Followup: Visual Studio Code

So, it’s been almost a couple of weeks now of hardcore Visual Studio Code (VSC) usage on my part. I have to say, it’s fantastic. Not a single crash after a solid two weeks of varied development (CloudFormation, Python, shell, and HCL (Terraform)) and at some points, intense Git activity with different repositories and different SCM endpoints. It’s easily 30% more performant than my Atom environment ever was.

The rock solid Git integration is the one feature I appreciate the most. It really works well with everything I do on a regular basis. I did install the GitEasy package just to see if it added anything beyond the built-in support. So far, I only use one GitEasy command reliably, and that’s GitEasy:PushCurrentBranchToOrigin.

I’ve also been able to increase my normal productivity after I installed a marketplace extension called “macros“. I use macros to automate combinations of git commands I often chain together manually (as well as any other keybindings I see fit to construct).

Nice job, Microsoft. I think that’s the first time I’ve said those words after nearly 30 years in technology.

 

Ad-free Browsing on iOS

This is not a typical post since it is not DevOps-related, but I wanted to share my recent experiences with switching to an advertisement-free browser for iOS devices. In my case, that means an older iPad and iPhone 5S.

My primary motivation stems from using Google Chrome on these devices to view Facebook, which has become an advertisement minefield over time. And the Facebook App (along with Messenger) are just evil. But I digress…

On my laptop, I can use Chrome with the FB Purity plugin just fine, but for mobile devices, I don’t have that option. So, I downloaded Adblock Browser from the Apple AppStore a couple of weeks ago to give it a whirl.

The Good

  • It’s free
  • It works (I don’t see ads on Facebook anymore from either my iPhone or iPad)

The Bad

  • It’s slower than Chrome (but is it? see below)
  • It sometimes doesn’t render page content correctly without a reload

As to The Bad, it’s slowness has to do with being an integration with Safari, which to me has become not unlike InternetExplorer was to Windows back in the 2000’s timeframe. It’s just kind of a pig and doesn’t render content quickly. And then there are the times where it doesn’t render correctly, especially on my older iPad.

However, I often had plenty of regularly occurring errors with Chrome, especially when trying to request the desktop site and switching views from Timeline to Notifications to Messages, etc. I probably spent 50% or more of my time in Chrome reloading pages or otherwise killing it and restarting it.  So with Adblocker Browser being slower, maybe it’s a wash because it does have better overall rendering performance on Facebook. Perhaps this suggests that it’s Facebook’s web content handling mechanics and not the browser(s), but the end result is what counts: I don’t see ads anymore. Huzzah!

Security as op-ex savings

The journey to the cloud is compelling enough as is, what with its foundation of IaaS components and automation capabilities across all layers of your computing environment. It promotes the use of CI/CD methodologies and best-practices for configuration management. These characteristics impart a considerable savings in terms of operational costs (op-ex) that can run amok in premise deployments of infrastructure.

Still, in my experience, one of the most powerful arguments for using cloud services, and AWS in particular, is the value added by a hosting architecture that is secure by design. How many times have you seen a well-architected application or infrastructure suffer either functional or performance-related problems due to poor security design elements? In addition, the capital outlay (cap-ex) required for premise infrastructure is non-trivial if you want the same breadth and depth of security controls and auditability for compliance that AWS provides customers, again by design. This facet of AWS alone can substantially mitigate op-ex costs associated with running services in the cloud, which can vary dramatically depending on how you solve problems with your infrastructure.

AWS provides substantial documentation on cloud security, and one of the best places to start (or revisit) is the periodic publication “AWS Security Best Practices“, the current version of which can be found in the Developer Documents section of the main AWS cloud security resource collection. If you haven’t read this document yet or lately, below I have compiled some excerpts that touch on some common issues or concerns when deploying infrastructure in AWS. I highly recommend reading the Best Practices document at least a few times a year as the pace of innovation in AWS continues to grow faster each quarter.

In no particular order, here are some noteworthy best practice highlights from the August 2016 publication of the Best Practices guide that help illustrate the value and savings of using AWS viz the costs of traditional datacenter computing environments:

IP Spoofing – Amazon EC2 instances cannot send spoofed network traffic. The AWS-controlled, host-based firewall infrastructure will not permit an instance to send traffic with a source IP or MAC address other than its own.

Distributed Denial Of Service (DDoS) Attacks – AWS API endpoints are hosted on large, Internet-scale, world class infrastructure that benefits from the same engineering expertise that has built Amazon into the world’s largest online retailer. Proprietary DDoS mitigation techniques are used. Additionally, AWS’s networks are multihomed across a number of providers to achieve Internet access diversity

Packet sniffing by other tenants – It is not possible for a virtual instance running in promiscuous mode to receive or “sniff” traffic that is intended for a different virtual instance. While you can place your interfaces into promiscuous mode, the hypervisor will not deliver any traffic to them that is not addressed to them. Even two virtual instances that are owned by the same customer located on the same physical host cannot listen to each other’s traffic. Attacks such as ARP cache poisoning do not work within Amazon EC2 and Amazon VPC.

