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aymanosman
aymanosman

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AWS SSM Parameters for Elixir secrets

This is a very short article about using AWS Systems Manager Parameter Store to load secret configuration in a simple way. One of the motivations for the approach I'm about to describe is the desire to avoid what I consider to be an anti-pattern. If you are not interested in that discussion, then feel free to skip to the code.

The Anti-Pattern

Elixir 1.9 introduced "releases", and with it an overhaul of how configuration is done. Before this, all configuration was resolved at build time, something that was not a problem for those who ran their apps "from source", as "build time" and "run time" were effectively the same. But for those who wanted to ship a pre-built app, this caused problems.

config :my_app,
  # when is this resolved?
  database_url: System.get_env("DATABASE_URL")
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People solved this problem by adopting a pattern: set the variable to a placeholder value and defer the lookup till later.

config :my_app,
  normal_var: "I am totally normal",
  deferred_var: {:system, "SEE_YOU_LATER"}
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In order for this to work, the consuming code would have to recognise this pattern.

def consume_config() do
  case Application.get_env(:my_app, :deferred_var) do
    {:system, var} -> System.get_env(var)
    value -> value
  end
end
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The problem with this "anti-pattern" is it confused newcomers who wrongly assumed it was a feature of the configuration system itself, rather than what it actually was: an ad-hoc workaround, that had to be implemented for every library and variable one chose to support.

Happily, this is not a problem anymore, and the story around runtime configuration is much better: just put it all in config/runtime.exs.

Recently, I wanted to use AWS SSM to store secret configuration, and it looked like the way to go was to use Config.Provider. Looking around to see how others had solved the same problem, a familiar pattern cropped up.

config :my_app,
  some_var: {:ssm, "THIS_LOOKS_FAMILIAR"}
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Because Config.Provider s run after config/runtime.exs is loaded, you needed some placeholder value that could later be detected and replaced.

This, I thought, was an instance of the same anti-pattern.

Deciding I didn't want to re-introduce the anti-pattern, I came up with a different approach.

A different approach

First, add the required dependencies and declare a Config.Provider.

defmodule Example.MixProject do
  def project do
    [
      ...
      releases: releases()
    ]
  end

  defp releases() do
    [
      example: [
        config_providers: [
          {Example.ConfigProvider, []}
        ]
      ]
    ]
  end

  defp deps do
    [
      ...
      {:ex_aws, "2.0"},
      {:ex_aws_ssm, "2.0"}
    ]
  end
end
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And then, implement it as follows.

defmodule Example.ConfigProvider do
  @behaviour Config.Provider

  @impl true
  def init([]) do
    []
  end

  @impl true
  def load(config, _state) do
    {:ok, _} = Application.ensure_all_started(:hackney)
    {:ok, _} = Application.ensure_all_started(:ex_aws)

    params = get_parameters(config[:ex_aws]) |> Enum.into(%{})

    Config.Reader.merge(config,
      example: [
        {ExampleWeb.Endpoint, secret_key_base: params["secret_key_base"]},
        {Example.Repo, url: params["database_url"]}
      ]
    )
  end

  defp get_parameters(config) do
    ExAws.SSM.get_parameters_by_path(prefix(), with_decryption: true)
    |> ExAws.request(config)
    |> case do
         {:ok, %{"Parameters" => params}} ->
           params
           |> Enum.map(fn param ->
             {String.trim_leading(param["Name"], prefix()), param["Value"]}
           end)

         error ->
           raise "Failed to fetch parameters: #{inspect(error)}"
       end
  end

  defp prefix() do
    "/example/prod/"
  end
end
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Essentially, instead of using a generic Config.Provider that relies on placeholder values to do its job, I wrote a one-off Config.Provider that added the configuration I wanted.

Regaining what was lost

This worked fine for me in the project I was working on, but looking back at it, I think it suffers from two problems.

There was something nice about the "wrong" approach: it was declarative and the configuration was all in one place.

I thought about an alternative that would help the code regain the clarity that was lost and this is what I came up with.

First, I started with what I thought was the simplest possible API.

config :my_app,
  some_var: System.get_env("SOME_VAR"),
  database_url: Secret.get_env("DATABASE_URL")
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Just replace System.get_env(...) with Secret.get_env(...).

And got the following (admittedly rough) code working.

defmodule Secret do
  def get_env(key, default \\ nil) do
    Map.get(get_all_env(), key, default)
  end

  defp get_all_env() do
    case :ets.whereis(__MODULE__) do
      :undefined ->
        :ets.new(__MODULE__, [:set, :public, :named_table])

        {:ok, _} = Application.ensure_all_started(:hackney)
        {:ok, _} = Application.ensure_all_started(:ex_aws)

        env = fetch_env()
        :ets.insert(__MODULE__, {:env, env})
        env

      ref ->
        [{:env, env}] = :ets.lookup(ref, :env)
        env
    end
  end

  defp fetch_env() do
    config = [
      region: System.fetch_env!("AWS_REGION"),
      access_key_id: System.fetch_env!("AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID"),
      secret_access_key: System.fetch_env!("AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY")
    ]

    get_parameters(config) |> Enum.into(%{})
  end

  defp get_parameters(config) do
    # same as above
  end
end
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$ aws ssm put-parameter \
  --name "/example/prod/DATABASE_URL" \
  --value "ecto://postgres:postgres@localhost/example_prod" \
  --type SecureString \
  --overwrite
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> Secret.get_env("DATABASE_URL")

"ecto://postgres:postgres@localhost/example_prod"
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I have yet to switch to this approach, but it is something I will consider next time I need to accomplish the same task.

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