A couple of years ago, I heard about a tool called Terraform. Our devops guy from work had just started using it and
said it was pretty great. For me, that triggered a long and steady process where I started to use Terraform more and
more until now I couldn’t even imagine myself doing devops without it. Recently, I’ve been telling people how great
Terraform is and how much they should use. I’m generally met with skepticism, they’ve heard how powerful Terraform is,
and that makes them wary. Everyone who’s ever managed any IT infrastructure knows how fragile and finicky can be, which
makes them understandably cautious about automating the lot of it into a single bash command that has the power to
bring your entire business to a halt if someone accidentally runs
So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts detailing the journey I’ve taken while learning Terraform. How I went from being quite scared and lost, to going all in and Terraforming my world. This is the first post in which I’ll go over the first time I used Terraform and the “Aha moment” I had which drove me to deeper into devops.
Note: If you haven’t used the AWS Console before, I would highly recommend that you use it before you try Terraform. Otherwise all the Terraform options will seem confusing. If I’m doing something new in Terraform I’ll often go and create the resource manually through the Console first, just to get a feel for what the options are. Then I’ll delete it and redo it in Terraform.
Why I love it
Initially I was scared of Terraform - it’s code was hard to read and understand, and I could accidentally take down the entire business if I wasn’t careful. However, using the AWS Console I was able to accidentally take down parts of our application anyway, and those parts of the infrastructure had outdated, if an, documentation.
I’ve come to love Terraform for many reasons:
- Infrastructure is stored in git
- Code reviews for changes
- Easily view the history
- Roll back to a working version
- Every option is documented
- Always up to date
- One command, go get a coffee
- Don’t have to copy paste ARN ids all over the place
- Much easier to teach your colleagues how your infrastructure holds together
My first experience
We had just hired a security company to do our first penetration test. We couldn’t have them messing around on produciton, so I was tasked with creating them a testing environment. After some nudging and a little help from another dev who had been using Terraform recently, I managed to create a web instance with a domain name. All the configuration was stored in git. Below is an example of what I did:
terraform apply, I saw a nice output detailing what Terraform wanted to do. I typed
yes and watched
the magic. A couple minutes later, I had an instance with a domain name. I thought “yeah that’s not bad, I could have
done that like 5 times faster with the AWS Console though”. But that was fine, I had learnt a few things about
- It’s not like real code - you declare what state you want and Terraform finds a way to make it happen (or throws
- Unlike PHP I was used to writing, which is literally a set of steps I want the computer to take
- Terraform stores the current state of the infrastructure in a
- I committed this state file to git so that I didn’t lose it
- There are better ways of managing state which I’ll get into in a later post, but committing it is fine for now
- Terraform resources have types and names
- The type is what you want to create, ie.
- The name is like a variable name, and allows you to refer to in else where, ie.
- The type is what you want to create, ie.
- Multiple resources can have the same name - as long as they’re of different types
aws_instance’s cannot have the same name
aws_route53_recordcan have the same name
- Resources are referenced with the notation
- type is the instance type
- name is the name you gave it
- attribute is what you want to reference in the resource, ie.
It was at this point that I realised, I can’t give penetration testers a site that’s not behind HTTPS, so I challenged myself to put the instance behind a load balancer with our HTTPS certificate:
At this point, I was a little impressed. The Terraform documentation was pretty great, and I was staring to get the hang of the language. I still felt like could have done it faster in the Console, but this was pretty quick and meant I didn’t have be clicking through AWS wizards all afternoon. However, I still wasn’t entirely sold on Terraform until months later.
My “Aha moment”
A couple of months later, we had fixed our first round of bugs raised by the penetration testers. So they were going back through the app to verify the problems were solved. However, they contacted me to say that the instance wasn’t working anymore, they were getting 504’s.
I jumped onto the instance and had a look around - but I couldn’t find what was wrong, it just wouldn’t load. I ended
up deciding just to recreate it. I went back to my Terraform code and wasn’t sure what to do. After some googling, I
terraform destroy, which will destroy all the resources that Terraform knows about. In 2 minutes the instance,
load balancer and Route53 record were all gone. I then ran
terraform apply, and a few minutes later they were all
created again, and everything working!
This literally saved me hours of debugging and tweaking config files, and was the first time I truly understood the mentality of “don’t fix it, just throw it away” that comes with ephemeral infrastructure. I still wasn’t set on getting Terraform to manage everything, but I was convinced that I should be using it more.
You don’t have to start a new project and use Terraform from the ground up. You can slowly add more to you existing infrastructure and even migrate your handbuilt stuff into Terraform (more on this in a later post). Terraform reminds me a little bit of git, in the fact that it only cares about the stuff you tell it to. Git won’t store a file you haven’t told it to track yet - although it does complain that you’re not tracking it. Terraform will only manage the resources that it knows about, so you can run it alongside your handcrafted resources and there won’t be a problem (as long as you don’t go making changes to Terraform resources through the Console).
I hope I’ve peaked your interest in Terraform, please leave a comment letting me know anything specific you’d like me to cover in future posts. This series will cover pretty much every “Aha moment” I’ve had, and what makes me refuse to make any infrastructure changes by “clicking on shit in the Console”.
Update: See part 2 here.