In the weeks leading up to AWS re:Invent 2022, I’m interviewing some of the humans who work in AWS Security, help keep our customers safe and secure, and also happen to be speaking at re:Invent. This interview is with Param Sharma, principal software engineer for AWS Private Certificate Authority (AWS Private CA). AWS Private CA enables you to create private certificate authority (CA) hierarchies, including root and subordinate CAs, without the investment and maintenance costs of operating an on-premises CA.
How long have you been at AWS and what do you do in your current role?
I’ve been here for more than eight years—I joined AWS in July 2014, working in AWS Security. These days, I work on public key infrastructure (PKI) and cryptography, focusing on products like AWS Certificate Manager (ACM) and AWS Private CA.
How did you get started in the world of security, specifically cryptography?
I had a very short stint with crypto during my university days—I presented a paper on steganography and cryptography back in 2002 or 2003. Security has been an integral part of developing and deploying large-scale web applications, which I’ve done throughout my career. But security took center stage in 2014 when I heard from an AWS recruiter about a new service being built that would make certificates easier. I had no clue what that service was, since it was confidential and hadn’t been launched yet, but it brought cryptography back into my life. I started working on this brand-new service, AWS Certificate Manager. I designed the operational security aspect of it and worked to make sure it could be used by millions of our customers and could be available and secure at the same time. I was the second person hired on the ACM team, and since then the team has grown significantly.
What was the most surprising or interesting thing you’ve worked on in your time at AWS?
It might not be surprising, but certainly interesting to me: I was the first engineer to be hired on the AWS Private CA team and I started studying the problem of how certificate authorities would work in the cloud. I had to think about how the customer experience would look, the service architecture design, the operational side of things like availability and security of customer data. Doing a 360-degree review of the service and writing the design document for a service that was eventually deployed in a multitude of AWS Regions was one of the most interesting things I have worked on at AWS. It continues to be an interesting challenge as we add new features—which tend to be like smaller AWS services in their own right even though they are features of AWS Private CA.
How do you explain to customers how to use AWS Private CA?
I start by explaining what a private certificate is. A private certificate provides a flexible way to identify almost anything in an organization without disclosing the name publicly. With AWS Private CA, AWS takes care of the undifferentiated heavy lifting involved in operating a private CA. We provide security configuration, management, and monitoring of highly available private CAs. The service also helps organizations avoid spending money on servers, hardware security modules (HSMs), operations, personnel, infrastructure, software training, and maintenance. Maintaining PKI administrators, for example, can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per year. AWS Private CA simplifies the process of creating and managing these private CAs and certificates that are used to identify resources and provide a basis for trusted identity in communications.
In your opinion, what is the coolest feature of AWS Private CA?
That’s going to be really hard to pick! To me, the coolest feature is root CA, which gives customers the ability to create and manage root CAs in the cloud. Root CAs are used to create subordinate CAs for issuing identity certificates. And these private CAs can be used to identify resources in a private network within an organization. You can use these private certs on application services, devices, or even for identifying users for identity certificates.
AWS Private CA has evolved since its launch in 2018. What are some of the new ways you see customers using the service?
When AWS Private CA was launched in 2018, the primary feature was to create and manage subordinate CAs, which were signed offline outside of AWS Private CA. The secondary feature was to issue certificates for identifying endpoints for TLS/SSL communication. Over the last four or five years, I’ve seen use cases become more diversified, and the service has evolved as the customers’ needs have evolved. The biggest paradigm shift that I’ve seen is that customers are customizing certificates and using them to identify IoT devices or customer-managed Kubernetes clusters. The certificates can even be used on-premises for your Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances or your on-premises servers, where you can use these services to encrypt the traffic in transit or at rest in certain cases. The other more recent use case I’ve started to see is customers using AWS Private CA with AWS Identity and Access Management Roles Anywhere, which launched in July 2022. Customers are using this combination to issue certificates for identity, which is tied to the credentials themselves.
I understand you’ll be speaking at re:Invent 2022. Can you tell us about your session there? What do you hope customers take away from your session?
I am doing two sessions at re:Invent this year. The first one, Understanding the evolution of cloud-based PKI use cases, is a chalk talk about how cloud-based PKI use cases have evolved over the last 5–10 years. This talk is mainly for PKI administrators, information security engineers, developers, managers, directors, and IoT security professionals who want to learn more about how X.509 digital certificates are used in the cloud. We will dive deep into how these certs are being used for normal TLS communication, device certificates, containers, or even certificates used for identity like in IAM Roles Anywhere. The second session is a breakout session called AWS data protection: Using locks, keys, signatures, and certificates. It puts a spotlight on what AWS offers in terms of cryptographic tools and PKI platforms that help our customers navigate their data protection and digital signing needs. This session will provide a ground-floor understanding of how to get this protection by default or when needed, and how can you build your own logs, keys, and signatures for you own cloud application.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of in your career?
I’m proud to work with some of the smartest people who, at the same time, are very humble and genuinely believe in making this world a better place for everyone.
Outside of your work in tech, what is something you’re interested in that might surprise people?
I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old, so whenever I get some time to myself between those two, I love to read and take long strolls. I’m a passionate advocate that every voice is unique and has value to share. I’m a diversity and inclusion ambassador at Amazon and as part of this program, I mentor underrepresented groups and help build a community with integrity and a willingness to listen to others, which provides a space for us to be ourselves without fear of judgement. I try to do volunteer work whenever possible, being involved in community service programs organized through my children’s school activities, or even participating in local community kitchens by cooking and serving food that is distributed through a local non-profit organization.
If you had to pick an industry outside of security, what would you want to do?
I would’ve been a teacher or worked with a non-profit organization mentoring and volunteering. I think volunteering gives me a sense of peace.
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