AWS Compute Blog

Setting up EC2 Mac instances as shared remote development environments

This post is written by: Michael Meidlinger, Solutions Architect 

In December 2020, we announced a macOS-based Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instance. Amazon EC2 Mac instances let developers build, test, and package their applications for every Apple platform, including macOS, iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and watchOS. Customers have been utilizing these instances in order to automate their build pipelines for the Apple platform and integrate their native build tools, such as Jenkins and GitLab.

Aside from build automation, more and more customers are looking to utilize EC2 Mac instances for interactive development. Several advantages exist when utilizing remote development environments over installations on local developer machines:

  • Light-weight process for rolling out consistent, up-to-date environments for every developer without having to install software locally.
  • Solve cross-platform issues by having separate environments for different target platforms, all of which are independent of the developer’s local setup.
  • Consolidate access to source code and internal build tools, as they can be integrated with the remote development environment rather than local developer machines.
  • No need for specialized or powerful developer hardware.

On top of that, this approach promotes cost efficiency, as it enables EC2 Mac instances to be shared and utilized by multiple developers concurrently. This is particularly relevant for EC2 Mac instances, as they run on dedicated Mac mini hosts with a minimum tenancy of 24 hours. Therefore, handing out full instances to individual developers is not practical most often.

Interactive remote development environments are also facilitated by code editors, such as VSCode, which provide a modern GUI based experience on the developer’s local machine while having source code files and terminal sessions for testing and debugging in the remote environment context.

This post will demonstrate how EC2 Mac instances can be setup as remote development servers that can be accessed by multiple developers concurrently in order to compile and run their code interactively via command line access. The proposed setup features centralized user management based on AWS Directory Service and shared network storage utilizing Amazon Elastic File System (Amazon EFS), thereby decoupling those aspects from the development server instances. As a result, new instances can easily be added when needed, and existing instances can be updated to the newest OS and development toolchain version without affecting developer workflow.


The following diagram shows the architecture rolled out in the context of this blog.

Architecture Diagram. A detailed description is featured in the blog text.

Compute Layer

The compute layer consists of two EC2 Mac instances running in isolated private subnets in different Availability Zones. In a production setup, these instances are provisioned with every necessary tool and software needed by developers to build and test their code for Apple platforms. Provisioning can be accomplished by creating custom Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) for the EC2 Mac instances or by bootstrapping them with setup scripts. This post utilizes Amazon provided AMIs with macOS BigSur without custom software. Once setup, developers gain command line access to the instances via SSH and utilize them as remote development environments.

Storage Layer

The architecture promotes the decoupling of compute and storage so that EC2 Mac instances can be updated with new OS and/or software versions without affecting the developer experience or data. Home directories reside on a highly available Amazon EFS file system, and they can be consistently accessed from all EC2 Mac instances. From a user perspective, any two EC2 Mac instances are alike, in that the user experiences the same configuration and environment (e.g., shell configurations such as .zshrc, VSCode remote extensions .vscode-server, or other tools and configurations installed within the user’s home directory). The file system is exposed to the private subnets via redundant mount target ENIs and persistently mounted on the Mac instances.

Identity Layer

For centralized user and access management, all instances in the architecture are part of a common Active Directory domain based on AWS Managed Microsoft AD. This is exposed via redundant ENIs to the private subnets containing the Mac instances.

To manage and configure the Active Directory domain, a Windows Instance (MGMT01) is deployed. For this post, we will connect to this instance for setting up Active Directory users. Note: other than that, this instance is not required for operating the solution, and it can be shut down both for reasons of cost efficiency and security.

Access Layer

The access layer constitutes the entry and exit point of the setup. For this post, it is comprised of an internet-facing bastion host connecting authorized Active Directory users to the Mac instances, as well as redundant NAT gateways providing outbound internet connectivity.

Depending on customer requirements, the access layer can be realized in various ways. For example, it can provide access to customer on-premises networks by using AWS Direct Connect or AWS Virtual Private Network (AWS VPN), or to services in different Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) networks by using AWS PrivateLink. This means that you can integrate your Mac development environment with pre-existing development-related services, such as source code and software repositories or build and test services.


