Current AWS Workload recommendations December 2020

There’s a heap of Best Practice around workloads online and in AWS, and here’s some of my current thoughts as at December 2020 – your mileage may vary, caveat emptor, no warranty expressed or implied, and you may have use-cases that justify something different:

PatternRecommendationRationale
Multi-AZ VPCDesign Address space for 4 AZsIn an AZ outage, having just one AZ remaining to satisfy demand during a rush is not enough; using contiguous address space and CIDR masks means after 2, we have 4
VPC DNSSEC validationEnable for VPC Validation, but be ready for external zones to stuff up their DNSSEC keysFailing closed maybe better than failing open; but new failure modes need to be understood.
Route53 Hosted Zone DNSSECHold off until current issues are resolved if you use CloudFrontNew service, new failure modes.
TLS1.2 and above onlyOlder versions are now already removed from many clients; be ready for TLS 1.3 and above only
VPC IPv6Enable for all subnets33% of traffic worldwide is now IPv6; your external interface (ALB/NLB) should all be dual stack now as a minimum. Don’t forget your AAAA Alias DNS records.
VPC External EGRESS for private subnetsMinimise, avoid if possible.You shouldn’t have any boot time or runtime dependencies – apart form the outbound integrations you are explicitly creating. Use ENDPOINTS for S3 and other services. Minimise Internet transit.
CloudFront IPv6Enable for all distributionsAs above; particularly if your origin is only on IPv4; Don’t forget your AAAA Alias DNS records.
HTTP interfacesOnly for the APEX of the domain if you think people will type your address by hand into a browser; for all other services, do not listen on port 80 HTTPAvoid convenience redirects, they are a point of weakness. Use HTTPS for everything, including internal services.
ACM Public TLS CertificatesUse DNS validation, and leave validation in place for subsequent reissueRemove the manual work in renewing and redeploying certificates.
S3 Block Public AccessDo this for every bucket, and if possible, Account-wide AS WELL.Two levels of this in case you have to disable account-wide in future.
S3 Website public (anonymous) hostingDo not use; look at CloudFront with Origin Access IdentityYou can’t get a custom certificate nor control TLS on S3. But beware default document handling and other issues.
S3 Access LoggingEnable, but set a retention policy in the S3 BucketNo logs means no evidence when investigating issues.
CloudFront Access LoggingEnable, but set a retention policy in the S3 BucketNo logs means no evidence when investigating issues.
VPC Flow LogsEnable for all, but set a retention policy in the CloudWatch LogNo logs means no evidence when investigating issues.
DatabaseUse RDS or Aurora wherever possible Less operational overhead
RDS Maintenance; Minor versionsAlways adopt latest minor version pro-actively, from Dev through to ProdDon’t wait for Auto graduand to happen; that’s typically on decommission of the version being available.
RDS Maintenance: Major VersionsAfter testing, move up to latest Major versionAvoid being on a decommissioned major version; the enforced upgrade jump may be a bigger jump forward than your application can support.
RDS Encrypt in flightEnforceEnsure privacy of the credentials for connection regardless of where the client it. Don’t assume the client config to use encryption is correct
RDS Encryption in flightValidateGet the RDS CA certificate(s) in your trust path during application build time. Always automate brining them in (and validate and log where you get these from).
RDS Encryption at restEnableKMS is fine. Use a dedicated key for important workloads (and don’t share the key with other accounts).
DNS RecordsAlways publish a CAA and SPF record, even for parked domainsProtect risk and reputation
HTTP Security HeadersValidate on SecurityHeaders, Hardenize, SSLLabs, Mozilla Observatory, and Google Lighthouse (and possibly more).This is an entire lesson, but an A will get you in good stead.
HTTP Security Headers: HSTSEnforce HSTS for a yearWe’re never going back to unencrypted HTTP
Public CDNs for libraries in major projectsAvoid; host your own assets.Remove external dependencies

DNSSEC and Route53

DNS is one of the last insecure protocols in use. Since 1983 it has helped identify resources on the Internet, with a name space and a hierarchy based upon a common agreed root.

Your local device – your laptop, your phone, your smart TV – whatever you’re using to read this article – typically has been configured with a local DNS resolver that, when your device needs to look up an address, it can ask the local resolver to go find the answer to a query.

