To Do Serverless Right, You Need A New IAM Approach

Nate Taggart

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is an important tool for cloud infrastructure and user management. It governs access control for both cloud services and users, and can incorporate features around auditing, authentication policies, and governance.

Use of IAM involves a multiple-step process of creating roles and permissions and then assigning those roles and permissions to users, groups, and resources. In static (or relatively stable) environments, like those on legacy infrastructure, this is a task that can be configured once and only periodically updated. For a critical, once-and-done type task like this, it has historically been a responsibility of a highly-privileged operations team which could own this responsibility and develop IAM permissioning as a core competency. In serverless environments, however, manual provisioning and assignment of IAM roles and permissions can have a dramatically negative impact on team velocity -- one of the key advantages of serverless infrastructure.

Serverless Velocity and IAM

Serverless infrastructure is highly dynamic and prone to frequent change. As developers develop functions for deployment into a FaaS-style architecture, they're fundamentally creating new infrastructure resources which must be governed. Since these changes can occur several times per day, waiting for an operations team to create and assign IAM policies is an unnecessary and highly impactful bottleneck to the application delivery cycle.

As a further challenge, FaaS architectures are difficult (if not impossible) to recreate in local environments. This means that the development cycle is likely to involve iterating and frequently deploying into a development account or environment. Having an operations team manually creating IAM policies in the course of this development cycle is prohibitively challenging.

These bottlenecks notwithstanding, IAM policies continue to play a critical role in security, governance, and access control. Organizations must find a way to create and assign IAM policies without blocking the product development team from their high-velocity serverless application lifecycle.

The New Serverless IAM Strategy

There are generally two approaches to IAM policy-making for serverless. The first is to extend the responsibility from your specialized operations team to your entire development group. This approach has a number of drawbacks, including the need for extensive training, a human-error risk, a reduction in development velocity, and a broad extension of access which dramatically reduces control.

The second, and preferred, solution is to automatically provision IAM policies based on a rule-set of best-practices and governance standards. In this scenario, a company would either develop their own release tooling or purchase a pre-built solution like Stackery's Serverless Operations Console. This software would then be responsible for encapsulating principles of "Least Privilege," environment management, policy creation, and policy application for all serverless stacks.

In this way, your product engineering team can focus on developing code and can have permissions to provision their services into development environments which are automatically sandboxed and isolated. Once development has been satisfied, this software can promote the new service into a new sandboxed environment for integration testing and QA. Your CI/CD pipeline can continue to promote the service all the way to production, using appropriate roles and permissions at each step, thereby ensuring both IAM policy compliance and high-velocity through automation.

This automatic creation and assignment of IAM policies reduces the risk for human error, ensures that resources are appropriately locked down in all stages of release, and encapsulates DevOps best practices for both high velocity and consistent control.

If you're still manually creating and assigning IAM policies in your serverless development cycle, I encourage you to consider the advantages of modernizing this workflow with specialized serverless operations software.

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