Integrating AWS CloudFormation template scanning into CI/CD pipelines is a great way to catch security infringements before application deployment. However, implementing and enforcing this in a multi team, multi account environment can present some challenges, especially when the scanning tools used require external API access.

This blog will discuss those challenges and offer a solution using Trend Micro Cloud One Conformity (formerly Cloud Conformity) as the worked example. Accompanying this blog is the end to end sample solution and detailed install steps which can be found on GitHub here.

We will explore explore the following topics in detail:

  • When to detect security vulnerabilities
    • Where can template scanning be enforced?
  • Managing API Keys for accessing third party APIs
    • How can keys be obtained and distributed between teams?
    • How easy is it to rotate keys with multiple teams relying upon them?
  • Viewing the results easily
    • How do teams easily view the results of any scan performed?
  • Solution maintainability
    • How can a fix or update be rolled out?
    • How easy is it to change scanner provider? (i.e. from Cloud Conformity to in house tool)
  • Enforcing the template validation
    • How to prevent teams from circumventing the checks?
  • Managing exceptions to the rules
    • How can the teams proceed with deployment if there is a valid reason for a check to fail?

 

When to detect security vulnerabilities

During the DevOps life-cycle, there are multiple opportunities to test cloud applications for best practice violations when it comes to security. The Shift-left approach is to move testing to as far left in the life-cycle, so as to catch bugs as early as possible. It is much easier and less costly to fix on a local developer machine than it is to patch in production.

Diagram showing Shift-left approach

Figure 1 – depicting the stages that an app will pass through before being deployed into an AWS account

At the very left of the cycle is where developers perform the traditional software testing responsibilities (such as unit tests), With cloud applications, there is also a responsibility at this stage to ensure there are no AWS security, configuration, or compliance vulnerabilities. Developers and subsequent peer reviewers looking at the code can do this by eye, but in this way it is hard to catch every piece of bad code or misconfigured resource.

For example, you might define an AWS Lambda function that contains an access policy making it accessible from the world, but this can be hard to spot when coding or peer review. Once deployed, potential security risks are now live. Without proper monitoring, these misconfigurations can go undetected, with potentially dire consequences if exploited by a bad actor.

There are a number of tools and SaaS offerings on the market which can scan AWS CloudFormation templates and detect infringements against security best practices, such as Stelligent’s cfn_nag, AWS CloudFormation Guard, and Trend Micro Cloud One Conformity. These can all be run from the command line on a developer’s machine, inside the IDE or during a git commit hook. These options are discussed in detail in Using Shift-Left to Find Vulnerabilities Before Deployment with Trend Micro Template Scanner.

Whilst this is the most left the testing can be moved, it is hard to enforce it this early on in the development process. Mandating that scan commands be integrated into git commit hooks or IDE tools can significantly increase the commit time and quickly become frustrating for the developer. Because they are responsible for creating these hooks or installing IDE extensions, you cannot guarantee that a template scan is performed before deployment, because the developer could easily turn off the scans or not install the tools in the first place.

Another consideration for very-left testing of templates is that when applications are written using AWS CDK or AWS Serverless Application Model (SAM), the actual AWS CloudFormation template that is submitted to AWS isn’t available in source control; it’s created during the build or package stage. Therefore, moving template scanning as far to the left is just not possible in these situations. Developers have to run a command such as cdk synth or sam package to obtain the final AWS CloudFormation templates.

If we now look at the far right of Figure 1, when an application has been deployed, real time monitoring of the account can pick up security issues very quickly. Conformity performs excellently in this area by providing central visibility and real-time monitoring of your cloud infrastructure with a single dashboard. Accounts are checked against over 400 best practices, which allows you to find and remediate non-compliant resources. This real time alerting is fast – you can be assured of an email stating non-compliance in no time at all! However, remediation does takes time. Following the correct process, a fix to code will need to go through the CI/CD pipeline again before a patch is deployed. Relying on account scanning only at the far right is sub-optimal.

The best place to scan templates is at the most left of the enforceable part of the process – inside the CI/CD pipeline. Conformity provides their Template Scanner API for this exact purpose. Templates can be submitted to the API, and the same Conformity checks that are being performed in real time on the account are run against the submitted AWS CloudFormation template. When integrated programmatically into a build, failing checks can prevent a deployment from occurring.

