How to secure your Amazon WorkSpaces for external users

In response to the current shift towards a remote workforce, companies are providing greater access to corporate applications from a range of different devices. Amazon WorkSpaces is a desktop-as-a-service solution that can be used to quickly deploy cloud-based desktops to your external users, including employees, third-party vendors, and consultants. Amazon WorkSpaces desktops are accessible from anywhere with an internet connection. In this blog post, I review some key security controls that you can use to architect your Amazon WorkSpaces environment to provide external users access to your corporate applications and data in a way that satisfies your unique security and compliance objectives.

Amazon Workspaces provides a virtual desktop infrastructure that removes the need for upfront infrastructure expenditure. Instead, you can pay for Windows or Linux desktop environments as you need them. These environments can be provisioned in a few minutes, and enable you to scale up to thousands of desktops that can be accessed from wherever your users are located.

As part of the shared responsibility model, security is a shared responsibility between Amazon Web Services (AWS) and you. AWS is responsible for protecting the infrastructure that runs the AWS services while you are responsible for securing your data in AWS through appropriate permissions and WorkSpace management as outlined in the Best Practices for Deploying Amazon WorkSpaces whitepaper. Amazon WorkSpaces has been independently assessed to meet the requirements of a wide range of compliance programs, including IRAP, SOC, PCI DSS, FedRAMP, and HIPAA.

Prerequisites

Define user groups

A user group is a collection of people who all have the same security rights and permissions. Leveraging user groups helps you to identify the types of access and your requirements for user authentication. How you define your user groups should reflect how you classify your data and the access controls associated with the classifications. A common approach is to begin by separating your internal (employees) and external (vendors and consultants) users. Classifying your users into different groups helps you to define your security controls. For example, the security and configuration of your external users’ devices will be different from the configuration for your internal users’ devices. The identification process also helps to ensure that you’re following the principle of least privilege by limiting access to certain applications or resources. These user groups are the building blocks for designing the rest of your security controls, including the directories, access controls, and security groups.

In this blog post, I walk you through the security configurations for the following example external user groups. How you configure security for your user groups will depend on your own security requirements.

Example user groups

Internal users: Employees who need access to company resources from any location. In addition to having access to the internet and the internal network from any supported device, internal users have administrator access on their virtual desktops so they can install applications.

External users: Third-party vendors and consultants who need access to specific websites that are inside the corporate network. They have fewer permissions and tighter guardrails on their virtual desktops and can only access resources through trusted devices. External users should have access to only pre-installed applications and not be able to install additional applications onto their WorkSpaces.

At this stage, it’s okay to separate your user groups broadly based on the preceding requirements. Later, you can configure fine-grained access controls for individual users.

Configure your directories

Amazon WorkSpaces uses directories to manage information and configuration of WorkSpaces and users. Each WorkSpace that you provision exists within a directory. There are a couple of different options for configuring the directory. Amazon Workspaces can create and manage a directory for you so that users are entered into that directory when you provision a WorkSpace. As an alternative, you can integrate WorkSpaces with an existing, on-premises Microsoft Active Directory (AD) so your users can use the credentials they already know to access applications.

Within Amazon WorkSpaces, directories play a large part in how access to workspaces is configured. Directories within Amazon WorkSpaces are used to store and manage information for your WorkSpaces and users. Based on the preceding two example user groups, let’s split your users’ WorkSpaces across two directories. That will help you to establish different access control settings for the two groups.

To define the two directories, you must set up the directories within AWS Directory Service. As previously mentioned, there are various approaches to handling user management that depend on your existing user directories and requirements. For this example, you can configure two simple Active Directories—one for internal users and one for external users. Handling the external users in a separate directory allows you to ensure your user groups are configured with least privilege. With this approach, external users can still be given access to objects inside the internal directory through a trust if required but can be configured with stricter access controls than users inside the internal directory.

A comprehensive guide to setting up your directories is available in the Amazon WorkSpaces administration guide and outlines the steps to configure a directory using AWS Managed Microsoft AD, Simple AD, or AD Connector.

