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AWS Control Tower: The spork of the AWS ecosystem or something altogether new?


AWS® Control Tower enables organizations with multiple AWS accounts and teams to simplify their cloud setup and governance, reducing complexity and the amount of time required to establish a secure and consistent infrastructure in the cloud.

Introduction

AWS Control Tower provides the easiest way to set up and govern a new and secure, multi-account AWS environment based on best practices and the AWS Well-Architected Framework concepts. Using AWS Control Tower, administrators can provision new AWS accounts with minimal effort, while still adhering to company-wide security and compliance policies.

This post examines:

  • What is AWS Control Tower?
  • AWS Control Tower—A look under the hood.
  • How does Control Tower differ from a landing zone?
  • Who are the optimal users for AWS Control Tower?

AWS Control Tower: A merging of many capabilities

Do you recall the first time you ever encountered a spork? I was 19 years old, recently relocated to serve a 4-year enlistment in the US Navy, and I stopped for a bite to eat at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Norfolk, VA. I ordered my meal, took a seat, and eventually realized that I had no utensils to enjoy my artery-clogging, deep-fried dinner. I approached the counter to request a fork, and the lady handed me an odd-shaped contraption wrapped in plastic. I was mesmerized by this odd tool, which I later learned is called a spork. I marveled at this beautifully crafted piece of plastic, a perfect blend of fork and spoon, clearly the result of some unholy union in the silverware drawer.

For the briefest moment, I knew how Ariel must have felt when she first held her dinglehopper. This brilliant contraption had the spearing capability of the conventional fork, coupled with the spoon’s unrivaled scooping capability. I recognized that this wasn’t a new product, per se, but rather the combination of existing products strategically blended to make life easier and more efficient for both the restaurant and the paying customers.

When I began researching this article, I immediately began to get the same feeling about AWS Control Tower as I got with the spork. Sure it looks kind of different, it comes in its own custom wrapper, and as you’ll learn, it certainly simplifies the end-user experience. However, it is not entirely new, and it does leverage quite a bit of existing functionality and best-practices that already existed within other AWS services and Well-Architected Framework concepts.

Amazon® announced AWS Control Tower for general availability on June 24, 2019. The service’s mission is to simplify the deployment of multi-account AWS environments while simultaneously incorporating governance, security, company-wide policies, and AWS best practices into the build. Best practices typically require deploying a base landing zone (LZ), followed by a significant amount of engineering hours to bring the new environment into compliance with both security and governance standards and a host of other configurations related to logging, operations, and auditability.

Control Tower eliminates the intermediate step of creating the basic landing zone and subsequently configuring it. Instead, it allows organizations to quickly provision new accounts with minimal effort, with the knowledge that the new account will align with company-wide policies every time with no additional effort required. The result is that you can grow and organize your AWS environment without having to leverage AWS professional services or your preferred partner of choice, which is obviously Rackspace Technology. (I know, that was a shameless plug.) The best place to start when discussing AWS Control Tower is how it works: what gives this tool the power to spin up new accounts, while simultaneously implementing security best-practices, and how do we set up organizations to meet their compliance requirements?

AWS Control Tower - A look under the hood.

Control Tower leverages a host of existing AWS services to perform its mission. It is best to think of Control Tower as, well, a control tower at your local airport. It is the central hub for overseeing, coordinating, and managing a fleet of independent moving parts to achieve a common goal. An airport control tower can’t physically transport you from NYC to Los Angeles in 5 hours, but it does bring together all the components required to help you land at LAX in one piece, with your luggage in hand.

Just as the control tower at the airport is responsible for orchestrating both airplane and vehicle movement on the tarmac, AWS Control Tower is responsible for orchestrating numerous existing AWS services' integration and interoperability. Each service brings its unique capabilities to bear to achieve a common goal, a fully functioning AWS landing zone—a true example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

While the following list is not exhaustive, I want to touch on the major players briefly:

AWS Organizations: Provides the ability to automate account creation, group accounts into logical groupings, apply policies, define cross-account sharing, and define central configurations.

AWS Service Catalog: Provides the ability to create and centrally manage a catalog of IT services approved for use on identified or participating AWS accounts. You can think of it as an AWS Service whitelist for your organization’s accounts and sub-accounts.

AWS SSO: Provides the ability to centrally manage single-sign-on (SSO) access for authorized users within your AWS accounts. SSO also handles the management of access for third-party Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications and integration with custom apps using SAML 2.0.

AWS Config: Provides the ability to assess, audit, and evaluate the configuration of your AWS resources.

AWS CloudFormation: Provides configuration management capabilities and allows organizations to deploy and manage stacks of AWS resources leveraging an Infrastructure-as-Code mentality.

AWS CloudWatch: Provides the ability to collect, assess, and correlate data and service metrics across all AWS services.

AWS CloudTrail®: Provides the audit trail, enabling governance, compliance, operational auditing, and the ability to assess the risk to your AWS account.

AWS IAM: Provides the ability to grant access and manage access to AWS services.

AWS S3: Provides theoretically limitless object-based storage.

AWS Lambda: Provides a platform to create seemingly limitless functionality, which is run as code, negating the need to provision or manage servers.

AWS Step Functions: Provides serverless orchestration capabilities, typically used in conjunction with Lambda functions, to create a sequential process of taskings to perform.

While I undoubtedly only touched the treetops of these individual services' capabilities, I think you can start to understand why Control Tower has gained such popularity. Harnessing the preceding services' individual capabilities is basically like a landing zone in a box—no assembly required.

