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Jan Schulte for Outshift By Cisco

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An introduction to IAM Roles

If you're a software developer who is just wading into the ocean that is
cybersecurity and DevSecOps, you might be overwhelmed by the many
challenges in front of you. Data breaches. Unauthorized access.
Ransomware. These are just a few of the threats you'll encounter. It can
be a lot to take in.

Leveling up your DevSecOps skills is a journey. Take it one step at a
time. One of those steps—the one we’ll focus on here—is identity and
access management (IAM). IAM roles are crucial, especially when working
in cloud environments. They help you control who has access to what. IAM
roles serve as a cornerstone for any effective security strategy.

In this post, we'll explore the fundamentals of IAM roles, guide you
through developing a sensible IAM strategy, and share some best
practices. We'll also discuss how Panoptica can assist you in monitoring
and enforcing your IAM policies effectively.

Understanding the basics of IAM roles

So, what exactly is an IAM role? Before we dive in, here are some key
terms to lay the foundation:

  • An action is an operation performed on a resource.

  • A permission specifies whether an action is allowed or denied.

  • A policy is a set of rules that outline permissions for actions,

    often expressed as JSON.

  • An IAM identity refers to a user or a role to which a policy is


An IAM user is tied one-to-one with an individual. IAM roles don’t work
like that. Instead, they can be assigned to multiple users or even
resources. Let's illustrate with an example.

A practical use case: EC2 instances

Imagine you have an Amazon EC2 instance and you want to control who can
start or stop it. You start by crafting a policy that permits these
Amazon Web Services (AWS) IAM actions:

  • ec2:StartInstances

  • ec2:StopInstances

Alice leads your IT admin team, and she needs to start and stop your
instance. One way to do this would be to attach your policy to Alice’s
user account. But what happens if others on the IT team—Bob and
Charlie—also need permission to perform these actions? You would need to
attach the policy to Bob’s and Charlie’s individual IAM users too.

As your IT team grows or its responsibilities change, managing common
permissions on a per-user basis becomes a huge headache. You could be
juggling dozens of policies and attaching them to users based on their

Here's where AWS IAM roles come in handy. You can create a role—let's
give it the role name ec2-manager—and attach the proper policies to it.
Then, you assign this role to Alice, Bob, and Charlie. Voila! You're
improving your AWS security workflows and making your life a lot easier.

By the way, users aren’t the only ones who can be assigned an IAM role.
AWS resources can be assigned roles too. Imagine if you had a Lambda
that needed permission to start or stop your EC2 instance. Then, you
could assign the ec2-manager role to that Lambda resource.

How do IAM roles help with security?

You might be asking, "How does this make my system more secure?" Well,
IAM roles offer a more organized approach to access management.
Instead of focusing on individual users, you focus on roles. This
minimizes the risk of unauthorized actions. But be cautious—a poor
configuration or improperly assigned role can wreak havoc. So, it's
crucial to get your IAM roles right.

Crafting a sensible IAM strategy

Creating an IAM strategy isn't a one-size-fits-all deal. It needs to be
customized to fit your organization's unique needs and the types of
threats you're up against.

Step 1: Assess your needs

First off, what needs protecting? This isn't just a list; knowing what
you have helps you figure out what you could lose. This is your asset
inventory. Assuming your cloud provider is AWS, Inventory all the
resources in your AWS account that are crucial for your operations—like
databases, API endpoints, cloud computing workloads, VPCs, Amazon S3
buckets, and other AWS services.

By identifying what needs to be protected, you’ll better understand the
scope of your IAM strategy. This will help you allocate resources more
effectively and prioritize your security measures.

Step 2: Design policies

Alright, you've got your inventory. The next question is this: What are
people allowed to do with those resources? Or better yet, what should
they not be allowed to do? This is where you design your policies,
creating rules that dictate what can and cannot be done with the
resources you've identified.

For each resource, define what actions are allowed or denied. Go with
the principle of least privilege: grant only the minimum permissions
necessary to perform a task. Well-designed policies minimize the risk of
unauthorized access or actions. They serve as your first line of defense
against potential security breaches.

Step 3: Assign roles

With policies in hand, it’s time to create and assign roles. This is the
fun part. Think of it like a casting call for a movie—except the stakes
are way higher. Create roles that correspond to different job functions
within your organization. Assign the appropriate permission policies to
the roles you’ve created. Be cautious of roles that are too permissive.

Finally, attach roles to individual users. Make sure that Alice, Bob,
and whoever else is on your team get roles that fit their job functions.
Don’t forget to consider what non-human resources (like a Lambda) might
also need to be assigned roles so that they can do their jobs too.

Best practices for IAM roles

Your IAM strategy and roles are in place. Nicely done. What else should
you do to keep things running securely?

  • Conduct regular audits. Job functions change all the time, so you

    need regular IAM check-ups. Keep an eye out for outdated permissions
    or over-permissive roles. You can do this manually or automate this
    with tools.

  • Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA makes sure the

    individuals accessing your resources are who they claim to be. It’s
    an extra layer of security, protecting you against common attacks
    like phishing.

  • Rotate roles. Change the IAM roles assigned to users or services

    on a regular basis. This limits the window of opportunity for any
    would-be attackers and minimizes the risk of long-term exploits.

IAM policy monitoring and enforcement with Panoptica

Panoptica is a cloud-native application protection platform (CNAPP)
designed to enhance your security posture across the board. It gives you
continuous monitoring to ensure your IAM policies are consistently
applied across your cloud environment. It can detect and mitigate
changes or breaches in your IAM roles—in real time—offering features
like automated policy enforcement and incident response.

IAM roles are your building blocks for a secure cloud environment.
Crafting a solid IAM strategy isn't just smart; it's essential. If
you're looking to take your IAM strategy to the next level, Panoptica
will help. It offers the tools you need to monitor and enforce your IAM
policies effectively. Sign
to try out Panoptica for free

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