Terraform’s Imperfections: Why DevOps Teams Are Considering Other Options

The mass migration to the cloud significantly ramped up the burden on DevOps teams. Today’s sprawling hybrid networks and constantly shifting user needs require DevOps personnel to manage and maintain vast cloud infrastructure. They have to deliver high server availability, respond quickly to emerging issues, and ensure that all developers have the environments they need to complete their work.

As a result of this situation, they’ve had to adapt their workflows and enhance their toolkits rapidly. One of the main challenges that DevOps faced was the impossibility of meeting user and business demands with manual processes. Manual workflows were costly, unwieldy, and prone to error, and the risk of errors became exponentially more serious as cloud networks mushroomed.

Infrastructure as Code, or IaC, came as the answer to their prayers. It delivers the automation tools and solutions they need to manage the skyrocketing burden of network provisioning and configuration. There are many forms of IaC to choose from, with Hashicorp’s Terraform and Terraform Cloud serving as one of the most popular and widely used platforms.

Terraform has many advantages, including version control capabilities, provider agnosticism, and modularity, making configuring and provisioning new environments far more scalable and efficient. However, it’s not a magic bullet, with drawbacks that are leading some DevOps teams to look for alternatives to Terraform Cloud.

Terraform’s Imperfections: Why DevOps Teams Are Considering Other Options

Security Concerns

Terraform relies on state files, which contain sensitive information including resource IDs, IP addresses, and security group configurations. There’s no built-in RBAC for Terraform, so you’ll need to invest time and effort to establish and update robust user access permissions. This significantly adds to the complexity and resources required for provisioning.

Another security issue is that of secrets management. Terraform variables, which speed up and improve the scalability of processes, can hold sensitive user data as values within reusable modules. You’ll need to enforce strict data privacy procedures that set sensitive data as secret so that it won’t be exposed in your user-executing flows.

There’s also a risk that Terraform environments can be left to languish once developers are finished with them, offering a back entrance for hackers. Setting scheduled dates for deployment or destruction, and/or creating ephemeral environments that are programmed to auto-destruct after a certain time, can help resolve this issue.

Configuration Drift

Drift occurs when the actual state of the provisioned infrastructure deviates from its intended state, potentially causing inconsistencies and operational issues. Unfortunately, the struggle to manage state files makes it easy for unintended changes to creep in and cause drift, especially when many developers are working in the same environment.

While Terraform configures infrastructure to match the desired state, it doesn’t include any mechanisms for detecting or correcting drift. You’ll need to implement additional tooling and processes to spot and reconcile configuration drift, such as custom scripts, third-party tools, or integrated configuration management systems.

Once again, adding extra tools and solutions makes the entire provisioning process more complicated and time-consuming to manage.

Multi Environment Support

While Terraform can be an excellent solution to provisioning environments, problems can start to pile up when you try to use it for different types of environments. Each environment, such as development, staging, and production, may require distinct settings for resources like instance types, network configurations, or database configurations.

Keeping track of these variations while maintaining consistency can lead to confusion and errors. Manually replicating configurations for different types of environments can lead to teams using precise 1:1 duplicates of production for dev and staging, which in turn can cause over-provisioning and drive up costs.

Platforms that support Terraform variables can help DevOps teams overcome this hurdle. They make it possible to select predefined variable values from a dropdown list and add or remove them to different scopes.

Limited Abstraction

Terraform Cloud’s provider model tightly integrates with specific cloud providers, meaning that it depends heavily on the APIs, features, and limitations of each provider. As a result, DevOps teams might be restricted from freely choosing the best framework for their needs or running their own custom flows.

Additionally, although Terraform supports several different providers, it has limited abstraction capabilities. This leads to dependencies on provider-specific features and limitations and creates vendor lock-in, limiting portability and interoperability across different cloud environments.

Terraform’s abstraction limitations also hinder its ability to provide a unified interface. To interact with resources or services that Terraform doesn’t support, users need to incorporate custom scripts or work directly with provider-specific APIs. The resulting increased cognitive load makes it more difficult to maintain and scale configurations over time, especially in complex or mixed environments.

Steep Learning Curve

Although experienced Terraform users appreciate the many benefits it brings, they first have to overcome the steep learning curve.

Terraform uses domain-specific language (DSL) called HashiCorp Configuration Language (HCL). Learning HCL and understanding concepts such as providers, resources, and modules can be challenging for newcomers.

The complexities of managing infrastructure using Terraform, including state management and provider integrations, contribute to this challenge. The poor ease of use and steep onboarding ramp can slow down initial productivity and serve as a deterrence for new users.

DevOps Exploring Their Options

There’s no doubt that Terraform brought a new level of automation and control over infrastructure configuration and maintenance. However, it also presents several disadvantages. Newer IaC solutions are observing these deficiencies, presenting DevOps teams with more options for streamlining and simplifying infrastructure management. There’s no reason to stick with Terraform solely by default, and every incentive to carefully consider the range of possibilities.