Terraform: Understanding State and State Files (with Examples)

Updated: February 4, 2024 By: Guest Contributor Post a comment

Mastering Terraform requires understanding its core concepts, and among them, the state and state files hold a pivotal role. This guide aims to demystify the nuances of Terraform’s state management and how state files work, interspersed with practical examples to solidify your knowledge. By the end of this tutorial, you’ll have a comprehensive understanding of why state is crucial in Terraform and how to effectively manage it.

What is Terraform State?

Terraform state is a vital mechanism that records metadata about your infrastructure. This information includes not just the configurations you’ve written but also identifiers, dependencies, and other relevant details of the resources that Terraform manages. Essentially, the state is a snapshot of your infrastructure at a given point in time, helping Terraform predict and execute changes efficiently.

Why is Terraform State Important?

Understanding the significance of the state in Terraform unveils several benefits:

  • Predictability: The state file acts as a source of truth, allowing Terraform to calculate differences between the actual infrastructure and the desired state, leading to predictable outcomes.
  • Dependability: It tracks dependencies between resources, ensuring that Terraform applies changes in a safe and correct order.
  • Performance: By storing the current state of your infrastructure, Terraform can perform minimal updates, optimizing performance.

Exploring Terraform State Files

Terraform state is stored in state files with a default name of terraform.tfstate. These files are written in JSON format, making them both human-readable and machine-parseable. However, directly editing these files is highly discouraged as it can lead to mismatches between your infrastructure and state, leading to potential issues.

Let’s inspect a basic state file snippet:

  "version": 4,
  "terraform_version": "0.12.29",
  "serial": 1,
  "lineage": "b8a0399f-2b52",
  "outputs": {},
  "resources": [
      "mode": "managed",
      "type": "aws_instance",
      "name": "web",
      "provider": "provider[\"registry.terraform.io/hashicorp/aws\"]",
      "instances": [
          "schema_version": 0,
          "attributes": {
            "id": "i-0a123b456cdef",
            "tags": {
              "Name": "WebServer"
            "ami": "ami-05a56c3a3e02548d9",
            "instance_type": "t2.micro",
            "availability_zone": "us-west-2a",
            "subnet_id": "subnet-07b3347a",
            "security_groups": ["sg-03gd5423"],
            "ebs_optimized": false,
            "disable_api_termination": false,
            "monitoring": false,
            "vpc_security_group_ids": ["sg-0df3e3c3f4g5h6i7"],
            "subnet_id": "subnet-07b3347a",
            "key_name": "my-key-pair",
            "public_ip": "",
            "private_ip": "",
            "credit_specification": {
              "cpu_credits": "standard"
            "metadata_options": {
              "http_tokens": "optional",
              "http_endpoint": "enabled"
            "root_block_device": {
              "volume_type": "gp2",
              "volume_size": 20,
              "delete_on_termination": true
            "tags": {
              "Name": "WebServer",
              "Environment": "Production"
          "depends_on": []

This hypothetical completion of the Terraform state file snippet includes:

  • The completion of the AWS instance resource attributes, such as AMI, instance type, security groups, and networking configurations.
  • A simplified set of attributes for demonstration purposes, including placeholders for values such as AMI IDs and subnet IDs.
  • The closing of the JSON structure correctly to match the opening elements.

Managing State Files

While the default mode stores state files locally, Terraform also supports remote state backends. Utilizing a remote backend, such as AWS S3 or Google Cloud Storage, has advantages:

  • Team Collaboration: Remote backends allow multiple team members to work on the same infrastructure without state conflicts.
  • Security: Remote state storage offers better security practices, such as encryption at rest and audit logging.
  • Reliability: Storing state files in highly available cloud storage ensures your state is safe even if your local files are lost.

To configure a remote backend, define it within your Terraform configuration:

terraform {
  backend "s3" {
    bucket = "your-terraform-state-bucket"
    key    = "path/to/my/terraform/state/file"
    region = "us-east-1"

This snippet configures Terraform to use an AWS S3 bucket as its remote backend. Remember, the exact backend configuration will vary depending on your requirements and the cloud provider.

Best Practices for State Management

Proper state management is crucial for maintaining optimal operation of your Terraform-managed infrastructure. Here are some best practices to follow:

  • Regular Backups: Even with a remote backend, it’s good practice to regularly backup your state files to prevent data loss.
  • State Locking: Utilize state locking to prevent concurrent executions that could lead to state corruption.
  • Workspaces: Use Terraform workspaces to manage different states of your infrastructure, such as production and development environments.
  • Security: Treat your state file with the same security considerations as your codebase, limiting access and using encryption.


Understanding and managing the Terraform state and state files effectively is key to harnessing the full power of Terraform. By adhering to best practices and leveraging features such as remote backends and state locking, you can ensure that your infrastructure management is efficient, secure, and scalable. Welcome to advanced Terraform usage, where disciplined state management opens the door to predictable and dependable infrastructure management.