Whilst it may seem a simple task to incorporate the Template Scanner API call into a CI/CD pipeline, there are many considerations for doing this successfully in an enterprise environment. The remainder of this blog will address each consideration in detail, and the accompanying GitHub repo provides a working sample solution to use as a base in your own organization.

 

View failing checks as AWS CodeBuild test reports

Treating failing Conformity checks the same as unit test failures within the build will make the process feel natural to the developers. A failing unit test will break the build, and so will a failing Conformity check.

AWS CodeBuild provides test reporting for common unit test frameworks, such as NUnit, JUnit, and Cucumber. This allows developers to easily and very visually see what failing tests have occurred within their builds, allowing for quicker remediation than having to trawl through test log files. This same principle can be applied to failing Conformity checks—this allows developers to quickly see what checks have failed, rather than looking into AWS CodeBuild logs. However, the AWS CodeBuild test reporting feature doesn’t natively support the JSON schema that the Conformity Template Scanner API returns. Instead, you need custom code to turn the Conformity response into a usable format. Later in this blog we will explore how the conversion occurs.

Cloud conformity failed checks displayed as CodeBuild Reports

Figure 2 – Cloud Conformity failed checks appearing as failed test cases in AWS CodeBuild reports

Enterprise speed bumps

Teams wishing to use template scanning as part of their AWS CodePipeline currently need to create an AWS CodeBuild project that calls the external API, and then performs the custom translation code. If placed inside a buildspec file, it can easily become bloated with many lines of code, leading to maintainability issues arising as copies of the same buildspec file are distributed across teams and accounts. Additionally, third-party APIs such as Conformity are often authorized by an API key. In some enterprises, not all teams have access to the Conformity console, further compounding the problem for API key management.

Below are some factors to consider when implementing template scanning in the enterprise:

  • How can keys be obtained and distributed between teams?
  • How easy is it to rotate keys when multiple teams rely upon them?
  • How can a fix or update be rolled out?
  • How easy is it to change scanner provider? (i.e. From Cloud Conformity to in house tool)

Overcome scaling issues, use a centralized Validation API

An approach to overcoming these issues is to create a single AWS Lambda function fronted by Amazon API Gateway within your organization that runs the call to the Template Scanner API, and performs the transform of results into a format usable by AWS CodeBuild reports. A good place to host this API is within the Cloud Ops team account or similar shared services account. This way, you only need to issue one API key (stored in AWS Secrets Manager) and it’s not available for viewing by any developers. Maintainability for the code performing the Template Scanner API calls is also very easy, because it resides in one location only. Key rotation is now simple (due to only one key in one location requiring an update) and can be automated through AWS Secrets Manager

The following diagram illustrates a typical setup of a multi-account, multi-dev team scenario in which a team’s AWS CodePipeline uses a centralized Validation API to call Conformity’s Template Scanner.

architecture diagram central api for cloud conformity template scanning

Figure 3 – Example of an AWS CodePipeline utilizing a centralized Validation API to call Conformity’s Template Scanner

 

Providing a wrapper API around the Conformity Template Scanner API encapsulates the code required to create the CodeBuild reports. Enabling template scanning within teams’ CI/CD pipelines now requires only a small piece of code within their CodeBuild buildspec file. It performs the following three actions:

  1. Post the AWS CloudFormation templates to the centralized Validation API
  2. Write the results to file (which are already in a format readable by CodeBuild test reports)
  3. Stop the build if it detects failed checks within the results

The centralized Validation API in the shared services account can be hosted with a private API in Amazon API Gateway, fronted by a VPC endpoint. Using a private API denies any public access but does allow access from any internal address allowed by the VPC endpoint security group and endpoint policy. The developer teams can run their AWS CodeBuild validation phase within a VPC, thereby giving it access to the VPC endpoint.

