Core AWS Security Services


When working with AWS, it is imperative that your accounts and the data, network, and compute resources inside them are secure and only accessible for authorized purposes.  AWS provides many security, monitoring, and compliance services.  However, it is unclear which of these services are required, optional, or should be avoided in place of a third-party solution.  This whitepaper will provide guidance on the core set of AWS Security services.  We will describe what each of these core services does, when to use it, and how it fits into the larger Security and Governance functions of an Enterprise deployment in AWS.  We will also provide recommendations for when to adopt each these services, though the exact order is less important than establishing a baseline level of security that you improve over time.


In this analysis, we will focus on a core set of AWS Security and Compliance services that are native to AWS.  Starting with AWS’ native security services to secure your accounts is a good idea because:

  • Security: they are integrated with AWS’ Identity and Access Management Services and come with secure-by-default configurations
  • Ease of Adoption: no additional vendor management; bill is consolidated with other AWS services
  • Cost: AWS security services are usually cost-effective to adopt, though there are some caveats
  • Sole Practical Option: for some functions, especially in the monitoring space, AWS may be the only practical option because sending the data (only) to a third party might be cost prohibitive or not possible

We will examine the following, commonly-used AWS services that support Security and Compliance activities:

  • CloudTrail
  • CloudWatch
  • GuardDuty
  • Config
  • SecurityHub
  • Trusted Advisor
  • Macie
  • Inspector


Functions: Monitoring CloudTrail records AWS API call activity for an AWS account.  Enabling this service will provide an event history of all API calls made across your account. These API calls include any actions done in the console, AWS SDKs and command line tools.  This service is crucial to your account and should always be enabled. This information is the cornerstone for monitoring and figuring out what is going on in your account. One important feature with CloudTrail is that its data can be hooked up to other AWS services (CloudWatch and SNS) and based on configured rules, notifications can be sent to you. So when CloudTrail is enabled and integrated with CloudWatch and SNS, you can monitor and send alerts when security critical APIs are used such as creating IAM roles and policies and modifications to account ownership information. This service supports compliance and operational auditing of your account.  Turning this on in every region and configuring it to work with rules in CloudWatch along with notifications in SNS is a good thing and one of the first tasks you should do to start securing your account. Usage recommendations:  Always enable CloudTrail when you setup your account.  Collecting the API calls in your account is information required to audit activity being performed in the account.


Functions: Monitoring, Alerting CloudWatch collects monitoring and operational data and stores them in logs and as metrics.  Having all your logs and metrics stored together provides you a way to correlate data points across your environment.  In addition, CloudWatch has customizable rules that can trigger alarms.  From these alarms you can send notifications via the AWS service SNS so that you can troubleshoot issues or you could automate actions using AWS services like ASG or Lambda to perform identified actions.  CloudWatch collects data on many of the AWS built services and in addition with the CloudWatch Agent, you can publish data from your applications directly to CloudWatch logs as needed.  This ability to have the events across your environment in one place is what makes CloudWatch an important part of securing your account. CloudWatch is not an AWS security service but rather a service that can be used to help with security monitoring of your account.  A great example is that CloudTrail can publish to CloudWatch and rules can be built to watch for certain events that are considered a security issue.  Examples would be any use of the root account, adding users, or changing permission policy.  As mentioned above, integrating CloudTrail events with CloudWatch rules and alarming on identified security issues is a good piece of information to have when trying to detect usage of critical APIs in your account. Usage recommendations:  Use CloudWatch as your first level monitor for AWS services that integrate with it.  Specifically use it with CloudTrail and setup rules to alert based on critical API calls.


Functions: Monitoring, Alerting GuardDuty continuously analyzes your AWS account for suspicious activity using data provided by other AWS services.  It gives you what AWS terms as “intelligent threat detection” by analyzing the data collected from CloudTrail, VPC Flow Logs, and DNS Logs from you account.  The intelligent part is enabled by providing known threat information and the usage of machine learning.  Known threat information includes items like know lists of malicious IPs.  The machine learning works by detecting anomalous account and network activity and combining this with the known threat information.  Here are some examples of what Guard Duty can detect:

  • An EC2 instance being probed or brute force attacked
  • A compromised EC2 instance communicating with a known malware server
  • Any traffic containing crypto currency mining
  • Highly sensitive AWS API calls that are invoked under suspicious circumstances.

There are a lot more actual detections than listed above.  I would recommend looking at the AWS documentation for more information (docs). In addition to what it does, the other strong point behind Guard Duty is you just turn it on.  There is no configuration needed, no agents to install, no virtual machines to run, and no rules/permissions to create.  It operates entirely on AWS’s own infrastructure.  You do not need to enable CloudTrail, VPC Flow Logs or DNS Logs.  Guard Duty inspects that information whether you have those enabled or not.   To add to this, AWS is continually learning and adding new anomaly detections behind the scenes. Usage recommendations:  Use Guard Duty when you have resources running in your account and are worried about malicious or unauthorized behavior targeted at those resources.


