referencing other blocks (and other variables) in terraform



~3 min read


578 words

Terraform allows the configuration of infrastructure through code. It’s cross-platform and declarative. You tell terraform what you want, it goes and stands up the infrastructure.

One of the first hurdles I came across when trying to understand an existing terraform document was how resources, data, etc. were recognized in other parts of the configuration.

For example, I had this snippet of terraform code:

resource "aws_sns_topic" "file-create" {
  name = "file-create"

Here we’re creating a new AWS SNS Topic with terraform that we’re naming file-create. The original authors of this code also labeled it as file-create.

This file-create was then referenced in the creation of an SNS Topic Policy for the policy’s ARN:

resource "aws_sns_topic_policy" "file-create-topic-policy" {
  arn = aws_sns_topic.file-create.arn  policy = data.aws_iam_policy_document.sns_topic_policy.json

But which file-create was it?

Here, it will help to take a step back and note that what we’re looking at is the basics of terraform’s syntax, which includes block types, block labels, arguments, and expressions.

From the docs:

The syntax of the Terraform language consists of only a few basic elements:

resource "aws_vpc" "main" {
  cidr_block = var.base_cidr_block

  # Block body

What I was looking at then was a reference to a named value - which meant it was the block label not the identifier being used in the topic policy.

While resource types, like the AWS SNS Topic are referenced directly, there are many other values that can be referenced, including:

var. is the value of the input variable of the given name. local. is the value of the local value of the given name. module.. is the value of the specified output value from a child module called by the current module. data.. is an object representing a data resource of the given data source type and name. If the resource has the count argument set, the value is a list of objects representing its instances. If the resource has the for_each argument set, the value is a map of objects representing its instances. path.module is the filesystem path of the module where the expression is placed. path.root is the filesystem path of the root module of the configuration. path.cwd is the filesystem path of the current working directory. In normal use of Terraform this is the same as path.root, but some advanced uses of Terraform run it from a directory other than the root module directory, causing these paths to be different. terraform.workspace is the name of the currently selected workspace .

Additionally, it’s worth noting that I wasn’t referencing the entire resource, but a specific attribute of a named resource, in this case the arn that’s exported by terraform.

An SNS Topic policy requires a policy itself:

resource "aws_sns_topic_policy" "file-create-topic-policy" {
  arn = aws_sns_topic.file-create.arn
  policy = data.aws_iam_policy_document.sns_topic_policy.json}

So, elsewhere, we defined the IAM policy document as a data source, which could be accessed.

data "aws_iam_policy_document" "sns_topic_policy" {
  policy_id = "__default_policy_ID"
  /* ... */

Like the SNS topic, the policy document has specific exports, in this case, it’s the JSON generated.


Understanding how to reference blocks is critical to understanding how to construct your infrastructure with terraform. Overcoming this hurdle helped to clarify a lot about how terraform works!

Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!