We utilize AWS CloudFormation to automatically deploy the entire setup in the preceding description. All templates and code can be obtained from the blog’s GitHub repository. To complete the setup, you need

Warning: Deploying this example will incur AWS service charges of at least $50 due to the fact that EC2 Mac instances can only be released 24 hours after allocation.

Solution Deployment

In this section, we provide a step-by-step guide for deploying the solution. We will mostly rely on AWS CLI and shell scripts provided along with the CloudFormation templates and use the AWS Management Console for checking and verification only.

1. Get the Code: Obtain the CloudFormation templates and all relevant scripts and assets via git:

git clone
cd ec2-mac-remote-dev-env
git submodule init 
git submodule update

2. Create an Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) deployment bucket and upload assets for deployment: CloudFormation templates and other assets are uploaded to this bucket in order to deploy them. To achieve this, run the script in the repository root, accepting the default bucket configuration as suggested by the script:


3. Create an SSH Keypair for admin Access: To access the instances deployed by CloudFormation, create an SSH keypair with name mac-admin, and then import it with EC2:

ssh-keygen -f ~/.ssh/mac-admin
aws ec2 import-key-pair \
    --key-name "mac-admin" \
    --public-key-material fileb://~/.ssh/

4. Create CloudFormation Parameters file: Initialize the json file by copying the provided template parameters-template.json :

cp parameters-template.json parameters.json

Substitute the following placeholders:

a. <YourS3BucketName>: The unique name of the S3 bucket you created in step 2.

b. <YourSecurePassword>: Active Directory domain admin password. This must be 8-32 characters long and can contain numbers, letters and symbols.

c. <YourMacOSAmiID>: We used the latest macOS BigSur AMI at the time of writing with AMI ID ami-0c84d9da210c1110b in the us-east-2 Region. You can obtain other AMI IDs for your desired AWS Region and macOS version from the console.

d. <MacHost1ID> and <MacHost2ID>: See the next step 5. on how to allocate Dedicated Hosts and obtain the host IDs.

5. Allocate Dedicated Hosts: EC2 Mac Instances run on Dedicated Hosts. Therefore, prior to being able to deploy instances, Dedicated Hosts must be allocated. We utilize us-east-2 as the target Region, and we allocate the hosts in the Availability Zones us-east-2b and us-east-2c:

aws ec2 allocate-hosts \
    --auto-placement off \
    --region us-east-2 \
    --availability-zone us-east-2b \
    --instance-type mac1.metal \
    --quantity 1 \
    --tag-specifications 'ResourceType=dedicated-host,Tags=[{Key=Name,Value=MacHost1}]'

aws ec2 allocate-hosts \
    --auto-placement off \
    --region us-east-2 \
    --availability-zone us-east-2c \
    --instance-type mac1.metal \
    --quantity 1 \
    --tag-specifications 'ResourceType=dedicated-host,Tags=[{Key=Name,Value=MacHost2}]'

Substitute the host IDs returned from those commands in the parameters.json file as instructed in the previous step 5.

6. Deploy the CloudFormation Stack: To deploy the stack with the name ec2-mac-remote-dev-env, run the provided sh script as follows:

./ ec2-mac-remote-dev-env

Stack deployment can take up to 1.5 hours, which is due to the Microsoft Managed Active Directory, the Windows MGMT01 instance, and the Mac instances being created sequentially. Check the CloudFormation Console to see whether the stack finished deploying. In the console, under Stacks, select the stack name from the preceding code (ec2-mac-remote-dev-env), and then navigate to the Outputs Tab. Once finished, this will display the public DNS name of the bastion host, as well as the private IPs of the Mac instances. You need this information in the upcoming section in order to connect and test your setup.

Solution Test

Now you can log in and explore the setup. We will start out by creating a developer account within Active Directory and configure an SSH key in order for it to grant access.

Create an Active Directory User

Create an SSH Key for the Active Directory User and configure SSH Client

First, we create a new SSH key for the developer Active Directory user. Utilize OpenSSH CLI,

ssh-keygen -f ~/.ssh/mac-developer

Furthermore, utilizing the connection information from the CloudFormation output, setup your ~/.ssh/config to contain the following entries, where $BASTION_HOST_PUBLIC_DNS, $MAC1_PRIVATE_IP and $MAC2_PRIVATE_IP must be replaced accordingly:

Host bastion
  User ec2-user
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/mac-admin

Host bastion-developer
  User developer
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/mac-developer

Host macos1
  ProxyJump %r@bastion-developer
  User developer
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/mac-developer

Host macos2
  ProxyJump %r@bastion-developer
  User developer
  IdentityFile ~/.ssh/mac-developer

As you can see from this configuration, we set up both SSH keys created during this blog. The mac-admin key that you created earlier provides access to the privileged local ec2-user account, while the mac-developer key that you just created grants access to the unprivileged AD developer account. We will create this next.

