Configuration Syntax

The syntax of Terraform configurations is called HashiCorp Configuration Language (HCL). It is meant to strike a balance between human readable and editable as well as being machine-friendly. For machine-friendliness, Terraform can also read JSON configurations. For general Terraform configurations, however, we recommend using the HCL Terraform syntax.

Terraform Syntax

Here is an example of Terraform's HCL syntax:

# An AMI
variable "ami" {
  description = "the AMI to use"

/* A multi
   line comment. */
resource "aws_instance" "web" {
  ami               = "${var.ami}"
  count             = 2
  source_dest_check = false

  connection {
    user = "root"

Basic bullet point reference:

  • Single line comments start with #

  • Multi-line comments are wrapped with /* and */

  • Values are assigned with the syntax of key = value (whitespace doesn't matter). The value can be any primitive (string, number, boolean), a list, or a map.

  • Strings are in double-quotes.

  • Strings can interpolate other values using syntax wrapped in ${}, such as ${}. The full syntax for interpolation is documented here.

  • Multiline strings can use shell-style "here doc" syntax, with the string starting with a marker like <<EOF and then the string ending with EOF on a line of its own. The lines of the string and the end marker must not be indented.

  • Numbers are assumed to be base 10. If you prefix a number with 0x, it is treated as a hexadecimal number.

  • Boolean values: true, false.

  • Lists of primitive types can be made with square brackets ([]). Example: ["foo", "bar", "baz"].

  • Maps can be made with braces ({}) and colons (:): { "foo": "bar", "bar": "baz" }. Quotes may be omitted on keys, unless the key starts with a number, in which case quotes are required. Commas are required between key/value pairs for single line maps. A newline between key/value pairs is sufficient in multi-line maps.

In addition to the basics, the syntax supports hierarchies of sections, such as the "resource" and "variable" in the example above. These sections are similar to maps, but visually look better. For example, these are nearly equivalent:

variable "ami" {
  description = "the AMI to use"

# is equal to:

variable = [{
  "ami": {
    "description": "the AMI to use",

Notice how the top stanza visually looks a lot better? By repeating multiple variable sections, it builds up the variable list. When possible, use sections since they're visually clearer and more readable.

JSON Syntax

Terraform also supports reading JSON formatted configuration files. The above example converted to JSON:

    "variable": {
        "ami": {
            "description": "the AMI to use"

    "resource": {
        "aws_instance": {
            "web": {
                "ami": "${var.ami}",
                "count": 2,
                "source_dest_check": false,

                "connection": {
                    "user": "root"

The conversion should be pretty straightforward and self-documented.

The downsides of JSON are less human readability and the lack of comments. Otherwise, the two are completely interoperable.