Terraform is an open-source IaC (Infrastructure as Code) tool. This one works through providers that complete the tool to interact with the various cloud providers, SaaS providers and many more. Terraform uses, for its providers, a particular and open source protocol. How Work? What is behind this protocol?
In this article, we will see how Terraform uses Providers through the Terraform public registry, then the different types of registry protocols that can be used. It is possible to extend this method to use Terraform Modules but the subject is not covered here. For more information on the subject, you can learn more about the official documentation.
- Know the basics. If you don’t know Terraform, I invite you to try the interactive learning on the official website of HashiCorp Terraform.
- Terraform providers. If the notion of provider seems vague to you, it may be interesting to take a look at the documentation.
How does Terraform work with the registry?
To work, Terraform needs to retrieve and use providers to interact with target platforms: (From: https://www.terraform.io/docs/extend/index.html)
The recovery of these providers goes by default through the Terraform public registry
(which we will name here simply Terraform registry), which is managed by
HashiCorp and accessible via the internet.
For the Terraform user, retrieving the provider is quite trivial
and can be similar to a simple “download” (through the command
In reality, the actions carried out by Terraform are much more numerous and complex.
Terraform interacts with the registry via
a particular protocol that is defined in the Terraform documentation.
To avoid reading all the documentation, I have prepared a diagram for you which traces the main steps between Terraform core and the registry:
As you will have understood, the interactions are more numerous and more complex than a simple binary download.
The differences between registry protocol
There are several types of registry protocols:
- Provider/module registry protocol: the protocol used by https://app.terraform.io (Terraform Registry) and the most complete. The protocol we have described above represents this one. By using this protocol you will be able to provide your Terraform users with providers and modules. In addition to this it is possible to verify the signature of the providers and also store providers binaries in a location other than the registry. More information about the protocol and providers in the official HashiCorp documentation.
- Provider network mirror protocol: a lighter version of the above protocol. It makes it possible to make providers available to Terraform users without checking the origin and/or signature of the provider. This one can be a good choice if you want to have an accessible and simple private Provider registry without publishing providers for third parties. It is not yet possible (at the time of writing) to use this protocol for modules. More information about the protocol on the official HashiCorp documentation.
- Provider filesystem mirror: In the same logic as the Provider network mirror protocol except that the storage and access of providers is done via a filesystem. Practical in some cases where local use in its opinion but is rapidly reaching its limits at scale. More information about the provider filesystem mirror on the official HashiCorp documentation.
The diagram summarizes the previous remarks: Note that the Network Mirror Protocol is less complete than the Provider/Module Registry Protocol but is much easier.
Authentication to the registry
With the exception of the Provider filesystem mirror, it is possible to implement the Login Protocol in your registry to allow certain call APIs only if your users are authenticated.
- Refresh tokens is not supported. The user will need to authenticate again.
- Token expiration is not supported.
Through the command
terraform login, the user is able to authenticate to an OAuth
server. In particular, the command supports
Proof Key for Code Exchange to protect request interceptions.
Finally, it is important to note that token retrieved from authentication is made on the user side and, in other side, that it will be necessary to add to your registry a mechanism of validity check of the token on the target APIs.
In particular, we have seen how the Registry Protocol works and its different forms. For those who want to go further, it is possible to set up a Provider Registry as a static website and simply. With some exceptions, if you implement a Login Protocol who will need to set up a mechanism to check the token validity on the target APIs.
Finally, for those who want to implement the protocol registry, you can base on the following GitHub repository: https://github.com/apparentlymart/terraform-aws-tf-registry