Can Amazon Web Services be used as a supercomputer for security attacks

The “Cloud” keyword has become prominent in the news, articles, almost in everything related to IT. Even in a police TV series the secrets of a victim or a criminal are not stored on a USB key or a laptop but in the cloud! I do not propose to analyze the whole “cloud” concept from a theoretical viewpoint but from an angle of a concrete issue.

For the side channel attack, it is required to process a very large of set of numerical data. Nowadays, it is not unusual to manipulate more than 100 GB of data for such an attack. To process this data, highly parallel computing algorithms are used and deployed. In this context a powerful computing system is mandatory to compute the data to perform a side channel attack. Since the amount of data follows more or less the Moore’s law (oscilloscope performance, network bandwidth, targeted chip performances…), it is necessary to upgrade and update the hardware computing system more or less every three years.

So, it is in this context that the question about Cloud computing possibilities have been analyzed. A quick study shows the Amazon EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) service is the more mature and it can be considered as the reference for HPC (High performance computing). The Amazon EC2 service provides a large range of features according to the computation characteristic needed (high memory, high CPU usage, high bandwidth…). For that, they define different “instances”. Each instance specifies the workload expected for the task, the RAM memory and the CPU computation power.

For our side channel attack we are interested in an instance called “High-Memory Reserved Instances: Quadruple Extra Large”. At least, the superlatives used to describe this instance are very expressive. This instance allocates 64.8 GB of RAM memory with 1.6 TB of storage space. For CPU computation 26 EC2 units are available. One EC2 unit provides the CPU performance of one Xeon core 2007 at 1.2GHz.

This instance provides more or less the same processing capacities of one PC architecture on Intel Xeo Octo E5-2670 @ 2.60GHz with 64 GB and HD of 2TB. After contacting a local dealer in Lausanne, we found out that the price of such PC system is around $3400.

Amazon EC2 provides the possibility to reserve such instance in advance (for 1 year or 3 years) or “On demand”. According to their price quotation, we can assess the efficiency of their cloud computing solution.


From the picture, after only 70 days of use the EC2 solution stops to be competitive if compared to the standalone PC solution. For information, based on side channel attack conducted during 2012, around 100 days of computation have been performed.

So, in conclusion, even without taking into account security considerations (data confidentiality) the amazon EC2 is not competitive for us and is not a magical solution, much-vaunted by the “gurus”. Same conclusion can be found in a more extensive analysis on a larger computation system.

Finally, it only remains for us to wait and see the future “super extra quintuple extra large instance” from the Amazon EC2.


  1. Did you take into account the electricity price, which is included into the EC2 price? For sure your blue curve cannot have a slope equal to 0 in practice, if you carry heavy computations!

  2. I agree it is necessary to take into account the electricity price but this price is relatively low and it does not modify the comparison. For 200 days of use of the local PC (450 W of Power supply) it is 2160 kW.h, that is around 370 $ ( price from Lausanne provider for a simple household)

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