Configure security settings

After you define what privileges and access controls you want in place for your external users and configure the directories you need, it’s time to establish the security controls for your WorkSpaces. This blog will focus on the external users’ security configurations from the prerequisites. Use the following steps to implement the security requirements:

  1. Establish security groups
  2. Disable local administrator rights
  3. Configure IP access control groups
  4. Define trusted devices
  5. Configure monitoring of WorkSpaces

Establish security groups

With your two AD directories configured, you can start implementing the security controls for your external users. Your Amazon WorkSpaces are configured within a logically isolated network known as Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC). A key concept within Amazon VPC is security groups, which act as virtual firewalls to control inbound and outbound traffic to the virtual desktops. A properly configured security group can limit access to resources in your network or to the internet at the individual WorkSpace level or at the directory level.

To ensure that your external users can access only the network resources you want them to, you can define security groups with restrictive network access settings. One approach is to configure security groups so that your external users only have HTTP and HTTPS access to specific internal websites by trusted IP addresses. To define more fine-grained access control for individual users, you can define another restrictive security group and attach it to an individual user’s WorkSpace. This way, you can use a single directory to handle many different users with different network security requirements and ensure that third-party users only have access to authorized data and systems. In addition to security groups, you can use your preferred host-based firewall on a given WorkSpace to limit network access to resources within the VPC.

To establish and configure security groups

  1. In the Amazon WorkSpaces menu, select Directories from the left menu. Choose the directory you created for your external users. Select Actions and then Update Details as shown in the following figure.
     
    Figure 1: Updating details of your directory

    Figure 1: Updating details of your directory

  2. In the Update Directory Details screen that appears, select the down arrow next to Security Group to expand the section. Select Create New next to the dropdown menu to configure a new security group.
     
    Figure 2: Adding a security group to your directory

    Figure 2: Adding a security group to your directory

  3. In the next window, select Create security group.
  4. Enter a descriptive name for the Security group name and a description for the security group in Description. For example, the description could be external-workspaces-users-sg.
  5. Change the VPC using the dropdown menu to the VPC hosting the WorkSpaces.
  6. In the Inbound rules section, leave the rules as default. The default configuration will block everything except for sessions that have been already established from the Workspace.
  7. In the Outbound rules section, configure the following settings:
    1. Select Delete the existing outbound rule.
    2. Select Add rule.
    3. Set Type to HTTP.
    4. Leave Protocol as TCP and Port range as 80.
    5. Change Source to Custom and enter the appropriate range for your Destination based on where your internal resources are located.
    6. Select Add rule again.
    7. Set Type to HTTPS.
    8. Leave Protocol as TCP and Port range as 443.
    9. Change Source to Custom and enter the appropriate range for your Destination based on where your internal resources are located.
    Figure 3: Configuring your security groups

    Figure 3: Configuring your security groups

  8. Select Create security group.
  9. Return to the WorkSpaces directory tab and select Refresh to see the newly created security group.
  10. Select Update and Exit.

Disable local administrator rights

One of the recommendations for external users is to disable the local administrator setting on their WorkSpaces and provide them with access to only specific, preinstalled applications. This guardrail helps to ensure that external users have limited permissions and to reduce the risk that they might access or share sensitive information. If local administrator isn’t disabled, users can install applications and modify settings on their WorkSpaces. You can disable local administrator access from within the external users’ directory. Changes to the directory are applied to all new WorkSpaces that you create and can be applied to existing WorkSpaces by rebuilding them after the making changes.

Note: If your internal users don’t need local administrator access, it’s a best practice to follow the principle of least privilege and disable it for them as well.

To disable local administrator rights for external users

  1. In the Amazon WorkSpaces menu, select Directories from the left menu. Choose the directory you configured for your external users.
  2. Select Actions and then Update Details.
  3. In Update Directory Details, select Local Administrator Setting and choose the Enable radio button.
  4. Select Update and Exit as shown in the following figure.
     
    Figure 4: Disabling your local administrator setting

    Figure 4: Disabling your local administrator setting

Define IP access control

So far the security groups you have defined previously allow external users access to company resources only from inside the corporate network. You can enhance this security configuration by leveraging IP access control groups to limit traffic and only allow certain IPs to access the WorkSpaces. An IP access control group acts as a virtual firewall and filters access to WorkSpaces by controlling the source classless inter-domain routing (CIDR) ranges that users can access their WorkSpaces from. Each IP access control group consists of a set of rules that specify a permitted IP address or range of addresses that Amazon WorkSpaces can be accessed from. Using this feature, you can configure rules that permit access to your WorkSpaces only if they are coming from your company’s VPN. To achieve this control, you must define rules that specify the ranges of IP addresses for your trusted networks within IP access control groups associated to the external users directory.

