How to Control TLS Ciphers in Your AWS Elastic Beanstalk Application by Using AWS CloudFormation
Securing data in transit is critical to the integrity of transactions on the Internet. Whether you log in to an account with your user name and password or give your credit card details to a retailer, you want your data protected as it travels across the Internet from place to place. One of the protocols in widespread use to protect data in transit is Transport Layer Security (TLS). Every time you access a URL that begins with “https” instead of just “http”, you are using a TLS-secured connection to a website.
To demonstrate that your application has a strong TLS configuration, you can use services like the one provided by SSL Labs. There are also open source, command-line-oriented TLS testing programs such as testssl.sh (which I do not cover in this post) and sslscan (which I cover later in this post). The goal of testing your TLS configuration is to provide evidence that weak cryptographic ciphers are disabled in your TLS configuration and only strong ciphers are enabled. In this blog post, I show you how to control the TLS security options for your secure load balancer in AWS CloudFormation, pass the TLS certificate and host name for your secure AWS Elastic Beanstalk application to the CloudFormation script as parameters, and then confirm that only strong TLS ciphers are enabled on the launched application by testing it with SSLLabs.
In some situations, it’s not enough to simply turn on TLS with its default settings and call it done. Over the years, a number of vulnerabilities have been discovered in the TLS protocol itself with codenames such as CRIME, POODLE, and Logjam. Though some vulnerabilities were in specific implementations, such as OpenSSL, others were vulnerabilities in the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or TLS protocol itself.
The only way to avoid some TLS vulnerabilities is to ensure your web server uses only the latest version of TLS. Some organizations want to limit their TLS configuration to the highest possible security levels to satisfy company policies, regulatory requirements, or other information security requirements. In practice, such limitations usually mean using TLS version 1.2 (at the time of this writing, TLS 1.3 is in the works) and using only strong cryptographic ciphers. Note that forcing a high-security TLS connection in this manner limits which types of devices can connect to your web server. I address this point at the end of this post.
The default TLS configuration in most web servers is compatible with the broadest set of clients (such as web browsers, mobile devices, and point-of-sale systems). As a result, older ciphers and protocol versions are usually enabled. This is true for the Elastic Load Balancing load balancer that is created in your Elastic Beanstalk application as well as for web server software such as Apache and nginx. For example, TLS versions 1.0 and 1.1 are enabled in addition to 1.2. The RC4 cipher is permitted, even though that cipher is too weak for the most demanding security requirements. If your application needs to prioritize the security of connections over compatibility with legacy devices, you must adjust the TLS encryption settings on your application. The solution in this post helps you make those adjustments.
Prerequisites for the solution
Before you implement this solution, you must have a few prerequisites in place:
- You must have a hosted zone in Amazon Route 53 where the name of the secure application will be created. I use example.com as my domain name in this post and assume that I host example.com publicly in Route 53. To learn more about creating and hosting a zone publicly in Route 53, see Working with Public Hosted Zones.
- You must choose a name to be associated with the secure app. In this case, I use secure.example.com as the DNS name to be associated with the secure app. This means that I’m trying to create an Elastic Beanstalk application whose URL will be https://secure.example.com/.
- You must have a TLS certificate hosted in AWS Certificate Manager (ACM). This certificate must be issued with the name you decided in Step 2. If you are new to ACM, see Getting Started. If you are already familiar with ACM, request a certificate and get its Amazon Resource Name (ARN).Look up the ARN for the certificate that you created by opening the ACM console. The ARN looks something like: arn:aws:acm:eu-west-1:111122223333:certificate/12345678-abcd-1234-abcd-1234abcd1234.
Implementing the solution
You can use two approaches to control the TLS ciphers used by your load balancer: one is to use a predefined protocol policy from AWS, and the other is to write your own protocol policy that lists exactly which ciphers should be enabled. There are many ciphers and options that can be set, so the appropriate AWS predefined policy is often the simplest policy to use. If you have to comply with an information security policy that requires enabling or disabling specific ciphers, you will probably find it easiest to write a custom policy listing only the ciphers that are acceptable to your requirements.
AWS released two predefined TLS policies on March 10, 2017: ELBSecurityPolicy-TLS-1-1-2017-01 and ELBSecurityPolicy-TLS-1-2-2017-01. These policies restrict TLS negotiations to TLS 1.1 and 1.2, respectively. You can find a good comparison of the ciphers that these policies enable and disable in the HTTPS listener documentation for Elastic Load Balancing. If your requirements are simply “support TLS 1.1 and later” or “support TLS 1.2 and later,” those AWS predefined cipher policies are the best place to start. If you need to control your cipher choice with a custom policy, I show you in this post which lines of the CloudFormation template to change.