The protocol used by your local device to the resolver, and from the resolver to reach out across the Internet, is an unencrypted protocol. It normally runs on UDP port 53, switching to TCP 53 under certain conditions.

There is no privacy across either your local network, or the wider Internet, of what records are being looked up or the responses coming back.

There’s also no validation that the response sent back to the Resolver IS the correct answer. And malicious actors may try to spuriously send invalid responses to your upstream resolver. For example, I could get my laptop on the same WiFi as you, and send UDP packets to the configured resolver telling it that the response to “www.bank.com” is my address, in order to get you to then connect to a fake service I am running, and try and get some data from you (like your username and password). Hopefully your bank is using HTTPS, and the certificate warning you would likely get would be enough to stop you from entering information that I would get.

The solution to this was to use digital signatures (not encryption) to have a verification of the DNS response received by the Upstream resolver from across the Internet. And thus DNSSEC was in born 1997 (23 years ago as at 2020).

The take up has been slow.

Part of this has been the need for each component of a DNS name – each zone – needing to deploy a DNSSEC-capable DNS server to generate the signatures, and then to have each domain be signed.

The public DNS root was signed in 2010, along with some of the original Top Level Domains. Today the Wikipedia page for the Internet TLDs shows a large number of them are signed and ready for their customers to have their DNS domains return DNSSEC results.

Since 2012 US Government agencies have been required by NIST to deploy DNSSEC, but most years agencies opt out of this. Its been too difficult, or the DNS software or service they are using to host their Domain does not support it.

Two parts to DNS SEC

One the one side, the operator of the zone being looked up (and their parent domain) all need to support and have established a chain-of-trust for DNSSEC. If you turn on DNSSEC for your authoritative domain, then those clients who are not validating the responses won’t see any difference.

Separately, the client side DNS Resolver (often deployed by your ISP, Telco, or network provider) needs to understand and validate the DNSSEC Response. If they turn on DNSSEC for your Resolver, then there’s no impact for resolving domains that don’t support DNSSEC.

Both of these need to be in place to offer some form of protection for DNS spoofing, cache poisoning or other attacks.

Route 53 Support for DNSSEC

In December 2020, Route53 finally announced support for DNSSEC, after many years and many customer requests. And this support comes in two ways.

Firstly, there is now a tick box to enable the VPC-provided resolver to validate DNSSEC entries, if they are received. Its either on, or off at this stage.

And separately, for hosted DNS Zones (your domains), you can now enable DNSSEC and have signed responses sent by Route53 for queries to your DNS entries, so they can be validated.

A significant caveat right now (Dec 2020) for hosted zones is that this doesn’t support the customer Route53 ALIAS record type, used for defining custom names for CloudFront Distributions.

DNSSEC Considerations: VPC Resolver

You probably should enable DNSSEC for your VPC resolvers, particularly if you want additional verification that you aren’t being spoofed. There appears to be no additional cost for this, so the only consideration is why not?

The largest risk comes from misconfiguration of the domain names that you are looking up.

In January 2018, the US Government had a shut down due to blocked legislation. Staff walked off the job, and for some of those agencies, they had DNS SEC Deployed – and for at least one of those agencies, its DNS keys expired, rendering their entire domain off-line (many other let their web site TLS certificates expire, causing warnings for browsers, but email still worked for them for example).

So, you should weigh up the improvement in security posture, versus the risk of an interruption through misconfiguration.

In order to enable it, go to the Route53 Console, and navigate to Resolvers -> VPCs.

ChoOse the VPC Resolver, and scroll to the bottom of the page where you’ll see the below check box.

DNSSEC enabled for a VPC

DNSSEC Considerations: Your Hosted Zones

As a managed service, Route53 normally handles all maintenance and operational activities for you. Serving your records with DNSSEC at least gives your customers the opportunity to validate responses (as they enable their validation).

I’d suggest that this is a good thing. However, with the caveat around CloudFront ALIAS records right now, I am choosing not to rush to production hosted zones today, but staying on my non-production and non-mission critical zones.

DNSSEC enabled on a hosted zone

I have always said that your non-production environments should be a leading indicator of the security that will get to production (at some stage), so this approach aligns with this.

