While going through our recent Cloud Cost Optimization Competency review with AWS, one of the things they asked us to do was remove the ability for customers to sign up for our service using AWS IAM User credentials. They loved the fact that we already supported AWS IAM Role credentials, but their concern was that AWS IAM User credentials could conceivably be stolen and used from outside AWS by anyone. (I say inconceivable, but hey, it is AWS.)  This was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, as some customers find IAM Users easier to understand and manage than IAM Roles. The #1 challenge of any SaaS cloud management platform like ours is customer onboarding, where every step in the process is one more hurdle to overcome.

While we could debate how difficult it would be to steal a customer cloud credential from our system, the key (pun intended) thing here is why is an IAM Role preferred over an IAM User?

Before answering that question, I think it is important to understand that an IAM Role is not a “role” in perhaps the traditional sense of Active Directory or LDAP. An AWS IAM Role is not something that is assigned to a “User” as a set of permissions – it is a set of capabilities that can be assumed by some other entity. Like putting on a hat, you only need it at certain times, and it is not like it is part of who you are. As AWS defines the difference in their FAQ:

An IAM user has permanent long-term credentials and is used to directly interact with AWS services. An IAM role does not have any credentials and cannot make direct requests to AWS services. IAM roles are meant to be assumed by authorized entities, such as IAM users, applications, or an AWS service such as EC2.

(The first line of that explanation alone has its own issues, but we will come back to that…)

The short answer for SaaS is that a customer IAM Role credential can only be used by servers running from within the SaaS provider’s AWS Account…and IAM User credentials can be used by anyone from anywhere. By constraining the potential origin of AWS API calls, a HUGE amount of risk is removed, and the ability to isolate and mitigate any issues is improved.

What is SaaS?

Software as a Service (SaaS) means different things to different vendors. Some vendors claim to be “SaaS” for their pre-built virtual machine images that you can run in your cloud. Maybe an intrusion detection system or a piece of a cloud management system. In my (truly humble) opinion this is not a SaaS – this is just another flavor of “on prem” (on-premise), where you are running someone’s software in your environment. Call it “in-cloud” if you do not want to call it “on-prem”, but it is not really SaaS, and it does not have the challenges you will experience with a “true” SaaS product – coming in from the outside. A core component of SaaS is that it is centrally hostedoutside your cloud. For an internal service, you might relax permissions and access mechanisms somewhat, as you have total control over data ingress/egress. A service running IN your network…where you have total control over data ingress/egress…is not the same as external access – the epitome of SaaS. Anyway: </soapbox>. (Or maybe </rant> depending on the tone you picked up along the way…)  

The kind of SaaS I am focussing on for this blog is SaaS for cloud management, which can include cloud diagramming tools, configuration management tools, storage management+backup tools, or cost optimization tools like ParkMyCloud.

AWS has enabled SaaS for secure cloud management more than any other cloud provider. A bold statement, but let’s break that down a bit. We at ParkMyCloud help our customers optimize their expenses at all of the major cloud providers and so obviously all the providers allow for access from “outside”. Whether it is an Azure subscription, a GCP project, or an Alibaba account, these CSP’s are chiefly focussed on customer internal cross-domain access. I.e., the ability of the “parent” account to see and manage the “child” accounts. Management within an organization. But AWS truly acknowledges and embraces SaaS.

You could attribute my bold statement to an aficionado/fanboi notion of AWS having a bigger ecosystem vision, or more specifically that they simply have a better notion of how the Real World works, and how that has evolved in The Cloud. The fact is that companies buy IT products from other companies…and in the cloud that enables this thing called Software as a Service, or SaaS. All of the cloud providers have enabled SaaS for cloud access, but AWS has enabled SaaS for more secure cloud access.

AWS IAM Cross-account Roles

So…where was I?  Oh…right…Secure SaaS access.

OK, so AWS enables cross-account access. You can see this in the IAM Create Role screen in the AWS Console:

If your organization owns multiple AWS accounts (inside or outside of an AWS “organization”), cross-account access allows you to use a parent account to manage multiple child accounts. For SaaS, cross-account access allows a 3rd-party SaaS provider to see/manage/do stuff with/for your accounts.

Looking a little deeper into this screen, we see that cross-account access requires you to specify the target account for the access:

The cross-account role allows you to explicitly state which other AWS account can use this role. More specifically: which other AWS account can assume this role.

But there is an additional option here talking about requiring an “external ID”…what is that about?  

Within multiple accounts in a single organization, this may allow you to differentiate between multiple roles between accounts….maybe granting certain permissions to your DevOps folks…other permissions to Accounting…and still other permissions to IT/network management.

If you are a security person, AWS has some very interesting discussions about the “confused deputy” problem mentioned on this screen. It discusses how a hostile 3rd party might guess the ARN used to leverage this IAM Role, and states that “AWS does not treat the external ID as a secret” – which is all totally true from the AWS side. But summing it up: cross-account IAM Roles’ external IDs do not protect you from insider attacks. For an outsider, the External ID is as secret as the SaaS provider makes it.

