This post is written by Jose Eduardo Montilla Lugo, Security Consultant, AWS.

A VPC link is a resource in Amazon API Gateway that allows for connecting API routes to private resources inside a VPC. A VPC link acts like any other integration endpoint for an API and is an abstraction layer on top of other networking resources. This helps simplify configuring private integrations.

This post looks at the underlying technologies that make VPC links possible. I further describe what happens under the hood when a VPC link is created for both REST APIs and HTTP APIs. Understanding these details can help you better assess the features and benefits provided by each type. This also helps you make better architectural decisions when designing API Gateway APIs.

This article assumes you have experience in creating APIs in API Gateway. The main purpose is to provide a deeper explanation of the technologies that make private integrations possible. For more information on creating API Gateway APIs with private integrations, refer to the Amazon API Gateway documentation.

Overview

AWS Hyperplane and AWS PrivateLink

There are two types of VPC links: VPC links for REST APIs and VPC links for HTTP APIs. Both provide access to resources inside a VPC. They are built on top of an internal AWS service called AWS Hyperplane. This is an internal network virtualization platform, which supports inter-VPC connectivity and routing between VPCs. Internally, Hyperplane supports multiple network constructs that AWS services use to connect with the resources in customers’ VPCs. One of those constructs is AWS PrivateLink, which is used by API Gateway to support private APIs and private integrations.

AWS PrivateLink allows access to AWS services and services hosted by other AWS customers, while maintaining network traffic within the AWS network. Since the service is exposed via a private IP address, all communication is virtually local and private. This reduces the exposure of data to the public internet.

In AWS PrivateLink, a VPC endpoint service is a networking resource in the service provider side that enables other AWS accounts to access the exposed service from their own VPCs. VPC endpoint services allow for sharing a specific service located inside the provider’s VPC by extending a virtual connection via an elastic network interface in the consumer’s VPC.

An interface VPC endpoint is a networking resource in the service consumer side, which represents a collection of one or more elastic network interfaces. This is the entry point that allows for connecting to services powered by AWS PrivateLink.

Comparing private APIs and private integrations

Private APIs are different to private integrations. Both use AWS PrivateLink but they are used in different ways.

A private API means that the API endpoint is reachable only through the VPC. Private APIs are accessible only from clients within the VPC or from clients that have network connectivity to the VPC. For example, from on-premises clients via AWS Direct Connect. To enable private APIs, an AWS PrivateLink connection is established between the customer’s VPC and API Gateway’s VPC.

Clients connect to private APIs via an interface VPC endpoint, which routes requests privately to the API Gateway service. The traffic is initiated from the customer’s VPC and flows through the AWS PrivateLink to the API Gateway’s AWS account:

Consumer connected to provider through VPC Link

Consumer connected to provider through VPC Link

When the VPC endpoint for API Gateway is enabled, all requests to API Gateway APIs made from inside the VPC go through the VPC endpoint. This is true for private APIs and public APIs. Public APIs are still accessible from the internet and private APIs are accessible only from the interface VPC endpoint. Currently, you can only configure REST APIs as private.

A private integration means that the backend endpoint resides within a VPC and it’s not publicly accessible. With a private integration, API Gateway service can access the backend endpoint in the VPC without exposing the resources to the public internet.

A private integration uses a VPC link to encapsulate connections between API Gateway and targeted VPC resources. VPC links allow access to HTTP/HTTPS resources within a VPC without having to deal with advanced network configurations. Both REST APIs and HTTP APIs offer private integrations but only VPC links for REST APIs use AWS PrivateLink internally.

