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Security Modules 0.71.0Last updated in version 0.69.2

OS Hardening

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This is a Gruntwork Script Module meant to be used with Packer to build an AMI of a hardened Linux OS. At present, the only supported Linux distribution is Amazon Linux. If you wish to add another distribution, please contact

Our OS hardening is based primarily on the guidelines described in in the Center for Internet Security Benchmarks, which are freely downloadable. For Amazon Linux, we used the CIS Amazon Linux Benchmark, v2.0.0 06-02-2016.

Note that we have not yet implemented the entire CIS Benchmark. At present, the primary implemented OS hardening feature is mounting multiple partitions. We hope to implement more CIS recommendations over time.

Main Components of this Module

There are two major components to this module:

  • ami-builder: This is a Terraform template that launches an EC2 Instance with Packer pre-installed.
  • partition-scripts: This is a set of bash scripts that create multiple disk partitions, format them as ext4, and mount them to various paths with various mount options such as noexec or nosuid. These scripts are meant to be run in a Packer template that uses the Packer amazon-chroot builder.

Fundamentally, to generate an AMI you must:

  1. Create a Packer template amazon-linux.json that uses the partition-scripts.
  2. Launch the ami-builder EC2 Instance.
  3. Copy your Packer template onto the ami-builder EC2 Instance (e.g. with scp).
  4. SSH into the ami-builder EC2 Instance and run packer build amazon-linux.json to build the AMI.
  5. Terminate the ami-builder EC2 Instance.

We recognize that is a lot of manual steps to build a single AMI, so check out the os-hardening example for a pre-built Packer template plus a script ( that will automate all the above steps.

Why do I need to launch a separate EC2 Instance to run Packer?

This is because we're using the Packer amazon-chroot builder. See below for additional details on what this is and how to use it.

How to Use this Module

The best way to use this module is to substantially copy the os-hardening example code. Unlike most Gruntwork examples, the example for this module contains a full Packer build file plus a wrapper script to create the AMI with a single command and may be viewed as a "canonical" way to instantiate the os-hardening modules.

How to Set Your EBS Volume Size and Configure The File System Partitions You Want

Before building the AMI with Packer, you may wish to customize the particular file systems and partitions that your hardened OS will use. Follow these steps:

  1. Set the value of the ebs_volume_size variable in the example Packer Template (e.g. amazon-linux.json) to the desired EBS Volume size (in GB).

  2. Edit the Packer Template so that the following scripts specify the desired partition paths and sizes:

    • partition-volume: For each desired partition, add an argument like --partition '/home:4G'. For additional details see partition-volume. Note that for the last --partition entry only, you may specify * for the size to tell the script to create the largest possible partition based on remaining disk space. Also, make sure your partition sizes don't exceed the space available on your EBS Volume!
    • cleanup-volume: For each desired partition, add an argument like --mount-point '/home'. For additional details see cleanup-volume

    Note that you will redundantly pass the same list of partition paths to each of the above scripts, but only partition-volume needs both the mount point and the desired partition size.

  3. Edit the files/etc/fstab file to match the partitions from the previous step. Specify any mount options as desired.

That's it! The Packer template will take care of the rest.

How to Build the AMI with Packer

Now we're ready to build the actual AMI. Note: The os-hardening example contains a script that automates all these steps, but, for the sake of understanding, we'll describe them individually below:

  1. Launch the ami-builder EC2 Instance. We will execute Packer from this EC2 Instance.

  2. On your local machine run rsync so that your local directory is continually synced to the ami-builder:

    while true; do rsync -azv ./packer-templates/ ec2-user@; sleep 1; done

    Be sure to replace the IP address above with the IP address of your EC2 Instance.

  3. From the ami-builder EC2 Instance, run Packer:

    cd /home/ec2-user/ami-builder
    sudo su
    packer build amazon-linux.json

    Note that it is important to actually use sudo su versus just sudo since the $PATH variables are different for the root user versus the ec2-user user.

    The AMI will now build.

  4. When finished, terminate the ami-builder EC2 Instance.

How to Launch an AMI with an Encrypted EBS Volume

As of Packer 0.12.3, Packer supports the encrypt_boot property for the amazon-chroot builder! See Pull Request #4584. This will allow us to build an AMI as above, except that once the AMI is ready, Packer will automatically copy the unencrypted Snapshot as an encrypted Snapshot, create a new AMI based on the encrypted Snapshot, and delete the original AMI and its underlying unecncrypted Snapshot.

Until Packer 0.12.3 is released, you can still set encrypt_boot to true and earlier versions of Packer will simply ignore this property. In the meantime, consider running an EC2 Instance with the root volume unencrypted, but with additional volumes mounted as encrypted volumes.

Using Your Hardened OS as a "Base AMI"

A best practice we encourage is to first build your hardened OS Image using these modules and the os-hardening example. You can now view this AMI as your "base AMI", and all other Packer builds can be built on top of this AMI. For example, you might have:

  • Base AMI: Hardened OS (built from stock Amazon Linux)
  • Bastion Host: Built from Base AMI
  • MongoDB Host: Built from Base AMI

In the above example, the Bastion Host and MongoDB Host Packer builds will "just work" with a single exception: By default, Packer uploads all scripts defined in the Remote Shell Provisioner to /tmp and then executes them. But our hardened OS most likely has the noexec option set for the /tmp file system, which means that no code can be executed from /tmp by design!

To fix this, you must set the remote_folder property, to a folder that is executable. For example, here we set remote_folder to /home/ec2-user:

"provisioners": [{
"type": "shell",
"remote_folder": "/home/ec2-user",
"inline": [
"sudo yum update -y"

How this Module Works

Much of the design for this module is motivated by our need to support multiple partitions on a single volume, an OS hardening best practice.

