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AWS CloudFormation vs Terraform: What are the differences?

Introduction: In this article, we will compare AWS CloudFormation and Terraform, two widely used infrastructure as code (IaC) tools. Both tools enable users to define and provision infrastructure resources in a declarative manner, but there are key differences between them that set them apart.

  1. Language and Syntax: AWS CloudFormation uses JSON or YAML templates to define infrastructure resources and their dependencies. On the other hand, Terraform uses its own domain-specific language (HCL) to define infrastructure as code. While both are human-readable, HCL provides a more concise and expressive syntax compared to JSON or YAML.

  2. Provider Support: AWS CloudFormation is an AWS-native tool and exclusively supports resources provided by AWS services. In contrast, Terraform is cloud-agnostic and supports a wide range of cloud providers such as AWS, Azure, Google Cloud Platform, and many others. This makes Terraform a more flexible choice when working with a multi-cloud or hybrid cloud environment.

  3. State Management: AWS CloudFormation manages the state of resources provisioned by storing it within the AWS service itself. This simplifies state management for users as there is no need to handle the state externally. On the other hand, Terraform uses a separate backend such as a database or a file system to store its state. This allows for more control and flexibility over state management but requires additional configuration and handling.

  4. Resource Lifecycle Management: AWS CloudFormation provides built-in functionality for managing the lifecycle of resources, including creating, updating, and deleting resources. Terraform, on the other hand, requires users to explicitly define resource lifecycles using its own syntax. While this provides more fine-grained control over resource management, it also adds complexity to the configuration.

  5. Community and Ecosystem: AWS CloudFormation has a large community and an extensive ecosystem of pre-built templates and resources available for use. This makes it easy to find and leverage existing templates and configurations. Terraform also has a growing community and ecosystem, but it may not have the same breadth and depth as AWS CloudFormation in terms of ready-to-use resources.

  6. Integration with External Tools: Due to its cloud-agnostic nature, Terraform can integrate with various external tools and providers, enabling it to be part of a larger toolchain or workflow. This flexibility allows users to integrate Terraform with Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines, configuration management tools, and other infrastructure automation tools. AWS CloudFormation, being AWS-native, is tightly integrated with other AWS services, making it easier to use within the AWS ecosystem.

In Summary, AWS CloudFormation and Terraform are both powerful infrastructure as code tools, but they have distinct differences. AWS CloudFormation is tightly integrated with AWS services and simplifies state management, while Terraform offers a more flexible and cloud-agnostic approach with support for multiple cloud providers and a greater degree of control. Your choice between the two will depend on your specific requirements and the cloud environment you are working with.

Decisions about AWS CloudFormation and Terraform
Kirill Shirinkin
Cloud and DevOps Consultant at mkdev | 3 upvotes 路 146.9K views

Ok, so first - AWS Copilot is CloudFormation under the hood, but the way it works results in you not thinking about CFN anymore. AWS found the right balance with Copilot - it's insanely simple to setup production-ready multi-account environment with many services inside, with CI/CD out of the box etc etc. It's pretty new, but even now it was enough to launch Transcripto, which uses may be a dozen of different AWS services, all bound together by Copilot.

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Because Pulumi uses real programming languages, you can actually write abstractions for your infrastructure code, which is incredibly empowering. You still 'describe' your desired state, but by having a programming language at your fingers, you can factor out patterns, and package it up for easier consumption.

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Sergey Ivanov

We use Terraform to manage AWS cloud environment for the project. It is pretty complex, largely static, security-focused, and constantly evolving.

Terraform provides descriptive (declarative) way of defining the target configuration, where it can work out the dependencies between configuration elements and apply differences without re-provisioning the entire cloud stack.


Terraform is vendor-neutral in a way that it is using a common configuration language (HCL) with plugins (providers) for multiple cloud and service providers.

Terraform keeps track of the previous state of the deployment and applies incremental changes, resulting in faster deployment times.

Terraform allows us to share reusable modules between projects. We have built an impressive library of modules internally, which makes it very easy to assemble a new project from pre-fabricated building blocks.


Software is imperfect, and Terraform is no exception. Occasionally we hit annoying bugs that we have to work around. The interaction with any underlying APIs is encapsulated inside 3rd party Terraform providers, and any bug fixes or new features require a provider release. Some providers have very poor coverage of the underlying APIs.

Terraform is not great for managing highly dynamic parts of cloud environments. That part is better delegated to other tools or scripts.

Terraform state may go out of sync with the target environment or with the source configuration, which often results in painful reconciliation.