Functions: Monitoring, Alerting AWS Config maintains an inventory of your AWS resources and watches for changes to those resources.  Additionally, you may configure rules that AWS Config will monitor your resources against.  This service will store your configuration history and snapshots in S3 and it can notify you via SNS Topics that a configuration has changed.  It also has built in integrations with CloudTrail, AWS Systems Manager, EC2 Dedicated Host, Application Load Balancers (ALB), and AWS Organizations.  These integrations are important and provide the following:

  • CloudTrail – Use CloudTrail logs to get information about the event that invoked the configuration change
  • Systems Manager – This integration gives you visibility to the OS configuration on your EC2 instances and on-premise servers.  With this integration you can see a timeline of EC2 instance changes
  • EC2 Dedicated Host – With this integration you can assess your license compliance for dedicated hosts.  This includes launching, stopping, and terminating events along with important information like the software license, number of cores, and Amazon Machine Image ID.
  • Application Load Balancer – With this integration you will able to see changes to the ALB.  This includes changes to EC2 security groups, VPC and subnets.

With Config, you can continuously monitor resource configuration and notify on potential security issues that might happen. Usage recommendations:  Use AWS Config when you want to evaluate configuration settings, retrieve historical configuration settings, or alert on a configuration change for AWS resources running in your account.

Trusted Advisor

Functions: Monitoring, Alerting Trusted Advisor analyzes your account and recommends improvements in three architectural pillars:

  • Costs
  • Performance
  • Security

A basic version of Trusted Advisor is included with every AWS account and there is also a Premium version.  The Premium Support version includes more Trusted Advisor recommendations and access to technical support, architecture support, and use case guidance.  For this, we will just look at what the base Trusted Advisor security recommendations. The following checks and recommendations are provided:

  • S3 Bucket Permissions
  • Security Groups – Specific Ports Unrestricted
  • IAM Use
  • MFA on Root Account
  • EBS Public Snapshots
  • RDS Public Snapshots

Usage recommendations:  Use Trusted Advisor to provide you guidance on some basic security settings in your AWS account.


Functions: Monitoring, Alerting Macie learns how data is distributed and accessed in your account and notifies you of unusual activity.  It will discover, classify and protect your sensitive data stored in S3 and uses machine learning to evaluate the data along with access and usage of the data.  It can specifically recognize types of data stored in S3 like personally identifiable information (PII), API keys, and other credentials.  It looks for activities like large quantities of downloads, data that is publicly exposed and lateral movement of data.  AWS has plans to expand this service to other data stores. You configure this service from the console and tell it what buckets to monitor.  From there, it creates a baseline about the type, usage and access and monitors for risks or suspicious behavior along with using CloudTrail events to correlate information.  Dashboards are provided for analysis along with the ability to create workflows for integration with other security services.  There are automatic alert categories built to monitor for security and compliance use cases. Usage recommendations:  Use Macie when you have data in S3 that is critical to your business and must be monitored for usage.


Functions: Monitoring, Alerting Amazon Inspector checks on the applications and resources you have deployed in your account.  This works two ways.  The first is a network assessment.  This will evaluate any ports open on your EC2 instances along with any ports reachable into your network from outside the VPC.  This network assessment does not require an Inspector agent to be installed.  However, having this agent on the EC2 instance will allow port inspection on the EC2 instance.  The second check is a host assessment.  This requires the Inspector agent to be installed on the instance.  This check will look for vulnerabilities (CVE) on the host and check for host hardening vs the CIS benchmarks and security best practices. Usage recommendations:  Use Inspector when have applications running on EC2 and want to check for both network and host vulnerabilities.

Security Hub

Functions: Aggregation & Visualization Security Hub is AWS’s newest security service.  This service aggregates and prioritizes security information and alerts from across the account.  Mostly this aggregation is from other AWS security services.  For example, this Security Hub is integrated with Guard Duty, Inspector, and Macie. Security Hub’s main functions are to:

  • Aggregate security findings across the account
  • Automate foundational account level configuration and compliance checks
  • Provide integrated dashboards to view assessment results and start remediation

In addition to integrated dashboards, you have the ability to run account-level configuration and compliance checks.  These checks are against industry standards and best practices and will provide you with a compliance score and identification of account problems.  This service integrates with CloudWatch Logs and Events.  This allows you to search through log data and identify compliance or incident issues and define workflows that can be executed when vulnerabilities are detected.  This can include sending notification or tasks to other systems. Usage recommendations:  Use AWS Security Hub to aggregate security information if you are running other AWS Security services like Guard Duty, Inspector and Macie.


If you are interested in discussing more about Core AWS Security Services,  please contact us below! We would love to chat.

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