AWS Compute Blog

Managing Secrets for Amazon ECS Applications Using Parameter Store and IAM Roles for Tasks

by Chris Barclay | on | in Amazon ECS | | Comments

Thanks to my colleague Stas Vonholsky  for a great blog on managing secrets with Amazon ECS applications.


As containerized applications and microservice-oriented architectures become more popular, managing secrets, such as a password to access an application database, becomes more challenging and critical.

Some examples of the challenges include:

  • Support for various access patterns across container environments such as dev, test, and prod
  • Isolated access to secrets on a container/application level rather than at the host level
  • Multiple decoupled services with their own needs for access, both as services and as clients of other services

This post focuses on newly released features that support further improvements to secret management for containerized applications running on Amazon ECS. My colleague, Matthew McClean, also published an excellent post on the AWS Security Blog, How to Manage Secrets for Amazon EC2 Container Service–Based Applications by Using Amazon S3 and Docker, which discusses some of the limitations of passing and storing secrets with container parameter variables.

Most secret management tools provide the following functionality:

  • Highly secured storage system
  • Central management capabilities
  • Secure authorization and authentication mechanisms
  • Integration with key management and encryption providers
  • Secure introduction mechanisms for access
  • Auditing
  • Secret rotation and revocation

Amazon EC2 Systems Manager Parameter Store

Parameter Store is a feature of Amazon EC2 Systems Manager. It provides a centralized, encrypted store for sensitive information and has many advantages when combined with other capabilities of Systems Manager, such as Run Command and State Manager. The service is fully managed, highly available, and highly secured.

Because Parameter Store is accessible using the Systems Manager API, AWS CLI, and AWS SDKs, you can also use it as a generic secret management store. Secrets can be easily rotated and revoked. Parameter Store is integrated with AWS KMS so that specific parameters can be encrypted at rest with the default or custom KMS key. Importing KMS keys enables you to use your own keys to encrypt sensitive data.

Access to Parameter Store is enabled by IAM policies and supports resource level permissions for access. An IAM policy that grants permissions to specific parameters or a namespace can be used to limit access to these parameters. CloudTrail logs, if enabled for the service, record any attempt to access a parameter.

While Amazon S3 has many of the above features and can also be used to implement a central secret store, Parameter Store has the following added advantages:

  • Easy creation of namespaces to support different stages of the application lifecycle.
  • KMS integration that abstracts parameter encryption from the application while requiring the instance or container to have access to the KMS key and for the decryption to take place locally in memory.
  • Stored history about parameter changes.
  • A service that can be controlled separately from S3, which is likely used for many other applications.
  • A configuration data store, reducing overhead from implementing multiple systems.
  • No usage costs.

Note: At the time of publication, Systems Manager doesn’t support VPC private endpoint functionality. To enforce stricter access to a Parameter Store endpoint from a private VPC, use a NAT gateway with a set Elastic IP address together with IAM policy conditions that restrict parameter access to a limited set of IP addresses.

IAM roles for tasks

With IAM roles for Amazon ECS tasks, you can specify an IAM role to be used by the containers in a task. Applications interacting with AWS services must sign their API requests with AWS credentials. This feature provides a strategy for managing credentials for your applications to use, similar to the way that Amazon EC2 instance profiles provide credentials to EC2 instances.

Instead of creating and distributing your AWS credentials to the containers or using the EC2 instance role, you can associate an IAM role with an ECS task definition or the RunTask API operation. For more information, see IAM Roles for Tasks.

You can use IAM roles for tasks to securely introduce and authenticate the application or container with the centralized Parameter Store. Access to the secret manager should include features such as:

  • Limited TTL for credentials used
  • Granular authorization policies
  • An ID to track the requests in the logs of the central secret manager
  • Integration support with the scheduler that could map between the container or task deployed and the relevant access privileges

IAM roles for tasks support this use case well, as the role credentials can be accessed only from within the container for which the role is defined. The role exposes temporary credentials and these are rotated automatically. Granular IAM policies are supported with optional conditions about source instances, source IP addresses, time of day, and other options.

The source IAM role can be identified in the CloudTrail logs based on a unique Amazon Resource Name and the access permissions can be revoked immediately at any time with the IAM API or console. As Parameter Store supports resource level permissions, a policy can be created to restrict access to specific keys and namespaces.

Dynamic environment association

In many cases, the container image does not change when moving between environments, which supports immutable deployments and ensures that the results are reproducible. What does change is the configuration: in this context, specifically the secrets. For example, a database and its password might be different in the staging and production environments. There’s still the question of how do you point the application to retrieve the correct secret? Should it retrieve prod.app1.secret, test.app1.secret or something else?

