October 31, 2023

What is Terraform

Terraform: The innovative Infrastructure as Code tool to automate and manage complex cloud and on-premise architectures in the modern DevOps ecosystem.

Terraform Guide

In the age of cloud computing and DevOps, IT infrastructure management has become more complex than ever. Organizations need tools that allow agile, flexible and scalable management of resources. It is in this context that Terraform has found its niche, providing a robust solution for managing infrastructure as code (IAC).

What is Terraform

Terraform is an open-source tool developed by HashiCorp that allows you to define, provision and configure IT infrastructures declaratively, using a specific programming language called HashiCorp Configuration Language (HCL). Terraform's power lies in its ability to manage complex assets in a simplified, automated and replicable manner.

The History of Terraform.

Terraform was introduced to the world in July 2014 by HashiCorp, a company that quickly gained notoriety for its dedication to innovating the DevOps technology stack. Founded just two years earlier, in 2012, by Mitchell Hashimoto and Armon Dadgar, HashiCorp has focused from the beginning on software tools capable of tackling the most complex problems in the application development and infrastructure management life cycle. Before Terraform, HashiCorp had already achieved success with products such as Vagrant, a software for creating virtualized development environments, and Vault, a solution for securely managing secrets and credentials. Later, the company also launched Nomad, an application orchestration solution.

Terraform was introduced at a time when the concept of Infrastructure as Code (IaC) was starting to gain traction, but was still far from universally adopted. At the time of its launch, many development and operations teams were still struggling with traditional methods for managing infrastructure that were often manual and error-prone. Terraform filled an important gap, providing a tool that not only automated this process, but also did so in a provider-agnostic manner, allowing enterprises to avoid lock-in with a single cloud provider.

The real strength of Terraform has been, since the beginning, its modular and extensible architecture. Thanks to a robust plugin ecosystem, users could easily extend the core functionality to suit their specific needs. This flexibility has made Terraform extremely attractive for a wide range of applications, from small startups to large enterprises.

What is it for

Infrastructure Automation

Automation is one of the pillars that makes Terraform a revolutionary element in the field of infrastructure management. In a pre-IAC (Infrastructure as Code) world, configuring and maintaining resources were largely manual processes. Systems engineers had to log into each server to configure software, set network rules, and make sure everything worked as expected. This was not only laborious, but also prone to human error, which could lead to safety issues or system failures. Furthermore, replicating the exact same configuration across multiple servers or environments was a difficult and tedious task. With the introduction of Terraform, these manual processes have been replaced by configuration scripts. Once an HCL (HashiCorp Configuration Language) code has been written to define the desired resources, it can be applied uniformly and repeatably across all environments, almost completely eliminating the possibility of human errors and making everything extremely more efficient.

Terraform Use Case

Multi-Cloud and On-Premise Management

Another highlight of Terraform is its cloud provider agnosticism. Many organizations today adopt a multi-cloud approach for several reasons, such as redundancy, cost optimization, and the use of specialized services offered by different vendors. Terraform stands out in this context, as it offers the ability to manage and orchestrate resources across multiple cloud platforms such as AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Azure, using a single code base. This allows for smoother migration between different service providers and gives businesses much greater flexibility in choosing the best solutions for their specific needs. But that is not all; Terraform can also be used to manage on-premise infrastructure, thus extending its usefulness far beyond the confines of the cloud. Therefore, if an organization has a combination of cloud and on-premise resources, Terraform can serve as a single tool to manage both, significantly simplifying the infrastructure management landscape.

Coding and Versioning

Terraform brings the concept of “as code” to infrastructure, changing how we see and interact with system resources. Infrastructure coding offers various benefits, including versioning. Imagine being able to use git to track changes to your infrastructure just like you do with your source code. This not only makes it much easier to understand changes made over time, but also facilitates collaboration between team members. Rather than relying on external documentation or ad hoc scripts, engineers can collaborate through a shared code repository, subjecting changes to peer review and maintaining a log of all changes. Furthermore, the encrypted infrastructure is auditable, meaning detailed reviews can be carried out in case of incidents or for regulatory compliance, thus increasing visibility and traceability of the entire infrastructure ecosystem.

Use Cases

Cloud Resource Management

One of the most common applications of Terraform is in creating and managing cloud resources. For example, with just a few lines of HCL code, you can define and configure a complete set of cloud services, ranging from compute instances, such as EC2 in AWS or VMs in Azure, to network services such as VPCs, subnets, and gateways. This also extends to more specialized services like relational databases or NoSQL, messaging services like SQS or Kafka, and storage services like S3 or Azure Blob. Terraform's strength in this context is that it allows you to manage all these resources uniformly, regardless of the cloud provider, thanks to its provider-agnostic architecture.

Service Orchestration

Terraform is also commonly used in service orchestration, especially when combined with container orchestration tools like Kubernetes. While Kubernetes is excellent at managing the lifecycle of containers, Terraform can be used to prepare the infrastructure on which those containers will run. This includes not only creating cluster nodes, but also configuring networks, load balancers, and even managing security policies. In fact, the integration between Terraform and Kubernetes is so tight that it is even possible to manage resources within a Kubernetes cluster using Terraform, thanks to specific providers.

