In the weeks leading up to re:Inforce, we’ll share conversations we’ve had with people at AWS who will be presenting at the event so you can learn more about them and some of the interesting work that they’re doing.
How long have you been at AWS and what’s your current role?
I’ve been at AWS for almost eight years. For the first six and a half years, I built the Solutions Architecture and Professional Services teams for AWS’s worldwide public sector sales organization—from five people when I joined, to many hundreds some years later. It was an amazing ride to build such a great team of cloud technology experts.
About a year and a half ago, I transitioned to the AWS Security team. On the Security team, I run a much smaller team called the Office of the CISO. We help manage interaction between our customers and the leadership team for AWS Security. In addition, we have a number of internal projects that we work on to improve interaction and information flow between the Security team and various AWS service teams, and between the AWS security team and the Amazon.com security team.
Why is your team called “the Office of the CISO”?
A lot of people want to talk to Steve Schmidt, our Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at AWS. If you want to talk to him, it’s very likely that you’re going to talk to me or to my team as a part of that process. There’s only one of him, and there are a few of us. We help Steve scale a bit, and help more customers have direct interaction with senior leadership in AWS Security.
We also provide guidance and leadership to the broader AWS security community, especially to the customer-facing side of AWS. For example, we’re leaders of the Security and Compliance Technical Field Community (TFC) for AWS. The Security TFC is made up of subject matter experts in solutions architecture, professional services, technical account management, and other technical disciplines. We help them to understand and communicate effectively with customers about important security and compliance topics, and to gather customer requirements and funnel them to the right places.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love communicating about technology — first diving deep to figure it out for myself, and then explaining it to others. And I love interacting with our customers, both to explain our platform and what we do, and, equally important, to get their feedback. We constantly get great input and great ideas from customers, and we try to leverage that feedback into continuous improvement of our products and services.
What does cloud security mean to you, personally? Why is it a topic you’re passionate about?
I remember being at a private conference on cybersecurity. It was government-oriented, and organized by a Washington DC-based think-tank. A number of senior government officials were talking about challenges in cybersecurity. In the middle of an intense discussion about the big challenges facing the industry, a former, very senior official in the U.S. Government intelligence community said (using a golfing colloquialism), “The great thing about the cloud is that it’s a Mulligan; it’s a do-over. When we make the cloud transition, we can finally do the right things when it comes to cybersecurity.”
There’s a lot of truth to that, just in terms of general IT modernization. The cloud simply makes security easier. Not “easy” — there are still challenges. But you’re much more equipped to do the right thing—to build automation, to build tooling, and to take full advantage of the base protections that are built into the platform. With a little bit of care, what you do is going to be better than what you did before. The responsibility that remains for you as the customer is still significant, but because everything is software-defined, you get far more visibility and control. Because everything is API-driven, you can automate just about everything.
Challenges remain; I want to reiterate that it’s never easy to do security right. But it’s so much easier when you don’t have to run the entire stack from the concrete floor up to the application, and when you can rely on the inherent visibility and control provided by a software-defined environment. In short, cloud migration represents the industry’s best opportunity for making big improvements in IT security. I love being in the center of that change for the better, and helping to make it real.
What initiatives are you currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?
Two things. First, we’re laser-focused on improving our AWS Identity and Access Management capabilities. They’re already very sophisticated and very powerful, but they are somewhat uneven across our services, and not as easy to use as they should be. I’m on the periphery of that work, but I’m actively involved in scoping out improvements. One recent example is a big advance in the capabilities of Service Control Policies (SCPs) within AWS Organizations. These now allow extremely fine-grained controls — as expressive as IAM polices—that can easily be applied globally across dozens or hundreds of AWS accounts. For example, you can express a global policy like “nobody but [some very special role] can attach an internet gateway to my VPCs, full stop.”
I’m also a networking geek, and another area I’ve been actively working on is improvements to our built-in networking security features. People have been asking for greater visibility and control over their VPCs. We have a lot of great features like security groups and network ACLs, but there’s a lot more we can and will do. For example, customers are looking for more visibility into what’s going on inside their VPCs beyond our existing VPC Flow Logs feature. We have an exciting announcement at our re:Inforce conference this week about some new capabilities in this area!
You’ll be speaking at re:Inforce about the security benefits of running EC2 instances on the AWS Nitro architecture. At a high level, what’s so innovative about Nitro, and how does it enable better security?
The EC2 Nitro architecture is a fundamental re-imagining of the best way to build a secure virtualization platform. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the industry. We’ve taken a lot of the complicated software that’s needed for virtualization, which normally runs in a privileged copy of an operating system — the “domain 0,” or “dom0” to use Xen terminology, but present in all modern hypervisors — and we’ve completely eliminated it. All those features are now implemented by custom software and hardware in a set of powerful co-processor computers inside the same physical box as the main Intel processor system board. The Nitro computers present virtual devices to the mainboard as if they were actual hardware devices. You might say the main system board — despite its powerful Intel Xeon processor and big chunks of memory — is really the “co-processor” in these systems; I call it the “customer workload co-processor!” It’s the main Nitro controller and not the system mainboard that’s fundamentally in charge of the overall system, providing a root of trust and a secure layer between the mainboard and the outside world.
