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28 Apr
min read

Terraform vs Ansible: Similarities, Differences, and Use Cases

Terraform vs Ansible. Which tool is best suited for your automation needs in this comparison guide. Explore key features and use cases.

Jack Dwyer

Platform Engineering + DevOps

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What are IaC Tools?

use cases and features - Terraform vs Ansible

What is Terraform and IaC Tools? IaC tools are software utilities that help in implementing Infrastructure as Code. IaC enables managing and provisioning infrastructure through machine-readable definition files rather than hardware configuration or interactive configuration tools. IaC tools automate the process of setting up, modifying, and maintaining the IT infrastructure. They are the key to efficient infrastructure management, enabling businesses to deliver stable environments rapidly and at scale.

1. Configuration Management Tools

Configuration management tools are a type of IaC tool that focuses on installing and managing software on existing servers. These tools enable the automation of configuration management tasks, making it easier to ensure that all servers in an environment are consistently configured. Examples of Configuration Management Tools include Puppet, Chef, Ansible, and SaltStack.

2. Server Templating Tools

Server templating tools allow for the creation of reusable “templates” that define a server’s configuration. This makes it easy to spin up new servers that are identically configured to a defined standard. Examples of server templating tools include Docker, Vagrant, and Packer.

3. Orchestration Tools

Orchestration Tools manage the interconnections and interactions between different parts of an infrastructure. These tools are crucial for managing complex environments with multiple interconnected components. Examples of orchestration tools include Kubernetes, Docker Swarm, and Red Hat OpenShift.

4. Provisioning Tools

Provisioning tools focus on the initial setup of servers and other infrastructure components. These tools automate the process of provisioning new infrastructure, making it faster and more reliable. Examples of provisioning tools include Terraform, AWS CloudFormation, and Google Cloud Deployment Manager.

Now, Let's Dive Into Terraform and Ansible.

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What is Terraform?

coding screen on laptop - Terraform vs Ansible

HashiCorp Terraform is an infrastructure as code tool that lets you define both cloud and on-prem resources in human-readable configuration files that you can version, reuse, and share. You can then use a consistent workflow to provision and manage all of your infrastructure throughout its lifecycle. Terraform can manage low-level components like compute, storage, and networking resources, as well as high-level components like DNS entries and SaaS features.

Key features of Terraform

State management

Terraform tracks resources and their configuration in a state file.

Declarative code

Users describe the desired state of their infrastructure, and Terraform manages it

Widely adopted

Terraform supports over 3k providers.

Declarative language

You can divide your infrastructure into multiple reusable modules

Use Cases

Multi-Cloud Deployment

Provisioning infrastructure across multiple clouds increases fault-tolerance, allowing for more graceful recovery from cloud provider outages. Multi-cloud deployments add complexity because each provider has its own interfaces, tools, and workflows. Terraform lets you use the same workflow to manage multiple providers and handle cross-cloud dependencies. This simplifies management and orchestration for large-scale, multi-cloud infrastructures.

Application Infrastructure Deployment, Scaling, and Monitoring Tools

You can use Terraform to efficiently deploy, release, scale, and monitor infrastructure for multi-tier applications. N-tier application architecture lets you scale application components independently and provides a separation of concerns. 

An application could consist of a pool of web servers that use a database tier, with additional tiers for API servers, caching servers, and routing meshes. Terraform allows you to manage the resources in each tier together, and automatically handles dependencies between tiers. For example, Terraform will deploy a database tier before provisioning the web servers that depend on it.

Self-Service Clusters

At a large organization, your centralized operations team may get many repetitive infrastructure requests. You can use Terraform to build a "self-serve" infrastructure model that lets product teams manage their own infrastructure independently. 

You can create and use Terraform modules that codify the standards for deploying and managing services in your organization, allowing teams to efficiently deploy services in compliance with your organization’s practices. HCP Terraform can also integrate with ticketing systems like ServiceNow to automatically generate new infrastructure requests.

Policy Compliance and Management

Terraform can help you enforce policies on the types of resources teams can provision and use. Ticket-based review processes are a bottleneck that can slow down development. Instead, you can use Sentinel, a policy-as-code framework, to automatically enforce compliance and governance policies before Terraform makes infrastructure changes. Sentinel policies are available in Terraform Enterprise and HCP Terraform.

PaaS Application Setup

Platform as a Service (PaaS) vendors like Heroku allow you to create web applications and attach add-ons, such as databases or email providers. Heroku can elastically scale the number of dynos or workers, but most non-trivial applications need many add-ons and external services. You can use Terraform to codify the setup required for a Heroku application, configure a DNSimple to set a CNAME, and set up Cloudflare as a Content Delivery Network (CDN) for the app. Terraform can quickly and consistently do all of this without a web interface.

Software Defined Networking

Terraform can interact with Software Defined Networks (SDNs) to automatically configure the network according to the needs of the applications running in it. This lets you move from a ticket-based workflow to an automated one, reducing deployment times.

For example, when a service registers with HashiCorp Consul, Consul-Terraform-Sync can automatically generate Terraform configuration to expose appropriate ports and adjust network settings for any SDN that has an associated Terraform provider. Network Infrastructure Automation (NIA) allows you to safely approve the changes that your applications require without having to manually translate tickets from developers into the changes you think their applications need.


Kubernetes is an open-source workload scheduler for containerized applications. Terraform lets you both deploy a Kubernetes cluster and manage its resources (e.g., pods, deployments, services, etc.). You can also use the Kubernetes Operator for Terraform to manage cloud and on-prem infrastructure through a Kubernetes Custom Resource Definition (CRD) and HCP Terraform.

