Mastering Terraform Remote State – A Complete Guide

Introduction to Terraform Remote State

Whether you’re a seasoned DevOps engineer or just starting in Infrastructure as Code (IaC), you’ve probably encountered Terraform. This tool, developed by HashiCorp, is known for its ability to provision and manage any cloud, infrastructure, or service.

One of the key features of Terraform is its use of state. The state is a JSON file that records and tracks the resources Terraform creates so it can update or delete those resources later.

But a local state file isn’t enough when working in a team or managing multiple environments. This is where Terraform remote state comes into play.

Terraform remote state is a feature that stores the state file in a remote data store, such as AWS S3, Google Cloud Storage, or Terraform’s own Cloud platform. This approach offers several advantages:

  1. Collaboration: It allows team members to share access to the same state file, ensuring everyone is working on the latest infrastructure setup.
  2. Security: The state file can contain sensitive data. Storing it remotely allows for better control over who has access to this information.
  3. Persistence: A remotely stored state file is less likely to get accidentally deleted or lost.

For example, let’s say you’ve used Terraform to create an AWS EC2 instance. The ID of this instance is stored in the state file. Terraform will look at the state file to find the instance ID when you want to modify this instance. If you’re using a remote state, this file is stored on a service like AWS S3, allowing other team members to access the same information.

In the following sections, we’ll dive deeper into the workings of Terraform remote state and how to use it in your IaC practices effectively. So, let’s set sail on this journey to mastering the Terraform remote state!

Understanding Infrastructure as Code (IaC)

The principle of Infrastructure as Code (IaC) is a cornerstone of modern DevOps practices. But what does it mean, and why is it so beneficial, especially when using tools like Terraform?

Infrastructure as Code approach allows managing and provisioning computer data centers through machine-readable definition files rather than physical hardware configuration or interactive configuration tools.

The advantages of IaC are many, but they can be summarized into the following key points:

  1. Speed and Efficiency: With IaC, you can quickly set up your complete infrastructure by running a script. This reduces the chances of manual error, speeds up the setup process, and removes the need for tedious manual setup tasks.
  2. Consistency: Since the infrastructure setup is codified, it’s reproducible. This means every environment you create (whether for testing, staging, or production) can be identical, reducing inconsistencies and “it works on my machine” issues.
  3. Version Control: Your infrastructure can and should be version controlled. Any changes are tracked and can be rolled back, just like with your application code.
  4. Cost Saving: By automating the infrastructure setup, you free up time for the developers to focus on what they do best: developing features.

Terraform is a popular tool used for implementing IaC. It’s cloud-agnostic, meaning you can use it with any cloud provider, such as AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, and others. And it works based on a simple principle: you declare what you want, and Terraform figures out how to achieve it. This is done using Terraform configuration files.

Here’s a simple example of a Terraform configuration that sets up an AWS EC2 instance:

provider "aws" {
  region = "us-west-2"
resource "aws_instance" "example" {
  ami           = "ami-0c55b159cbfafe1f0"
  instance_type = "t2.micro"

In this code, we’re specifying that we want an AWS EC2 instance of type t2.micro, running in the us-west-2 region. When this code is run with the terraform apply command, Terraform will ensure that this instance exists.

In the next section, we will dive into the details of Terraform remote state and how it becomes an essential part of managing the Infrastructure as Code in a highly effective way.

The Importance of Terraform remote state in IaC

As we’ve seen in the previous sections, Terraform and Infrastructure as Code (IaC) go hand in hand. But where does Terraform remote state fit into this picture? The answer lies in two main areas: collaboration and consistency.

Collaboration benefits

Working with Infrastructure as Code is rarely a solo task. Usually, it involves a team of engineers working on the same infrastructure setup. This is where the concept of Terraform remote state shines.

The state file in Terraform is crucial because it keeps track of the metadata of all the resources that Terraform manages. This state information must be available to all team members when working in a team. If the state file is kept locally, this is impossible, leading to conflicts and inconsistencies.

