How to Get Started Using AWS Systems Manager and SSM Agent

by Hannah Grace Holladay / August 15th, 2022

Everyday system management tasks can be time consuming and get in the way of the efficiency of your business operations.   These tasks include  OS and software patching, script execution, and service maintenance windows.  Failure to complete these tasks can lead to non-compliance with information security regulations and standards. 

AWS Systems Manager is a cloud service that allows businesses to automate many everyday system management tasks.  Automating these tasks is a great way to ensure your organization is remaining secure and compliant without sacrificing extra time.   

Using AWS Systems Manager, businesses can:

  • Automate time-consuming compliance activities.
  • Improve control over and visibility of IT assets.
  • Reduce the cost of compliance.
  • Ensure that compliance tasks are completed on schedule.
  • Run tasks automatically in response to CloudWatch events and other triggers.

AWS Systems Manager can automate tasks on EC2, AWS’s native cloud server hosting platform, and servers hosted on other cloud platforms and on-premises data centers to save your organization time and help you achieve your compliance goals.  Let’s discuss what the AWS System Manager is, how it can help your organization,  and how you can start using it today.  

What Is the AWS Systems Manager?

AWS Systems Manager provides capabilities that can be configured to carry out actions on remote servers. Capabilities are divided into several categories, including:

  • Application management
  • Change management
  • Node management
  • Operations management

Each of these categories contains several capabilities. To focus on just one category,  node management capabilities include compliance, which can scan nodes for inconsistent configuration; patch manager, which automates security patching and updating;  and the “run command” capability, which allows users to automate the execution of scripts on managed nodes. 

How Does AWS Systems Manager Work?

AWS Systems Manager is primarily an agent-based service. It depends on a software agent—the AWS Systems Manager Agent (AWS SSM)—which runs on managed nodes, including EC2 systems manager nodes, Internet of Things devices,  and on-premises physical servers and virtual machines. 

The user configures  AWS Systems Manager capabilities via the web interface or AWS CLI. The service then interacts with the AWS SSM Agent installed on each node, which carries out the intended action, whether that is applying OS patches, verifying configurations, or any other capability. 

Once an action has been performed, AWS Systems Manager can send operations data to other configured AWS services for logging, monitoring, and alerting, including CloudWatch, S3, EventBridge, and Cloud Trail. 

As you can see, AWS Systems Manager can be a valuable compliance tool, allowing AWS users to schedule, automate, and enforce essential compliance tasks that might otherwise be missed. It gives businesses confidence that compliance actions are carried out in line with security and compliance policies, as well as helping them to identify potential compliance gaps and challenges.

Setting Up AWS Systems Manager for Your Cloud Environment

The set-up process for AWS Systems Manager differs depending on the capabilities you would like to use and the resources you would like to manage.  However, let’s take a high-level look at setting up AWS Systems Manager for EC2 instances.

  1. Create IAM users and groups for use with Systems Manager. Users and groups with the AmazonSSMFullAccess policy have complete access to Systems Manager capabilities, but you should configure users, groups, and roles to meet the specific needs of your organization. We strongly advise against using the AWS root user or users in the administrator’s group. 
  2. Create an IAM instance profile to permit AWS Systems Manager to perform actions on your EC2 instances. 
  3. Attach the IAM instance profile to the EC2 instances you would like to manage.
  4. Verify that AWS SSM is installed on your EC2 instance. If you are using Amazon Machine Images (AMIs), SSM Agent is likely installed by default. You may have to manually install AWS SSM for other instances or servers. 
  5. Create a VPC endpoint for AWS Systems Manager to use. This is an essential security step, as we explain in Using VPC Endpoints to Access Systems Manager

Be Sure Your AWS Environment is Secure

Automation is a great tool for increasing efficiency in your organization, but it is also wise to check these automation configurations regularly to ensure they are working like you intended. Let KirkpatrickPrice run a free scan of your AWS environment today so you can be sure it is secure and effective. 

 You can learn more about configuring and using AWS Systems Manager and SSM Agent from Amazon’s AWS Systems Manager documentation. For more information about using Systems Manager and other AWS services to improve your company’s security and compliance, visit our comprehensive cloud security resources.