Workspaces in Terraform

Reading Time: 3 minutes

What Terraform Workspaces are?

Terraform supports two concepts of workspaces: CLI workspace and Terraform Cloud/Enterprise workspace. This article is focused on CLI Workspaces also known as OSS Workspace.

CLI workspaces are a feature that allows us to manage a single Terraform configuration and provision the resulting resources different time.
This allows us to have similar group of resources without managing multiple stacks. To use CLI workspaces, we have to use a compatible backend, like S3.

From this point I will call CLI Workspaces as workspaces.

Use Case

Let’s imagine a simple infrastructure composed of some virtual machine deployed in three different environment:

  1. Development
  2. Staging
  3. Production

Those three environment are on dedicated AWS account and don’t have nothing shared between them. Configuration files for the environments are exactly the same and must remain consistent and identical.

Differences like the environment tags, instance size, instance number and other parameters are given with dedicated variable file tfvars.

We usually have two way to deploy this configuration multiple times:

  • different directories
  • workspaces

Different directories

This approach guaranties the optimal separation between environments and helps reduce errors, like deploying to the wrong environment.

Having multiple directories also imply that the same code is replicated in all of them, so this is a big downside but can be also an advantages for use cases where heavy customization between environments is required.

In our case, wanting three identical environments this approach will only be more complex and harder to maintain.

CLI Workspaces

Workspaces are usually my way to resolve this issue and avoid replicated code. Workspaces as a “copy” of the state file that relays on the same terraform configuration files, so you can write once and deploy several times the exact replica of your infrastructure.

When working with workspaces, we manage multiple replicas of the deployed infrastructure from the same configuration file, in a single directory. Working in this single directory can introduce some human errors like the deploy in the wrong environment or destroying a wrong environment.

Workspace setup

This is a small example with S3 as remote backend. This example will be deployed on three different AWS accounts, one for each environment:

  • dev
  • stage
  • prod

Initial set up (Backend)

Using S3 as our remote backend our Terraform state will be saved on Amazon S3. To maintain all our Terraform state in a single place we choose to use our production account as storage. So we need to create an S3 bucket and a DynamoDB table on our production account, the bucket for this example will be named my-terraform-backend-stateSet up S3 Backend

Initial set up (CLI)

Before applying the terraform configuration we will have to set up the AWS CLI.
Configuring the AWS CLI

With the AWS CLI installed we can set up our AWS Profile: AWS CLI Named Profiles





The Terraform Configuration

provider "aws" {
  region  = var.aws_region
  version = "~> 2.24"
  profile = "my-account-${terraform.workspace}"

terraform {
  backend "s3" {
    profile              = "my-account-prod"
    bucket               = "my-terraform-backend-state"
    workspace_key_prefix = "ap-south-1/demo"
    key                  = "shared-state"
    region               = "ap-south-1"

Profiles are used by the Terraform AWS Provider for authentication. It uses our named profile that we set up early. The complex part here is that we use the parameter two times. The first used profile is inside the provider block. In this case, the parameter is used to deploy the resources that we declare in our stack. So if we have to deploy the stack in our development account the profile here must be my-account-dev and by using

profile = "my-account-${terraform.workspace}"

we interpolate our current workspace and in case we are deploying to the development account the workspace name will exactly be dev. So the profile after interpolation will be my-account-dev, exactly what we need.

The second use of profile is inside the backend block, here we use the parameter to indicate Terraform where our backend (S3 Bucket) will be. In our case we choose to centralize states on production account so the profile will be my-account-prod.


Workspaces Commands

  1. Creating a new workspace:
terraform workspace new dev
  1. Select an existing workspace:
terraform workspace select dev
  1. Apply using a specific var file
terraform apply

Resulting State Files

The example below if deployed to all our three accounts will produce three different state files.



It is quite often that we require ideally similar infrastructure for development, production, staging and QA. Terraform workspace is the perfect solution for this kind of problems.