You have a large organization with several development teams that work on various software projects that support your business. A year ago, you brought in a consultant that told you to use multiple AWS accounts because there were benefits to be gained. For example, using multiple accounts we can contain the damage from a possible security breach and isolate work by teams so that others don’t inadvertently disrupt that work. But there are also issues that we must deal with.
When a company has more than one AWS account and especially many AWS accounts, it becomes difficult to manage those accounts. How do we know that all teams are using good security policies? How do we take advantage of billing incentives for using more and more of an AWS resource? How do we manage the billing in general for all of those accounts? And if a company is in a business that requires them to comply with a set of standards such as PCI or HIPAA, how can we guarantee that teams are using only services that are certified compliant? And how can we automate the creation of new accounts in a way that they are properly configured, to begin with?

What Are AWS Organizations?

AWS organizations allow companies with multiple AWS accounts to manage those accounts from a billing and administrative perspective from a single root account. Why is this important? Until Organizations came along, I like to think of having multiple accounts as being like the Wild West. Each account was on its own and there was no way to manage all of them from one place. Users had no way to apply policies, manage permissions, or manage billing from a “company” perspective. AWS Organizations give us the tools we need to bring these accounts together and control them all in a predictable way.

Service Control Policies (SCPs)

Service Control Policies allow us to define the services that an account can access. In our case, we know that we want to allow access to only the services that are HIPAA compliant. Any service that isn’t compliant should not be allowed to be used by the teams. Using the root account, we can push this policy out to all accounts that we have within our organization.

Organizational Units (OUs)

Most organizations have accounts that have different requirements. Using the example above, some accounts may have to be HIPAA compliant while others may be used for other purposes and do not have to follow any guidelines. AWS Organizations gives us the ability to group accounts into Organizational Units.
Organizational Units allow us to split our accounts into separate groups and apply different policies to those groups. Continuing with the example from above, we can have an OU for all accounts that must be HIPAA compliant and an OU for accounts that are general purpose. All accounts in the HIPAA OU will be restricted to only the services that are HIPAA certified while the accounts in the general purpose OU have access to all AWS services. The rules that are applied to an OU even overrule account administrators. If an admin accidentally logs into an account and specifically sets permissions in that account to allow access to a service that has been restricted at the OU level, the OU rule that was applied to the account will still block that access.
OUs can be up to 5 levels deep. You can have multiple OUs inside of an OU. This allows even more granular control over accounts. As an example, let’s assume that some of our HIPAA accounts also handle patient transactional data. This means that we are dealing with both PCI and HIPAA data in those accounts. We can create an OU inside of our HIPAA account that restricts access to only services that are PCI compliant. The result is at the first level we have accounts that can only access HIPAA compliant services. In the PCI OU under the HIPAA OU we have accounts that can only access services which are HIPAA compliant AND PCI compliant.
One thing that must be remembered is that the root or “master” account cannot be restricted. Even if it is placed within an OU, none of the AWS services will be restricted to this account. Therefore, it is essential that the root account is not used by anyone other than the administrator of all accounts.

Account Creation Automation

It is often the case that a company will grow and will add teams as they are needed. These new teams will sometimes need their own set of accounts to work in to avoid disrupting the work of other teams. AWS Organizations provides the ability to automate this task. We can create an account, attach policies to this account, and add this account to the appropriate group all through the Organizations API. Not only is this useful for new teams, but it is also useful when developers need test accounts that need to be created quickly, then deleted when work within that account is finished.

How Does All of That Help Me?

Let’s take a look at an example and apply the tools above to solve the problems that companies with multiple accounts face. Let’s assume we have a health care company with a wide range of systems under their control. Some systems house identifiable patient data, which requires those systems to be HIPAA compliant, and some systems simply house generic data that can be used to generate high-level reports. The latter systems do not require any special treatment. One other platform the company has allows patients to log in and make payments. This platform allows users to store their credit card data for future transactions, which means the services they use must be PCI compliant.

Where Do We Start?

Before we begin we need to gather our requirements. We know that our company must be both HIPAA and PCI compliant so we can start by breaking the teams down into groups of standards they must follow.