The long term impact of Route53 DNSSEC

Route5 is a strategic service that enables customers to not need their own allocate fixed address space and run their own DNS servers (many of which never receive enough security maintenance and updates). With DNSSEC support this means that barriers for adoption are reduced, and indeed, I feel we’ll see an up-tick in DNSSEC deployment worldwide because of this capability coming to Route53.

Other Approaches

An alternate security mechanism being tested now is called DNS over HTTPS, or -DoH. This encrypts the DNS names being requested from the local network provider (they still see the IP addresses being accessed).

In corporate settings, DoH is frowned upon, as many corporate It departments want to inspect and protect staff by blocking certain content at the DNS level (eg, block all lookups for betting sites) – and hiding this in DoH may prevent this.

In the end, a resolver somewhere knows which client looked up what address.

What does a 2nd AWS Region for Australia mean to the Australian IT Industry?

I was there launching the 1st AWS Region in Sydney in 2013 as an AWS staff member, and as the AWS Solution Architect with a focus (depth) on security meant that it was a critical time for customers who were looking to meet strict (or perhaps, even stricter) security requirements.

Back in 2013, the question was the US Patriot Act. That concern and question has long gone.

Subsequently came cost effectiveness. Then domestic IRAP PROTECTED status.

And back in 2013, secrecy was everything about a Region. We launched Sydney the day it was announced, as ready-for-service. This made recruiting operational staff, securing data centre space (or even building data centres), and having large amounts of fibre run between buildings by contractors, difficult to keep under wraps. These days, pre-announcements like this help ease the struggle to execute the deployment without the need for code names and secrecy.

So, what does the launch of a second AWS Region in Australia, with three Availability Zones, and the general set of services within AWS being present, going to mean to the domestic and international markets?

Proximity to customers & revenue

Let’s look at some population and revenue statistics for these few cities in Australia (and use NZ as a comparison):

LocalityPopulation 2018% population of AustraliaGross State Product 2018/19 (USD$B)
All of Australia25M100%1,462 (100%)
NSW (Sydney)7.5M (5.2M)30% (20.8%)482 (32%)
Victoria (Melbourne)6.3M (4.9M)25.2% (19.6%)344 (23%)
New Zealand (for comparison)4.8M19.2%209 (14%)
Population comparisons in AN/Z

So with a Melbourne Region launch, we see 55.2% of the Australian population in the same state as a Region, and 40.4% in the same city as a Region. This also represents being close to where 55% of the GDP of Australia comes from.

Moreover this is coverage for where the headquarters of most Australian national organisations are based, and typically their IT departments are helmed from their national HQ.

Where does Latency matter?

The main industry that will see the latency impact from the new Melbourne Region is probably the video/media production vertical. There’s a sizable video media production industry in Melbourne that will now not discount AWS for the 11ms or so that was previously seen to Sydney.

Of course, latency doesn’t imply bandwidth.

Melbourne has been a Direct Connect location for some time, with customers able to take a partial port, or a whole 1GB or 10 GB port, and multiples three of with Link Aggregation Control Protocol (LACP) to deliver higher throughputs.

But the latency remained. And thus the Big Fat Pipe Problem would be a consideration: the amount of data sitting IN the pipe since transmission, and before being confirmed as received on the other end. For some devices and TCP/IP stacks, as the bandwidth increases, this becomes a problem.

You canna change the laws of physics

Mr Scott, Enterprise

Then there are applications that make multiple sequential connections from on-cloud to on-premises. An application that opens perhaps 100 SQL connections to a remote database over 11ms latency in series will see three round trips of TCP/IP handshake, and perhaps a TLS 1.2 handshake of 3 round trips, for 6.6 seconds of wall time before any actual query data and response is sent and processed.

The death of Multi-Cloud in Australia

Despite extremely strong multiple-Availability Zone architectures (see the Well-Architected principles), the noise of “multi-Region” has escalated in the industry. From the AWS-customer perspective, multi-cloud has become recognised as a “how about me” call from desperate competitors.

Of course the complexity of multi-cloud is huge, and not understood by most (any?) CIO who endorses this strategy. It’s far better to get the best out of one cloud provider, rather than try and dilute your talent base across implementing, maintaining and securing more than one.