Parallel Environments

You may have staging or QA environments that you use to test new applications before releasing them in production. As the production environment grows larger and more complex, it can be increasingly difficult to maintain an up-to-date environment for each stage of the development process. Terraform lets you rapidly spin up and decommission infrastructure for development, test, QA, and production. Using Terraform to create disposable environments as needed is more cost-efficient than maintaining each one indefinitely.

Software Demos

You can use Terraform to create, provision, and bootstrap a demo on various cloud providers. This lets end users easily try the software on their own infrastructure and even enables them to adjust parameters like cluster size to more rigorously test tools at any scale

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What is Ansible?

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Ansible is a software tool designed for cross-platform automation and orchestration at scale. Written in Python and backed by RedHat and a loyal open-source community, it is a command-line IT automation application widely used for configuration management, infrastructure provisioning, and application deployment use cases.

Key features of Ansible


A popular, simple data format that is easy for humans to understand.


Reusable standalone scripts that perform a specific task


A playbook is a YAML file that expresses configurations, deployments, and Orchestration in Ansible. They contain one or multiple plays.


Subset within a playbook. Defines a set of tasks to run on a specific host or group of hosts.


All the machines you use with Ansible are listed in a single simple file, together with their IP addresses, databases, servers, and other details.


Redistributable units of organization that make it easier for users to share automation code.

Use cases

Configuration Management

Ansible can be used to automate the configuration of servers and network devices, ensuring that systems are set up and maintained according to a defined and consistent configuration. This helps in avoiding configuration drift and maintaining system stability.

Software Deployment

Automate the deployment and installation of software and applications across multiple servers or devices. This includes everything from web servers and databases to custom applications and updates.

Server Provisioning

Quickly provision new servers or virtual machines in cloud environments or on-premises data centers. Ansible can automate the entire process, from creating virtual machines to configuring them.

Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD)

Ansible can be integrated into CI/CD pipelines to automate the building, testing, and deployment of applications. It ensures consistency and repeatability in the deployment process.

Container Orchestration

Ansible can manage and orchestrate container platforms like Docker and Kubernetes, helping you deploy, manage, and scale containerized applications.

Security and Compliance Automation

Implement security policies and compliance standards across your infrastructure by using Ansible to enforce security configurations, scan for vulnerabilities, and look over system settings.

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Terraform vs Ansible Similarities

man understanding Terraform vs Ansible

At a high level, Terraform and Ansible share commonalities in their automation capabilities through different stages of the infrastructure lifecycle. Both tools are adept at provisioning new cloud infrastructure and configuring application components as needed. They are versatile across various cloud providers and platforms, thanks to their ability to leverage cloud provider APIs and SSH for configuration tasks. 

Terraform and Ansible also stand out for their agentless nature, enabling remote command execution on virtual machines without necessitating agent deployment. Both tools operate in a masterless manner, eliminating the need for a separate infrastructure to manage the state information. Notably, Terraform and Ansible boast robust community support and comprehensive documentation, further solidifying their positions as leading automation tools for the infrastructure domain.

Terraform vs Ansible Differences

powerful source - Terraform vs Ansible

Orchestration vs. Configuration Management

Both Terraform and Ansible can orchestrate and provision infrastructure. Terraform is more comprehensive in managing infrastructure, while Ansible excels in configuration management. Terraform is best suited for Day 0 activities like infrastructure creation, while Ansible is ideal for Day 1 activities and beyond.

Declarative vs. Procedural Language

Terraform uses declarative HCL to define infrastructure as code, allowing for the efficient management of dependencies. In contrast, Ansible uses procedural YAML scripts that execute sequentially, enabling detailed task management.

Mutable vs. Immutable Infrastructure

Terraform is adept at handling immutable infrastructure through provisioning new resources and deprovisioning older ones. Ansible, on the other hand, supports infrastructure immutability through VM image creation but requires additional effort to maintain additional images.

State Management

Terraform maintains state files to track infrastructure configuration changes and lifecycle, providing a clear overview of infrastructure components and their attributes. In contrast, Ansible lacks native state management as it focuses on configuration management and automatic execution of changes.

Configuration Drift

Configuration drift refers to discrepancies between desired and actual configuration states. Terraform relies on stored state files to manage and detect drift, emphasizing a declarative approach to infrastructure as code. Ansible, on the other hand, uses idempotent tasks and continuous execution without persistent infrastructure states to mitigate drift.

When Should You Not Use Terraform or Ansible?

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Using Both Terraform and Ansible Together

In some cases, it may be better to use both Terraform and Ansible together rather than choosing one over the other. While Terraform excels in orchestrating infrastructure across multiple cloud platforms, Ansible is great at handling provisioning and configuration management. By combining these two tools, you can enjoy the benefits of both.

When to Avoid Terraform or Ansible

When considering whether to use Terraform or Ansible, it's essential to understand when you should avoid each tool. Avoid using Ansible if configuration drift is a concern for you. On the other hand, if you are primarily using images to provision VMs, Terraform may not be the best choice, as it lacks the capability to modify images directly. In such scenarios, you may require multiple images to accommodate different server types, resulting in increased storage needs.

Choosing Between Terraform and Ansible

The decision between Terraform and Ansible ultimately depends on your specific needs and priorities. If you prioritize user-friendliness, scheduling capabilities, and Docker integration, Terraform may be the better option for you. If you value security, ACL functionality, and compatibility with traditional automation frameworks, Ansible could be the more suitable choice. The "better" tool is the one that aligns best with your unique requirements and objectives.

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I believe that Zeet can help your engineering team get more from their cloud, Kubernetes, and Terraform investments, providing them the support they need. Zeus can help your team to become strong individual contributors through their CI/CD & deployment platform, providing them with the tools they need to succeed. 

Contact Zeet to learn more about how they can help your company get seamless cloud deployments every time. This platform can help your team become a top-performing engineering team, ensuring that they are always reaching their highest potential.

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