tl;dr: You can now pass an IAM role to every EC2 instance in your account + region.

On Feb 17th 2023, AWS Systems Manager released Default Host Management Configuration. This is a way to use Systems Manager on all your EC2 instances: they don’t need ssm:* permissions in their instance profiles, nor do they even need an instance profile at all.

So how does it work?

  1. You create a role MyCoolRole assumable by
  2. You configure DHMC by calling the following:
    aws ssm update-service-setting \
      --setting-id arn:aws:ssm:${AWS_REGION}:${AWS_ACCOUNT_ID}:servicesetting/ssm/managed-instance/default-ec2-instance-management-role \
      --setting-value MyCoolRole
  3. The SSM agent on your EC2 instances can now retrieve credentials for MyCoolRole.

What’s interesting to note is that this role can have any permissions, it’s not scoped down just to SSM agent-relevant permissions. I created a proof-of-concept credential_process credential provider called awsaccountcreds.

To try it out, create an EC2 instance without an associated instance profile, install awsaccountcreds and write the following to ~/.aws/config:

credential_process = /home/ec2-user/awsaccountcreds # or wherever you placed the executable

Now you can run something in the AWS CLI, like aws sts get-caller-identity or (if you granted the DHMC role S3 access) aws s3 ls.

How it works, sequence diagram-style

See the following sequence diagram. The CLI retrieves (from the instance metadata service) “instance identity” SigV4 credentials. Prior to DHMC, these were only used for EC2 Instance Connect (as far as I know). Calling sts:GetCallerIdentity with these credentials reveal they have an interesting ARN format: arn:aws:sts::607481581596:assumed-role/aws:ec2-instance/i-0ab9ac31d8ff41296.

Next an RSA keypair is generated. The key pair’s public key is sent to SSM using the undocumented ssm:RegisterManagedInstance API. This API call is signed using the above credentials (C_0 in the diagram).

Finally, ssm:RequestManagedInstanceRoleToken (also undocumented) is invoked. This is also signed using C_0 credentials and has an additional SSM-AsymmetricKeyAuthorization request header. This request header is an RSA signature over the Authorization SigV4 header. This API returns credentials (C_1 in the diagram) for a role session for the DHMC role with the instance ID as the role session name.

It seems only one RSA keypair can be registered for a given instance ID. This keypair can then be used to retrieve credentials multiple times. I haven’t yet looked into how the RSA keypair gets refreshed, but it seems to be a thing (the API has a boolean UpdateKeyPair response field)

sequence diagram


I reported the potential for passing an over-privileged role to the AWS security team, and they described it as working as designed. Which is correct, and this probably falls on the customer side of the shared responsibility model. (Though I’m not sure why Systems Manager doesn’t pass PolicyArns=[arn:aws:iam::aws:policy/AmazonSSMManagedEC2InstanceDefaultPolicy] when calling sts:AssumeRole) But the risk remains: anyone with ssm:UpdateServiceSetting and iam:PassRole can affect every EC2 instance in a single API call. And in my experience, these permissions are typically granted to developers.

The other risk is that even though this is described as a solution for managing instances that don’t already have SSM privileges, it affects those instances too. Because the SSM agent tries the instance profile first (and only falls back to DHMC if the instance profile fails), it means that those instances remain “unregistered” and ssm:RegisterManagedInstance will succeed for a process running on the machine.


Thanks to Ian Mckay, Nick Frichette and Christophe Tafani-Dereeper for sanity-checking this. Also big thanks to Ben Bridts, who pointed out that Systems Manager couldn’t just pass the AmazonSSMManagedEC2InstanceDefaultPolicy managed policy as a session policy, because that would preclude the S3 and KMS privileges needed for other parts of Systems Manager functionality. Also thanks to the Cloud Security Forum folks whose discussion of this functionality prompted me to do the research.