By using Terraform remote state:

  • Team members can work on the infrastructure simultaneously without worrying about conflicts or overwriting each other’s work.
  • The state file is centrally stored and accessible to everyone, ensuring a single source of truth.
  • Changes made by one engineer are immediately visible to the others, reducing communication gaps and misunderstandings.

Consistent environments

Another major advantage of Terraform remote state is ensuring consistent environments. When managing multiple environments like development, testing, staging, and production, these environments must be identical to avoid unexpected issues.

With Terraform remote state:

  • It’s easier to replicate and maintain consistent environments since the same state file is used for each environment.
  • State data can be shared between different Terraform configurations. This means you can easily set up resources in one environment based on the state of another environment.
  • By keeping the state file in a remote backend, you avoid local system discrepancies affecting the state file, which contributes to a more consistent setup.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you have a Terraform configuration to set up an AWS RDS database. You can use the remote state from the production setup to replicate the same database configuration in the staging environment.

data "terraform_remote_state" "prod" {
  backend = "s3"
  config = {
    bucket = "mybucket"
    key    = "path/to/my/key"
    region = "us-west-2"
resource "aws_db_instance" "staging" {
  // Using the same instance class and engine version as production
  instance_class =
  engine_version =
  // other config...

As we can see, the Terraform remote state provides a cornerstone for effective collaboration and consistent environments when managing Infrastructure as Code. In the next section, we’ll look at how to set up and use Terraform’s remote state.

Deploying Remote State Infrastructure in AWS

It is very convenient to deploy an S3 bucket and DynamoDB table for storing Terraform Remote State using CloudFormation. Such an approach allows you not to store their deployment state in the Git repository or anywhere else:

curl -o terraform-remote-state.yaml \
aws cloudformation create-stack \
	--stack-name Terraform-Remote-State-Infrastructure \
	--template-body file://terraform-remote-state.yaml \
	--parameters \
		ParameterKey=ProjectName,ParameterValue=my-demo-project \
	--capabilities CAPABILITY_NAMED_IAM
aws cloudformation wait stack-create-complete --stack-name Terraform-Remote-State-Infrastructure

Source code repository: terraform-remote-state-infrastructure

Setting Up Terraform Remote State

Now that we understand the significance of Terraform remote state in Infrastructure as Code (IaC) practices let’s explore how to set it up. The setup consists of two main steps: configuring the backend and initializing the remote state.

Configuring the backend

The first step in setting up a Terraform remote state is to define the backend. A backend in Terraform determines how the state is loaded and how operations such as apply and plan are executed.

Terraform supports multiple backend types, including enhanced backends (like Terraform Cloud) and standard backends (like S3, Azure Blob Storage, Google Cloud Storage, etc.). For the sake of this tutorial, we’ll use AWS S3 as our backend.

Here’s a basic example of how to define the backend in your Terraform configuration:

terraform {
  backend "s3" {
    bucket = "mybucket"
    key    = "path/to/my/key"
    region = "us-west-2"

In this configuration:

  • bucket: Specifies the name of the S3 bucket.
  • key: Defines the path to the state file inside the bucket.
  • region: The AWS region where the S3 bucket is located.

Ensure the bucket exists and that Terraform has the necessary permissions to access it.

Initializing the remote state

Once you’ve defined the backend, the next step is to initialize the remote state using the terraform init command.

Running terraform init:

  • Downloads the necessary provider plugins for Terraform.
  • Sets up the backend specified in the Terraform configuration.

Here’s how you run it:

terraform init

After running terraform init, Terraform will output a message confirming the initialization of the specified backend. From this point forward, any operation you run (like terraform plan or terraform apply) will use the configured remote state.

Keep in mind:

  • Initialization should be done every time you start work on a new Terraform configuration or after checking out an existing one from version control.
  • If you ever change your backend configuration, a reinitialization is needed for Terraform to pick up the changes.

By correctly configuring the backend and initializing your Terraform setup, you can start leveraging the power of Terraform remote state in your IaC practices. In the next section, we will discuss how to work with Terraform remote state effectively.