A working example of the code required, along with an AWS CodeBuild buildspec file, is provided in the GitHub repository

 

Converting 3rd party tool results to CodeBuild Report format

With a centralized API, there is now only one place where the conversion code needs to reside (as opposed to copies embedded in each teams’ CodePipeline). AWS CodeBuild Reports are primarily designed for test framework outputs and displaying test case results. In our case, we want to display Conformity checks – which are not unit test case results. The accompanying GitHub repository to convert from Conformity Template Scanner API results, but we will discuss mappings between the formats so that bespoke conversions for other 3rd party tools, such as cfn_nag can be created if required.

AWS CodeBuild provides out of the box compatibility for common unit test frameworks, such as NUnit, JUnit and Cucumber. Out of the supported formats, Cucumber JSON is the most readable format to read and manipulate due to native support in languages such as Python (all other formats being in XML).

Figure 4 depicts where the Cucumber JSON fields will appear in the AWS CodeBuild reports page and Figure 5 below shows a valid Cucumber snippet, with relevant fields highlighted in yellow.

CodeBuild Reports page with fields highlighted that correspond to cucumber JSON fields

Figure 4 – AWS CodeBuild report test case field mappings utilized by Cucumber JSON

 

 

Cucumber JSON snippet showing CodeBuild Report field mappings

Figure 5 – Cucumber JSON with mappings to AWS CodeBuild report table

 

Note that in Figure 5, there are additional fields (eg. id, description etc) that are required to make the file valid Cucumber JSON – even though this data is not displayed in CodeBuild Reports page. However, raw reports are still available as AWS CodeBuild artifacts, and therefore it is useful to still populate these fields with data that could be useful to aid deeper troubleshooting.

Conversion code for Conformity results is provided in the accompanying GitHub repo, within file app.py, line 376 onwards

 

Making the validation phase mandatory in AWS CodePipeline

The Shift-Left philosophy states that we should shift testing as much as possible to the left. The furthest left would be before any CI/CD pipeline is triggered. Developers could and should have the ability to perform template validation from their own machines. However, as discussed earlier this is rarely enforceable – a scan during a pipeline deployment is the only true way to know that templates have been validated. But how can we mandate this and truly secure the validation phase against circumvention?

Preventing updates to deployed CI/CD pipelines

Using a centralized API approach to make the call to the validation API means that this code is now only accessible by the Cloud Ops team, and not the developer teams. However, the code that calls this API has to reside within the developer teams’ CI/CD pipelines, so that it can stop the build if failures are found. With CI/CD pipelines defined as AWS CloudFormation, and without any preventative measures in place, a team could move to disable the phase and deploy code without any checks performed.

Fortunately, there are a number of approaches to prevent this from happening, and to enforce the validation phase. We shall now look at one of them from the AWS CloudFormation Best Practices.

IAM to control access

Use AWS IAM to control access to the stacks that define the pipeline, and then also to the AWS CodePipeline/AWS CodeBuild resources within them.

IAM policies can generically restrict a team from updating a CI/CD pipeline provided to them if a naming convention is used in the stacks that create them. By using a naming convention, coupled with the wildcard “*”, these policies can be applied to a role even before any pipelines have been deployed..

For example, lets assume the pipeline depicted in Figure 6 is defined and deployed in AWS CloudFormation as follows:

  • Stack name is “cicd-pipeline-team-X”
  • AWS CodePipeline resource within the stack has logical name with prefix “CodePipelineCICD”
  • AWS CodeBuild Project for validation phase is prefixed with “CodeBuildValidateProject”

Creating an IAM policy with the statements below and attaching to the developer teams’ IAM role will prevent them from modifying the resources mentioned above. The AWS CloudFormation stack and resource names will match the wildcards in the statements and Deny the user to any update actions.

Example IAM policy highlighting how to deny updates to stacks and pipeline resources

Figure 6 – Example of how an IAM policy can restrict updates to AWS CloudFormation stacks and deployed resources

 

Preventing valid failing checks from being a bottleneck

When centralizing anything, and forcing developers to use tooling or features such as template scanners, it is imperative that it (or the team owning it) does not become a bottleneck and slow the developers down. This is just as true for our centralized API solution.