There are bunch of great security benefits that flow from this redesign. For example, with the elimination of the dom0 trusted operating system running on the mainboard, we’ve completely eliminated interactive access to these hosts. There’s no SSH, no RDP, no interactive software mechanisms that allow direct human access. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there — you’ll have to come to my talk on Wednesday! And of course, we’ll post the video online afterward.
You’re also involved with a session to encourage customers to set up “state-of-the-art encryption.” In your view, what are some of the key elements of a “state-of-the-art” approach to encryption?
I came up with the original idea for the session, but was able to hand it off to an even better-suited speaker, so now I’ll just be there to enjoy it. Colm MacCarthaigh will be presenting. Colm is a senior principal engineer in the EC2 networking team, but he’s also the genius behind a number of important innovations in security and networking across AWS. For example, he did some of the original design work on the “shuffle sharding” techniques we use broadly, across AWS, to improve availability and resiliency for multi-tenanted services. Later, he came up with the idea, and, in a few weeks of intense coding, wrote the first version of S2N, our open source TLS implementation that provides far better security than the implementations typically used in the industry. He was also a significant contributor to the TLS 1.3 specification. I encourage everyone to follow him on Twitter, where you’ll learn all kinds of interesting things about cryptography, networking, and the like.
Now, to finally answer your question: Colm will be talking about how AWS does more and more encryption for you automatically, and how multiple layers of encryption can help address different kinds of threats. For example, without actually breaking TLS encryption, researchers have shown that they can figure out the content of an encrypted voice-over-IP (VOIP) call simply by analyzing the timing and size of the packets. So, wrapping TLS sessions inside of other encryption layers is a really good idea. Colm will talk about the importance of layered encryption, plus a bunch of other great topics: how AWS makes it easy to use encryption; where we do it automatically even if you don’t ask for it; how we’re inventing new, more secure means for key distribution; and fun stuff like that. It will be a blast!
What changes do you hope we’ll see across the global security and compliance landscape over the next 5 years?
I think that with innovations like the Nitro architecture for EC2, and with our commitment to continually improving and strengthening other security features and enabling greater automation around things like identity management and anomaly detection, we will come to a point where people will realize that the cloud, in almost every case, is more secure than an on-premises environment. I don’t mean to say that you couldn’t go outside of the cloud and build something secure (as long as you are willing to spend a ton of money). But as a general matter, cloud will become the default option for secure processing of very sensitive data.
We’re not quite there yet, in terms of widespread perception and understanding. There are still quite a few people who haven’t dug very far below the surface of “what is cloud.” There is still a common, visceral reaction to the idea of “public cloud” as being risky. People object to ideas like multitenancy, where you’re sharing physical infrastructure with other customers, as if it’s somehow inherently risky. There are risks, but they are so well mitigated, and we have so much experience controlling those risks, that they’re far outweighed by the big security benefits. Very consistently, as customers become more educated and experienced with the cloud, they tell us that they feel more secure in their cloud infrastructure than they did in their on-premises world. Still, that’s not currently the first reaction. People still start by thinking of the cloud as risky, and it takes time to educate them and change that perspective. So there’s still some important work ahead of us.
What’s your favorite way to relax?
It’s funny, now that I’m getting old, I’m reverting to some of the pursuits and hobbies of my youth. When I was a teenager I was passionate about cycling. I raced bicycles extensively at the regional and national level on both road and track from ages 14 to 18. A few minutes of my claim to 15 minutes of Warholian fame was used up by being in a two-man breakaway with 17-year-old Greg LeMond in a road race in Arizona, although he beat me and everyone else resoundingly in the end! I’ve ridden road bikes and done a bit of mountain biking over the years, but I’m getting back into it now and enjoying it immensely. Of course, there’s far more technology to play with these days, and I can’t resist. I splurged on an expensive pair of pedals with power meters built in, and so now I get detailed data from every ride that I can analyze to prove mathematically that I’m not in very good shape.
One of my other hobbies back in my teenage years was playing guitar — mostly folk-rock acoustic, but also electric and bass guitar in garage bands. That’s another activity I’ve started again. Fortunately, my kids, who are now around college-age plus or minus, all love the music from the 60s and 70s that I dust off and play, and they have great voices, so we have a lot of fun jamming and singing harmonies together.
What’s one thing that a visitor to your hometown of Washington, DC should experience?
The Washington DC area is famous for lots of great tourist attractions. But if you enjoy Michelin Guide-level dining experiences, I’d recommend a restaurant right in my neighborhood. It’s called L’Auberge Chez François, and it’s quite famous. It features Alsatian food (from the eastern region of France, along the German border). It’s an amazing restaurant that’s been there for almost 50 years, and it continues to draw a clientele from across the region and around the world. It’s always packed, so get reservations well in advance!
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