Secure Access Points – AWS has strategically placed a limited number of access points to the cloud to allow for a more comprehensive monitoring of inbound and outbound communications and network traffic. These customer access points are called API endpoints, and they allow secure HTTP access (HTTPS), which allows you to establish a secure communication session with your storage or compute instances within AWS. To support customers with FIPS cryptographic requirements, the SSL-terminating load balancers in AWS GovCloud (US) are FIPS 140-2-compliant. 

Several services also now offer more advanced cipher suites that use the Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman Ephemeral (ECDHE) protocol. ECDHE allows SSL/TLS clients to provide Perfect Forward Secrecy, which uses session keys that are ephemeral and not stored anywhere. This helps prevent the decoding of captured data by unauthorized third parties, even if the secret long-term key itself is compromised.

Instance Isolation – Different instances running on the same physical machine are isolated from each other via the Xen hypervisor. Amazon is active in the Xen community, which provides awareness of the latest developments. In addition, the AWS firewall resides within the hypervisor layer, between the physical network interface and the instance’s virtual interface. All packets must pass through this layer, thus an instance’s neighbors have no more access to that instance than any other host on the Internet and can be treated as if they are on separate physical hosts. The physical RAM is separated using similar mechanisms. Customer instances have no access to raw disk devices, but instead are presented with virtualized disks. The AWS proprietary disk virtualization layer automatically resets every block of storage used by the customer, so that one customer’s data is never unintentionally exposed to another. In addition, memory allocated to guests is scrubbed (set to zero) by the hypervisor when it is unallocated to a guest. The memory is not returned to the pool of free memory available for new allocations until the memory scrubbing is complete.

Firewall (Security Groups) – Amazon EC2 provides a complete firewall solution; this mandatory inbound firewall is configured in a default deny-all mode and Amazon EC2 customers must explicitly open the ports needed to allow inbound traffic. The traffic may be restricted by protocol, by service port, as well as by source IP address (individual IP or Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR) block).

The firewall isn’t controlled through the guest OS; rather it requires your X.509 certificate and key to authorize changes, thus adding an extra layer of security. AWS supports the ability to grant granular access to different administrative functions on the instances and the firewall, therefore enabling you to implement additional security through separation of duties. The level of security afforded by the firewall is a function of which ports you open, and for what duration and purpose. The default state is to deny all incoming traffic, and you should plan carefully what you will open when building and securing your applications. Well-informed traffic management and security design are still required on a per instance basis. AWS further encourages you to apply additional per-instance filters with host-based firewalls such as IPtables or the Windows Firewall and VPNs. This can restrict both inbound and outbound traffic.

Storage Device Decommissioning – When a storage device has reached the end of its useful life, AWS procedures include a decommissioning process that is designed to prevent customer data from being exposed to unauthorized individuals. AWS uses the techniques detailed in DoD 5220.22-M (“National Industrial Security Program Operating Manual “) or NIST 800-88 (“Guidelines for Media Sanitization”) to destroy data as part of the decommissioning process. All decommissioned magnetic storage devices are degaussed and physically destroyed in accordance with industry-standard practices.

Multi-factor Authentication – You can enable MFA devices for your AWS Account as well as for the users you have created under your AWS Account with AWS IAM. In addition, you add MFA protection for access across AWS Accounts, for when you want to allow a user you’ve created under one AWS Account to use an IAM role to access resources under another AWS Account. You can require the user to use MFA before assuming the role as an additional layer of security. 

You can also enforce MFA authentication for AWS service APIs in order to provide an extra layer of protection over powerful or privileged actions such as terminating Amazon EC2 instances or reading sensitive data stored in Amazon S3. You do this by adding an MFA-authentication requirement to an IAM access policy. You can attach these access policies to IAM users, IAM groups, or resources that support Access Control Lists (ACLs) like Amazon S3 buckets, SQS queues, and SNS topics.

AWS Trusted Advisor Security Checks – The AWS Trusted Advisor customer support service not only monitors for cloud performance and resiliency, but also cloud security. Trusted Advisor inspects your AWS environment and makes recommendations when opportunities may exist to save money, improve system performance, or close security gaps. It provides alerts on several of the most common security misconfigurations that can occur, including leaving certain ports open that make you vulnerable to hacking and unauthorized access, neglecting to create IAM accounts for your internal users, allowing public access to Amazon S3 buckets, not turning on user activity logging (AWS CloudTrail), or not using MFA on your root AWS Account.

Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) Security – Normally, each Amazon EC2 instance you launch is randomly assigned a public IP address in the Amazon EC2 address space. Amazon VPC enables you to create an isolated portion of the AWS cloud and launch Amazon EC2 instances that have private (RFC 1918) addresses in the range of your choice (e.g., 10.0.0.0/16). You can define subnets within your VPC, grouping similar kinds of instances based on IP address range, and then set up routing and security to control the flow of traffic in and out of the instances and subnets. AWS offers a variety of VPC architecture templates with configurations that provide varying levels of public access:

  • VPC with a single public subnet only. Your instances run in a private, isolated section of the AWS cloud with direct access to the Internet. Network ACLs and security groups can be used to provide strict control over inbound and outbound network traffic to your instances.
  • VPC with public and private subnets. In addition to containing a public subnet, this configuration adds a private subnet whose instances are not addressable from the Internet. Instances in the private subnet can establish outbound connections to the Internet via the public subnet using Network Address Translation (NAT).
  • VPC with public and private subnets and hardware VPN access. This configuration adds an IPsec VPN connection between your Amazon VPC and your data center, effectively extending your data center to the cloud while also providing direct access to the Internet for public subnet instances in your Amazon VPC. In this configuration, customers add a VPN appliance on their corporate datacenter side.
  • VPC with private subnet only and hardware VPN access. Your instances run in a private, isolated section of the AWS cloud with a private subnet whose instances are not addressable from the Internet. You can connect this private subnet to your corporate data center via an IPsec VPN tunnel.

Security features within Amazon VPC include security groups, network ACLs, routing tables, and external gateways. Each of these items is complementary to providing a secure, isolated network that can be extended through selective enabling of direct Internet access or private connectivity to another network.

AWS Identity and Access Management (AWS IAM) – AWS IAM allows you to create multiple users and manage the permissions for each of these users within your AWS Account. A user is an identity (within an AWS Account) with unique security credentials that can be used to access AWS Services. AWS IAM eliminates the need to share passwords or keys, and makes it easy to enable or disable a user’s access as appropriate. AWS IAM enables you to implement security best practices, such as least privilege, by granting unique credentials to every user within your AWS Account and only granting permission to access the AWS services and resources required for the users to perform their jobs. AWS IAM is secure by default; new users have no access to AWS until permissions are explicitly granted.

AWS CloudTrail Security – AWS CloudTrail provides a log of all requests for AWS resources within your account. For each event recorded, you can see what service was accessed, what action was performed, any parameters for the action, and who made the request. Not only can you see which one of your users or services performed an action on an AWS service, but you can see whether it was as the AWS root account user or an IAM user, or whether it was with temporary security credentials for a role or federated user. CloudTrail basically captures information about every API call to an AWS resource, whether that call was made from the AWS Management Console, CLI, or an SDK. If the API request returned an error, CloudTrail provides the description of the error, including messages for authorization failures. It even captures AWS Management Console sign-in events, creating a log record every time an AWS account owner, a federated user, or an IAM user simply signs into the console.

The Security Best Practices document contains many more descriptions and illustrations of AWS’s secure-by-design environment and services. Take some time over the holidays and review the document, with an eye towards op-ex savings in the coming new year. Security is not a luxury, and it definitely shouldn’t cost like one.

Safe travels on your journey to/in the cloud!

 

 

Agile Transformations and First Principles

When IT organizations start down the path of using new methodologies like DevOps, Continuous Delivery/Integration, and Agile workflows, there is a bias to approach things the way you always have while trying to be open-minded and searching for opportunities to leverage the new to eclipse the problems of the old. It is rare for an organization, particularly one that has some time and history behind its practices, to fully embrace new approaches and go all-in from the start.

“It takes too much time away from our established process…”

“We can’t abandon existing infrastructure…”

“This money-making application over here, OldFancyThing, doesn’t fit a continuous delivery process, so we have to keep doing what we’ve always done and to do both is too hard…”

“But we’ve always done it THIS WAY…”

These are likely very familiar responses you’ve heard, especially recently. They’re also examples of reasoning from analogy. There are a lot of opportunities that are missed as a result of this sort of thinking in organizations.

How do you escape such tethered thinking? By insisting on reasoning from first principles.

Reasoning from first principles involves looking at problems from the ground up each time, distilling the actionable targets down to their most basic components. It takes more effort than reasoning from analogy and most people don’t want to spend the time or energy deviating from a working path. Also, the time and energy may not yield a new target or end state that is of more value than existing approaches.

Innovation requires both iteration and bifurcation, with the latter being the territory of reasoning from first principles. We’re familiar with iterative change; in fact, Agile methods essentially demand an iterative workflow but also require breaking down bifurcation into quick cycles of work. Legacy or waterfall project workflows essentially demand bifurcation but at the cost of reducing the impact of the change due to elongated development cycles, thereby reducing innovation. How many of us have been involved in a two-year project with waterfall structure only to have it be canceled around 18 months because the once-valued innovation was no longer that innovative?

For this reason alone, adopting Agile methodologies for your software development and infrastructure engineering practices puts you into a better posture for increasing productivity and delivering innovative value. Continuous delivery & continuous integration workflows are the moving parts of the Agile engine. Sprint stories and sub-tasks are the fuel of the engine, and the engine’s output is iteration and bifurcation over short spans of time. In a sense, you are almost guaranteed to succeed and grow, with minimal risk-taking. What are you waiting for?