AWS Compute Blog

Deploying an NGINX Reverse Proxy Sidecar Container on Amazon ECS

Reverse proxies are a powerful software architecture primitive for fetching resources from a server on behalf of a client. They serve a number of purposes, from protecting servers from unwanted traffic to offloading some of the heavy lifting of HTTP traffic processing.

This post explains the benefits of a reverse proxy, and explains how to use NGINX and Amazon EC2 Container Service (Amazon ECS) to easily implement and deploy a reverse proxy for your containerized application.


NGINX is a high performance HTTP server that has achieved significant adoption because of its asynchronous event driven architecture. It can serve thousands of concurrent requests with a low memory footprint. This efficiency also makes it ideal as a reverse proxy.

Amazon ECS is a highly scalable, high performance container management service that supports Docker containers. It allows you to run applications easily on a managed cluster of Amazon EC2 instances. Amazon ECS helps you get your application components running on instances according to a specified configuration. It also helps scale out these components across an entire fleet of instances.

Sidecar containers are a common software pattern that has been embraced by engineering organizations. It’s a way to keep server side architecture easier to understand by building with smaller, modular containers that each serve a simple purpose. Just like an application can be powered by multiple microservices, each microservice can also be powered by multiple containers that work together. A sidecar container is simply a way to move part of the core responsibility of a service out into a containerized module that is deployed alongside a core application container.

The following diagram shows how an NGINX reverse proxy sidecar container operates alongside an application server container:

In this architecture, Amazon ECS has deployed two copies of an application stack that is made up of an NGINX reverse proxy side container and an application container. Web traffic from the public goes to an Application Load Balancer, which then distributes the traffic to one of the NGINX reverse proxy sidecars. The NGINX reverse proxy then forwards the request to the application server and returns its response to the client via the load balancer.

Reverse proxy for security

Security is one reason for using a reverse proxy in front of an application container. Any web server that serves resources to the public can expect to receive lots of unwanted traffic every day. Some of this traffic is relatively benign scans by researchers and tools, such as Shodan or nmap:

[18/May/2017:15:10:10 +0000] "GET /YesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScanningForResearchPurposePleaseHaveALookAtTheUserAgentTHXYesThisIsAReallyLongRequestURLbutWeAreDoingItOnPurposeWeAreScann HTTP/1.1" 404 1389 - Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_11_1) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/46.0.2490.86 Safari/537.36
[18/May/2017:18:19:51 +0000] "GET /clientaccesspolicy.xml HTTP/1.1" 404 322 - Cloud mapping experiment. Contact

But other traffic is much more malicious. For example, here is what a web server sees while being scanned by the hacking tool ZmEu, which scans web servers trying to find PHPMyAdmin installations to exploit:

[18/May/2017:16:27:39 +0000] "GET /mysqladmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 391 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:39 +0000] "GET /web/phpMyAdmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 394 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:39 +0000] "GET /xampp/phpmyadmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 396 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:40 +0000] "GET /apache-default/phpmyadmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 405 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:40 +0000] "GET /phpMyAdmin- HTTP/1.1" 404 397 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:40 +0000] "GET /mysql/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 386 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:41 +0000] "GET /admin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 386 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:41 +0000] "GET /forum/phpmyadmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 396 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:41 +0000] "GET /typo3/phpmyadmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 396 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:42 +0000] "GET /phpMyAdmin- HTTP/1.1" 404 399 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:44 +0000] "GET /administrator/components/com_joommyadmin/phpmyadmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 418 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:18:34:45 +0000] "GET /phpmyadmin/scripts/setup.php HTTP/1.1" 404 390 - ZmEu
[18/May/2017:16:27:45 +0000] "GET / HTTP/1.1" 404 401 - ZmEu

In addition, servers can also end up receiving unwanted web traffic that is intended for another server. In a cloud environment, an application may end up reusing an IP address that was formerly connected to another service. It’s common for misconfigured or misbehaving DNS servers to send traffic intended for a different host to an IP address now connected to your server.

