facilities providing the services. Customers are responsible for “security in the cloud”, which includes applying security best practices, controlling access, and taking measures to protect data.

One of the main reasons for the popularity of Lambda-based applications is that AWS manages even more of the security operations compared with traditional cloud-based compute. For example, Lambda customers using zip file deployments do not need to patch underlying operating systems or apply security patches – these tasks are managed automatically by the Lambda service.

This post explains the Lambda execution environment and mechanisms used by the service to protect customer data. It also covers applying the principles of least privilege to your application and what this means in terms of permissions and Lambda function scope.

Understanding the Lambda execution environment

When your functions are invoked, the Lambda service runs your code inside an execution environment. Lambda scrubs the memory before it is assigned to an execution environment. Execution environments are run on hardware virtualized virtual machines (MicroVMs) which are dedicated to a single AWS account. Execution environments are never shared across functions and MicroVMs are never shared across AWS accounts. This is the isolation model for the Lambda service:

Isolation model for the Lambda service

A single execution environment may be reused by subsequent function invocations. This helps improve performance since it reduces the time taken to prepare and environment. Within your code, you can take advantage of this behavior to improve performance further, by caching locally within the function or reusing long-lived connections. All of these invocations are handled by a single process, so any process-wide state (such as static state in Java) is available across all invocations within the same execution environment.

There is also a local file system available at /tmp for all Lambda functions. This is local to each function but shared across invocations within the same execution environment. If your function must access large libraries or files, these can be downloaded here first and then used by all subsequent invocations. This mechanism provides a way to amortize the cost and time of downloading this data across multiple invocations.

While data is never shared across AWS customers, it is possible for data from one Lambda function to be shared with another invocation of the same function instance. This can be useful for caching common values or sharing libraries. However, if you have information only intended for a single invocation, you should:

  • Ensure that data is only used in a local variable scope.
  • Delete any /tmp files before exiting, and use a UUID name to prevent different instances from accessing the same temporary files.
  • Ensure that any callbacks are complete before exiting.

For applications requiring the highest levels of security, you may also implement your own memory encryption and wiping process before a function exits. At the function level, the Lambda service does not inspect or scan your code. Many of the best practices in security for software development continue to apply in software development.

The security posture of an application is determined by the use-case but developers should always take precautions against common risks such as misconfiguration, injection flaws, and handling user input. Developers should be familiar with common security concepts and security risks, such as those listed in the OWASP Top 10 Web Application Security Risks and the OWASP Serverless Top 10. The use of static code analysis tools, unit tests, and regression tests are still valid in a serverless compute environment.

To learn more, read “Amazon Web Services: Overview of Security Processes”, “Compliance validation for AWS Lambda”, and “Security Overview of AWS Lambda”.

Applying the principles of least privilege

AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) is the service used to manage access to AWS services. Before using IAM, it’s important to review security best practices that apply across AWS, to ensure that your user accounts are secured appropriately.

Lambda is fully integrated with IAM, allowing you to control precisely what each Lambda function can do within the AWS Cloud. There are two important policies that define the scope of permissions in Lambda functions. The event source uses a resource policy that grants permission to invoke the Lambda function, whereas the Lambda service uses an execution role to constrain what the function is allowed to do. In many cases, the console configures both of these policies with default settings.

As you start to build Lambda-based applications with frameworks such as AWS SAM, you describe both policies in the application’s template.

Resource and execution role policy

By default, when you create a new Lambda function, a specific IAM role is created for only that function.

IAM role for a Lambda function

This role has permissions to create an Amazon CloudWatch log group in the current Region and AWS account, and create log streams and put events to those streams. The policy follows the principle of least privilege by scoping precise permissions to specific resources, AWS services, and accounts.

Developing least privilege IAM roles

As you develop a Lambda function, you expand the scope of this policy to enable access to other resources. For example, for a function that processes objects put into an Amazon S3 bucket, it requires read access to objects stored in that bucket. Do not grant the function broader permissions to write or delete data, or operate in other buckets.