However, some industry regulators have demanded more than one Region for some workloads, again mostly as a lack of understanding of what a strong Well-Architected design looks like.

With this announcement, multi-Region domestically within Australia will be a reality.

But we’re a Melbourne based infrastructure provider, we’re local!!

Sorry, time’s up.

You’re about to lose your customers, and your staff to an unstoppable force, with easy on-boarding, pay as you go, no commitment required terms.

It’s self-service, so there’s no cost of sale.

It’s commodity.

And it’s innovating at a clip far faster than any infrastructure organisation around. There’s almost nothing special about your offering that isn’t faster, cheaper and better in cloud. It’s time to work out what happens when 1/2 your staff leave, and 1/2 your customers are gone.

Getting customers to sign a 5 year contract at this point is only going to sound like entrapment.

Where next in Australia & NZ?

There’s a lot to consider when planning an AWS Region.

First, their are tax & legal overheads in establishing multiple entities in a country to implement, operate and own infrastructure. That means that even if New Zealand was next in line by population, or GDP, it may fall to another location in Australia to follow Melbourne.

And while the state of Queensland may look like it’s third, the latency it already has between Brisbane and Sydney of around 17ms may be outweighed by the fourth in the pack, Western Australia at 50ms.

Lots of variables and weightings to consider. And despite all of this, we have some time to see what the customer cost for AWS resources will be in the new Melbourne Region when it becomes available.

Evolution of Compute: Physical to Serverless

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve seen the impact that Hyperscale Public Cloud has made on the IT industry. Its invention wasn’t to be a thing, but to be a continually evolving, improving thing.

And while many organisations will use SaaS platforms, those platforms themselves often run atop the IaaS and PaaS platforms of a hyperscale cloud platform.

One person’s SaaS is another person’s IaaS.

Me, James Bromberger

But its worth just checking on the evolution of IT service delivery at a low level, for not everyone who is in the IT industry has seen what that looks like at this time.

Evolution of service delivery from Physical servers to Serverless.

Change is hard. Humans are bad at it. I’ve seen many who evolved from column 1 to column 2, and have felt they are “done”. They aren’t on-board for the next wave of the evolution.

I suffer from this too. But three is a short cut that I can offer: try to jump from where you are now, to as far to the right as you can in one step.

Every one of these phases is a monumental shift in the way that services are delivered, requiring training, and experience. There is an overhead knowledge baggage that engineers take with them, trying to work out what functions the same as before, and what is different. This is taxing, stressful, and unpleasant.

So rather than repeat this process in sequence, over years for each change, my recommendation is to see how far to the right you can jump. Some limitations will crop up that prevent you from leap-frogging all the way to Serverless, but that’s OK. Other services will not be thus constrained.

Well Architected, meet Well Maintained

In 2012, the Well Architected concept was born inside AWS. It is a set of principles that helps lead to success in the Cloud; at that time, that was the AWS EC2 environment. It’s well worth a read if you have not seen it. At this time, its also been adopted my Microsoft for the Azure environment as well.

However, I want to move your attention from Architecture time, to operations time.

If you look at the traditional total life-cycle activities, there’s a lot of time and effort spent learning, adjusting, and implementing supporting technologies that are starting to become invisible in the Serverless world.

Lets look at the operational activities done in a physical environment, and compare that to Serverless. I’ll skip the middle phases of evolution as shown above:

ActivityPhysicalServerless
Physical securityRequiredManaged
Physical installationRequiredManaged
Capacity PlanningRequiredManaged
Network switchingRequiredManaged
Hardware power planningRequiredManaged
Physical coolingRequiredManaged
Hardware procurementRequiredManaged
Hardware firmware updatesRequiredManaged
OS installationRequiredManaged
OS patchingRequiredManaged
OS upgradeRequiredManaged
OS licensingOften RequiredManaged
Runtime selectionRequiredRequired
Runtime minor patchingRequiredManaged
Runtime major version upgradeRequiredRequired
App server selectionRequiredManaged
App server minor patchingRequiredManaged
App server major version upgradeRequiredManaged
Code base maintenanceRequiredRequired
Code base 3rd party library updates (SDKs)RequiredRequired
Network encryption protocol and cipher upgrades (TLS, etc)RequiredRequired

As you can see, a large number of activities that should be done regularly to ensure operational excellence. However, I am yet to see a traditional physical environment, or virtualised on-prem environment that actively does all of the above well.