One option can be to pass the environment type as an environment variable to the container. The application then concatenates the environment type (prod, test, etc.) with the relative key path and retrieves the relevant secret. In most cases, this leads to a number of separate ECS task definitions.

When you describe the task definition in a CloudFormation template, you could base the entry in the IAM role that provides access to Parameter Store, KMS key, and environment property on a single CloudFormation parameter, such as “environment type.” This approach could support a single task definition type that is based on a generic CloudFormation template.

Walkthrough: Securely access Parameter Store resources with IAM roles for tasks

This walkthrough is configured for the North Virginia region (us-east-1). I recommend using the same region.

Step 1: Create the keys and parameters

First, create the following KMS keys with the default security policy to be used to encrypt various parameters:

  • prod-app1 –used to encrypt any secrets for app1.
  • license-key –used to encrypt license-related secrets.
aws kms create-key --description prod-app1 --region us-east-1
aws kms create-key --description license-code --region us-east-1

Note the KeyId property in the output of both commands. You use it throughout the walkthrough to identify the KMS keys.

The following commands create three parameters in Parameter Store:

  • prod.app1.db-pass (encrypted with the prod-app1 KMS key)
  • general.license-code (encrypted with the license-key KMS key)
  • prod.app2.user-name (stored as a standard string without encryption)
aws ssm put-parameter --name prod.app1.db-pass --value "AAAAAAAAAAA" --type SecureString --key-id "<key-id-for-prod-app1-key>" --region us-east-1
aws ssm put-parameter --name general.license-code --value "CCCCCCCCCCC" --type SecureString --key-id "<key-id-for-license-code-key>" --region us-east-1
aws ssm put-parameter --name prod.app2.user-name --value "BBBBBBBBBBB" --type String --region us-east-1

Step 2: Create the IAM role and policies

Now, create a role and an IAM policy to be associated later with the ECS task that you create later on.
The trust policy for the IAM role needs to allow the ecs-tasks entity to assume the role.

   "Version": "2012-10-17",
   "Statement": [
       "Sid": "",
       "Effect": "Allow",
       "Principal": {
         "Service": ""
       "Action": "sts:AssumeRole"

Save the above policy as a file in the local directory with the name ecs-tasks-trust-policy.json.

aws iam create-role --role-name prod-app1 --assume-role-policy-document file://ecs-tasks-trust-policy.json

The following policy is attached to the role and later associated with the app1 container. Access is granted to the prod.app1.* namespace parameters, the encryption key required to decrypt the prod.app1.db-pass parameter and the license code parameter. The namespace resource permission structure is useful for building various hierarchies (based on environments, applications, etc.).

Make sure to replace <key-id-for-prod-app1-key> with the key ID for the relevant KMS key and <account-id> with your account ID in the following policy.

     "Version": "2012-10-17",
     "Statement": [
             "Effect": "Allow",
             "Action": [
             "Resource": "*"
             "Sid": "Stmt1482841904000",
             "Effect": "Allow",
             "Action": [
             "Resource": [
             "Sid": "Stmt1482841948000",
             "Effect": "Allow",
             "Action": [
             "Resource": [

Save the above policy as a file in the local directory with the name app1-secret-access.json:

aws iam create-policy --policy-name prod-app1 --policy-document file://app1-secret-access.json

Replace <account-id> with your account ID in the following command:

aws iam attach-role-policy --role-name prod-app1 --policy-arn "arn:aws:iam::<account-id>:policy/prod-app1"

Step 3: Add the testing script to an S3 bucket

Create a file with the script below, name it and add it to an S3 bucket in your account. Make sure the object is publicly accessible and note down the object link, for example

#This is simple bash script that is used to test access to the EC2 Parameter store.
# Install the AWS CLI
apt-get -y install python2.7 curl
curl -O
pip install awscli
# Getting region
EC2_AVAIL_ZONE=`curl -s`
EC2_REGION="`echo \"$EC2_AVAIL_ZONE\" | sed -e 's:\([0-9][0-9]*\)[a-z]*\$:\\1:'`"
# Trying to retrieve parameters from the EC2 Parameter Store
APP1_WITH_ENCRYPTION=`aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app1.db-pass --with-decryption --region $EC2_REGION --output text 2>&1`
APP1_WITHOUT_ENCRYPTION=`aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app1.db-pass --no-with-decryption --region $EC2_REGION --output text 2>&1`
LICENSE_WITH_ENCRYPTION=`aws ssm get-parameters --names general.license-code --with-decryption --region $EC2_REGION --output text 2>&1`
LICENSE_WITHOUT_ENCRYPTION=`aws ssm get-parameters --names general.license-code --no-with-decryption --region $EC2_REGION --output text 2>&1`
APP2_WITHOUT_ENCRYPTION=`aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app2.user-name --no-with-decryption --region $EC2_REGION --output text 2>&1`
# The nginx server is started after the script is invoked, preparing folder for HTML.
if [ ! -d /usr/share/nginx/html/ ]; then
mkdir -p /usr/share/nginx/html/;
chmod 755 /usr/share/nginx/html/