It is sometimes the case that a developer team has a valid reason for a template to yield a failing check. For instance, Conformity will report a HIGH severity alert if a load balancer does not have an HTTPS listener. If a team is migrating an older application which will only work on port 80 and not 443, the team may be able to obtain an exception from their cyber security team. It would not desirable to turn off the rule completely in the real time scanning of the account, because for other deployments this HIGH severity alert could be perfectly valid. The team faces an issue now because the validation phase of their pipeline will fail, preventing them from deploying their application – even though they have cyber approval to fail this one check.

It is imperative that when enforcing template scanning on a team that it must not become a bottleneck. Functionality and workflows must accompany such a pipeline feature to allow for quick resolution.

Screenshot of Trend Micro Cloud One Conformity rule from their website

Figure 7 – Screenshot of a Conformity rule from their website

Therefore the centralized validation API must provide a way to allow for exceptions on a case by case basis. Any exception should be tied to a unique combination of AWS account number + filename + rule ID, which ensures that exceptions are only valid for the specific instance of violation, and not for any other. This can be achieved by extending the centralized API with a set of endpoints to allow for exception request and approvals. These can then be integrated into existing or new tooling and workflows to be able to provide a self service method for teams to be able to request exceptions. Cyber security teams should be able to quickly approve/deny the requests.

The exception request/approve functionality can be implemented by extending the centralized private API to provide an /exceptions endpoint, and using DynamoDB as a data store. During a build and template validation, failed checks returned from Conformity are then looked up in the Dynamo table to see if an approved exception is available – if it is, then the check is not returned as a actual failing check, but rather an exempted check. The build can then continue and deploy to the AWS account.

Figure 8 and figure 9 depict the /exceptions endpoints that are provided as part of the sample solution in the accompanying GitHub repository.

screenshot of API gateway for centralized template scanner api

Figure 8 – Screenshot of API Gateway depicting the endpoints available as part of the accompanying solution

 

The /exceptions endpoint methods provides the following functionality:

Table containing HTTP verbs for exceptions endpoint

Figure 9 – HTTP verbs implementing exception functionality

Important note regarding endpoint authorization: Whilst the “validate” private endpoint may be left with no auth so that any call from within a VPC is accepted, the same is not true for the “exception” approval endpoint. It would be prudent to use AWS IAM authentication available in API Gateway to restrict approvals to this endpoint for certain users only (i.e. the cyber and cloud ops team only)

With the ability to raise and approve exception requests, the mandatory scanning phase of the developer teams’ pipelines is no longer a bottleneck.

 

Conclusion

Enforcing template validation into multi developer team, multi account environments can present challenges with using 3rd party APIs, such as Conformity Template Scanner, at scale. We have talked through each hurdle that can be presented, and described how creating a centralized Validation API and exception approval process can overcome those obstacles and keep the teams deploying without unwarranted speed bumps.

By shifting left and integrating scanning as part of the pipeline process, this can leave the cyber team and developers sure that no offending code is deployed into an account – whether they were written in AWS CDK, AWS SAM or AWS CloudFormation.

Additionally, we talked in depth on how to use CodeBuild reports to display the vulnerabilities found, aiding developers to quickly identify where attention is required to remediate.

Getting started

The blog has described real life challenges and the theory in detail. A complete sample for the described centralized validation API is available in the accompanying GitHub repo, along with a sample CodePipeline for easy testing. Step by step instructions are provided for you to deploy, and enhance for use in your own organization. Figure 10 depicts the sample solution available in GitHub.

https://github.com/aws-samples/aws-cloudformation-template-scanning-with-cloud-conformity

NOTE: Remember to tear down any stacks after experimenting with the provided solution, to ensure ongoing costs are not charged to your AWS account. Notes on how to do this are included inside the repo Readme.

 

example codepipeline architecture provided by the accompanying github solution

Figure 10 depicts the solution available for use in the accompanying GitHub repository

 

Find out more

Other blog posts are available that cover aspects when dealing with template scanning in AWS:

For more information on Trend Micro Cloud One Conformity, use the links below.

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Chris Dorrington

Chris Dorrington is a Senior Cloud Architect with AWS Professional Services in Perth, Western Australia. Chris loves working closely with AWS customers to help them achieve amazing outcomes. He has over 25 years software development experience and has a passion for Serverless technologies and all things DevOps