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Terraform Import: What It Is and How to Use It
Latest   Machine Learning

Terraform Import: What It Is and How to Use It

Last Updated on August 7, 2023 by Editorial Team

Author(s): Kelvin Esosa

Originally published on Towards AI.

Discover the power of Terraform Import for managing your cloud infrastructure. Our comprehensive guide explores what Terraform Import is, why it’s essential, and a detailed walkthrough on how to use it. Equip yourself to seamlessly incorporate existing resources into your Terraform-managed ecosystem. Dive into the world of efficient, consistent, and error-free Infrastructure as Code today!

Image by neo tam from Pixabay

You’ve probably heard of Terraform and maybe even used it in your projects. But have you ever taken a deep dive into one of its most powerful features, Terraform Import? By the end of this article, you’ll know what it is and how to use it effectively. Let’s get started, shall we?

What is Terraform?

For the uninitiated, Terraform is a popular open-source Infrastructure as Code (IaC) software tool created by HashiCorp. It allows developers to define and provide data center infrastructure using a declarative configuration language. This essentially means that you can manage your entire cloud service setup using code, which brings us to a nifty little feature — the Terraform Import.

Understanding Terraform Import

Terraform Import is a command within the Terraform ecosystem that is used to bring existing cloud resources under Terraform’s management. In simpler terms, it’s a method to tell Terraform about the infrastructure components that were created outside of Terraform so it can manage those resources moving forward.

Here’s how it works:

Every cloud resource that Terraform manages is maintained in Terraform’s ‘state’. This state keeps track of the metadata and configurations of the resources. When you have infrastructure that was created outside of Terraform, it isn’t part of Terraform’s state. Therefore, Terraform isn’t aware of its existence and cannot manage it.

This is where the ‘import’ command comes in. Terraform Import allows you to import the ‘state’ of existing infrastructure components into Terraform. By doing this, you’re essentially telling Terraform, “Hey, these components exist, and I want you to manage them.”

Theterraform import command is typically followed by the 'address' of the resource in your Terraform configuration and the 'ID' of the existing resource. The 'address' refers to how the resource is identified in your Terraform configuration file, while the 'ID' is the unique identifier of the existing resource in your cloud environment.

It’s important to note that Terraform Import doesn’t generate or change Terraform configuration. It only updates the state file. Therefore, you’ll need to write a corresponding configuration for the imported resource manually. This configuration must match the imported resource’s details. If there’s a mismatch, Terraform will highlight the difference when you run the terraform plan command next time, indicating that the actual state doesn't match your configuration.

So, in a nutshell, Terraform Import is a powerful tool that helps bridge the gap between existing infrastructure and Terraform management, enabling you to manage all of your resources in a consistent and efficient manner.

Why Use Terraform Import?

Terraform Import is an incredibly useful feature, especially when you’re managing complex infrastructure. Here are a few key reasons why you might want to use Terraform Import:

1. Incorporating Existing Infrastructure into Terraform: The most common reason for using Terraform Import is to bring existing cloud resources under Terraform management. If you have infrastructure that was created manually or by other means, you can import it into Terraform to enjoy the benefits of Infrastructure as Code (IaC). This is particularly useful if you’ve decided to use Terraform after already setting up your infrastructure.

2. Avoiding Downtime: Another big advantage of Terraform Import is that it allows you to bring existing infrastructure under Terraform’s management without causing downtime. If you were to recreate your infrastructure with Terraform from scratch, it would involve destroying the existing setup and recreating it, causing service interruptions. With Terraform Import, you avoid such interruptions.

3. Consistent Infrastructure Management: By using Terraform Import, you ensure consistency in managing your infrastructure. All your resources, whether they were originally created by Terraform or not, can now be managed in the same way. This simplifies processes and makes infrastructure changes more predictable.

4. Versioning and Collaboration: Once your infrastructure is managed by Terraform, you gain all the advantages that come with Infrastructure as Code. Your infrastructure setup can be version-controlled, meaning changes are tracked and can be rolled back if necessary. It also makes it easier for teams to collaborate on infrastructure setup and modifications.

5. Reducing Errors: Manually managing infrastructure, especially at scale, can lead to errors. By bringing everything under Terraform management using the import feature, you can ensure changes are made systematically and according to the defined configurations, thereby reducing the potential for human error.