It’s an easy test: wander into any Java environment, and ask what version of the Java runtime is deployed in production. The typical response is “we updated to Java 8 two years ago“. What that means if “we haven’t touched the exact deployed version of Java for two years“.

Likewise, ask what version of Windows Server is deployed? Anything older than 2016 (even that, with 2019 has been out for nearly 2 years at this time is generous) shows a lack of agility and maintenance.

I challenge those in IT operations to think through the above table and check the last time their service updated each row – post project launch. If its a poor show, the change is your in “support mode”, and not “DevOps Operations”.

So what can be done to help do this maintenance?

Take it away. Stop it. While it can be argued to be important, and interesting, you’re possibly better off spending that effort on the smaller list that remains in a Serverless environment.

Evolution Continues

We can’t see where this evolution will go next. We do see that identity, authentication, authorisation, in-flight encryption, remain key elements to be aware of.

What comes next, I can’t predict. I know many ideas will be thrown about, new or recycled, and some will work, while others will wither and disappear again.

The only constant in life is change.

Heraclitus, b. 565 BC

AWS Certification trends (on LinkedIn)

I am always trying to find great talent; it’s part of being a Practice Lead in a large consulting organisation to find and develop talent. I work with a team recruiters who are constantly finding and screening people for the many roles we have.

I’ve been a big proponent of the AWS Certifications for a number of reasons; amongst which are value and confidence to the holder, value to the partner, value to the customer. I helped contribute questions to the AWS Solution Architect Professional certification in 2014 whilst passing through Herndon, Washington DC as an AWS employee, and again in February 2020 in San Francisco as an industry Subject Matter Expert, just before COVID-19 started closing down travel.

Today I took to LinkedIn, and did a search for the various AWS Certifications, and found a tally that looked interesting. These numbers are by no means authoritative, and could just be a reflection of the network of connections that I have.

AWS CertificationTallyLaunch Year#/Year (to 2020)
Solution Architect Associate*311,000201344,428
Developer Associate*189,000201431,500
Cloud Practitioner*103,000201734,333
Solution Architect Professional*94,000201415,667
DevOps Engineer Professional*57,00020149,500
SysOps Associate*29,00020179,667
Security Specialty*12,00020186,000
Networking Specialty*7,80020183,900
Database Specialty*7,20020197,200
Data Analytics Specialty6,30020196,300
Big Data Specialty (retired/renamed to Data Analytics)81,0002014 – 201916,200 #
Machine Learning Specialty5,30020195,300
Alexa Skill Builder Specialty5462019549
AWS Certifications as found on Linked In, 18/9/2020. * Denotes certifications I hold. # only calculated over the five years this was active.

With such a low number for the Alexa certification, I expect the source numbers is not be complete. Many people in certain industries (eg, intelligence services) will not put their profile online.

But regardless, lets review what we see…

The clear winner is the venerable Solution Architect Associate with the largest number per annum and largest number in total. Its seen as the initial certification in the technical certs, and is regularly reported as one of the most valuable in the industry with respect to salary expectations. Its also the longest cert I have held – being part of the very first cohort to pass this in January 2013.

While the Developer Associate certification is in second place by total number, it is just eclipsed by the number of people who have taken the Cloud Practitioner Foundational certification, on a yearly basis. The Cloud Prac is billed as an entry level, non-technical certification, so its appeal is to an even wider audience – the technical team can obtain it relatively easily, and the non-technical roles involved in total service delivery can achieve this as well.

At the Professional level, it seems the demand for certified Architects outweighs the DevOps Engineers almost 2:1; I suspect this is as a natural progression from that initial SA Associate.

The Data Analytics certification replaced the original Big Data cert last year; this gives us an insight into the change in demand. Over its active lifetime, Big Data drove 16,200 per year – its replacement sites at almost a third the prior demand. Perhaps the data analytics hype is stablising?

The total number of certifications reported above is 903,146; just shy of a million certifications in 7 years (and probably more given the validity of the data) excluding re-certifications (after 3 years, now).

Lets see what this looks like in a year from now. New AWS certifications will likely launch, continuing to help validate and differentiate experienced Cloud engineers.