Shing Lyu

Switching Between Multiple Local Backends in Terraform

By Shing Lyu    

Disclaimer: This content reflects my personal opinions, not those of any organizations I am or have been affiliated with. Code samples are provided for illustration purposes only, use with caution and test thoroughly before deployment.

Terraform has many backend types. The local backend stores the state on the local filesystem, so it’s ideal for quick local testing. By it’s not very obvious how to have multiple local backend and state, and how to easily switch between them. One use case for this is when you deploy the same set of resources to multiple AWS regions. Let’s say we want to create two API gateways and their corresponding DNS records to two regions. We use the aws_route53_record resource to deploy them:

resource "aws_route53_record" "api" {
  name    = "${var.api_url}"
  type    = "A"
  # the rest are omitted

And we want to set var.api_url to and for Europe and US regions in two separate tfvars file.

Then if you try to apply them sequentially like so:

terraform init
terraform apply -var-file=eu.tfvars
terraform apply -var-file=us.tfvars

You’ll notice that the second apply will try to destroy your record, and replace it with an record. This is because the states are the same, and the resource name is the same between two apply attempts, so terraform think you want to destroy the existing record and create a new one. There is also a problem when you try to destroy resources. Because the resources have the same name, so if you destroy them in one region, you won’t be able to destroy then in the other one. Because terraform assumes everything is already gone.

The solution

To workaround this, you need two separate state for each region, so the resources can be tracked separately. One hacky way is the combine the TF_DATA_DIR environment variable and the local backend. By default, the terraform data are stored in the local folder called .terraform. Using TF_DATA_DIR we can specify where to store the data. So theoretically we can do the following:

TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-eu terraform init
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-us terraform init

to create two separate environment in the .terraform-eu and .terraform-us folder to hold our separate states. But this setup won’t work as we expected because by default terraform stores the state in a file terraform.tfstate outside of the .terraform-<region> folders, in your project root.

Therefore we need to specify the local backend in our .tf file, which will force the terrafrom state to be saved in the TF_DATA_DIR folder. Create a file named and copy paste the following into it:

terraform {
  backend "local" {}

Then if you run TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-eu terraform init, the state file will be created at ./.terraform-eu/terraform.tfstate.

So a complete workflow will be like

# Apply the EU configurations
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-eu terraform init
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-eu terraform plan -var-file=eu.tfvars -out eu.plan
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-eu terraform apply eu.plan

# Create a separate US state and apply it independently from EU
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-us terraform init
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-us terraform plan -var-file=us.tfvars -out us.plan
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-us terraform apply us.plan

# Destroy will also work independently
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-eu terraform destroy -var-file=eu.tfvars
TF_DATA_DIR=.terraform-us terraform destroy -var-file=us.tfvars

The built-in workspace

There is a less hacky way of doing this. Terraform has a built-in “workspace” feature. By running

terraform init
terraform workspace new eu

It will create a workspace named eu, which is tracks its state separately from other workspaces. So you can achieve the same behavior as above using the following command:

terraform init

terraform workspace new eu  # Switched to workspace eu directly
terraform plan -var-file=eu.tfvars -out eu.plan
terraform apply eu.plan

terraform workspace new us
terraform plan -var-file=us.tfvars -out us.plan
terraform apply us.plan

terraform workspace select eu  # Switch back to workspace eu
terraform destroy -var-file=eu.tfvars

terraform workspace select us
terraform destroy -var-file=us.tfvars

The workspaces are stored in terraform.tfstate.d/<workspace_name>, similar to what we’ve done using TF_DATA_DIR.


Terraform resources are tracked using the states, if you want to keep track of two separate deployments (e.g. same setup for different regions), you need separate states to avoid problems. Terraform supplies a built-in way to create independent state environments (i.e. workspace). But you can also achieve the same goal using the TF_DATA_DIR environment variable.

So when do you need to use the TF_DATA_DIR hack instead of the built-in workspace? One scenario is when you use CI pipelines. You might create two CI pipeline for deploying to EU and US. Your CI stages may run in isolated environment so their state will not conflict. Creating workspaces inside those CI stages will just add extra complexity. If you are only testing it locally occasionally, you can apply the TF_DATA_DIR trick locally and keep your CI script simple.

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