Disaster Recovery

Another critical use case for Terraform is in disaster recovery strategies. Because Terraform allows you to codify your entire infrastructure architecture, you can use it to quickly rebuild your entire technology stack in the event of a catastrophic failure. This is extremely useful in scenarios where downtime is costly and needs to be minimized. With a Terraform-based disaster recovery plan, organizations can quickly restore critical services by simply reapplying Terraform configuration files on a new environment, reducing downtime and mitigating financial and operational impacts.

Provisioning of Development Environments

Terraform has also proven extremely useful in provisioning development and test environments. In many development workflows, it is critical that test environments replicate production as closely as possible to ensure that any test is representative. With Terraform, you can define a “base” environment and use the same code to deploy identical copies of that environment for various purposes. This not only speeds up the environment setup process, but also eliminates any uncertainty or differences that might otherwise introduce unwanted variables into the testing process. Additionally, this makes it much easier for new team members to get to work, as they can quickly instantiate a personal development environment that matches the production environment.

Architecture and Key Components

Terraform-Core-Plugin-State

Core and Plugins

The beating heart of Terraform is its core engine, which is responsible for parsing configuration files, resolving dependencies between resources, and orchestrating the operations necessary to align the current state of the infrastructure with that defined in the code. But the true strength and flexibility of Terraform is made possible thanks to an extensive ecosystem of plugins. These plugins are separate components that extend Terraform's core functionality, allowing you to interact with a variety of services and platforms. For example, there are specific plugins, known as “providers,” for almost all major cloud providers, such as AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud, as well as for on-premise services and other platforms such as VMware. There are also “provisioners” that allow Terraform to perform specific actions such as running scripts or configuring software on a machine during the asset creation process.

State

Another aspect that sets Terraform apart is its sophisticated health management system. While the configuration code defines what the infrastructure should look like, the Terraform state file keeps track of how the infrastructure is actually configured at a given point in time. This allows Terraform to perform a series of very intelligent operations, such as the incremental creation of resources or the controlled destruction of existing components. For example, if a user decides to add a new security rule to an existing network configuration, Terraform can identify the difference between the desired state and the current state, and make only the changes necessary to align the two, without having to recreate the entire network configuration. This not only makes the process more efficient, but also reduces the risk of errors and interruptions.

Forms

Finally, Terraform introduces the concept of “modules,” which are essentially pre-packaged collections of assets and configurations that can be reused across different projects or environments. This is especially useful for organizations that have complex architectures with recurring components. For example, an organization might have several environments (development, test, production) that share a common set of resources, such as databases, servers, or networks. Instead of having to define these resources manually in each individual environment, engineers can create a module that encapsulates these resources and then reuse that module in each environment. This not only saves time, but also helps maintain consistency and reduce errors, since changes can be made in one place and automatically propagated to all environments using that module.

Integration with Other Tools

Terraform is known for its ability to work harmoniously with a wide range of other tools in the DevOps ecosystem, making it a central piece in many continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) pipelines.

For example, in the context of CI/CD, Terraform can be integrated with Jenkins, one of the most popular automation servers used for building, testing, and deploying code. Jenkins can be configured to automatically run Terraform scripts as part of the build and deployment process. This means that whenever a change is made to the source code, Jenkins can automatically begin a process that includes creating or updating infrastructure resources managed by Terraform. This facilitates a faster, more agile development cycle, reducing the amount of manual work required to keep infrastructure aligned with application code.

Ansible Jenkins

Another tool often used in tandem with Terraform is Ansible, an open-source automation system used for configuration, automated task management, and application deployment. While Terraform is great at managing infrastructure resources, Ansible shines at operating system and application level configuration. Often, Terraform is used to prepare the infrastructure on which Ansible playbooks will run. This combination allows for a unified, codified approach to both infrastructure and application configuration, making the entire system more repeatable, scalable, and reliable.

Regarding monitoring and telemetry, Terraform can be integrated with Grafana and Prometheus. Grafana is an open-source platform used for monitoring and visualizing metrics from various sources, while Prometheus is an open-source monitoring and alerting system as well. Both can be deployed and configured using Terraform, which can also configure the specific cloud resources or services on which they depend. Once up and running, Grafana and Prometheus can be used to monitor the performance and stability of resources managed by Terraform, providing an end-to-end view of the system.

A video is worth a thousand words

Elevate your Terraform knowledge in just 100 seconds! Watch this concise video to understand the features and potential of Terraform and how it can benefit your cloud infrastructure.

Conclusions

Over the past few years, Terraform has cemented itself as one of the most influential and indispensable tools in the modern DevOps landscape. With its modular and easily extensible architecture, support for a wide variety of cloud and on-premise service providers, and an extremely active and growing community of users and developers, Terraform emerges as an incredibly robust and versatile solution for infrastructure management as code (IAC). In addition to these capabilities, its seamless integration with other essential DevOps tools further amplifies its value, making it a key component in a variety of software engineering workflows. If you're looking for a means to bring automation, consistency, repeatability, and scalability to your infrastructure management, then Terraform is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and flexible options available on the market today.

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