Extending Terraform with custom providers

Towards high-quality infrastructure-as-code part 3

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Note: this is a fairly advanced topic. It assumes you have some experience with Go and understand the Terraform state and resource life-cycle.

One of Terraform’s most significant drawbacks is that there is no clean way of injecting custom functionalities.

The canonical solution for injecting custom functionality is to use a `local_exec` provisioner combined with a shell script. In my opinion, this functionality is not enough for the following reasons:

  • The script in a local_exec provisioner contains implicit dependencies that need to be installed in any machine running the Terraform code. For example, if the local_exec calls a python script, any machine deploying the infrastructure must have python installed.
  • The script in local_exec provisioner may break cross-compatibility between operating systems. For example, calling a bash script may have broken compatibility with your colleagues running Windows.
  • The local_exec does not follow the same lifecycle rules as the provider resources. It does not interact with the tfstate nor understand when to create, update, or destroy its resources.

In my opinion, the cleanest way to create moderate to highly custom functionality is to create your own Terraform providers.

A simple example:

A quick disclaimer: This example does not represent a real use-case. My idea was first and foremost to create an example exposing the most functionality with the least code. Hence, some parts may look out of place or forced, and the code may not always follow best-practices.

Say that, for some deployment, we’d like to create a local file with custom data. For that functionality, we’ve decided to make a custom provider. Our Terraform code should look something like this:

Implementing the provider:

Our code will be structured as follows:

├── go.mod
├── go.sum
├── main.go
└── myfile
├── client.go
└── provider.go

The file main.go contains the entry-point of our provider, client.go includes a simple filesystem client, and provider.go contains most of the provider functionality. The files go.mod and go.sum are needed for go modules.

The main.go defined as such:

We’ll be using Hashicorp’s SDK to create our provider. The function Provider is defined in myfile/provider.go as such:

The parameter Schema defines the configuration options of the provider. In our case, we have a single option named encoding. We’ll use this option to define file encoding, for example UTF-8, base64, etc. This option is an optional parameter that defaults to utf8. For this example, I’ve only implemented support for UTF-8 encoding. With the validateEncoding function, we can ensure no other option is allowed and use the diag functionality to provide a helpful error message.

The provider configuration step is defined in the function ConfigureContextFunc:

In this function we create our file client. We pass in the configuration parameters through the d argument. Since it’s not relevant to the Terraform functionality, I’ve will not show the implementation of the file client. For now, it is enough to assume this client has an interface to create/update/read/delete a file and an interface to get the file owner.

The parameter ResourcesMap in the function Provider defines the configuration options for provider resources. We defined a function named getProviderResources to return this parameter

We define a single resource named myfile_file. This resource will have the following configuration parameters:

  • path: The path of the file. The file must not exist before being created by Terraform. This field is a required parameter. Changing this will create a new resource.
  • contents: The file contents. This field is a required parameter. Changing this will update the file in-place.
  • owner: The filesystem owner of the file created. This field is a computed parameter and serves as an output.

The last four parameters defined in this schema refer to the four lifecycle steps used on Terraform: creation/read/updating and deletion.

Let’s look first on how we implement the resource creation step, as defined in the function resourceFileCreate:

First, we get the schema parameters from the d argument. The m argument will be the value returned by the configuration step — in our case, the file client. We create the file using our file client, use the file path as the unique resource ID, and set the output parameter owner.

When we request a plan or apply, Terraform reads the contents of the tfstate and decides what needs to change. This first step of reading the tfstate uses the reading functionality, as implemented in the resourceFileRead function:

Terraform will then compare the file contents to the contents previously saved in the tfstate. If they are different, it will do an update in place, as defined in the resourceFileUpdate function:

Finally, the deletion step, as defined in the resourceFileDelete function:

Testing the provider:

I’ve shared the complete example here. Download the code with

$ git clone https://github.com/MilheiroSantos/terraform-provider-example.git

The easiest way to test the module is to inject your compiled provider in terraform’s implied local mirror directory. This path is, among other possibilities:

  • For Linux, and macOS X: $HOME/.terraform.d/plugins
  • For Windows: %APPDATA%/terraform.d/plugins

The path expected for the custom provider is:


You can define HOSTAME, NAMESPACE and TYPE as you prefer. The VERSION should follow semver guidelines. The OS can be linux for Linux targets, darwin for macOS X, or windows for windows machines. The ARCH can be amd64 for X86 64 bit architectures, or amd64 for ARMv8 machines.

On my side, I’m using Linux on amd64, so I’ll create the path with:

$ mkdir -p ~/.terraform.d/plugins/myorg.com/custom/myfile/0.1.0/linux_amd64/

Now we build the provider with:

$ go build terraform-provider-myfile && mv terraform-provider-myfile ~/.terraform.d/plugins/myorg.com/custom/myfile/0.1.0/linux_amd64/

Finally, we create the Terraform code leveraging the custom provider:

Run a terraform init and terraform apply:

$ terraform init && terraform apply -auto-approve

If all steps run successfully, you shall see a file named here.txt in the root of your terraform code with the contents ‘Hello World!’

Deploying the provider:

I recommend starting simple and use a git repository, blob storage, or ftp server to store your custom providers. As an initial step on your deployment pipeline, copy the files into the implied local mirror directory of Terraform. Two important caveats:

  • Every time you update the provider, never update the executable. Instead, create a new executable with a new version following the semver convention.
  • Make sure you compile your provider for all OS and architectures used by your team. Go’s compiler supports cross-compiling by setting a few env flags. As an example:
$ GOARCH=386 GOOS=windows go build terraform-provider-myfile

For more complex functionality, there are other possibilities. You could look into Hachicorp’s private registry, an open-source registry implementation, or even roll your own!

Further reading:

This blog post barely scratches the functionality of what is possible with custom providers. For example, we did not talk about custom data sources.

For me information, Hashicorp provides excellent documentation for custom providers here. You can also find a more in-depth tutorial here.

For more information about the custom provider file format and allowed locations, click here.

When compiling a provider, Terraform supports the same OS and architectures as the Go compiler. See here for the list of allowed values.

Finally, please find here more information about the private registry protocol .

Happy coding!

Founder and Software Engineer at Unicoeding. I help organizations with their cloud and data infrastructure. You can find us at www.unicoeding.com.

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