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3 Apr
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Terraform State Management 101: Understanding and Optimizing State Files

Terraform state management is essential for managing infrastructure as code. Gain a thorough understanding of state management in Terraform.

Jack Dwyer

Platform Engineering + DevOps

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Overview of Terraform State Management

state being maintained Terraform State Management

Resource Tracking

IaC tools like Terraform rely on state files to track each infrastructure resource's state. This tracking is crucial for ensuring that the current configuration matches your desired state.

Change Detection and Planning

What is Terraform? Terraform uses state to detect changes in infrastructure resources and generate an execution plan for implementing these changes. The state file is pivotal for planning and orchestrating these modifications.

Idempotent Operations

Terraform's idempotent nature ensures that it only enacts necessary changes to maintain the desired state. The state file functions as the source of truth and guides Terraform in these operations.

Concurrency and Collaboration

The state file maintains resource dependencies and ensures the correct order of operations during deployment. This plays a key role when multiple team members collaborate on the same infrastructure.

State Evolution and History

The state file evolves over time, providing a historical context of your infrastructure changes. Remote state storage offers versioning and auditing capabilities for tracking alterations.

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Zeet helps you to get more from your cloud, Kubernetes, and Terraform investments and helps your engineering team become strong individual contributors through our CI/CD & deployment platform. 

Contact Zeet to learn more about how Zeet helps you get seamless cloud deployments every time, and helps your team to become a top-performing engineering team.

Understanding Terraform State Files

developers discussing Terraform State Management

The Terraform.tfstate file serves as a critical component in Terraform’s workflow. Its primary purpose is to store the current state of your infrastructure resources. Think of it as a snapshot that captures the configuration and actual state of your managed resources.

Resource Information and Dependencies

The state file contains essential information about each resource instance. This includes Resource IDs (unique identifiers), Attributes (such as IP addresses, security group rules, etc.), and Dependencies (relationships between resources). Terraform uses this data to understand the existing infrastructure and plan changes.

Metadata and Performance Optimization

Alongside resource data, the state file holds metadata. This includes resource names, tags, and other configuration details. It also encompasses the dependency graph, which illustrates how resources relate to each other. Efficient performance during planning and execution relies on accurate state representation.

Local vs. Remote State

Local State

Configuration Directory

Local state files reside in the same directory as your Terraform configuration.

  • Easy to set up, created automatically during Terraform init.
  • No need for external services.
  • Retrieving state from a local file is quick.
  • Tied to a single user or machine. 
  • Sensitive data stored locally. 
  • You must manage versions manually.

Remote State

Centralized Storage

Remote state is stored securely in a shared location (e.g., Terraform Cloud, AWS S3, Azure Blob Storage).

  • Multiple team members can work concurrently without conflicts.
  • Restrict who can read or modify the state.
  • Centralized storage prevents loss due to local machine failures.
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How Terraform Uses State

woman sitting on floor - Terraform State Management

State During Operations

Before any operation (e.g., apply, plan, destroy), Terraform performs a refresh. Refresh updates the state with the real-world state of infrastructure resources. Accurate state representation ensures precise changes during operations.

Refresh Process

Terraform syncs the state with actual resources (e.g., cloud instances, networks). Detects drift (differences between desired and actual state). Ensures that Terraform plans reflect the latest state.

Resource Binding

State binds resource instances declared in your configuration to remote objects. When Terraform creates or modifies resources, it records their identity in the state. Future configuration changes may update or delete these objects based on state.

Maximizing Engineering Efficiency

Zeet helps you to get more from your cloud, Kubernetes, and Terraform investments and helps your engineering team become strong individual contributors through our CI/CD & deployment platform. 

Contact Zeet to learn more about how Zeet help you get seamless cloud deployments every time, and helps your team to become a top-performing engineering team.

Purpose and Significance of Terraform State 

person working on Terraform State Management

Resource mapping is a key aspect of Terraform state management, as it enables Terraform to connect your configuration with real-world resources. For example, when you define a resource like aws_instance in your configuration, Terraform uses state to understand that this resource corresponds to an actual EC2 instance with a specific instance ID in AWS. Without state, Terraform would be unable to correlate your configuration to the real infrastructure.

Dependency Tracking in Terraform State Management

State keeps track of resource dependencies, ensuring that Terraform can determine the correct order of operations. For example, if you’re creating a VPC and an EC2 instance, Terraform ensures that the VPC is created before the EC2 instance. This tracking in the state is vital for managing complex infrastructure configurations effectively.

Predictable Changes in Terraform State Management

Accurate state representation in Terraform ensures predictable outcomes during operations. When you run Terraform apply, Terraform compares the state with the configuration and applies only the necessary changes. This predictability is crucial for understanding how changes will impact your infrastructure before applying them.

Infrastructure Consistency in Terraform State Management

State ensures that your infrastructure remains consistent with your configuration. If someone manually modifies resources outside of Terraform, state can help detect any discrepancies and correct them. This consistency is essential for maintaining a reliable and stable infrastructure environment.