Working with Terraform_remote_state

With the remote state setup, you can now use it in your Terraform workflows. This involves accessing state data, managing state file locking, and handling state versioning.

Accessing state data

The data in the remote state can be accessed in other Terraform configurations using the terraform_remote_state data source. This is especially useful when sharing resources or configurations between different environments.

Here’s an example where we access the ID of a subnet created in another configuration:

data "terraform_remote_state" "network" {
  backend = "s3"
  config = {
    bucket = "mybucket"
    key    = "network/terraform.tfstate"
    region = "us-west-2"
resource "aws_instance" "example" {
  subnet_id =
  // ...

In this code, the terraform_remote_state data source reads the state file located at network/terraform.tfstate in the S3 bucket mybucket, and then uses the subnet_id output value from that state in the aws_instance resource configuration.

Locking state files

When working in a team, multiple people can attempt to change the state at the same time. To prevent these conflicts, Terraform provides a locking mechanism. When a user starts a state-changing operation, Terraform locks the state file, blocking any other attempts to modify it until the lock is released.

If the backend supports it, locking is automatic. The AWS S3 backend used in our examples supports locking if a DynamoDB table is specified in the backend configuration:

terraform {
  backend "s3" {
    bucket         = "mybucket"
    key            = "path/to/my/key"
    region         = "us-west-2"
    dynamodb_table = "mytable"

With this configuration, any attempt to change the state while it’s locked will result in an error, preventing state conflicts.

State versioning

Versioning is another feature offered by some backends, including AWS S3. By enabling versioning on the S3 bucket, you can keep a history of state changes, allowing you to roll back to an earlier version if something goes wrong.

Versioning can be enabled directly from the AWS S3 console or via the AWS CLI. Once enabled, all versions of the state file are retained. Be aware, though, that versioning can increase storage usage since all versions are stored.

By effectively accessing state data, locking state files, and leveraging state versioning, you can work with Terraform remote state in a robust, conflict-free manner. The next section will highlight best practices for managing your Terraform remote state.

Best Practices for Managing Terraform Remote State

While using Terraform remote state can benefit your Infrastructure as Code (IaC) workflows, it’s important to follow some best practices to avoid common pitfalls and maximize effectiveness. Here are some key tips for managing your Terraform remote state:

  1. Separate state files: Avoid the temptation to keep all your infrastructure in a single state file. Instead, break it down based on logical separations, like different environments (prod, staging, dev) or components (network, compute, storage). This approach reduces the risk of conflicts and makes managing your infrastructure more manageable.
  2. Secure your state files: Your state files can contain sensitive information. Ensure they are stored securely, like in a private, encrypted bucket in the case of AWS S3. Make sure access to the state files is controlled and auditable.
  3. Always use remote backends: While Terraform supports storing state files locally, it’s always recommended to use a remote backend, even when working solo. This ensures your state is always accessible and not lost if your local environment is compromised.
  4. Lock your state: As mentioned earlier, state locking is crucial when working in a team. Ensure you have configured your backend correctly to support state locking. This prevents conflicts and inconsistencies.
  5. Enable versioning: If your backend supports it, always enable versioning for your state files. This allows you to roll back to a previous version if something goes wrong.
  6. Don’t manually modify state: State files should be treated as a source of truth and never manually edited. If you need to make a change, make it in your Terraform configuration and apply it.
  7. Regularly update state: The Terraform state should be updated regularly. This ensures that it accurately represents the real-time status of your infrastructure. To do this, run terraform refresh regularly.
  8. Automate where possible: Use CI/CD tools to apply your Terraform configurations. This ensures a consistent workflow and reduces the chances of manual errors.

By following these best practices, you can ensure that your usage of Terraform remote state is secure, efficient, and effective, making your Infrastructure as Code approach all the more powerful. In the next section, we’ll conclude what we’ve learned about managing Terraform remote state.