# Creating an HTML file to be accessed at http://<public-instance-DNS-name>/ecs.html
cat > /usr/share/nginx/html/ecs.html <<EOF
<!DOCTYPE html>
body {padding: 20px;margin: 0 auto;font-family: Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif;}
code {white-space: pre-wrap;}
result {background: hsl(220, 80%, 90%);}
<h1>Hi there!</h1>
<p style="padding-bottom: 0.8cm;">Following are the results of different access attempts as expirienced by "App1".</p>

<p><b>Access to prod.app1.db-pass:</b><br/>
<pre><code>aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app1.db-pass --with-decryption</code><br/>
<code>aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app1.db-pass --no-with-decryption</code><br/>

<p><b>Access to general.license-code:</b><br/>
<pre><code>aws ssm get-parameters --names general.license-code --with-decryption</code><br/>
<code>aws ssm get-parameters --names general.license-code --no-with-decryption</code><br/>

<p><b>Access to prod.app2.user-name:</b><br/>
<pre><code>aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app2.user-name --no-with-decryption</code><br/>

<p><em>Thanks for visiting</em></p>

Step 4: Create a test cluster

I recommend creating a new ECS test cluster with the latest ECS AMI and ECS agent on the instance. Use the following field values:

  • Cluster name: access-test
  • EC2 instance type: t2.micro
  • Number of instances: 1
  • Key pair: No EC2 key pair is required, unless you’d like to SSH to the instance and explore the running container.
  • VPC: Choose the default VPC. If unsure, you can find the VPC ID with the IP range in the Amazon VPC console.
  • Subnets: Pick a subnet in the default VPC.
  • Security group: Create a new security group with CIDR block and port 80 for inbound access.

Leave other fields with the default settings.

Create a simple task definition that relies on the public NGINX container and the role that you created for app1. Specify the properties such as the available container resources and port mappings. Note the command option is used to download and invoke a test script that installs the AWS CLI on the container, runs a number of get-parameter commands, and creates an HTML file with the results.

Replace <account-id> with your account ID, <your-S3-URI> with a link to the S3 object created in step 3 in the following commands:

aws ecs register-task-definition --family access-test --task-role-arn "arn:aws:iam::<account-id>:role/prod-app1" --container-definitions name="access-test",image="nginx",portMappings="[{containerPort=80,hostPort=80,protocol=tcp}]",readonlyRootFilesystem=false,cpu=512,memory=490,essential=true,entryPoint="sh,-c",command="\"/bin/sh -c \\\"apt-get update ; apt-get -y install curl ; curl -O <your-S3-URI> ; chmod +x ; ./ ; nginx -g 'daemon off;'\\\"\"" --region us-east-1

aws ecs run-task --cluster access-test --task-definition access-test --count 1 --region us-east-1

Verifying access

After the task is in a running state, check the public DNS name of the instance and navigate to the following page:


You should see the results of running different access tests from the container after a short duration.

If the test results don’t appear immediately, wait a few seconds and refresh the page.
Make sure that inbound traffic for port 80 is allowed on the security group attached to the instance.

The results you see in the static results HTML page should be the same as running the following commands from the container.


aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app1.db-pass --with-decryption --region us-east-1
aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app1.db-pass --no-with-decryption --region us-east-1

Both commands should work, as the policy provides access to both the parameter and the required KMS key.


aws ssm get-parameters --names general.license-code --no-with-decryption --region us-east-1
aws ssm get-parameters --names general.license-code --with-decryption --region us-east-1

Only the first command with the “no-with-decryption” parameter should work. The policy allows access to the parameter in Parameter Store but there’s no access to the KMS key. The second command should fail with an access denied error.


aws ssm get-parameters --names prod.app2.user-name –no-with-decryption --region us-east-1

The command should fail with an access denied error, as there are no permissions associated with the namespace for prod.app2.

Finishing up

Remember to delete all resources (such as the KMS keys and EC2 instance), so that you don’t incur charges.


Central secret management is an important aspect of securing containerized environments. By using Parameter Store and task IAM roles, customers can create a central secret management store and a well-integrated access layer that allows applications to access only the keys they need, to restrict access on a container basis, and to further encrypt secrets with custom keys with KMS.

Whether the secret management layer is implemented with Parameter Store, Amazon S3, Amazon DynamoDB, or a solution such as Vault or KeyWhiz, it’s a vital part to the process of managing and accessing secrets.