How does Control Tower differ from a landing zone?

AWS Control Tower incorporates and deploys a pre-defined framework of guardrails and standardized configurations that are automagically deployed behind the scenes leveraging services such as AWS CloudFormation, AWS Lambda, and AWS Step Functions. These pre-defined frameworks make use of the native capabilities of AWS Service Catalog, AWS Config, and AWS SSO to deploy landing zones that adhere to the corporate standards, which have been agreed upon by the organization. When you first log into AWS Control Tower, you need to create two new sub-accounts, one for your log archive and one for your audit archive.

This process takes roughly 60 minutes and creates two new AWS accounts under your root account. Upon completion, you can enter the Control Tower Dashboard, which provides the following options, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - AWS Control Tower Dashboard

This dashboard allows you to add organizational units (OU), enable additional guardrails, review user access, and review policies associated with shared accounts. You have essentially leveraged the power of all the services mentioned previously to create a landing zone aligned with the AWS Well-Architected Framework without so much as accessing any other service. If you need to add a new OU for a new R&D project, you can do so with a couple of button clicks. The GUI-driven simplicity of Control Tower is truly the primary differentiator.

Traditional landing zones leverage nearly all the same services and offer almost the same result, but the steps required to get there are far more involved.

Traditional AWS landing zones require far more familiarity with the underlying services within the AWS portfolio. If an organization wants to add a new sub-account to its environment, it likely starts by accessing AWS Organizations. Inside of Organizations, it goes through creating and subsequently inviting the new account to join the organization. After that initial sub-account has joined the OU, the administrators might decide to define a service control policy (SCP) that it can then apply to that new sub-account.

Perhaps the administrator would then log into AWS Config or AWS Service Catalog and define and associate those services to the newly created sub-account. You can achieve the same result delivered through AWS Control Tower with a traditional landing zone. Still, as you can see from my brief example, the steps taken are far more numerous, and each of those processes is often wrought with unseen challenges that take a savvy engineer to navigate. This begs the question: Why would anyone want to deploy a traditional landing zone over the seemingly more optimal Control Tower version of a landing zone?

Who are the optimal users for AWS Control Tower?

In true AWS fashion, there is something for everyone based on the specific outcomes the user is looking to achieve. Not every situation will call for a fully involved Control Tower deployment.

Control Tower is optimal for organizations that need to deploy and manage a greenfield or existing multi-account AWS environment with a pre-defined blueprint to establish security and compliance baselines in all new accounts. Organizations with less experience or capabilities with the greater AWS service portfolio find what AWS refers to as the “self-service experience” to be hugely advantageous. This canned approach to account expansion does come at the cost of some upfront customization, because Control Tower creates each sub-account with the same blueprint, which favors speed but not one-off modifications. Landing zones are the exact opposite in some regards.

Organizations that do not have a use case that requires repeated and expedited creation of new sub-accounts might find themselves better suited to creating a traditional AWS landing zone. This choice affords them a greater focus on customization, leveraging configuration management platforms to incorporate Infrastructure-as-Code, and lets them incorporate additional services that fall outside of the Control Tower core service set. This additional customization requires significantly more planning and engineering capability. Suppose they are unfamiliar with the processes or best-practices associated with creating a landing zone according to the AWS Well-Architected Framework principles. In that case, organizations might need to seek outside help from the AWS Partner Network.

Like any project, knowing which tool to leverage to address the identified requirements is half the battle. If we learned anything from Ariel, it is that while you can certainly use a fork to brush your hair, there is probably a better tool for the job, and those decisions can carry far greater impacts to cost and operational efficiency when you’re dealing with the AWS cloud infrastructure.

Summary

AWS Control Tower offers organizations the ability to quickly expand their AWS account structure without sacrificing security or compliance considerations. It harnesses the power of keystone AWS services to create, monitor, restrict, audit, assess, build, and manage AWS OUs and their associated AWS accounts.

This remarkable tool negates the need for deep technical expertise to grow your environment and provides a repeated and blueprint-driven framework for expansion. While Control Tower is a robust service, it might not always be the best tool for the job. Organizations that require greater customization levels, have deeper pools of engineering expertise around the AWS platform, or do not plan on expanding beyond a single AWS account might find the use of the traditional AWS landing zone to be more beneficial. Even though a fork can get the job done in most cases, sometimes it pays to seek optimizations and leverage a spork-like utensil that blends multiple functionalities into a single tool. If your organization is looking to embark on a cloud project, be it proof of concept (POC) or complete enterprise migration, leveraging a qualified AWS partner or the AWS professional services team is never a bad idea.

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post avatar
Wayne Zettler

I like to consider myself a hybrid technologist with over 20 years of combined experience in leadership roles, engineering deployment roles, pre-sales solutions architect roles, and quota-carrying B2B sales consulting roles. I am happiest when I’m working directly with clients to transform their organizations using AWS as the catalyst for change. My passion lies in driving cloud-based project design through business-drivers analysis, resulting in well-architected AWS information technology solutions. I pride myself on being capable of having extremely granular technical conversations with an organization’s top engineers, while still being able to relate the information to non-technical C-suite executive team members. My diverse work experience allows me to view client transformation engagements through multiple different lenses. I’ve been the person to sell the solutions, I’ve been the person to design the solutions, and once upon a time, I was even the person to deliver the solutions. Like all solutions architects worth their weight in salt, my focus is on extracting the foundational business requirements at the core of all cloud migration initiatives and translating those needs into an architectural design, leveraging AWS cloud infrastructure.

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