It’s the responsibility of anyone running a web server to handle and reject potentially malicious traffic or unwanted traffic. Ideally, the web server can reject this traffic as early as possible, before it actually reaches the core application code. A reverse proxy is one way to provide this layer of protection for an application server. It can be configured to reject these requests before they reach the application server.

Reverse proxy for performance

Another advantage of using a reverse proxy such as NGINX is that it can be configured to offload some heavy lifting from your application container. For example, every HTTP server should support gzip. Whenever a client requests gzip encoding, the server compresses the response before sending it back to the client. This compression saves network bandwidth, which also improves speed for clients who now don’t have to wait as long for a response to fully download.

NGINX can be configured to accept a plaintext response from your application container and gzip encode it before sending it down to the client. This allows your application container to focus 100% of its CPU allotment on running business logic, while NGINX handles the encoding with its efficient gzip implementation.

An application may have security concerns that require SSL termination at the instance level instead of at the load balancer. NGINX can also be configured to terminate SSL before proxying the request to a local application container. Again, this also removes some CPU load from the application container, allowing it to focus on running business logic. It also gives you a cleaner way to patch any SSL vulnerabilities or update SSL certificates by updating the NGINX container without needing to change the application container.

NGINX configuration

Configuring NGINX for both traffic filtering and gzip encoding is shown below:

http {
  # NGINX will handle gzip compression of responses from the app server
  gzip on;
  gzip_proxied any;
  gzip_types text/plain application/json;
  gzip_min_length 1000;
  server {
    listen 80;
    # NGINX will reject anything not matching /api
    location /api {
      # Reject requests with unsupported HTTP method
      if ($request_method !~ ^(GET|POST|HEAD|OPTIONS|PUT|DELETE)$) {
        return 405;
      # Only requests matching the whitelist expectations will
      # get sent to the application server
      proxy_pass http://app:3000;
      proxy_http_version 1.1;
      proxy_set_header Upgrade $http_upgrade;
      proxy_set_header Connection 'upgrade';
      proxy_set_header Host $host;
      proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;
      proxy_cache_bypass $http_upgrade;

The above configuration only accepts traffic that matches the expression /api and has a recognized HTTP method. If the traffic matches, it is forwarded to a local application container accessible at the local hostname app. If the client requested gzip encoding, the plaintext response from that application container is gzip-encoded.

Amazon ECS configuration

Configuring ECS to run this NGINX container as a sidecar is also simple. ECS uses a core primitive called the task definition. Each task definition can include one or more containers, which can be linked to each other:

  "containerDefinitions": [
       "name": "nginx",
       "image": "<NGINX reverse proxy image URL here>",
       "memory": "256",
       "cpu": "256",
       "essential": true,
       "portMappings": [
           "containerPort": "80",
           "protocol": "tcp"
       "links": [
       "name": "app",
       "image": "<app image URL here>",
       "memory": "256",
       "cpu": "256",
       "essential": true
   "networkMode": "bridge",
   "family": "application-stack"

This task definition causes ECS to start both an NGINX container and an application container on the same instance. Then, the NGINX container is linked to the application container. This allows the NGINX container to send traffic to the application container using the hostname app.

The NGINX container has a port mapping that exposes port 80 on a publically accessible port but the application container does not. This means that the application container is not directly addressable. The only way to send it traffic is to send traffic to the NGINX container, which filters that traffic down. It only forwards to the application container if the traffic passes the whitelisted rules.


Running a sidecar container such as NGINX can bring significant benefits by making it easier to provide protection for application containers. Sidecar containers also improve performance by freeing your application container from various CPU intensive tasks. Amazon ECS makes it easy to run sidecar containers, and automate their deployment across your cluster.

To see the full code for this NGINX sidecar reference, or to try it out yourself, you can check out the open source NGINX reverse proxy reference architecture on GitHub.

– Nathan