Resource Identity in Terraform State Management

State records the identity of each remote object created by Terraform, such as EC2 instances or S3 buckets. This binding ensures that Terraform can manage the same resource consistently across runs, even as the infrastructure evolves. The tracking of resource identity is fundamental for managing infrastructure with Terraform effectively.

How to Manage Terraform State

modules connected together - Terraform State Management

Local State Management

Local state management involves creating a local state file in the same directory as your Terraform configuration files. This allows for managing the state of resources locally, making it easier to track changes and updates within a project. This method is suitable for individual projects or small teams where there is no need for remote access to the state file.

Initializing a Terraform Project

The first step in local state management is to initialize your Terraform project. This command will set up the necessary plugins and backend configurations required for your project.

Creating Resources

After initializing the project, define the infrastructure resources in your Terraform configuration file (e.g., and apply the configuration to create the resources. Terraform will then add the details of the provisioned resources in the Terraform.tfstate file.

Modifying Resources

To modify existing resources, make changes to your Terraform configuration and apply the changes. Terraform will identify any discrepancies between your desired state in your configuration and what is currently stored in the local state file and make any necessary updates.

Deleting Resources and Cleanup

To delete resources, remove them from your configuration file and apply the changes. The resources will be destroyed, and the state file will be updated to reflect the changes.

Remote State Management

Remote state management is a more robust approach suitable for team environments and production use cases. The Terraform state file is stored remotely in a shared location that all team members can access. Common choices for remote state storage include Amazon S3, Azure Blob Storage, and Terraform Cloud.

Initialize Remote State

When setting up remote state management, initialize your Terraform project as usual but specify a remote state backend in your configuration instead of using the default local state backend.

Configure Remote State Backend

In your Terraform configuration file (e.g.,, specify the backend configuration to use remote state. This will allow the state to be stored remotely, making it accessible to all team members.

Apply Changes with Remote State

Apply your Terraform configuration using the Terraform apply command. Terraform will store the state remotely in the specified backend, ensuring that all team members have access to the latest state.

Inspecting and Modifying State

While state files are JSON, manual editing is discouraged. Instead of direct file editing, use the Terraform state commands provided by Terraform. These commands help safely inspect and modify the state without risking corruption.Terraform maintains CLI compatibility even if the state format evolves, providing integration points with JSON output for external software consumption.

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Move a Resource to a Different State File

The `Terraform state mv` command is a powerful tool that enables us to move resources from one state file to another. This command also allows us to rename resources. When we run the `Terraform state mv` command, the resource is moved in the state file without affecting our configuration file. 

It's essential to ensure that our configuration aligns with the state changes, especially in collaborative environments. Always handle this command with care, particularly when working with shared state files. It's vital to remember that the move operation impacts the state but not the configuration files.

Usage Examples

  • To move a resource from one state file to another
  • To rename a resource

Terraform State Management Best Practices

man on his workin

When managing Terraform infrastructure state, there are several critical factors to consider to ensure a successful and secure deployment of your Infrastructure as Code (IaC). First and foremost, always use remote state. Local state is prone to failure, especially when collaborating within a team. With remote state and locking mechanisms in place, you can ensure smooth collaboration and avoid race conditions that can cause issues.

Implementing State Encryption for Security

State encryption is another essential component when working with Terraform infrastructure state. It is crucial to enable encryption for state files at rest and in transit. If your remote backend supports it, ensure that server-side encryption is enabled to enhance security and protect sensitive information.

Reviewing Terraform Plans Before Applying Changes

Before making any changes, reviewing Terraform plans is a vital step that should not be overlooked. By understanding the impact of your modifications on your infrastructure and state, you can avoid unexpected outcomes and ensure that changes align with your overall goals and objectives.

Versioning Configuration and Utilizing Modules

Configuration versioning and the use of modules are crucial for effective Terraform state management. Versioning your configuration ensures that you can easily rollback changes if needed in the future. Utilizing modules and versioning them allows for seamless rollbacks to previous configurations, providing flexibility and control over your infrastructure.

Leveraging Terraform Automation and Collaboration Software

To elevate your state management capabilities, consider utilizing Terraform automation and collaboration software such as Spacelift. While custom remote state backends are valuable, platforms like Spacelift take state management to the next level with automation and collaboration features that streamline processes and enhance overall efficiency. With tools like Spacelift, you can optimize your Terraform state management without the need for manual intervention or complex configurations.

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Zeet offers a comprehensive solution to optimize your cloud deployments and Terraform state management. With Zeet, you can enhance your cloud, Kubernetes, and Terraform investments to ensure seamless deployments every time. By leveraging our CI/CD and deployment platform, your engineering team can transform into strong individual contributors. Zeet supports your team in becoming a top-performing engineering powerhouse, maximizing the potential of your cloud resources. 

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