Download the predefined policy CloudFormation template
Many AWS customers rely on CloudFormation to launch their AWS resources, including their Elastic Beanstalk applications. To change the ciphers and protocol versions supported on your load balancer, you must put those options in a CloudFormation template. You can store your site’s TLS certificate in ACM and create the corresponding DNS alias record in the correct zone in Route 53.
To start, download the CloudFormation template that I have provided for this blog post, or deploy the template directly in your environment. This template creates a CloudFormation stack in your default VPC that contains two resources: an Elastic Beanstalk application that deploys a standard sample PHP application, and a Route 53 record in a hosted zone. This CloudFormation template selects the AWS predefined policy called ELBSecurityPolicy-TLS-1-2-2017-01 and deploys it.
Launching the sample application from the CloudFormation console
In the CloudFormation console, choose Create Stack. You can either upload the template through your browser, or load the template into an Amazon S3 bucket and type the S3 URL in the Specify an Amazon S3 template URL box.
After you click Next, you will see that there are three parameters defined: CertificateARN, ELBHostName, and HostedDomainName. Set the CertificateARN parameter to the ARN of the certificate you want to use for your application. Set the ELBHostName parameter to the hostname part of the URL. For example, if your URL were https://secure.example.com/, the HostedDomainName parameter would be example.com and the ELBHostName parameter would be secure.
For the sample application, choose Next and then choose Create, and the CloudFormation stack will be created. For your own applications, you might need to set other options such as a database, VPC options, or Amazon SNS notifications. For more details, see AWS Elastic Beanstalk Environment Configuration. To deploy an application other than our sample PHP application, create your own application source bundle.
Launching the sample application from the command line
In addition to launching the sample application from the console, you can specify the parameters from the command line. Because the template uses parameters, you can launch multiple copies of the application, specifying different parameters for each copy. To launch the application from a Linux command line with the AWS CLI, insert the correct values for your application, as shown in the following command.
When that command exits, it prints the StackID of the stack it created. Save that StackID for later so that you can fetch the stack’s outputs from the command line.
Using a custom cipher specification
If you want to specify your own cipher choices, you can use the same CloudFormation template and change two lines. Let’s assume your information security policies require you to disable any ciphers that use Cipher Block Chaining (CBC) mode encryption. These ciphers are enabled in the ELBSecurityPolicy-TLS-1-2-2017-01 managed policy, so to satisfy that security requirement, you have to modify the CloudFormation template to use your own protocol policy.
In the template, locate the three lines that define the TLSHighPolicy.
Change the OptionName and Value for the TLSHighPolicy. Instead of referring to the AWS predefined policy by name, explicitly list all the ciphers you want to use. Change those three lines so they look like the following.
This protocol policy stipulates that the load balancer should:
- Negotiate connections using only TLS 1.2.
- Ignore any attempts by the client (for example, the web browser or mobile device) to negotiate a weaker cipher.
- Accept four specific, strong combinations of cipher and key exchange—and nothing else.
The protocol policy enables only TLS 1.2, strong ciphers that do not use CBC mode encryption, and strong key exchange.
Connect to the secure application
When your CloudFormation stack is in the CREATE_COMPLETED state, you will find three outputs:
- The public DNS name of the load balancer
- The secure URL that was created
- TestOnSSLLabs output that contains a direct link for testing your configuration
You can either enter the secure URL in a web browser (for example, https://secure.example.com/), or click the link in the Outputs to open your sample application and see the demo page. Note that you must use HTTPS—this template has disabled HTTP on port 80 and only listens with HTTPS on port 443.
If you launched your application through the command line, you can view the CloudFormation outputs using the command line as well. You need to know the StackId of the stack you launched and insert it in the following stack-name parameter.
Test your application over the Internet with SSLLabs
The easiest way to confirm that the load balancer is using the secure ciphers that we chose is to enter the URL of the load balancer in the form on SSL Labs’ SSL Server Test page. If you do not want the name of your load balancer to be shared publicly on SSLLabs.com, select the Do not show the results on the boards check box. After a minute or two of testing, SSLLabs gives you a detailed report of every cipher it tried and how your load balancer responded. This test simulates many devices that might connect to your website, including mobile phones, desktop web browsers, and software libraries such as Java and OpenSSL. The report tells you whether these clients would be able to connect to your application successfully.