VPC links for REST APIs

When you create a VPC link for a REST API, a VPC endpoint service is also created, making the AWS account a service provider. The service consumer in this case is API Gateway’s account. The API Gateway service creates an interface VPC endpoint in their account for the Region where the VPC link is being created. This establishes an AWS PrivateLink from the API Gateway VPC to your VPC. The target of the VPC endpoint service and the VPC link is a Network Load Balancer, which forwards requests to the target endpoints:

VPC Link for REST APIs

VPC Link for REST APIs

Before establishing any AWS PrivateLink connection, the service provider must approve the connection request. Requests from the API Gateway accounts are automatically approved in the VPC link creation process. This is because the AWS accounts that serve API Gateway for each Region are allow-listed in the VPC endpoint service.

When a Network Load Balancer is associated with an endpoint service, the traffic to the targets is sourced from the NLB. The targets receive the private IP addresses of the NLB, not the IP addresses of the service consumers.

This is helpful when configuring the security groups of the instances behind the NLB for two reasons. First, you do not know the IP address range of the VPC that’s connecting to the service. Second, NLB’s elastic network interfaces do not have any security groups attached. This means that they cannot be used as a source in the security groups of the targets. To learn more, read how to find the internal IP addresses assigned to an NLB.

To create a private API with a private integration, two AWS PrivateLink connections are established. The first is from a customer VPC to API Gateway’s VPC so that clients in the VPC can reach the API Gateway service endpoint. The other is from API Gateway’s VPC to the customer VPC so that API Gateway can reach the backend endpoint. Here is an example architecture:

Private API with private integrations

Private API with private integrations

VPC links for HTTP APIs

HTTP APIs are the latest type of API Gateway APIs that are cheaper and faster than REST APIs. VPC links for HTTP APIs do not require the creation of VPC endpoint services so a Network Load Balancer is not necessary. With VPC Links for HTTP APIs, you can now use an ALB or an AWS Cloud Map service to target private resources. This allows for more flexibility and scalability in the configuration required on both sides.

Configuring multiple integration targets is also easier with VPC links for HTTP APIs. For example, VPC links for REST APIs can be associated only with a single NLB. Configuring multiple backend endpoints requires some workarounds such as using multiple listeners on the NLB, associated with different target groups.

In contrast, a single VPC link for HTTP APIs can be associated with multiple backend endpoints without additional configuration. Also, with the new VPC link, customers with containerized applications can use ALBs instead of NLBs and take advantage of layer-7 load-balancing capabilities and other features such as authentication and authorization.

AWS Hyperplane supports multiple types of network virtualization constructs, including AWS PrivateLink. VPC links for REST APIs rely on AWS PrivateLink. However, VPC links for HTTP APIs use VPC-to-VPC NAT, which provides a higher level of abstraction.

The new construct is conceptually similar to a tunnel between both VPCs. These are created via elastic network interface attachments on the provider and consumer ends, which are both managed by AWS Hyperplane. This tunnel allows a service hosted in the provider’s VPC (API Gateway) to initiate communications to resources in a consumer’s VPC. API Gateway has direct connectivity to these elastic network interfaces and can reach the resources in the VPC directly from their own VPC. Connections are permitted according to the configuration of the security groups attached to the elastic network interfaces in the customer side.

Although it seems to provide the same functionality as AWS PrivateLink, these constructs differ in implementation details. A service endpoint in AWS PrivateLink allows for multiple connections to a single endpoint (the NLB), whereas the new approach allows a source VPC to connect to multiple destination endpoints. As a result, a single VPC link can integrate with multiple Application Load Balancers, Network Load Balancers, or resources registered with an AWS Cloud Map service on the customer side:

VPC Link for HTTP APIs

VPC Link for HTTP APIs

This approach is similar to the way that other services such as Lambda access resources inside customer VPCs.

Conclusion

This post explores how VPC links can set up API Gateway APIs with private integrations. VPC links for REST APIs encapsulate AWS PrivateLink resources such as interface VPC endpoints and VPC endpoint services to configure connections from API Gateway’s VPC to customer’s VPC to access private backend endpoints.

VPC links for HTTP APIs use a different construct in the AWS Hyperplane service to provide API Gateway with direct network access to VPC private resources. Understanding the differences between the two is important when adding private integrations as part of your API architecture design.

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