Bear in mind that while Terraform Import is a powerful feature, it does require a careful approach. The process can be complex and requires precise mapping of existing resources to Terraform resources in your configuration. However, once mastered, it can be a game-changer for managing your cloud infrastructure.

Step-by-step Guide on How to Use Terraform Import

Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. How do you use Terraform Import? Here’s a simple, step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Understand the Basics of Terraform

Before diving into using Terraform Import, make sure you have a basic understanding of Terraform and how it operates. You should know about Infrastructure as Code (IaC) and be familiar with how Terraform uses a declarative configuration language to manage infrastructure.

Step 2: Install Terraform

Ensure you have the latest version of Terraform installed on your system. You can download it from the official HashiCorp downloads page. Follow the instructions relevant to your operating system.

Step 3: Setup Your Configuration File

Prepare your Terraform configuration file (*.tf). This file should correspond to the infrastructure you want to import. Make sure you declare resources in your configuration file that match the ones in your existing setup.

Step 4: Identify the Resources You Want to Import

Identify the resources you’d like to import. This can be a compute instance, a database instance, a storage bucket, etc. You’ll need the ID of each of these resources.

Step 5: Run Terraform Import

Use theterraform import command followed by the address of the resource (as declared in your Terraform configuration) and the ID of the resource you're importing. The format is terraform import [address] [id]. For example, if you're importing an AWS S3 bucket, your command might look something like this: terraform import aws_s3_bucket.bucket_name bucket-id.

Step 6: Verify the Import

After running the import command, Terraform will add the imported resource to its state file. To confirm that the import process was successful, use the terraform show command. This should display the current state, including your newly imported resource.

Step 7: Adjust and Apply Your Configuration

If needed, make any necessary changes to your Terraform configuration to align it with your infrastructure’s actual state. Once done, runterraform plan to see what changes will be applied. Finally, runterraform apply to apply the changes.

Step 8: Regularly Update Your Configuration and State

Terraform Import is a manual process, and it does not automatically track changes to your infrastructure outside of Terraform. Therefore, whenever changes occur, you should update your configuration and state manually to keep everything in sync.

Remember, these steps can vary depending on your particular use case and the specifics of your infrastructure, but they provide a good starting point for using Terraform Import.

Potential Issues and How to Solve Them

While Terraform Import is a powerful tool, it can sometimes bring its share of challenges, particularly for those new to the process. Let’s explore some potential issues and their solutions:

1. Misalignment of Configuration and Imported Resources

When you import a resource into Terraform, the configuration in your Terraform file must match the properties and settings of the imported resource. If there’s a mismatch, Terraform will indicate discrepancies when you runterraform plan.

Solution: Carefully verify the properties of your imported resources and ensure they are accurately represented in your Terraform configuration file. Using terraform plan can help identify any discrepancies that need to be addressed.

2. Difficulty with Large-Scale Infrastructure

Terraform Import works on a resource-by-resource basis. This can be time-consuming and cumbersome if you’re dealing with a large infrastructure with numerous resources.

Solution: While there’s no way around this limitation within Terraform as of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, you can consider writing scripts to automate the import process for multiple resources.

3. Terraform State Synchronization

Terraform uses a state file to track the managed resources. If you’re working in a team, maintaining a synchronized state file among team members can be challenging. Importing resources separately can cause discrepancies in the state file among team members.

Solution: Use the remote state management features offered by Terraform. With Terraform Cloud or Terraform Enterprise, the state is stored remotely and accessed by all team members, ensuring everyone is working with the latest state.

4. Manual Configuration Writing

Terraform Import doesn’t generate configuration. It only imports the state of the resource. This means you need to write the configuration manually, which can be prone to human errors.

Solution: Double-check your configurations, make use of Terraform’s robust documentation, and consider using modules to encapsulate common configuration sections. Additionally, some third-party tools can generate Terraform configuration from existing resources, but be sure to thoroughly vet these tools before use.

While Terraform Import has its challenges, many can be mitigated or managed with careful planning, thorough understanding, and consistent use of best practices. Terraform’s robust documentation and active community can be valuable resources when troubleshooting issues.


So, there you have it. Terraform Import, a game-changer in the world of Infrastructure as Code, can help you bring pre-existing infrastructure under Terraform’s management. While it may take some time to get used to, the payoff in terms of managing your infrastructure is well worth the effort. Remember, as with any technology, understanding, and practice are your best friends. So, go ahead, dive in, and start transforming your infrastructure management game! Happy Terraforming!

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