Assuming all went well, you should receive an A grade for the sample application. The biggest contributors to the A grade are:
- Supporting only TLS 1.2, and not TLS 1.1, TLS 1.0, or SSL 3.0
- Supporting only strong ciphers such as AES, and not weaker ciphers such as RC4
- Having an X.509 public key certificate issued correctly by ACM
How to test your application privately with sslscan
You might not be able to reach your Elastic Beanstalk application from the Internet because it might be in a private subnet that is only accessible internally. If you want to test the security of your load balancer’s configuration privately, you can use one of the open source command-line tools such as sslscan. You can install and run the sslscan command on any Amazon EC2 Linux instance or even from your own laptop. Be sure that the Elastic Beanstalk application you want to test will accept an HTTPS connection from your Amazon Linux EC2 instance or from your laptop.
The easiest way to get sslscan on an Amazon Linux EC2 instance is to:
- Enable the Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux (EPEL) repository.
- Run sudo yum install sslscan.
- After the command runs successfully, run sslscan secure.example.com to scan your application for supported ciphers.
The results are similar to Qualys’ results at SSLLabs.com, but the sslscan tool does not summarize and evaluate the results to assign a grade. It just reports whether your application accepted a connection using the cipher that it tried. You must decide for yourself whether that set of accepted connections represents the right level of security for your application. If you have been asked to build a secure load balancer that meets specific security requirements, the output from sslscan helps to show how the security of your application is configured.
The following sample output shows a small subset of the total output of the sslscan tool.
An Accepted connection is one that was successful: the load balancer and the client were both able to use the indicated cipher. Failed and Rejected connections are connections whose load balancer would not accept the level of security that the client was requesting. As a result, the load balancer closed the connection instead of communicating insecurely. The difference between Failed and Rejected is based one whether the TLS connection was closed cleanly.
Comparing the two policies
The main difference between our custom policy and the AWS predefined policy is whether or not CBC ciphers are accepted. The test results with both policies are identical except for the results shown in the following table. The only change in the policy, and therefore the only change in the results, is that the cipher suites using CBC ciphers have been disabled.
|Cipher Suite Name||Encryption Algorithm||Key Size (bits)||ELBSecurityPolicy-TLS-1-2-2017-01||Custom Policy|
Strong ciphers and compatibility
The custom policy described in the previous section prevents legacy devices and older versions of software and web browsers from connecting. The output at SSLLabs provides a list of devices and applications (such as Internet Explorer 10 on Windows 7) that cannot connect to an application that uses the TLS policy. By design, the load balancer will refuse to connect to a device that is unable to negotiate a connection at the required levels of security. Users who use legacy software and devices will see different errors, depending on which device or software they use (for example, Internet Explorer on Windows, Chrome on Android, or a legacy mobile application). The error messages will be some variation of “connection failed” because the Elastic Load Balancer closes the connection without responding to the user’s request. This behavior can be problematic for websites that must be accessible to older desktop operating systems or older mobile devices.
If you need to support legacy devices, adjust the TLSHighPolicy in the CloudFormation template. For example, if you need to support web browsers on Windows 7 systems (and you cannot enable TLS 1.2 support on those systems), you can change the policy to enable TLS 1.1. To do this, change the value of SSLReferencePolicy to ELBSecurityPolicy-TLS-1-1-2017-01.
Enabling legacy protocol versions such as TLS version 1.1 will allow older devices to connect, but then the application may not be compliant with the information security policies or business requirements that require strong ciphers.
Using Elastic Beanstalk, Route 53, and ACM can help you launch secure applications that are designed to not only protect data but also meet regulatory compliance requirements and your information security policies. The TLS policy, either custom or predefined, allows you to control exactly which cryptographic ciphers are enabled on your Elastic Load Balancer. The TLS test results provide you with clear evidence you can use to demonstrate compliance with security policies or requirements. The parameters in this post’s CloudFormation template also make it adaptable and reusable for multiple applications. You can use the same template to launch different applications on different secure URLs by simply changing the parameters that you pass to the template.
If you have comments about this post, submit them in the “Comments” section below. If you have questions about or issues implementing this solution, start a new thread on the CloudFormation forum.