Terraform vs Ansible



In the realm of DevOps and infrastructure management, two prominent tools often surface in discussions – Terraform and Ansible. Both have earned their stripes as powerful automation tools, but they serve distinct purposes in the world of IT operations. In this article, we will explore the similarities and differences between Terraform and Ansible, offering code examples to illustrate their use cases.

Automation is a cornerstone of modern IT operations, allowing organizations to provision, configure, and manage infrastructure efficiently. Terraform and Ansible are popular choices for achieving these goals, but they have different approaches and use cases.


Terraform, developed by HashiCorp, is an infrastructure as code (IaC) tool. It focuses on defining and provisioning infrastructure resources in a declarative manner. Terraform uses a domain-specific language (DSL) to define infrastructure as code, and it maintains a state file to track the actual infrastructure in use. This approach ensures that Terraform can create, update, and destroy resources without ambiguity.


Ansible, on the other hand, is a configuration management and automation tool. It takes an imperative approach to automation, where you specify the desired state of a system and Ansible figures out how to achieve that state. Ansible uses YAML files, known as playbooks, to define tasks and configurations. It excels at tasks like configuration management, application deployment, and orchestrating complex workflows.


Before diving into the differences, let’s look at the common ground shared by Terraform and Ansible:

1. Infrastructure as Code (IaC)

Both Terraform and Ansible promote the concept of infrastructure as code, allowing you to define and manage infrastructure using code. This practice improves reproducibility, collaboration, and version control.

2. Agentless

Neither Terraform nor Ansible requires any agent or additional software to be installed on target machines. This agentless approach simplifies setup and reduces potential security concerns.

3. Large and Active Communities

Both tools have vibrant communities that contribute to extensive documentation, modules, and plugins. This support makes it easier to find solutions to common problems and share best practices.

4. Idempotence

Both Terraform and Ansible are designed to be idempotent, meaning that you can apply the same configuration or playbook repeatedly without causing unexpected side effects. In other words, running the same automation tasks multiple times should not change the system’s state once it matches the desired state.

5. Extensible

Both tools can be extended through modules (Terraform) or roles and plugins (Ansible). These extensions allow you to reuse code and configurations, making it easier to manage complex infrastructures and share best practices within your organization or the wider community.

6. Infrastructure Agnostic

Terraform and Ansible are not tied to specific cloud providers or infrastructure types. They offer support for a wide range of cloud providers (AWS, Azure, GCP, etc.) and can also manage on-premises infrastructure, making them versatile choices for hybrid or multi-cloud environments.

7. Version Control Integration

Both Terraform and Ansible can be seamlessly integrated with version control systems like Git. This integration allows you to track changes to your infrastructure code and configurations over time, making it easier to collaborate with team members and roll back changes if needed.

8. Parallel Execution

Both tools support parallel execution of tasks. Terraform can create or update multiple resources concurrently, speeding up the provisioning process for large infrastructures. Ansible can also parallelize tasks across multiple hosts, making it efficient for configuration management at scale.

9. Scripting and Extensibility

While Terraform primarily focuses on infrastructure provisioning, it does offer some scripting capabilities through “null_resource” and “local-exec” provisioners. Ansible, on the other hand, provides a more extensive scripting and automation framework, making it suitable for a wide range of tasks beyond infrastructure management.

10. Community Modules and Playbooks

Both Terraform and Ansible benefit from thriving communities that contribute modules (Terraform) and playbooks (Ansible) that cover a wide range of use cases. This means you can often find pre-built configurations and automation scripts for common tasks, saving you time and effort.


Now, let’s delve into the key differences between Terraform and Ansible, with code examples to illustrate these distinctions.

1. Declarative vs. Imperative

One of the fundamental differences between the two tools is their approach to automation. Terraform is declarative, while Ansible is imperative.

Terraform Example (Declarative):

resource "aws_instance" "example" {
  ami           = "ami-0c55b159cbfafe1f0"
  instance_type = "t2.micro"

In this Terraform example, you declare the desired state by specifying the AWS instance’s properties. Terraform will ensure that the infrastructure matches this declaration.