Common Challenges and Their Solutions

Like any technology, working with Terraform remote state can present some challenges. However, you can navigate these hurdles effectively and clearly understand these issues and their solutions. Here are some common challenges and their solutions:

  1. Challenge: State file conflicts
    • Solution: Always use state locking if your backend supports it. This prevents simultaneous state modification. Also, break your infrastructure into multiple state files to reduce the chances of conflicts.
  2. Challenge: State file drift
    • Solution: Drift occurs when the actual infrastructure diverges from the configuration in the state file. To manage this, regularly run terraform refresh to update your state file to reflect the real-time status of your infrastructure.
  3. Challenge: Managing sensitive data in state files
    • Solution: If your state files contain sensitive data (like passwords), ensure they are securely stored. Use backend features like encryption and access control, and consider using Terraform’s sensitive value handling to protect sensitive data.
  4. Challenge: Losing state files
    • Solution: Always use a remote backend and enable versioning if possible. This ensures your state files are safely stored and can be retrieved in case of accidental deletion or corruption.
  5. Challenge: Manual errors during apply
    • Solution: Automate your Terraform apply process with a CI/CD pipeline. This reduces manual errors and ensures a consistent and repeatable deployment process.
  6. Challenge: Difficulty debugging issues
    • Solution: Terraform provides detailed logs that can help debug issues. Set the TF_LOG environment variable to control the log level (like DEBUG or ERROR).

Remember, like any tool, mastering Terraform remote state takes practice and hands-on experience. As you navigate and overcome these challenges, you’ll be well on your way to leveraging Terraform remote state for powerful and efficient Infrastructure as Code practices. In the next section, we’ll conclude our journey into Terraform remote state.

Real-world Example: Implementing Terraform Remote State

Having explored the theoretical aspects of Terraform remote state, let’s now walk through a real-world example of setting up and using Terraform remote state. In this example, we’ll create an AWS S3 bucket and an EC2 instance, where the S3 bucket will store the remote state.

Here’s our plan:

  1. Set up the S3 bucket: This will be used as the backend for our remote state.
provider "aws" {
  region = "us-west-2"
resource "aws_s3_bucket" "terraform_state" {
  bucket = "my-terraform-state"
  acl    = "private"
  versioning {
    enabled = true

With this configuration, we’re creating a private S3 bucket in the us-west-2 region, and enabling versioning on it.

  1. Configure the backend: Next, we’ll configure the backend in our Terraform file:
terraform {
  backend "s3" {
    bucket = "my-terraform-state"
    key    = "terraform.tfstate"
    region = "us-west-2"

We’re telling Terraform to use our S3 bucket to store the state file.

  1. Initialize the backend: Once we’ve defined the backend, we can initialize it with terraform init.
  2. Create an EC2 instance: Now let’s use the remote state. For this, we’ll create an EC2 instance, the ID of which will be stored in the remote state:
resource "aws_instance" "example" {
  ami           = "ami-0c94855ba95c574c8"
  instance_type = "t2.micro"
  tags = {
    Name = "example-instance"
  1. Apply the configuration: We can now create our resources using terraform apply. The state will be saved in our S3 bucket.
  2. Access the remote state: Finally, we can access the remote state from another configuration:
data "terraform_remote_state" "ec2" {
  backend = "s3"
  config = {
    bucket = "my-terraform-state"
    key    = "terraform.tfstate"
    region = "us-west-2"
output "instance_id" {
  value = data.terraform_remote_state.ec2.outputs.instance_id

This configuration will output the ID of the EC2 instance we created earlier.

And that’s it! With these steps, you’ve set up a Terraform remote state and accessed it from another configuration, mimicking a real-world scenario where you share infrastructure between different configurations or environments.


What is the difference between remote state and local state Terraform?

In Terraform, the local state refers to the state data stored on your local machine, while the remote state is stored on a remote data store like AWS S3 or Terraform Cloud. The local state is a simpler approach, suitable for small, personal projects. However, it lacks features for team collaboration and state versioning. The remote state, on the other hand, allows multiple team members to access and manipulate the state data, ensures state consistency through locking mechanisms, and supports state versioning. Therefore, for most production-grade or team projects, remote state is the preferred choice.

