One Bite of Real-world Serverless: Controlling an EC2 with Lambda, API Gateway and Sigma

I have been developing and blogging about Sigma, the world’s first serverless IDE for serverless developers – but haven’t really been using it for my non-serverless work. That was why, when a (somewhat) peculiar situation came up recently, I decided to give Sigma a full-scale spin.

The Situation: a third party needs to control one of our EC2 instances

Our parent company AdroitLogic, sells an enterprise B2B messaging platform called AS2 Gateway – which comes as a simple SaaS subscription as well as an on-premise or cloud-installable dedicated deployment. (Meanwhile, part of our own team is also working on making it a completely serverless solution – we’ll probably be bothering you with a whole lotta blog posts on that too, pretty soon!)
One of our potential clients needed a customized copy of the platform, first as a staging instance in our own AWS account; they would configure and test their integrations against it, before deciding on a production deployment – under a different cloud platform of their choice, in their own realm.

Their work time zone is several hours ahead of ours; keeping aside the clock skew on emails and Zoom calls, the staging instance had to be made available during their working hours, not ours.

Managing the EC2 across time zones: the Options

Obviously, we did have a few choices:

  • keep the instance running 24/7, so our client can access it anytime they want – obviously the simplest but also the costliest choice. True, one hour of EC2 time is pretty cheap – less than half a dollar – but it tends to add up pretty fast; while we continue to waste precious resources on a mostly-idling EC2 VM instance.
  • get up at 3 AM (figure of speech) every morning and launch the instance; and shut it down when we sign off – won’t work if our client wishes to work late nights; besides they don’t get the chance to do the testing every day, so there’s still room for significant waste
  • fix up some automated schedule to start and stop the instance – pretty much the same caveats as before (minus the “getting up at 3 AM” part)
  • delegate control of the instance to our client, so they can start and stop it at their convenience

Evidently, the last option was the most economical for us (remember, the client is still in evaluation stage – and may decide not to go with us, after all), and also fairly convenient for them (just two extra steps, before and after work, plus a few seconds’ startup delay).

Client-controlled EC2: how to KISS it, the right way

But on the other hand, we didn’t want to overcomplicate the process either:

  • Giving them access to our AWS console was out of the question – even with highly constrained access.
  • key pair with just ec2:StartInstances and ec2:StopInstances IAM permissions on the respective instance ID, would have been ideal; but it would still mean they would have to either install the AWS CLI, or write (or run) some custom code snippets every time they wanted to control the instance.
  • AWS isn’t, and wasn’t going to be, their favorite cloud platform anyway; so any AWS-specific steps would have been an unnecessary overhead for them.

KISS, FTW!

Serverless to the rescue!

Most probably, you are already screaming out the solution: a pair of custom HTTP (API Gateway) endpoints backed by dedicated Lambdas (we’re thinking serverless, after all!) that would do that very specific job – and have just that permission, nothing else, keeping with the preached-by-everybody, least privilege principle.

Our client would just have to invoke the start/stop URL (with a simple auth token, for extra safety), and EC2 will obey promptly.

  • No more AWS or EC2 semantics for them,
  • our budget runs smooth,
  • they have full control over the testing cycles, and
  • I get to have a good night’s sleep!

ec2-control: writing it with Sigma

There were a few points in this projects that required some advanced voodoo on Sigma side:

  • Sigma does not natively support EC2 APIs (why should it; it’s supposed to be for serverless computing 😎) so, in addition to writing the EC2 SDK calls, we would need to add a custom permission for each function policy; to compensate for the automatic policy generation aspect.
  • The custom policy would need to be as narrow as possible: just ec2:StartInstances and ec2:StopInstances actions, on just our client’s staging instance. (If the URL somehow gets out and some remote hacker out there gains control of our function, we don’t want them to be able to start and stop random – or perhaps not-so-random – instances in our AWS account!)
  • Both the IAM role and the function itself, would need access to the instance ID (for policy minimization and the actual API call, respectively).
  • For reusability (we devs really love that, don’t we? 😎) it should be possible to specify the instance ID (and the auth token) on a per-deployment basis – without embedding the values in the code or configurations, which would get checked into version control.

Template Editor FTW

Since Sigma uses CloudFormation under the hood, the solution is pretty obvious: define two template parameters for the instance ID and token, and refer them in the functions’ environment variables and the IAM roles’ policy statements.
Sigma does not natively support CloudFormation parameters (our team recently started working on it, so perhaps it may actually be supported at the time you read this!) but it surely allows you to specify them in your custom deployment template – which would get nicely merged into the final deployment template that Sigma would run.

Some premium bad news, and then some free good news

At the time of this writing, both the template editor and the permission manager were premium features of Sigma IDE. So if you start writing this on your own, you would either need to pay a few bucks and upgrade your account, or mess around with Sigma’s configuration files to hack those pieces in (which I won’t say is impossible 😎).