Login to the Windows MGMT Instance and setup a developer Active Directory account

Now login to the bastion host, forwarding port 3389 to the MGMT01 host in order to gain Remote Desktop Access to the Windows management instance:

ssh -L3389:mgmt01:3389 bastion

While having this connection open, launch your Remote Desktop Client and connect to localhost with Username admin and password as specified earlier in the CloudFormation parameters. Once connected to the instance, open Control Panel>System and Security>Administrative Tools and click Active Directory Users and Computers. Then, in the appearing window, enable View>Advanced Features. If you haven’t changed the Active Directory domain name explicitly in CloudFormation, then the default domain name is with corresponding NetBIOS Name example. Therefore, to create a new user for that domain, select Active Directory Users and Computers>>example>Users, and click Create a new User. In the resulting wizard, set the Full name and User logon name fields to developer, and proceed to set a password to create the user. Once created, right-click on the developer user, and select Properties>Attribute Editor. Search for the altSecurityIdentities property, and copy-paste the developer public SSH key (contained in ~/.ssh/ into the Value to add field, click Add, and then click OK. In the Properties window, save your changes by clicking Apply and OK. The following figure illustrates the process just described:

Screenshot from the Windows Management instance depicting the creation of the Active Directory user. A detailed description of this process is contained in the blog text.

Connect to the EC2 Mac instances

Now that the developer account is setup, you can connect to either of the two EC2 Mac instances from your local machine with the Active Directory account:

ssh macos1

When you connect via the preceding command, your local machine first establishes an SSH connection to the bastion host which authorizes the request against the key we just stored in Active Directory. Upon success, the bastion host forwards the connection to the macos1 instance, which again authorizes against Active Directory and launches a  terminal session upon success. The following figure illustrates the login with the macos1 instances, showcasing both the integration with AD (EXAMPLE\Domain Users group membership) as well as with the EFS share, which is mounted at /opt/nfsshare and symlinked to the developer’s home directory.

Screenshot from a terminal window after logging into the macos1 instance. Instructions for doing this are included in the blog text.

Likewise, you can create folders and files in the developer’s home directory such as the test-project folder depicted in the screenshot.

Lastly, let’s utilize VS Code’s remote plugin and connect to the other macos2 instance. Select the Remote Explorer on the left-hand pane and click to open the macos2 host as shown in the following screenshot:

Screenshot depicting how to connect to the macos2 instance using the VSCode Remote SSH extension.

A new window will be opened with the context of the remote server, as shown in the next figure. As you can see, we have access to the same files seen previously on the macos1 host.

Screenshot showing VSCode UI once connected to the macos2 instance.


From the repository root, run the provided script in order to destroy all resources created by CloudFormation, specifying the stack name as input parameter:

./ ec2-mac-remote-dev-env

Check the CloudFormation Console to confirm that the stack and its resources are properly deleted.

Lastly, in the EC2 Console, release the dedicated Mac Hosts that you allocated in the beginning. Notice that this is only possible 24 hours after allocation.


This post has shown how EC2 Mac instances can be set up as remote development environments, thereby allowing developers to create software for Apple platforms regardless of their local hardware and software setup. Aside from increased flexibility and maintainability, this setup also saves cost because multiple developers can work interactively with the same EC2 Mac instance. We have rolled out an architecture that integrates EC2 Mac instances with AWS Directory Services for centralized user and access management as well as Amazon EFS to store developer home directories in a durable and highly available manner. This has resulted in an architecture where instances can easily be added, removed, or updated without affecting developer workflow. Now, irrespective of your client machine, you are all set to start coding with your local editor while leveraging EC2 Mac instances in the AWS Cloud to provide you with a macOS environment! To get started and learn more about EC2 Mac instances, please visit the product page.