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I personally am not a huge fan of vendor lock in for multiple reasons:

  • I've seen cost saving moves to the cloud end up costing a fortune and trapping companies due to over utilization of cloud specific features.
  • I've seen S3 failures nearly take down half the internet.
  • I've seen companies get stuck in the cloud because they aren't built cloud agnostic.

I choose to use terraform for my cloud provisioning for these reasons:

  • It's cloud agnostic so I can use it no matter where I am.
  • It isn't difficult to use and uses a relatively easy to read language.
  • It tests infrastructure before running it, and enables me to see and keep changes up to date.
  • It runs from the same CLI I do most of my CM work from.
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Context: I wanted to create an end to end IoT data pipeline simulation in Google Cloud IoT Core and other GCP services. I never touched Terraform meaningfully until working on this project, and it's one of the best explorations in my development career. The documentation and syntax is incredibly human-readable and friendly. I'm used to building infrastructure through the google apis via Python , but I'm so glad past Sung did not make that decision. I was tempted to use Google Cloud Deployment Manager, but the templates were a bit convoluted by first impression. I'm glad past Sung did not make this decision either.

Solution: Leveraging Google Cloud Build Google Cloud Run Google Cloud Bigtable Google BigQuery Google Cloud Storage Google Compute Engine along with some other fun tools, I can deploy over 40 GCP resources using Terraform!

Check Out My Architecture: CLICK ME

Check out the GitHub repo attached

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Pros of AWS CloudFormation
Pros of Terraform
  • 43
    Automates infrastructure deployments
  • 21
    Declarative infrastructure and deployment
  • 13
    No more clicking around
  • 3
    Any Operative System you want
  • 3
  • 3
    Infrastructure as code
  • 1
    CDK makes it truly infrastructure-as-code
  • 1
    Automates Infrastructure Deployment
  • 0
  • 122
    Infrastructure as code
  • 73
    Declarative syntax
  • 45
  • 28
  • 24
  • 8
  • 8
    Cloud agnostic
  • 6
    It's like coding your infrastructure in simple English
  • 6
    Immutable infrastructure
  • 5
    Platform agnostic
  • 4
  • 4
  • 4
    Automates infrastructure deployments
  • 4
  • 2
  • 2
    Scales to hundreds of hosts

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Cons of AWS CloudFormation
Cons of Terraform
  • 4
  • 2
    No RBAC and policies in templates
  • 1
    Doesn't have full support to GKE

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What is AWS CloudFormation?

You can use AWS CloudFormation鈥檚 sample templates or create your own templates to describe the AWS resources, and any associated dependencies or runtime parameters, required to run your application. You don鈥檛 need to figure out the order in which AWS services need to be provisioned or the subtleties of how to make those dependencies work.

What is Terraform?

With Terraform, you describe your complete infrastructure as code, even as it spans multiple service providers. Your servers may come from AWS, your DNS may come from CloudFlare, and your database may come from Heroku. Terraform will build all these resources across all these providers in parallel.

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What companies use AWS CloudFormation?
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What are some alternatives to AWS CloudFormation and Terraform?
AWS CodeDeploy
AWS CodeDeploy is a service that automates code deployments to Amazon EC2 instances. AWS CodeDeploy makes it easier for you to rapidly release new features, helps you avoid downtime during deployment, and handles the complexity of updating your applications.
Chef enables you to manage and scale cloud infrastructure with no downtime or interruptions. Freely move applications and configurations from one cloud to another. Chef is integrated with all major cloud providers including Amazon EC2, VMWare, IBM Smartcloud, Rackspace, OpenStack, Windows Azure, HP Cloud, Google Compute Engine, Joyent Cloud and others.
AWS Elastic Beanstalk
Once you upload your application, Elastic Beanstalk automatically handles the deployment details of capacity provisioning, load balancing, auto-scaling, and application health monitoring.
AWS Config
AWS Config is a fully managed service that provides you with an AWS resource inventory, configuration history, and configuration change notifications to enable security and governance. With AWS Config you can discover existing AWS resources, export a complete inventory of your AWS resources with all configuration details, and determine how a resource was configured at any point in time. These capabilities enable compliance auditing, security analysis, resource change tracking, and troubleshooting.
Azure Resource Manager
It is the deployment and management service for Azure. It provides a management layer that enables you to create, update, and delete resources in your Azure subscription. You use management features, like access control, locks, and tags, to secure and organize your resources after deployment.
See all alternatives