(After writing this project, I managed to convince our team to enable the permission manager and template editor for the free tier as well 🤗 so, by the time you read this, things may have taken a better light!)
But, as part of the way that Sigma actually works, not having a premium account does not mean that you cannot deploy an already template- or permission-customized project written by someone else; and my project is already in GitHub so you can simply open it in your Sigma IDE and deploy it, straightaway.

“But how do I provide my own instance ID and token when deploying?”

Patience. Read on.

“Old, but not obsolete” (a.k.a. more limitations, but not impossible)

As I said before, Sigma didn’t natively support CloudFormation parameters; so even if you add them to the custom template, Sigma would just blindly merge and deploy the whole thing – without asking for actual values of the parameters!

While this could have been a cause for deployment failures in some cases, lucky for us, here it doesn’t cause any trouble. But still, we need to provide correct, custom values for that instance ID and protection token!

Amazingly, CloudFormation allows you to just update the input parameters of an already completed deployment – without having to touch or even re-submit the deployment template:

aws cloudformation update-stack --stack-name Whatever-Stack \
  --use-previous-template --capabilities CAPABILITY_IAM \
  --parameters \
  ParameterKey=SomeKey,ParameterValue=SomeValue ...

(That command is already there, in my project’s README.)

So our plan is simple:

  1. Deploy the project via Sigma, as usual.
  2. Run an update from CloudFormation side, providing just the correct instance ID and your own secret token value.

Enough talk, let’s code!

Warning: You may not actually be able to write the complete project on your own, unless we have enabled custom template editing for free accounts – or you already have a premium account.

If you are just looking to deploy a copy on your own, simply open my already existing public project from https://github.com/janakaud/ec2-control – and skip over to the Ready to Deploy section.

1. ec2-start.js, a NodeJS Lambda

const {ec2} = require("./util");
exports.handler = async (event) => ec2(event, "startInstances", "StartingInstances");

API Gateway trigger

After writing the code,

  1. drag-n-drop an API Gateway entry from the left-side Resources pane, on to the event variable of the function,
  2. enter a few details –
    1. an API name (say EC2Control),
    2. path (say /start, or /ec2/start),
    3. HTTP method (GET would be easiest for the user – they can just paste a link into a browser!)
    4. and a stage name (say prod)
  3. and click Inject.

Custom permissions tab

{
    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Statement": [
        {
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Resource": {
                "Fn::Sub": "arn:aws:ec2:${AWS::Region}:${AWS::AccountId}:instance/${EC2ID}"
            },
            "Action": [
                "ec2:StartInstances"
            ]
        }
    ]
}

2. ec2-stop.js, a NodeJS Lambda

const {ec2} = require("./util");
exports.handler = async (event) => ec2(event, "stopInstances", "StoppingInstances");

API Gateway trigger

Just like before, drag-n-drop and configure an APIG trigger.

  1. But this time, make sure that you select the API name and deployment stage via the Existing tabs – instead of typing in new values.
  2. Resource path would still be a new one; pick a suitable pathname as before, like /ec2/stop (consistent with the previous).
  3. Method is also your choice; natural is to stick to the previously used one.

Custom permissions tab

{
    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Statement": [
        {
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Resource": {
                "Fn::Sub": "arn:aws:ec2:${AWS::Region}:${AWS::AccountId}:instance/${EC2ID}"
            },
            "Action": [
                "ec2:StopInstances"
            ]
        }
    ]
}

3. util.js, just a NodeJS file

const ec2 = new (require("aws-sdk")).EC2();

const EC2_ID = process.env.EC2_ID;
if (!EC2_ID) {
    throw new Error("EC2_ID unavailable");
}
const TOKEN = process.env.TOKEN;
if (!TOKEN) {
    throw new Error("TOKEN unavailable");
}

exports.ec2 = async (event, method, resultKey) => {
    let tok = (event.queryStringParameters || {}).token;
    if (tok !== TOKEN) {
        return {statusCode: 401};
    }
    let data = await ec2[method]({InstanceIds: [EC2_ID]}).promise();
    return {
        headers: {"Content-Type": "text/plain"},
        body: data[resultKey].map(si => `${si.PreviousState.Name} -> ${si.CurrentState.Name}`).join("\n")
    };
};

Code is pretty simple – we aren’t doing much, just validating the incoming token, calling the EC2 API, and returning the state transition result (e.g. running → stopping) back to the caller as confirmation; e.g. it will appear in the our client’s browser window.

(If you were wondering why we didn’t add aws-sdk as a dependency despite require()`ing it; that’s because `aws-sdk is already available in the standard NodeJS Lambda environment. No need to bloat up our deployment package with a redundant copy – unless you wish to use some cutting-edge feature or SDK component that was released just last week.)

