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More on Bastion Accounts and Blast Radius

By Rich

I have received some great feedback on my post last week on bastion accounts and networks. Mostly that I left some gaps in my explanation which legitimately confused people. Plus, I forgot to include any pretty pictures. Let’s work through things a bit more.

First, I tended to mix up bastion accounts and networks, often saying “account/networks”. This was a feeble attempt to discuss something I mostly implement in Amazon Web Services that can also apply to other providers. In Amazon an account is basically an AWS subscription. You sign up for an account, and you get access to everything in AWS. If you sign up for a second account, all that is fully segregated from every other customer in Amazon. Right now (and I think this will change in a matter of weeks) Amazon has no concept of master and sub accounts: each account is totally isolated unless you use some special cross-account features to connect parts of accounts together. For customers with multiple accounts AWS has a mechanism called consolidated billing that rolls up all your charges into a single account, but that account has no rights to affect other accounts. It pays the bills, but can’t set any rules or even see what’s going on.

It’s like having kids in college. You’re just a checkbook and an invisible texter.

If you, like Securosis, use multiple accounts, then they are totally segregated and isolated. It’s the same mechanism that prevents any random AWS customer from seeing anything in your account. This is very good segregation. There is no way for a security issue in one account to affect another, unless you deliberately open up connections between them. I love this as a security control: an account is like an isolated data center. If an attacker gets in, he or she can’t get at your other data centers. There is no cost to create a new account, and you only pay for the resources you use. So it makes a lot of sense to have different accounts for different applications and projects. Free (virtual) data centers for everyone!!!

This is especially important because of cloud metastructure. All the management stuff like web consoles and APIs that enables you to do things like create and destroy entire class B networks with a couple API calls. If you lump everything into a single account, more administrators (and other power users) need more access, and they all have more power to disrupt more projects. This is compartmentalization and segregation of duties 101, but we have never before had viable options for breaking everything into isolated data centers. And from an operational standpoint, the more you move into DevOps and PaaS, the harder it is to have everyone running in one account (or a few) without stepping on each other.

These are the fundamentals of my blast radius post.

One problem comes up when customers need a direct connection from their traditional data center to the cloud provider. I may be all rah rah cloud awesome, but practically speaking there are many reasons you might need to connect back home. Managing this for multiple accounts is hard, but more importantly you can run into hard limits due to routing and networking issues.

That’s where a bastion account and network comes in. You designate an account for your Direct Connect. Then you peer into that account (in AWS using cross-account VPC peering support) any other accounts that need data center access. I have been saying “bastion account/network” because in AWS this is a dedicated account with its own dedicated VPC (virtual network) for the connection. Azure and Google use different structures, so it might be a dedicated virtual network within a larger account, but still isolated to a subscription, or sub-account, or whatever mechanism they support to segregate projects. This means:

  • Not all your accounts need this access, so you can focus on the ones which do.
  • You can tightly lock down the network configuration and limit the number of administrators who can change it.
  • Those peering connections rely on routing tables, and you can better isolate what each peered account or network can access.
  • One big Direct Connect essentially “flattens” the connection into your cloud network. This means anyone in the data center can route into and attack your applications in the cloud. The bastion structure provides multiple opportunities to better restrict network access to destination accounts. It is a way to protect your cloud(s) from your data center.
  • A compromise in one peered account cannot affect another account. AWS networking does not allow two accounts peered to the same account to talk to each other. So each project is better isolated and protected, even without firewall rules.

For example the administrator of a project can have full control over their account and usage of AWS services, without compromising the integrity of the connection back to the data center, which they cannot affect – they only have access to the network paths they were provided. Their project is safe, even if another project in the same organization is totally compromised.

Hopefully this helps clear things up. Multiple accounts and peering is a powerful concept and security control. Bastion networks extend that capability to hybrid clouds. If my embed works, below you can see what it looks like (a VPC is a virtual network, and you can have multiple VPCs in a single account).

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