"2015_12_06_Visé_135942" by "Norbert Schnitzler" on Flickr

Idea for Reusable “Custom Data” templates across multiple modules with Terraform

A few posts ago I wrote about building Windows virtual machines with Terraform, and a couple of days ago, “YoureInHell” on Twitter reached out and asked what advice I’d give about having several different terraform modules use the same basic build of custom data.

They’re trying to avoid putting the same template file into several repos (I suspect so that one team can manage the “custom-data”, “user-data” or “cloud-init” files, and another can manage the deployment terraform files), and asked if I had any suggestions.

I had three ideas.

Using a New Module

This was my initial thought; create a new module called something like “Standard Build File”, and this build file contains just the following terraform file, and a template file called “build.tmpl”.

variable "someKey" {
  default = "someVar"
}

variable "hostName" {
  default = "hostName"
}

variable "unsetVar" {}

output "template" {
  value = templatefile("build.tmpl",
    {
      someKey  = var.someKey
      hostName = var.hostName
      unsetVar = var.unsetVar
    }
  )
}

Now, in your calling module, you can do:

module "buildTemplate" {
  source   = "git::https://git.example.net/buildTemplate.git?ref=latestLive"
  # See https://www.terraform.io/docs/language/modules/sources.html
  #   for more details on how to specify the source of this module
  unsetVar = "Set To This String"
}

output "RenderedTemplate" {
  value = module.buildTemplate.template
}

And that means that you can use the module.buildTemplate.template anywhere you’d normally specify your templateFile, and get a consistent, yet customizable template (and note, because I specified a particular tag, you can use that to move to the “current latest” or “the version we released into live on YYYY-MM-DD” by using a tag, or a commit ref.)

Now, the downside to this is that you’ve now got a whole separate module for creating your instances that needs to be maintained. What are our other options?

Git Submodules for your template

I use Git Submodules a LOT for my code. It’s a bit easy to get into a state with them, particularly if you’re not great at keeping on top of them, but… if you are OK with them, you’d create a repo, again, let’s use “https://git.example.net/buildTemplate.git” as our git repo, and put your template in there. In your terraform git repo, you’d run this command: git submodule add https://git.example.net/buildTemplate.git and this would add a directory to your repo called “buildTemplate” that you can use your templatefile function in Terraform against (like this: templatefile("buildTemplate/build.tmpl", {someVar="var"})).

Now, this means that you’ve effectively got two git repos in one tree, and if any changes occur in your submodule repo, you’d need to do git checkout main ; git pull to get the latest updates from your main branch, and when you check it out initially on another machine, you’ll need to do git clone https://git.example.net/terraform --recurse-submodules to get the submodules populated at the same time.

A benefit to this is that because it’s “inline” with the rest of your tree, if you need to make any changes to this template, it’s clearly where it’s supposed to be in your tree, you just need to remember about the submodule when it comes to making PRs and suchforth.

How about that third idea?

Keep it simple, stupid 😁

Why bother with submodules, or modules from a git repo? Terraform can be quite easy to over complicate… so why not create all your terraform files in something like this structure:

project\build.tmpl
project\web_servers\main.tf
project\logic_servers\main.tf
project\database_servers\main.tf

And then in each of your terraform files (web_servers, logic_servers and database_servers) just reference the file in your project root, like this: templatefile("../build.tmpl", {someVar="var"})

The downside to this is that you can’t as easily farm off the control of that build script to another team, and they’d be making (change|pull|merge) requests against the same repo as you… but then again, isn’t that the idea for functional teams? 😃

Featured image is “2015_12_06_Visé_135942” by “Norbert Schnitzler” on Flickr and is released under a CC-BY-SA license.

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