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June 5, 2012 By Stefan Zier

Pragmatic AWS: Data Destroying Drones

As we evolve our service, we occasionally delete EBS (Elastic Block Store) volumes. This releases the disk space back to AWS to be assigned to another customer. As a security precaution, we have decided to perform a secure wipe of the EBS volumes. In this post, I’ll explain how we implemented the wipe.


Wiping EBS volumes may be slightly paranoid and not strictly needed, since AWS guarantees to never return a previous users data via the hypervisor (as mentioned in their security white paper). We also understand that the secure wipe is not perfect. EBS is able to move our data around in the background and leave back blocks that we didn’t wipe. Still, we felt that this additional precaution was worth the bit of extra work and cost – better safe than sorry.


We wanted to make sure secure wiping did not to have any performance impact on our production deployment. Therefore, we decided that it would be great to perform the secure wipe from a different set of AWS instances — Data Destroying Drones. We also wanted them to be fire-and-forget, so we wouldn’t have to manually check up on them.

To accomplish all this, we built a tool that:

  1. Finds to-be-deleted EBS volumes matching a set of tag values. (we tag the volumes to mark them for wiping).
  2. Launches one t1.micro instance per EBS volume that needs wiping (using an Ubuntu AMI).
  3. Passes a cloud-init script with Volume ID and (IAM limited) AWS credentials into the instance.

The Gory Details

Ubuntu has a mechanism named cloud-init. It accepts a shell script via EC2’s user data, which is passed in as part of the RunInstances API call to EC2. Here is the script we use for the Data Destroying Drones:

This script automates the entire process:

  1. Attach the volume.
  2. Perform a DoD 5220.22-M secure wipe of the volume using scrub.
  3. Detach and delete the volume.
  4. Halt the instance.

The instances are configured to terminate on halt, which results in all involved resources to disappear once the secure wipe completes. The scrub can take hours or even days, depending on the size of the EBS volumes, but the cost for the t1.micro instances makes this a viable option. Even if the process takes 48 hours, it costs less than $1 to wipe the volume.


Aside from being a fun project the Data Destroying Drones have given us additional peace of mind and confidence that we’ve followed best practice and made a best effort to secure our customers data by not leaving any of it behind in the cloud.

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Stefan Zier

Stefan was Sumo’s first engineer and Chief Architect. He enjoys working on cloud plumbing and is plotting to automate his job fully, so he can spend all his time skiing in Tahoe.

More posts by Stefan Zier.

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