Compliance Number of Teams
HIPAA and PCI (These overlap from the previous groups) 4
None 3

Once we have our teams broken out into groups, we need to know how many accounts each team has. Or this example, we are going to assume each team has 4 accounts:  Dev, Test, QA, PROD. Note that we have a group of 4 accounts that overlap in service restriction requirements. Unfortunately, Organizations will not allow an account to belong to 2 Organizational Units that are at the same hierarchical level. We will discuss the details of how to achieve this later when we create our OUs and begin adding accounts to them.
Once we have our accounts grouped we are ready to start planning our organization. The resulting Organization will have this overall structure:
cloudcraft - AWS Orgs
It’s worth noting at this point that AWS organizations treat accounts differently depending on how they were originally created. The Organizations API provides the ability to remove an account from the Organization, but only if that account was invited to join the organization. If the account was created by the organization, that account cannot be removed from the organization without deleting the account entirely. The Organizations API also does not provide the ability to delete an account, no matter how it was created. To delete an account, you must log into that account and do that manually. These limitations may influence how companies want to handle bringing accounts into an organization.
One other important fact we need to know is that the account that owns the user we use to create the Organization will become the master account. Make sure never to create an Organization from an account that needs to have policies applied to it. A master account will always have “root” access, even if it is moved to an Organizational Unit that restricts services. The services of the master account cannot be restricted and the wide-open policies will always override anything that is more restrictive.
Once we have our account information, let’s move on to creating the organization.

Creating an Organization

Before we begin, we need to make sure we have the AWS Command Line tools installed on the OS of your choice. Organizations can also be managed using the AWS SDK for your language of choice, but we’re going to use the command line tools for this example. Again, make sure we are using a user from the account we want to be the master. Make sure that user is configured with your CLI tools. Once our configs have been verified, we can issue the following command:
Minimum permissions for your user:

  • organizations:CreateOrganization
aws organizations create-organization --feature-set ALL

Notice that we are passing in a parameter to the create-organization command called “feature-set”. This tells AWS what control the organization will have over our accounts. There are 2 options we can pass in here:  ALL, CONSOLIDATED_BILLING. The ALL parameter value enables consolidated billing and also allows the organization to put policies in place that can restrict the services the account can access. This is the default value if this parameter is omitted. A value of CONSOLIDATED_BILLING will allow the new organization to consolidate the billing of all accounts under the master account. The Organization will not be allowed to restrict the services each account has access to. For our company, we need ALL functionality so we retain the ability to control access for some accounts to only HIPAA and PCI compliant services.
After running this command, we get back a response from AWS

{ "Organization": { "AvailablePolicyTypes": [{ "Status": "ENABLED", "Type": "SERVICE_CONTROL_POLICY" }], "MasterAccountId": "111111111111", "MasterAccountArn": "arn:aws:organizations::111111111111:account/o-exampleorgid/111111111111", "MasterAccountEmail": "", "FeatureSet": "ALL", "Id": "o-exampleorgid", "Arn": "arn:aws:organizations::111111111111:organization/o-exampleorgid" } }

We need to capture the “Id” value and keep that for future use.

Let’s Add Some Accounts

Inviting Accounts

Now that we have a newly created Organization, we can start adding our accounts to our organization. As mentioned above, there are 2 ways to add an account to an Organization. The first method and the one we’ll be using primarily for our example is to send an invitation to our accounts that already exist.
I want to reiterate that it’s important to note here that any account we invite to our Organization can be removed at any time. If we want our accounts tied to this Organization without the option to be removed (as a way of ensuring our policies are always in place), we need to create that account from within the Organization. Any resources would have to be migrated from the existing account to the new account.
To send an invitation to an existing account, we can issue the following command:
Minimum permissions for your users:

  • organizations:DescribeOrganization
  • organizations:InviteAccountToOrganization
aws organizations invite-account-to-organization --target '{"Type": "ACCOUNT", "Id": "ACCOUNT_ID_NUMBER"}'

We are passing in a data structure to the target parameter of the command. In this example, we are passing in the account ID. The key Type can also have values of EMAIL or ORGANIZATION. In those cases, we would set the Id to the appropriate value.
Another optional parameter that we could have passed as “notes”. If we want to include additional information in the email that is auto-generated by Organizations, we can pass that information using the “notes” parameter.
The response from this command should look like this:

  "Handshake": {
    "Action": "INVITE",
    "Arn": "arn:aws:organizations::111111111111:handshake/o-exampleorgid/invite/h-examplehandshakeid111",
    "ExpirationTimestamp": 1482952459.257,
    "Id": "h-examplehandshakeid111",
    "Parties": [{
      "Id": "o-exampleorgid",
      "Type": "ORGANIZATION"
      "Id": "",
      "Type": "EMAIL"
    "RequestedTimestamp": 1481656459.257,
    "Resources": [{
      "Type": "MASTER_EMAIL",
      "Value": ""
      "Type": "MASTER_NAME",
      "Value": "Org Master Account"
      "Value": "FULL"
      "Type": "ORGANIZATION",
      "Value": "o-exampleorgid"
      "Type": "EMAIL",
      "Value": ""
    "State": "OPEN"

Once again, we are interested in the “Id” value of the “Handshake” object. Each time we run the command to invite an account, we will receive this “Id” back in the response. We need to record that value for each account we invite so we can use it in the next step to accept the invitation.

Accepting Invitations

The process of inviting and adding an account to an organization is a “handshake” transaction. An invitation is sent to the account we want to add to our organization and the “owner” of that account must log in and accept that invitation. Fortunately for us, this can also be accomplished through the CLI. Again, we need to make sure our CLI is configured with a principal user that has the IAM permissions to accept that handshake. Once we have the CLI configured, we can issue the following command:
Minimum permissions for your user:

  • organizations:ListHandshakesForAccount
  • organizations:AcceptHandshake
  • organizations:DeclineHandshake
aws organizations accept-handshake --handshake-id HANDSHAKE_ID

The handshake ID that is being passed into this command was given to us in the response of the command to send the invitation.
Remember that we can also send and accept invitations through the console. For users with a few accounts, this may be acceptable. But if you are dealing with more than a few accounts you are definitely going to want to automate this process.
AWS has set a limit on a number of invitations that can be sent per day of 20. If you need to send more than that, contact customer support and they will up your limit.

Using Organizational Units

Here’s where the real power of Organizations starts to show. Now that we have our accounts added to the Organization we need to group them into OUs and restrict the services that can be used within those accounts. Before we started creating the Organization, we took the time to group our accounts by the compliance standard they needed to adhere to. We can use that information to help us create our OUs to move our accounts into. Looking at our chart we can see that we have four different types of accounts. We have HIPAA compliant, PCI compliant, HIPAA and PCI compliant, and accounts that require no restrictions at all. We are going to create three top-level OUs and one OU that is within either the PCI or the HIPAA OU. Because we are simply overlapping 2 sets of compliance standards, it really doesn’t matter which OU we use as a parent.
We’ll start by creating the three top-level OUs. We can issue the following commands to create those:
Minimum permissions for your user:

  • organizations:CreateOrganizationalUnit
aws organizations create-organizational-unit --parent-id PARENT_ORG_ID --name HipaaOU
aws organizations create-organizational-unit --parent-id PARENT_ORG_ID --name PciOU
aws organizations create-organizational-unit --parent-id PARENT_ORG_ID --name GeneralOU

We now have three top-level Organizational Units that we can add accounts to. We have already invited all existing accounts to our Organization. They reside at the top-level of our Org. To place those accounts into the proper OU we need to issue the “move” command on each account.
Minimum permissions for your user:

  • organizations:MoveAccount
aws organizations move-account --account-id ACCOUNT_ID --source-parent-id PARENT_ORG_ID --destination-parent-id OU_ID

We will need to issue this command for each account we need to move to an OU. We need to make sure we are using the correct destination ID to place the account into the proper OU.
We need to repeat the last 2 steps to create the sub OU for our overlapping HIPAA and PCI accounts. This time around the PARENT_ORG_ID will be changed from the ID of the organization itself to the ID of the organizational unit we want to create this sub OU in. We will create this OU within the HipaaOU that we created in the previous step.
And we can move those accounts that require both HIPAA and PCI compliance into this new OU using the same command we used to move the other accounts.