Ansible Example (Imperative):

- name: Ensure Apache is installed
  hosts: webservers
    - name: Install Apache
      become: yes
        name: apache2
        state: present

In this Ansible playbook, you specify the steps to take to ensure Apache is installed. Ansible will execute these tasks to reach the desired state.

2. Resource Orchestration vs. Configuration Management

Terraform primarily focuses on provisioning and orchestrating cloud resources. It’s excellent for building infrastructure from scratch or scaling resources up and down. Ansible, on the other hand, excels at configuring and managing existing infrastructure.

3. State Management

Terraform maintains a state file that keeps track of the infrastructure it manages. This allows it to understand the current state and make necessary changes. Ansible does not maintain state; it checks the current state of the system every time it runs.

4. Execution Timing

Terraform: Terraform is primarily focused on provisioning and managing infrastructure resources. It is designed to be used during the initial setup and ongoing management of infrastructure. It’s less suited for configuring existing resources since its primary purpose is to ensure the desired infrastructure state.

Ansible: Ansible is well-suited for ongoing configuration management and automation of existing resources. It is often used for tasks like application deployment, software updates, and continuous configuration enforcement.

5. Learning Curve

Terraform: Terraform’s HCL (HashiCorp Configuration Language) is relatively easy to learn, especially for individuals with some programming experience. Its declarative syntax makes it accessible for defining infrastructure as code.

Ansible: Ansible’s YAML-based syntax is also straightforward and human-readable. However, Ansible playbooks might require more complex logic and conditionals, which could make them slightly more challenging for beginners.

6. Agent vs. Agentless

Terraform: Terraform is agentless, meaning it doesn’t require any agents to be installed on target machines. It communicates directly with infrastructure APIs to manage resources.

Ansible: Ansible is also agentless, but it relies on SSH or WinRM for communication with target machines. While no agent installation is required, SSH or WinRM access must be enabled on the target systems.

7. State Management

Terraform: Terraform maintains a state file that keeps track of the infrastructure it manages. This state file is essential for tracking resource dependencies and ensuring that changes are applied correctly.

Ansible: Ansible doesn’t maintain a state file. Instead, it evaluates the current state of the target systems each time a playbook is executed. This can be an advantage in certain scenarios, but it requires careful playbook design to ensure idempotence.

8. Community Modules vs. Playbooks

Terraform: Terraform’s ecosystem relies heavily on community-contributed modules available in the Terraform Registry. These modules provide pre-built configurations for various services and resources.

Ansible: Ansible’s ecosystem is centered around playbooks and roles, which allow you to define specific tasks and configurations. While there are many community-contributed roles, Ansible is often used for more customized, ad-hoc tasks compared to Terraform.

9. Use Cases

Terraform: Terraform is best suited for provisioning and managing infrastructure resources in a cloud or data center environment. It shines when creating and connecting resources such as virtual machines, networks, databases, and storage.

Ansible: Ansible excels in configuration management, application deployment, and automation of existing infrastructure. It is commonly used for tasks like software installation, system configuration, and routine maintenance.

10. Error Handling and Reporting

Terraform: Terraform provides detailed error messages and a plan preview before making changes, allowing you to review and approve changes before they are applied. It also maintains a state history for tracking changes over time.

Ansible: Ansible provides real-time feedback during playbook execution, making it easier to troubleshoot issues as they occur. However, it doesn’t maintain a historical record of changes like Terraform.


In the battle of Terraform vs. Ansible, there’s no clear winner. The choice between these two automation tools depends on your specific use case and requirements. If you need to provision and manage cloud resources with a focus on infrastructure as code, Terraform is an excellent choice. On the other hand, if you’re primarily concerned with configuration management and automation of existing infrastructure, Ansible is the tool for the job. In many real-world scenarios, a combination of both tools is used to achieve comprehensive infrastructure automation. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each tool will empower you to make the right choice for your DevOps toolkit.