Determining the exact permissions can be challenging, since IAM permissions are granular and they control access to both the data plane and control plane. The following references are useful for developing IAM policies:

One of the fastest ways to scope permissions appropriately is to use AWS SAM policy templates. You can reference these templates directly in the AWS SAM template for your application, providing custom parameters as required:

SAM policy templates

In this example, the S3CrudPolicy template provides full create, read, update, and delete permissions to one bucket, and the S3ReadPolicy template provides only read access to another bucket. AWS SAM named templates expand into more verbose AWS CloudFormation policy definitions that show how the principle of least privilege is applied. The S3ReadPolicy is defined as:

        "Statement": [
          {
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Action": [
              "s3:GetObject",
              "s3:ListBucket",
              "s3:GetBucketLocation",
              "s3:GetObjectVersion",
              "s3:GetLifecycleConfiguration"
            ],
            "Resource": [
              {
                "Fn::Sub": [
                  "arn:${AWS::Partition}:s3:::${bucketName}",
                  {
                    "bucketName": {
                      "Ref": "BucketName"
                    }
                  }
                ]
              },
              {
                "Fn::Sub": [
                  "arn:${AWS::Partition}:s3:::${bucketName}/*",
                  {
                    "bucketName": {
                      "Ref": "BucketName"
                    }
                  }
                ]
              }
            ]
          }
        ]

It includes the necessary, minimal permissions to retrieve the S3 object, including getting the bucket location, object version, and lifecycle configuration.

Access to CloudWatch Logs

To log output, Lambda roles must provide access to CloudWatch Logs. If you are building a policy manually, ensure that it includes:

{
    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Statement": [
        {
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Action": "logs:CreateLogGroup",
            "Resource": "arn:aws:logs:region:accountID:*"
        },
        {
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Action": [
                "logs:CreateLogStream",
                "logs:PutLogEvents"
            ],
            "Resource": [
                "arn:aws:logs:region:accountID:log-group:/aws/lambda/functionname:*"
            ]
        }
    ]
}

If the role is missing these permissions, the function still runs but it is unable to log any output to the CloudWatch service.

Avoiding wildcard permissions in IAM policies

The granularity of IAM permissions means that developers may choose to use overly broad permissions when they are testing or developing code.

IAM supports the “*” wildcard in both the resources and actions attributes, making it easier to select multiple matching items automatically. These may be useful when developing and testing functions in specific development AWS accounts with no access to production data. However, you should ensure that “star permissions” are never used in production environments.

Wildcard permissions grant broad permissions, often for many permissions or resources. Many AWS managed policies, such as AdministratorAccess, provide broad access intended only for user roles. Do not apply these policies to Lambda functions, since they do not specify individual resources.

In Application design and Service Quotas – Part 1, the section Using multiple AWS accounts for managing quotas shows a multiple account example. This approach provisions a separate AWS account for each developer in a team, and separates accounts for beta and production. This can help prevent developers from unintentionally transferring overly broad permissions to beta or production accounts.

For developers using the Serverless Framework, the Safeguards plugin is a policy-as-code framework to check deployed templates for compliance with security.

Specialized Lambda functions compared with all-purpose functions

In the post on Lambda design principles, I discuss architectural decisions in choosing between specialized functions and all-purpose functions. From a security perspective, it can be more difficult to apply the principles of least privilege to all-purpose functions. This is partly because of the broad capabilities of these functions and also because developers may grant overly broad permissions to these functions.

When building smaller, specialized functions with single tasks, it’s often easier to identify the specific resources and access requirements, and grant only those permissions. Additionally, since new features are usually implemented by new functions in this architectural design, you can specifically grant permissions in new IAM roles for these functions.

Avoid sharing IAM roles with multiple Lambda functions. As permissions are added to the role, these are shared across all functions using this role. By using one dedicated IAM role per function, you can control permissions more intentionally. Every Lambda function should have a 1:1 relationship with an IAM role. Even if some functions have the same policy initially, always separate the IAM roles to ensure least privilege policies.

To learn more, the series of posts for “Building well-architected serverless applications: Controlling serverless API access” – part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Conclusion

This post explains the Lambda execution environment and how the service protects customer data. It covers important steps you should take to prevent data leakage between invocations and provides additional security resources to review.

The principles of least privilege also apply to Lambda-based applications. I show how you can develop IAM policies and practices to ensure that IAM roles are scoped appropriately, and why you should avoid wildcard permissions. Finally, I explain why using smaller, specialized Lambda functions can help maintain least privilege.

Part 2 will discuss security workloads with public endpoints and how to use AWS CloudTrail for governance, compliance, and operational auditing of Lambda usage.

For more serverless learning resources, visit Serverless Land.