When I’m working on projects which require provisioning cloud infrastructure, my workflow has two disparate components: one is infrastructure orchestration, which includes Terraform to bring up the infrastructure (e.g. new EKS clusters), and the second is the provisioning component, which includes Ansible/Bash scripts to instantiate and initialise that infrastructure to accept new deployments (e.g. install Cluster Autoscaler, kube-state-metrics, etc.).

The reason for this is simple: very few tools can cross over and handle both the orchestration and the provisioning side. Ansible can do both, but replacing Terraform with Ansible to bring up cloud infrastructure is not that straightforward.

So when I stumbled on the Helm provider for Terraform, I wanted to explore the possibility of using one tool to handle both sides: using Terraform to bring up a new EKS cluster and provision it with Prometheus, Loki, Grafana, Cluster Autoscaler, etc. all in one neat and clean deployment! But that’s not happening until I figure out how to use this thing, so below is my experience using Terraform + Helm for something simple: deploying the Kubernetes Dashboard.

The Helm Provider

The Helm provider works like the other cloud providers. You can specify the path of the KUBECONFIG or other credentials, run terraform init, and the Helm provider gets initialised. The Terraform website also has an excellent tutorial introducing the basics. Once you’re familiar with that, you can browse the configurations of the helm_release resource, which is the primary resource used to deploy Helm Charts.

Deploying the Kubernetes Dashboard

I’m going to use Minikube for this test. You can also find the examples below in my GitLab repo.

My main.tf file contains the following:

provider "helm" {
  kubernetes {
    config_path = "~/.kube/config"

resource "helm_release" "my-kubernetes-dashboard" {

  name = "my-kubernetes-dashboard"

  repository = "https://kubernetes.github.io/dashboard/"
  chart      = "kubernetes-dashboard"
  namespace  = "default"

  set {
    name  = "service.type"
    value = "LoadBalancer"

  set {
    name  = "protocolHttp"
    value = "true"

  set {
    name  = "service.externalPort"
    value = 80

  set {
    name  = "replicaCount"
    value = 2

  set {
    name  = "rbac.clusterReadOnlyRole"
    value = "true"

In the above Terraform, I’m deploying the kubernetes-dashboard Chart from https://kubernetes.github.io/dashboard/ into the namespace default. I’m also using the set variable to override the Chart’s defaults:

  1. service.type: I’m changing this to LoadBalancer to review my changes locally. Remember to run minikube tunnel in a separate window or this won’t work.
  2. protocolHttp: I’m deploying the non-secure version to suppress HTTPS warnings on localhost.
  3. service.externalPort: This needs to be 80 for non-secure.
  4. replicaCount: I’m changing this to 2 to see if these changes even work :)
  5. rbac.clusterReadOnlyRole: This should be true for the Dashboard to have the correct permissions.

You can browse the documentation for other configuration options.

Executing our Terraform

Let’s start by initialising Terraform with terraform init:

Initializing the backend...

Initializing provider plugins...
- Finding latest version of hashicorp/helm...
- Installing hashicorp/helm v2.2.0...
- Installed hashicorp/helm v2.2.0 (signed by HashiCorp)

Terraform has created a lock file .terraform.lock.hcl to record the provider
selections it made above. Include this file in your version control repository
so that Terraform can guarantee to make the same selections by default when
you run "terraform init" in the future.

Terraform has been successfully initialized!

You may now begin working with Terraform. Try running "terraform plan" to see
any changes that are required for your infrastructure. All Terraform commands
should now work.

If you ever set or change modules or backend configuration for Terraform,
rerun this command to reinitialize your working directory. If you forget, other
commands will detect it and remind you to do so if necessary.

So far, so good. Terraform successfully initialised our Helm provider. And now for terraform apply:

Terraform used the selected providers to generate the following execution plan. Resource actions are indicated with the following symbols:
  + create

Terraform will perform the following actions:

  # helm_release.my-kubernetes-dashboard will be created
  + resource "helm_release" "my-kubernetes-dashboard" {
      + atomic                     = false
      + chart                      = "kubernetes-dashboard"
      + cleanup_on_fail            = false
      + create_namespace           = false
      + dependency_update          = false
      + disable_crd_hooks          = false
      + disable_openapi_validation = false
      + disable_webhooks           = false
      + force_update               = false
      + id                         = (known after apply)
      + lint                       = false
      + manifest                   = (known after apply)
      + max_history                = 0
      + metadata                   = (known after apply)
      + name                       = "my-kubernetes-dashboard"
      + namespace                  = "default"
      + recreate_pods              = false
      + render_subchart_notes      = true
      + replace                    = false
      + repository                 = "https://kubernetes.github.io/dashboard/"
      + reset_values               = false
      + reuse_values               = false
      + skip_crds                  = false
      + status                     = "deployed"
      + timeout                    = 300
      + verify                     = false
      + version                    = "4.3.1"
      + wait                       = true
      + wait_for_jobs              = false

      + set {
          + name  = "protocolHttp"
          + value = "true"
      + set {
          + name  = "rbac.clusterReadOnlyRole"
          + value = "true"
      + set {
          + name  = "replicaCount"
          + value = "2"
      + set {
          + name  = "service.externalPort"
          + value = "80"
      + set {
          + name  = "service.type"
          + value = "LoadBalancer"

Plan: 1 to add, 0 to change, 0 to destroy.

Do you want to perform these actions?
  Terraform will perform the actions described above.
  Only 'yes' will be accepted to approve.

  Enter a value: yes

helm_release.my-kubernetes-dashboard: Creating...
helm_release.my-kubernetes-dashboard: Still creating... [10s elapsed]
helm_release.my-kubernetes-dashboard: Creation complete after 14s [id=my-kubernetes-dashboard]

(Remember to run minikube tunnel in another terminal window, otherwise the apply won’t work).

Verifying our changes

Let’s check if our pods are up using kubectl get po and kubectl get svc:

~ kubectl get po
NAME                                       READY   STATUS    RESTARTS   AGE
my-kubernetes-dashboard-7bc7ccfbd9-56w56   1/1     Running   0          18m
my-kubernetes-dashboard-7bc7ccfbd9-f6jc4   1/1     Running   0          18m

~ kubectl get svc
NAME                      TYPE           CLUSTER-IP       EXTERNAL-IP      PORT(S)        AGE
kubernetes                ClusterIP        <none>           443/TCP        20m
my-kubernetes-dashboard   LoadBalancer   80:32066/TCP   19m

Our pods are deployed and the load balancer is working. Now let’s check the UI:

Terraform + Helm
Enlarge Terraform + Helm


With Helm provisioning now a part of Terraform, my work life can get that much easier. I do realise that the separation between Infrastructure and Provisioning served a different purpose: Infrastructure changes were usually one-off or didn’t require frequent updates, maybe a few times when governance or security rules for my org changed. Provisioning changes, on the other hand, occurred frequently, sometimes with every release. So having Terraform (Infrastructure) and Helm Charts (Provisioning) in two different repos with two different tools and two different review workflows made sense. I’m not sure merging them using a single tool is the best idea, but one less tool in the toolchain is always a huge win. I think the pros and cons of this will vary from one project to another and one team to another.

Here’s hoping Terraform + Helm makes your life easier.

Happy coding :)