Note: Currently only IPV4 addresses are permitted.

To define IP access control

  1. Inside the Amazon WorkSpaces page, select IP Access Controls on the left panel. Select Create IP Group and enter a Group Name and Description in the window that appears.
  2. Select Create as shown in the following figure.
     
    Figure 5: Creating an IP group

    Figure 5: Creating an IP group

  3. Select the box next to the IP group you just created to open the new rules form.
  4. Select Add Rule.
  5. Enter the individual IP addresses or CIDR IP ranges that you want to allow WorkSpaces to have access from in Source. If you want to restrict access to your VPN make sure to add the public IPs of the VPN. Enter a description in Description.
  6. Select Save as shown in the following figure.
     
    Figure 6: Adding rules to your IP group

    Figure 6: Adding rules to your IP group

Configure trusted devices

Regulating the devices that can connect to your workspaces can help reduce the risk of unauthorized access to your network and applications. By default, all Amazon WorkSpaces users can access their virtual desktop from any supported device that has internet connectivity. However, it’s a good practice to configure additional guardrails to limit external users to only accessing their WorkSpaces through trusted devices, otherwise known as managed devices (currently this feature only applies to Amazon WorkSpaces Windows and macOS clients). With this feature enabled, only devices that have been authenticated through a certificate-based approach will have access to WorkSpaces. If the WorkSpaces client application cannot verify that a device is trusted, it blocks attempts to log in or connect from the device.

Note: If you haven’t already configured certificates, you will need to follow the steps in the Amazon WorkSpaces Administration Guide that walkthrough the requirements of the certificates as well as the process to generate one.

To configure trusted devices

  1. In the Amazon WorkSpaces menu, select Directories in the left menu. After selecting the directory that has been configured for your external users, select Actions and then Update Details.
  2. In Update Directory Details, select Access Control Options. Select Allow next to Windows and MacOS to allow only trusted Windows and macOS devices to access WorkSpaces.
  3. Select Import to import your root certificate.
  4. Next to Other Platforms select Block so that only Windows and MacOS devices will have access.
  5. Select Update and Exit.
     
    Figure 7: Establishing trusted devices

    Figure 7: Establishing trusted devices

  6. Test your settings by trying to access one of your WorkSpaces from a trusted device and from a non-trusted device.

Use Amazon CloudWatch to monitor your WorkSpaces

Once the guardrails for your external users have been set up, it’s important to monitor your environment for suspicious behavior and potential threats. Monitoring your infrastructure should be a fundamental aspect in your security plan. Amazon WorkSpaces is natively integrated with Amazon CloudWatch, which you can use to gather and analyze metrics to gain visibility into individual WorkSpaces and at a directory level. Alongside metrics, Amazon CloudWatch Events can also be used to provide visibility into your Amazon WorkSpaces fleet so you can view, filter, and respond to logins to your WorkSpaces. This approach lets you create a thorough monitoring pipeline that enhances your security. It lets you filter and automatically respond to suspicious activity in real time. A comprehensive example of this approach is outlined in this blog post that covers the steps involved to set up a CloudWatch based monitoring system for your WorkSpaces.

Conclusion

While you’ve used Amazon WorkSpaces features to help provide secure access for your external users, it’s also important to implement the principle of least privilege across all WorkSpaces users. You can use the design considerations and procedures in this blog post to help secure your WorkSpaces for all users, internal and external. You can learn more about best practices for securing your Amazon WorkSpaces by reading the Best Practices for Deploying Amazon WorkSpaces whitepaper to understand other features and capabilities that are available.

If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below. If you have questions about this post, start a new thread on the Amazon WorkSpaces forum or contact AWS Support.

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Author

Olivia Carline

Olivia is an Associate Solutions Architect working in the public sector team. In her role she enjoys helping customers up-skill and build their cloud knowledge with a particular focus on cloud security. In her free time, you can find her exploring local hiking tracks and trying out new recipes.