Consistent Terraform Environments with Nix and Sops
time::4 mins
tags::[ Nix DevOps ]

I've somehow managed to convince several companies over the last few years to hire me as a devops/infra engineer, which mostly involves using incantations to transform configuration files into invoices. One of those incantations is Terraform, an infrastructure-as-code tool that integrates with lots of cloud services.

Working with Terraform always requires the involvement of some credentials for whatever cloud infrastructure service you're targeting, like the access and secret access keys for AWS. There's a few ways of getting these credentials into terraform. One way is by by adding them into the provider using sensitive variables and a .tfvar file:

provider "aws" {
  region     = "eu-west-1"
  access_key = var.access_key
  secret_key = var.secret_key

variable "access_key" {
  type      = string
  sensitive = true

variable "secret_key" {
  type      = string
  sensitive = true


access_key = <AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID>
secret_key = <AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY>

Though this gets the credentials into Terraform, I feel icky having these credentials lying around in plaintext in a file - especially when these credentials usually have a very wide blast zone, since they're meant to be used to change infrastructure in a cloud provider. One malformed .gitignore entry and a careless git add ., and you could be in for a bad time.

Another common way, that I also use, is with environment variables. For example, the AWS provider will also look for valid credentials in AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID and AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY, so a typical use of terraform would look like:

$ export AWS_ACCESS_KEY_ID="anaccesskey"
$ export AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY="asecretkey"
$ terraform plan

Doing this every time is tiresome, though. Plus, the credentials are now present in my shell history file. So my problem was twofold: a consistent, low-effort, minimal-intervention development environment for terraform without having the credentials hanging out in plaintext.

Consistent Environments with Nix Devshells

For a consistent environment, nix's devshells come to the rescue. This way, I can also fix the terraform version and have a bunch of extra tools, like tflint, without polluting any other terraform environments I might have. I can also use a shellHook to populate the development environment with the required environment variables:




  inputs = {
    nixpkgs.url = "nixpkgs/nixos-unstable";
    utils = {
      url = "github:numtide/flake-utils";
      inputs.nixpkgs.follows = "nixpkgs";

  outputs = { self, nixpkgs, utils }:
    utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem (system:
      let pkgs = nixpkgs.legacyPackages.${system};
        devShells.terraform =
          pkgs.mkShell {
            buildInputs = with pkgs; [terraform tflint terraform-docs ];
            shellHook = ''
              set -a
              source ${./creds.env}
              set +a

Then, in whatever terraform projects I want these to be in, I can use direnv, with an .envrc file like:

use flake path/to/flake/.#terraform

When I drop into a terraform project, it now sets up an environment with a fixed terraform version, some side-tooling, and an environment populated with the environment variables I need to work.

However, the credentials are still in plain text, both in the creds.env file next to flake.nix, but also in the nix store:

λ cat /nix/store/y14ih9jfyrqmdxqpg1c5x6aws5162slz-source/creds.env

Which is not ideal.

Secrets Encryption with Mozilla SOPS

I addressed the plaintext credentials with Mozilla's SOPS, a really nice tool for encrypting, decrypting and editing secrets and credentials. It works with a variety of filetypes, including dotenv files!

Using my GPG key to encrypt the above creds.env file yields the following (notice that the file itself isn't GPG encrypted, only the individual environment variables!):

λ sops --encrypt creds.env
sops_pgp__list_0__map_fp=MY GPG KEY FINGERPRINT
sops_pgp__list_0__map_enc=-----BEGIN PGP MESSAGE-----\n...\n-----END PGP MESSAGE-----\n

I then include this encrypted version of the creds.env file with flake.nix, and source the environment variables from it:

devShells.terraform = pkgs.mkShell {
  buildInputs = with pkgs; [ sops terraform tflint terraform-docs ];
  shellHook = ''
    set -a
    source <(${pkgs.sops}/bin/sops --decrypt ${toString ./creds.env})
    set +a

Now every time I drop into terraform environments that need those credentials, direnv automatically populates my environment with terraform and the associated credentials (once I unlock the SOPs encrypted file with my GPG passphrase). Once I leave that directory, the shell is depopulated. The credentials themselves are no longer in plaintext in a .tfvars, .env or shell history file, but are encrypted on disk and decrypted with SOPS and my GPG key when needed.