Looking at it from the external SaaS side, we get a bit of a different perspective. For SaaS, the External ID allows for multiple entry points…and/or a pre-shared secret. At ParkMyCloud (and probably most other SaaS providers) we only need one entry point, so we lean toward the pre-shared secret side of things. When we, and other security-conscious SaaS providers, ask for access, we request an account credential, explicitly giving our AWS account ID and an External ID that is unique for the customer. For example, in our UI, you will see our account ID and a customer-unique External ID:

Assume Role…and hacking SaaS

If we look back at the definition of the AWS IAM Role, we see that IAM roles are meant to be assumed by authorized entities. For an entity to assume a role, that party has to be an AWS entity that has the AWS sts:AssumeRole permission for the account in which it lives. Breaking that down a bit, the sts component of this permission tells us this comes from the AWS Secure Token Services, which can handle whole chains of delegation of permissions. For ParkMyCloud, we grant our servers in AWS an IAM Role that has the sts:AssumeRole permission for our account. In turn, this allows our servers to use the customer account ID and external ID to request permission to “Assume” our limited-access role to manage a customer’s virtual machines.

From the security perspective, this means if a hostile party wanted to leverage SaaS to get access to a SaaS customer cloud account via an IAM User, they would need to:

  • Learn an account ID for a target organization
  • Find a SaaS provider leveraged by that target organization
  • Hack the SaaS enough to learn the External ID component of the target customer account credentials
  • Completely compromise one of the SaaS servers within AWS, allowing for execution of commands/APIs to the customer account (also within AWS), using the account ID, External ID, and Assume Role privileges of that server to gain access to the customer account.
  • Have fun with the customer SaaS customer cloud, but ONLY from that SaaS server.

So….kind-of a short recipe of what is needed to hack a SaaS customer. (Yikes!)  But this is where your access privileges come in. The access privileges granted via your IAM role determine the size of the “window” through which the SaaS provider (or the bad guys) can access your cloud account. A reputable SaaS provider (ahem) will keep this window as small as possible, commensurate with the Least Privilege needed to accomplish their mission.

Also – SaaS services are updated often enough that the service might have to be penetrated multiple times to maintain access to a customer environment.

So why are AWS IAM Users bad?

Going back to the beginning, our quote from AWS stated “An IAM user has permanent long-term credentials and is used to directly interact with AWS services”. There are a couple frightening things here.

Permanent long-term credentials” means that unless you have done something pretty cool with your AWS environment, that IAM User credential does not expire. An IAM User credential consists of a Key ID and Secret Access Key (an AWS-generated pre-shared secret) that are good until you delete them.

“…directly interact with AWS services” means that they do not have to be used from within your AWS account. Or from any other AWS account. Or from your continent, planet, galaxy, dimension, etc. That Key ID and Secret can be used by anyone and anywhere.

From the security perspective, this means if a hostile party wanted to leverage SaaS to get access to a SaaS customer cloud account via an IAM Role, they would need to:

  • Learn an account ID for a target organization
  • Find a SaaS provider leveraged by that target organization
  • Hack the SaaS enough to get the IAM User credentials.
  • Have fun…from anywhere.

So this list may seem only a little bit shorter, but the barriers to compromise are somewhat lower, and the opportunity for long-term compromise is MUCH longer. Any new protections or updates for the SaaS servers has no impact on an existing compromise. The horse has bolted, so shutting the barn door will not help at all.

What if the SaaS provider is not in AWS?  Or…what if *I* am not in AWS?

The other cloud providers provide some variation of an access identifier and a pre-shared secret. Unlike AWS, both Azure and Google Cloud credentials can be created with expiration dates, somewhat limiting the window of exposure. Google does a great job of describing their process for Service Accounts here. In the Azure console, service accounts are found under Azure AD>App registrations>All apps>App details>Settings>Keys, and passwords can be set to expire in 1 year, 2 years, or never. I strongly recommend you set reminders someplace for these expiration dates, as it can be tricky to debug an expired service account password for SaaS.

For all providers you can also limit your exposure by setting a very limited access role for your SaaS accounts, as we describe in our other blog here.

Azure does give SaaS providers the ability to create secure “multi-tenant” apps that can be shared across multiple customers. However, the API’s for SaaS cloud management typically flow in the other direction, reaching into the customer environment, rather than the other way around.

IAM Role – the Clear Winner

Fortunately, when AWS “strongly recommended” that we should discontinue support for AWS IAM User-based permissions, we already supported an upgrade path, allowing our customer to migrate from IAM User to IAM Role without losing any account configuration (phew!). We have found some scenarios where IAM Role cannot be used – like between the AWS partitions of AWS global, AWS China, and the AWS US GovCloud. For GovCloud, we support ParkMyCloud SaaS by running another “instance” of ParkMyCloud from within GovCloud, where cross-account IAM Role is supported.

With the additional security protections provided for cross-account access, AWS IAM Role access is the clear winner for SaaS access, both within AWS and across all the various cloud providers.

About Bill Supernor

Bill Supernor is the CTO at ParkMyCloud. Bill is a software and network engineering professional with over 20 years of engineering and management experience in enterprise-grade software products, security, and networking. Prior to joining ParkMyCloud in 2017, Bill served as the CTO at KoolSpan, where he led the development of a globally deployed secure voice communication system for smartphones. Prior to KoolSpan, Bill served in security software engineering management positions at TrustDigital, Cognio, Symantec, and McAfee/Network Associates. He also was an officer in the United States Navy. Bill has the AWS Certified Advanced Networking - Specialty, is an AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate and holds the CISSP and CSSLP security certifications from ISC2.

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