AWS Architecture Blog

Optimizing a Lift-and-Shift for Security

This is the third and final blog within a three-part series that examines how to optimize lift-and-shift workloads. A lift-and-shift is a common approach for migrating to AWS, whereby you move a workload from on-prem with little or no modification. This third blog examines how lift-and-shift workloads can benefit from an improved security posture with no modification to the application codebase. (Read about optimizing a lift-and-shift for performance and for cost effectiveness.)

Moving to AWS can help to strengthen your security posture by eliminating many of the risks present in on-premise deployments. It is still essential to consider how to best use AWS security controls and mechanisms to ensure the security of your workload. Security can often be a significant concern in lift-and-shift workloads, especially for legacy workloads where modern encryption and security features may not present. By making use of AWS security features you can significantly improve the security posture of a lift-and-shift workload, even if it lacks native support for modern security best practices.

Adding TLS with Application Load Balancers

Legacy applications are often the subject of a lift-and-shift. Such migrations can help reduce risks by moving away from out of date hardware but security risks are often harder to manage. Many legacy applications leverage HTTP or other plaintext protocols that are vulnerable to all manner of attacks. Often, modifying a legacy application’s codebase to implement TLS is untenable, necessitating other options.

One comparatively simple approach is to leverage an Application Load Balancer or a Classic Load Balancer to provide SSL offloading. In this scenario, the load balancer would be exposed to users, while the application servers that only support plaintext protocols will reside within a subnet which is can only be accessed by the load balancer. The load balancer would perform the decryption of all traffic destined for the application instance, forwarding the plaintext traffic to the instances. This allows  you to use encryption on traffic between the client and the load balancer, leaving only internal communication between the load balancer and the application in plaintext. Often this approach is sufficient to meet security requirements, however, in more stringent scenarios it is never acceptable for traffic to be transmitted in plaintext, even if within a secured subnet. In this scenario, a sidecar can be used to eliminate plaintext traffic ever traversing the network.

Improving Security and Configuration Management with Sidecars

One approach to providing encryption to legacy applications is to leverage what’s often termed the “sidecar pattern.” The sidecar pattern entails a second process acting as a proxy to the legacy application. The legacy application only exposes its services via the local loopback adapter and is thus accessible only to the sidecar. In turn the sidecar acts as an encrypted proxy, exposing the legacy application’s API to external consumers via TLS. As unencrypted traffic between the sidecar and the legacy application traverses the loopback adapter, it never traverses the network. This approach can help add encryption (or stronger encryption) to legacy applications when it’s not feasible to modify the original codebase. A common approach to implanting sidecars is through container groups such as pod in EKS or a task in ECS.

Implementing the Sidecar Pattern With Containers

Figure 1: Implementing the Sidecar Pattern With Containers

Another use of the sidecar pattern is to help legacy applications leverage modern cloud services. A common example of this is using a sidecar to manage files pertaining to the legacy application. This could entail a number of options including:

  • Having the sidecar dynamically modify the configuration for a legacy application based upon some external factor, such as the output of Lambda function, SNS event or DynamoDB write.
  • Having the sidecar write application state to a cache or database. Often applications will write state to the local disk. This can be problematic for autoscaling or disaster recovery, whereby having the state easily accessible to other instances is advantages. To facilitate this, the sidecar can write state to Amazon S3, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon Elasticache or Amazon RDS.

A sidecar requires customer development, but it doesn’t require any modification of the lift-and-shifted application. A sidecar treats the application as a blackbox and interacts with it via its API, configuration file, or other standard mechanism.

Automating Security

A lift-and-shift can achieve a significantly stronger security posture by incorporating elements of DevSecOps. DevSecOps is a philosophy that argues that everyone is responsible for security and advocates for automation all parts of the security process. AWS has a number of services which can help implement a DevSecOps strategy. These services include:

  • Amazon GuardDuty: a continuous monitoring system which analyzes AWS CloudTrail Events, Amazon VPC Flow Log and DNS Logs. GuardDuty can detect threats and trigger an automated response.
  • AWS Shield: a managed DDOS protection services
  • AWS WAF: a managed Web Application Firewall
  • AWS Config: a service for assessing, tracking, and auditing changes to AWS configuration

These services can help detect security problems and implement a response in real time, achieving a significantly strong posture than traditional security strategies. You can build a DevSecOps strategy around a lift-and-shift workload using these services, without having to modify the lift-and-shift application.

Conclusion

There are many opportunities for taking advantage of AWS services and features to improve a lift-and-shift workload. Without any alteration to the application you can strengthen your security posture by utilizing AWS security services and by making small environmental and architectural changes that can help alleviate the challenges of legacy workloads.

About the author

Jonathan Shapiro-Ward

Dr. Jonathan Shapiro-Ward is an AWS Solutions Architect based in Toronto. He helps customers across Canada to transform their businesses and build industry leading cloud solutions. He has a background in distributed systems and big data and holds a PhD from the University of St Andrews.