The better part of the coordinating fat and glue, is in the custom permissions and the template:

4. Custom template

{
  "Parameters": {
    "EC2ID": {
      "Type": "String",
      "Default": ""
    },
    "TOKEN": {
      "Type": "String",
      "Default": ""
    }
  },
  "Resources": {
    "ec2Start": {
      "Properties": {
        "Environment": {
          "Variables": {
            "EC2_ID": {
              "Ref": "EC2ID"
            },
            "TOKEN": {
              "Ref": "TOKEN"
            }
          }
        }
      }
    },
    "ec2Stop": {
      "Properties": {
        "Environment": {
          "Variables": {
            "EC2_ID": {
              "Ref": "EC2ID"
            },
            "TOKEN": {
              "Ref": "TOKEN"
            }
          }
        }
      }
    }
  }
}

Deriving that one on your own, isn’t total voodoo magic either; after writing the rest of the project, just have a look at the auto-generated template tab, and write up a custom JSON – whose pieces would merge themselves into the right places, yielding the expected final template.

We accept the EC2ID and TOKEN as parameters, and merge them into the Environment.Variables property of the Lambda definitions. (The customized IAM policies are already referencing the parameters via Fn::Sub so we don’t need to do anything for them here.)

Once we have the template editor in the free tier, you would certainly have much more cool concepts to play around with – and probably also figure out so many bugs (full disclaimer: I was the one that initially wrote that feature!) which you would promptly report to us! 🤗

Ready to Deploy

When all is ready, click Deploy Project on the toolbar (or Project menu).

If all goes well, Sigma will build the project and deploy it, and you would end up with a Changes Summary popup with an outputs section at the bottom containing the URLs of your API Gateway endpoints.

If you accidentally closed the popup, you can get the outputs back via the Deployment tab of the Project Info window.

Copy both URLs – you would be sending these to your client.

Sigma’s work is done – but we’re not done yet!

Update the parameters to real values

Grab the EC2-generated identifier of your instance, and find a suitable value for the auth token (perhaps a uuid -v4?).

Via AWS CLI

If you have AWS CLI – which is really awesome, by the way – the next step is just one command; as mentioned in the README as well:

aws cloudformation update-stack --stack-name ec2-control-Stack \
  --use-previous-template --capabilities CAPABILITY_IAM --parameters \
  ParameterKey=EC2ID,ParameterValue=i-0123456789abcdef \
  ParameterKey=TOKEN,ParameterValue=your-token-goes-here

(If you copy-paste, remember to change the parameter values!)

We tell CloudFormation “hey, I don’t need to change my deployment definitions but want to change the input parameters; so go and do it for me”.

The update usually takes just a few seconds; if needed, you can confirm its success by calling aws cloudformation describe-stacks --stack-name ec2-control-Stack and checking the Stacks.0.StackStatus field.

Via the AWS Console

If you don’t have the CLI, you can still do the update via the AWS Console; while it is a bit overkill, the console provides more intuitive (and colorful) feedback regarding the progress and success of the stack update.

Complete the URLs – plus one round of testing

Add the token (?token=the-token-you-picked) to the two URLs you copied from Sigma’s deployment outputs. Now they are ready to be shared with your client.

1. Test: starting up

Finally, just to make sure everything works (and avoid any unpleasant or awkward moments), open the starter-up URL in your browser.

Assuming your instance was already stopped, you would get a plaintext response:

stopped -> pending

Within a few seconds, the instance will enter running status and become ready (obviously, this transition won’t be visible to the user; but that shouldn’t really matter).

2. Test: stopping

Now open the stopper URL:

running -> stopping

As before, stopped status will be reached in background within a few seconds.

3. Test: does it work without the token – hopefully not?

The “unauthorized” response doesn’t have a payload, so you may want to use curl or wget to verify this one:

janaka@DESKTOP-M314LAB:~ curl -v https://foobarbaz0.execute-api.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/ec2/stop
*   Trying 13.225.2.77...
* ...
* SSL connection using TLS1.2 / ECDHE_RSA_AES_128_GCM_SHA256
* ...
* ALPN, server accepted to use http/1.1

> GET /ec2/stop HTTP/1.1
> Host: foobarbaz0.execute-api.us-east-1.amazonaws.com
> User-Agent: curl/7.47.0
> Accept: */*
>

< HTTP/1.1 401 Unauthorized
< Content-Type: application/json
< Content-Length: 0
< Connection: keep-alive
< Date: Thu, 18 Jun 2020 06:14:58 GMT
< x-amzn-RequestId: ...

All good!

Now go ahead – share just those two token-included URLs with your client – or whatever third party that you wish to delegate the EC2 control; and ask them to use ’em wisely and keep ’em safe.

If the third party loses the URL(s); and the bad guy who got them, starts playing with them unnecessarily (stopping and starting things rapidly – or at random hours – for example): just run an aws cloudformation update-stack with a new TOKEN – to cut out old access! Then share the new token with your partner, obviously warning them to be a lot more careful.

You can also tear down the whole thing in seconds – without a trace of existence (except for the CloudWatch logs from previous runs) – via:

  • Sigma’s Undeploy Project toolbar button or Project menu item,
  • aws cloudformation delete-stack on the CLI, or
  • the AWS console.

Lastly, don’t forget to stay tuned for more serverless bites, snacks and full-course meals from our team!