How do you create a Terraform remote state?

To create a Terraform remote state, you first need to define a backend in your Terraform configuration. The backend is the remote location where your state data will be stored. For example, you can use an S3 bucket if you’re working with AWS. In your configuration, you would include a backend block within a terraform block and specify the backend type (e.g., “s3”) and relevant parameters like the bucket name and region. Once you’ve defined your backend, you initialize it with the terraform init command. This sets up the remote state and any subsequent terraform apply will update the state data remotely.

What are the benefits of Terraform remote state?

Terraform remote state offers several benefits, especially for teams and large-scale projects. Firstly, it allows sharing of state data among team members, facilitating collaboration on infrastructure. Secondly, it enables state locking, preventing simultaneous modifications that could lead to inconsistencies. Thirdly, when using certain backends like AWS S3, state versioning is supported, allowing you to track changes over time or revert to a previous state if necessary. Lastly, remote state promotes security, as the state file can contain sensitive information, and remote storage solutions often provide encryption and access control features.

What are the benefits of storing a Terraform state file remotely?

Storing a Terraform state file remotely provides several benefits. It enables state sharing among team members, which improves collaboration and consistency when managing infrastructure. Remote storage also facilitates state locking, preventing simultaneous modifications that could cause inconsistencies. For certain backends like AWS S3, it supports versioning, allowing tracking and reverting changes. Additionally, sensitive data in the state file are secured as remote storage solutions often offer encryption and access control measures. Storing state files remotely also means they’re not tied to local machines, reducing risks of data loss and providing better continuity and scalability for infrastructure management.

Conclusion: Mastering Terraform remote state

As we’ve seen throughout this guide, Terraform remote state is an integral part of managing your Infrastructure as Code (IaC) with Terraform. It allows you to store, version, and share your state data between configurations and team members, resulting in more consistent and collaborative workflows. Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve covered:

  1. Understanding IaC and Terraform remote state: We started by familiarizing ourselves with the concepts of IaC and the role of Terraform remote state within it.
  2. The importance of Terraform remote state: We delved into the benefits of using Terraform remote state, particularly its ability to aid collaboration and maintain consistent environments across different configurations.
  3. Setting up and using Terraform remote state: We walked through setting up a remote state, configuring the backend, initializing the remote state, and then using it within our Terraform configurations.
  4. Best practices and common challenges: We highlighted some best practices to follow when managing your remote state and discussed overcoming common challenges.
  5. Real-world example: Finally, we implemented a real-world example, setting up and using a Terraform remote state to manage an AWS S3 bucket and an EC2 instance.

Mastering Terraform remote state is a significant step forward in your Terraform journey. It lays the groundwork for managing complex, distributed systems using IaC principles. As you continue to practice and apply these concepts, you’ll find your IaC deployments becoming more efficient, consistent, and reliable.

Remember, this guide is a stepping stone to mastering Terraform remote state. There’s always more to learn, particularly as Terraform and its ecosystem continue to evolve. So, keep exploring, experimenting, and learning! Happy Terraforming!


To continue learning and exploring Terraform remote state and related concepts, here are some valuable resources that you can refer to:

  1. Terraform Official Documentation: Comprehensive guide to all things Terraform. It includes information about the language, providers, and backends.
  2. Terraform Remote State: A deep dive into the concept of Terraform remote state. It provides detailed information about how to use and manage remote states.
  3. Infrastructure as Code (IaC): A detailed explanation of the IaC concept by Martin Fowler.
  4. AWS Provider for Terraform: Detailed documentation on how to use AWS provider in your Terraform configuration.
  5. Managing Terraform State: An article by Gruntwork detailing best practices when managing Terraform state.
  6. HashiCorp Learn: A learning platform provided by the creators of Terraform, containing many tutorials and guides about various Terraform topics.

Remember, the best way to learn is by doing. So, as you read through these resources, try to implement the concepts and examples in your projects. This will give you a much better understanding of Terraform remote state and how to use it effectively in your IaC workflows.