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AWS IAM Indecision

Identity and Access Management (IAM) can be a confusing topic for people that are new to Amazon Web Services. There are IAM Users that could be used for authentication or solutions considered part of the AWS Directory Services, such as Microsoft AD, Simple AD, or AD Connector. If none of these sound appealing, there is always the option to use Federation with a SAML 2.0 solution like OKTA, PING, or Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS). If all of these options have given you a case of decision fatigue, then hopefully this post and the associated links will help you to decide how your environment should be set up.

IAM Users

Your first option is the easiest to configure but comes with a few risks. An IAM user is a username and password that is created in the AWS IAM Console. You can give IAM Users access to login to the console or through the API, but it also means that it’s a separate login from the account you probably use in your corporate environment. For example, you log in to your laptop every morning with a corporate Active Directory login and then go to login to the AWS console with a completely different username or password. Maybe you’ve even decided to use the same username and password that is used with your corporate AD but they aren’t synced so you still need to manage them separately. While IAM Users are easy to setup, they provide a few challenges for enterprises who’d like to use a single login. There are other solutions available to limit operational complexity and the number of logins managed, meaning fewer attack vectors.

Directory Services

AWS also provides a service called AWS Directory Service that provides several different options for authenticating both machines and users with your environment.

Simple AD – Simple AD is an option that provides a subset of Microsoft Active Directory services and is based on Samba 4. This service deploys a pair of domain controllers, with DNS, in a VPC across a pair of subnets for availability. The solution allows you to use this new directory as a Kerberos authentication source, but be aware that this solution doesn’t allow you to create a trust relationship with your existing domain if you have one. Think of this if you plan to set up a new domain for your AWS servers to belong to, but will still be managed separately from your on-premises domain. Simple AD has two sizes where a small directory can handle around 500 users / 2000 objects and a large size can manage 5000 / 20,000 objects.

Microsoft AD – As you’d guess, Microsoft AD provides a full-blown Microsoft AD which is deployed in a similar fashion to Simple AD. A pair of Microsoft AD servers (2012 R2 as of now) are deployed across AZs to provide redundancy. Microsoft AD has an advantage over Simple AD where you can create a trust relationship with these new domain controllers to your existing Microsoft Active Directory environment. Be aware that your directory cannot be extended to this new Microsoft AD instance, a trust relationship can be created though. Microsoft AD also comes in two sizes where standard supports 5000 users / 30,000 objects and more than this would require the Enterprise option.

AD Connector – If you have the need to extend your existing on-premises active directory, then you could consider AD Connector. AD Connector doesn’t authenticate your users directly, but rather forwards the requests on to your on-prem AD instances. This requires network connectivity between your VPC and your on-prem domain controllers for this to work, and if you lose your connectivity, logins will fail to work.


If you want to use your existing Active Directory solution for a login method for the AWS console or CLI, then federation might be your best bet. With federation, you can continue to use your existing corporate logins to log in to the AWS control plane. Be aware though, that AD Federation won’t do anything for your computer objects that need a domain to join when they are spun up. This just allows for console authentication only.



The following resources may help you with some facets of the setup of the directory services, how federation can be used with or without role switching and general info.

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(This blog post originally appeared on The IT Hollow.)

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