Service Control Policies

Simply moving accounts into OUs accomplishes nothing on its own. In order to take advantage of the power of these new OUs, we need to apply policies that will restrict the services that the accounts within the OU can access. At the time of this writing, Service Control Policies are the only policies that can be applied to an OU.
In order to apply a Service Control Policy to our account, we need to create a policy file that we can pass into the create-policy command. We could place this text within the command itself, but with the number of services we need to include and the fact that we have to escape characters, that approach is error-prone and very messy. Here’s what our policy file will look like

  “Version”: “2012-10-17”,
  “Statement”: [{
    “Effect”: “Allow”,
    “Action”: [
    “Resource”: “*”

In the above policy file, we are explicitly allowing a few services. There are many more HIPAA compliant services, but for the sake of this example, we are going to limit the policy to these three services.
It needs to be mentioned here that Service Control Policies which are applied to an OU will not grant any user any rights. We are not pushing this policy as a way to give each user in the accounts in the OU access to these services. This policy is in place as a way to restrict the permissions that can be applied to a user. And they will apply to all users, including administrators.
It’s also worth noting that the policies we are putting in place to restrict services assume that the “Allow *” policies have been removed from the root, OU, and individual accounts. If “Allow *” is still in place in any of these locations, the above policy will have no effect on the account(s) it is applied to.
We need to create two additional policy files, one for each additional OU type. Because we removed the “Allow *” policy from all accounts, OUs, and the root Organization, we will need to create a policy file for our GeneralOU that allows all services for that OU. We will reuse the PCI policy file for the sub OU that allows both HIPAA and PCI services.
Once we have our policy files in place, we can start creating those policies:
Minimum permissions for your user:

  • organizations:CreatePolicy
aws organizations create-policy --content file://allow_hipaa_policy.json --name AllowHipaaServices --type SERVICE_CONTROL_POLICY --description "This policy allows all HIPAA services"
aws organizations create-policy --content file://allow_pci_policy.json --name AllowPCIServices --type SERVICE_CONTROL_POLICY --description "This policy allows all PCI services"
organizations create-policy --content file://allow_all_policy.json --name AllowAllServices --type SERVICE_CONTROL_POLICY --description "This policy allows all services"

We have created three new policies that now need to be attached to our OUs.
Minimum permissions for your user:

  • organizations:AttachPolicy
aws organizations attach-policy --policy-id HIPAA_POLICY_ID --target-id HIPAA_OU_ID
aws organizations attach-policy --policy-id PCI_POLICY_ID --target-id HIPAA_OU_ID
aws organizations attach-policy --policy-id GENERAL_POLICY_ID --target-id HIPAA_OU_ID
aws organizations attach-policy --policy-id PCI_POLICY_ID --target-id HIPAA_PCI_OU_ID

Let’s take the time to examine what is happening here. We know that we have removed all permissions for all services for our root Organization, OUs, and accounts. We created policies that allow services that are compliant with HIPAA and PCI respectively. And we know that when we apply those policies to our OUs, the accounts within that OU will now have access to those services. In the case of the sub OU that allows both PCI and HIPAA services, the sub OU that has the overlapping accounts will inherit the services that are allowed by the HIPAA OU. Applying the AllowPCIServices policy to the sub OU will mean that in addition to the services it inherited, it will also be allowed to access the services which are PCI compliant.


Success! We have created a new Organization, invited our accounts into that organization, and grouped those accounts into OUs so we could ensure each group of accounts is compliant to the required standards. When dealing with a few accounts, working from the command line is fine. For larger amounts of accounts, it is highly recommended to script this process out.
AWS Organizations helps companies manage multiple accounts from a billing and policy standpoint. The use of Organizations helps reduce accidental security policies that violate compliance laws that companies may have to follow. It also reduces the time and effort required to create new accounts by providing an API that allows the auto-creation of new accounts with the correct policies already attached. Users can be restricted to the accounts they need access to and blocked from the accounts they don’t. All companies that have multiple accounts can benefit from the features provided by Organizations.
About Stelligent
Stelligent is an APN Advanced Consulting Partner and hold the AWS DevOps Competency. As a technology services company that provides DevOps Automation on Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud, we aim for “one-click deployment.” Our reason for being is to help our customers gain the ability to continuously deploy their software, when they want to, and with confidence. We’ve been providing DevOps Automation solutions on AWS since 2009. Follow @Stelligent on Twitter. Learn more at

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