AWS Security Blog

How to improve cross-account access for SaaS applications accessing customer accounts

Several independent software vendors (ISVs) and software as a service (SaaS) providers need to access their customers’ Amazon Web Services (AWS) accounts, especially if the SaaS product accesses data from customer environments. SaaS providers have adopted multiple variations of this third-party access scenario. In some cases, the providers ask the customer for an access key and a secret key, which is not recommended because these are long-term user credentials and require processes to be built for periodic rotation. However, in most cases, the provider has an integration guide with specific details on creating a cross-account AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) role.

In all these scenarios, as a SaaS vendor, you should add the necessary protections to your SaaS implementation. At AWS, security is the top priority and we recommend that customers follow best practices and incorporate security in their product design. In this blog post intended for SaaS providers, I describe three ways to improve your cross-account access implementation for your products.

Why is this important?

As a security specialist, I’ve worked with multiple ISV customers on improving the security of their products, specifically on this third-party cross-account access scenario. Consumers of your SaaS products don’t want to give more access permissions than are necessary for the product’s proper functioning. At the same time, you should maintain and provide a secure SaaS product to protect your customers’ and your own AWS accounts from unauthorized access or privilege escalations.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario with a simple SaaS implementation where a customer is planning to use a SaaS product. In Figure 1, you can see that the SaaS product has multiple different components performing separate functions, for example, a SaaS product with separate components performing compute analysis, storage analysis, and log analysis. The SaaS provider asks the customer to provide IAM user credentials and uses those in their product to access customer resources. Let’s look at three techniques for improving the cross-account access for this scenario. Each technique builds on the previous one, so you could adopt an incremental approach to implement these techniques.

Figure 1: SaaS architecture using customer IAM user credentials

Figure 1: SaaS architecture using customer IAM user credentials

Technique 1 – Using IAM roles and an external ID

As stated previously, IAM user credentials are long-term, so customers would need to implement processes to rotate these periodically and share them with the ISV.

As a better option, SaaS product components can use IAM roles, which provide short-term credentials to the component assuming the role. These credentials need to be refreshed depending on the role’s session duration setting (the default is 1 hour) to continue accessing the resources. IAM roles also provide an advantage for auditing purposes because each time an IAM principal assumes a role, a new session is created, and this can be used to identify and audit activity for separate sessions.

When using IAM roles for third-party access, an important consideration is the confused deputy problem, where an unauthorized entity could coerce the product components into performing an action against another customers’ resources. To mitigate this problem, a highly recommended approach is to use the external ID parameter when assuming roles in customers’ accounts. It’s important and recommended that you generate these external ID parameters to make sure they’re unique for each of your customers, for example, using a customer ID or similar attribute. For external ID character restrictions, see the IAM quotas page. Your customers will use this external ID in their IAM role’s trust policy, and your product components will pass this as a parameter in all AssumeRole API calls to customer environments. An example of the trust policy principal and condition blocks for the role to be assumed in the customer’s account follows:

    "Principal": {"AWS": "<SaaS Provider’s AWS account ID>"},
    "Condition": {"StringEquals": {"sts:ExternalId": "<Unique ID Assigned by SaaS Provider>"}}
Figure 2: SaaS architecture using an IAM role and external ID

Figure 2: SaaS architecture using an IAM role and external ID

Technique 2 – Using least-privilege IAM policies and role chaining

As an IAM best practice, we recommend that an IAM role should only have the minimum set of permissions as required to perform its functions. When your customers create an IAM role in Technique 1, they might inadvertently provide more permissions than necessary to use your product. The role could have permissions associated with multiple AWS services and might become overly permissive. If you provide granular permissions for separate AWS services, you might reach the policy size quota or policies per role quota. See IAM quotas for more information. That’s why, in addition to Technique 1, we recommend that each component have a separate IAM role in the customer’s account with only the minimum permissions required for its functions.

As a part of your integration guide to the customer, you should ask them to create appropriate IAM policies for these IAM roles. There needs to be a clear separation of duties and least privilege access for the product components. For example, an account-monitoring SaaS provider might use a separate IAM role for Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) monitoring and another one for AWS CloudTrail monitoring. Your components will also use separate IAM roles in your own AWS account. However, you might want to provide a single integration IAM role to customers to establish the trust relationship with each component role in their account. In effect, you will be using the concept of role chaining to access your customer’s accounts. The auditing mechanisms on the customer’s end will only display the integration IAM role sessions.

When using role chaining, you must be aware of certain caveats and limitations. Your components will each have separate roles: Role A, which will assume the integration role (Role B), and then use the Role B credentials to assume the customer role (Role C) in customer’s accounts. You need to properly define the correct permissions for each of these roles, because the permissions of the previous role aren’t passed while assuming the role. Optionally, you can pass an IAM policy document known as a session policy as a parameter while assuming the role, and the effective permissions will be a logical intersection of the passed policy and the attached permissions for the role. To learn more about these session policies, see session policies.

Another consideration of using role chaining is that it limits your AWS Command Line Interface (AWS CLI) or AWS API role session duration to a maximum of one hour. This means that you must track the sessions and perform credential refresh actions every hour to continue accessing the resources.

Figure 3: SaaS architecture with role chaining

Figure 3: SaaS architecture with role chaining

Technique 3 – Using role tags and session tags for attribute-based access control

When you create your IAM roles for role chaining, you define which entity can assume the role. You will need to add each component-specific IAM role to the integration role’s trust relationship. As the number of components within your product increases, you might reach the maximum length of the role trust policy. See IAM quotas for more information.

That’s why, in addition to the above two techniques, we recommend using attribute-based access control (ABAC), which is an authorization strategy that defines permissions based on tag attributes. You should tag all the component IAM roles with role tags and use these role tags as conditions in the trust policy for the integration role as shown in the following example. Optionally, you could also include instructions in the product integration guide for tagging customers’ IAM roles with certain role tags and modify the IAM policy of the integration role to allow it to assume only roles with those role tags. This helps in reducing IAM policy length and minimizing the risk of reaching the IAM quota.

"Condition": {
     "StringEquals": {"iam:ResourceTag/<Product>": "<ExampleSaaSProduct>"}

Another consideration for improving the auditing and traceability for your product is IAM role session tags. These could be helpful if you use CloudTrail log events for alerting on specific role sessions. If your SaaS product also operates on CloudTrail logs, you could use these session tags to identify the different sessions from your product. As opposed to role tags, which are tags attached to an IAM role, session tags are key-value pair attributes that you pass when you assume an IAM role. These can be used to identify a session and further control or restrict access to resources based on the tags. Session tags can also be used along with role chaining. When you use session tags with role chaining, you can set the keys as transitive to make sure that you pass them to subsequent sessions. CloudTrail log events for these role sessions will contain the session tags, transitive tags, and role (also called principal) tags.


In this post, we discussed three incremental techniques that build on each other and are important for SaaS providers to improve security and access control while implementing cross-account access to their customers. As a SaaS provider, it’s important to verify that your product adheres to security best practices. When you improve security for your product, you’re also improving security for your customers.

To see more tutorials about cross-account access concepts, visit the AWS documentation on IAM Roles, ABAC, and session tags.

If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below. If you have questions about this post, start a new thread on the AWS Identity and Access Management re:Post or contact AWS Support.

Want more AWS Security news? Follow us on Twitter.

Ashwin Phadke

Ashwin Phadke

Ashwin is a Sr. Solutions Architect, working with large enterprises and ISV customers to build highly available, scalable, and secure applications, and to help them successfully navigate through their cloud journey. He is passionate about information security and enjoys working on creative solutions for customers’ security challenges.