The Packer amazon-ebs builder

Almost all Packer builds for AWS use the amazon-ebs builder. Packer templates that use this builder work as follows:

  1. Packer launches a brand new EC2 Instance and waits to SSH in.
  2. Packer executes a series of provisioners (e.g. upload files, run shell scripts).
  3. When finished, Packer shuts down the EC2 instance.
  4. Packer takes a snapshot.
  5. When the snapshot is complete, Packer creates an AMI and terminates the EC2 Instance.

The primary advantage of the amazon-ebs Packer builder is simplicity and isolation. Each Packer build launches a completely fresh EC2 Instance. The primary downsides are (1) Packer builds are slow because you have to launch a completely new EC2 instance for each build, and (2) it is not possible to make any file system changes to the root partition because you can't unmount the very partition on which the OS itself is running.

The Packer amazon-chroot builder

To address the shortcomings of the amazon-ebs builder, Packer also has the amazon-chroot builder. Packer templates that use this builder work as follows:

  1. Out-of-band from Packer, someone launches an EC2 Instance (the "host system").
  2. From the host system, run packer build <packer-template-file>.
  3. Packer creates an EBS Volume based on the Snapshot that's part of the source AMI specified in the Packer template, attaches it to the host system, and mounts it.
  4. Packer executes the chroot command against the path where the EBS Volume has been mounted, which starts a process that now sees /path/to/ebs-volume as the / directory.
  5. Packer executes any provisioners in the Packer template. Because most provisioners are running in the chroot environment, they will execute directly on the EBS Volume.
  6. When all provisioners are complete, Packer detaches the volume, takes a snapshot, and creates an AMI from the snapshot.

The Packer Remote Shell Provisioner

Most Packer builds use the remote-shell provisioner to apply configuration. It's called the remote shell provisioner because it executes shell commands on the "remote" EC2 Instance. When using the amazon-ebs builder, that means the newly launched EC2 Instance runs the shell commands. When using the amazon-chroot builder, that means the commands are run from within the chroot environment.

That is, Packer will first run chroot /path/to/ebs-volume and then execute all commands. An individual program has no knowledge that it's running in a special environment. It will simply access the typical file system paths. But we, the omniscient operator know that in reality what this program thinks is / is actually /path/to/ebs-volume.

This way, we can configure our EC2 Instance as we typically do in a Packer build, except that all configuration commands are actually modifying the attached EBS Volume, not our root file system.

The Packer Local Shell Provisioner

The Packer local-shell provisioner executes shell commands from your "local" machine.

When using the amazon-ebs builder, that means shell commands run from your local machine.

When using the amazon-chroot builder, that means the commands are run from the EC2 Instance where you launched Packer. This is significant because it means we can execute Packer commands from the host system against the attached EBS Volume. This allows us to, for example, delete partitions from the attached EBS Volume and add new partitions. It is the only way to use Packer to create an AMI with multiple partitions.

Module Design Decisions

This section discusses some design decisions made when creating this module.

Which Tool We Used to Partition the Disks

Our choice of tooling was influenced in large part by whether EBS Volumes were originally partitioned to support the legacy "MBR" format, or the newer GUID Partition Table (GPT) format.

The partition format of a block device refers to how the first few blocks on the disk are structured and where the boot loader code resides. Historically, the MBR format has been in wide use, but its primary limitation is that it does not permit a disk size greater than 2 TB. For this reason, a newer partition table format, GPT, was invented that supports up to 9.4 Zetabytes! Because Amazon EBS Volumes sometimes need to exceed 2 TB, the GPT format was a natural choice and is what all modern AMIs use for their underlying EBS Volumes.

But it turns out that not all Linux disk partition management tools support the GPT format. For example, the venerable fdisk has only "experimental" support for GPT. For that reason, we opted to use the newer gdisk.

But gdisk works with an interactive prompt, whereas we want to execute full commands as part of our Packer build. For this reason, we use sgdisk, which implements all the same functionality of gdisk but as a pure command-line tool and not an interactive tool.

Managing Partitions with gdisk vs. LVM

Initially, we experimented with using the LVM (Logical Volume Manager) tool to manage our partitions. LVM is a software tool that applies a unique file system format to a large disk partition and then allows software-based management of LVM partitions. The primary benefit to using a layer like LVM is that you can dynamically resize disk partitions (including root!) without taking your disk offline.

This approach was originally inspired by the presentation OS Hardening and Packer, where the speaker makes extensive use of LVM with RHEL and the Packer amazon-chroot builder.

But LVM requires that the /boot directory be mounted to a separate file system, which in turn requires that / and /boot be on separate disk partitions. Since the default boot loader configuration for the Amazon Linux EBS Volume expects both / and /boot on a single partition (partition #1, to be exact), separating these two directories meant that we needed to reload the boot loader.

However, this proved unworkable. Amazon Linux uses an older version of GRUB for its boot loader, and GRUB was unable to find the "BIOS partition" of the disk where it should write part of the boot loader configuration. After many attempts, we eventually gave up on this direction and instead settled for using traditional "on disk" volumes formatted with gdisk.

It's likely that these issues are specific to Amazon Linux. Also, the only practical consequence of this is that disk partitions on EBS Volumes cannot be dynamically resized without stopping the instance and separately mounting the EBS Volume. But since we anticipate most users will use an immutable infrastructure anyway, we felt that asking users who needed additional space to build a new AMI was not unreasonable.