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Creating and Scaling a Docker Swarm Cluster with Terraform

Terraform is a tool made by Hashicorp which allows you to provision and manage infrastructure on popular cloud providers. You define your infrastructure as code in simple configuration files enabling repeatable deployments which are simple to tear down and easy to make changes to. This article serves as an introduction to Terraform by showing you how to create and scale a Docker Swarm cluster on DigitalOcean. If you don’t already have a DigitalOcean account and would like to follow along you can use this link to get $10 in free credit.

Preparing DigitalOcean

Before getting started, you will need to generate an API token so Terraform can access your DigitalOcean account. To generate an API token all you need to do is log in to your account, click “API” in the top navigation bar, and then click “Generate New Token.” Give the token a name and make sure you enable read and write access. Copy down the API token and keep it somewhere safe – DigitalOcean will not show you the token again. If you lose the token you will have to generate a new one.

Generate a Public/Private Key-Pair

Use the following command to generate a public and private key-pair:

ssh-keygen -o -a 100 -t ed25519 -C dockerswarm@digitalocean

By default this will create two files: ~/.ssh/id_ed25519 and ~/.ssh/id_ed25519.pub. When the command runs you will have an opportunity to use a different location if you want. Make sure you use a strong passphrase when generating the key. Once the keys are generated use the following command to add the private key to your SSH agent:

ssh-add ~/.ssh/id_ed25519

First Steps With Terraform

First you have to install Terraform. If you are on macOS with Homebrew installed this is as simple as running brew install terraform. Otherwise simply follow the installation instructions for your platform.

Once installed you can begin writing your configuration files. In an empty directory make a file called variables.tf with the following contents:

variable "do_token" {
  description = "Your Digital Ocean API token"

variable "public_key_path" {
  description = "Path to the SSH public key to be used for authentication"

variable "do_key_name" {
  description = "Name of the key on Digital Ocean"
  default = "terraform"

This file defines variables you can use throughout your Terraform configuration. The do_key_name variable has a default value so you don’t have to explicitly initialize it with another value. When you run the terraform command it will ask you for values to use for the other variables. If you don’t want to enter values every time you run terraform (I know I don’t!) then you can create a file called terraform.tfvars which defines values for variables:


Now create a file called main.tf with the following contents:

provider "digitalocean" {
  token = "${var.do_token}"

resource "digitalocean_ssh_key" "default" {
  name = "${var.do_key_name}"
  public_key = "${file(var.public_key_path)}"

The first block defines credentials to use for the DigitalOcean provider. The second block defines a resource for Terraform to create and manage. In this case we are adding a public key to our DigitalOcean account. The resource block is defined with TYPE and NAME parameters. Configuration for the resource goes inside the curly braces. The difference between the NAME parameter and the name configuration is that NAME is only used within Terraform (in our case, to refer to the resource) whereas name is a configuration parameter for the resource (in this case, name will define how the key is displayed in your DigitalOcean account). The ${} syntax is how Terraform does string interpolation. Here, we are referencing the variables we defined and using them as strings in our provider and resource configuration.

At this point you should have three files: variables.tf, main.tf, and terraform.tfvars. Run the following command:

terraform plan

Assuming you did everything properly terraform will report that it will add a public key to your DigitalOcean account when the plan is applied. To apply the plan, just run:

terraform apply

You should see a message that says, Apply complete! Resources: 1 added, 0 changed, 0 destroyed. Now if you run terraform plan again you will see a message which says, No changes. Infrastructure is up-to-date. This is an important concept in understanding the power of a tool like Terraform. To make changes to your infrastructure you just need to update the configuration files and run terraform apply. terraform will only perform the changes required to make your infrastructure match the new configuration. You don’t have to run terraform plan, but it’s a good idea to always look at the plan before applying changes, even if your changes seem benign.

Note: the names of your .tf files doesn’t actually matter. When you use the terraform command it will load all files in the current directory with the .tf extension. As you will see shortly, this works because the order you declare resources in Terraform doesn’t matter. If you really wanted to you could put everything in any order in one .tf file. This only applies to .tf files, your variable values must be defined in terraform.tfvars.

Setting up the Docker Swarm Manager

Adding a public key to your DigitalOcean account is cool and all, but it’s not terribly exciting. Let’s set up a machine to act as the Docker Swarm manager node. Add the following to main.tf:

resource "digitalocean_droplet" "docker_swarm_manager" {
  name = "docker-swarm-manager"
  region = "nyc3"
  size = "512mb"
  image = "ubuntu-16-04-x64"
  ssh_keys = ["${digitalocean_ssh_key.default.id}"]
  private_networking = true

  provisioner "remote-exec" {
    script = "install-docker.sh"

  provisioner "remote-exec" {
    inline = [
      "docker swarm init --advertise-addr ${digitalocean_droplet.docker_swarm_manager.ipv4_address_private}"

This block defines a droplet (virtual machine) to create on DigitalOcean. Most of the parameters are self-explanatory though there are a few things to call out. First, the configuration for ssh_keys. You can directly use the id or fingerprint of a public key in your DigitalOcean account; however, since we created a digitalocean_ssh_key resource with Terraform we can directly reference it here without having to look it up. The ssh_keys configuration takes a list of strings as a value. Here, we are interpolating the id attribute of the key into a string. The syntax for referencing an attribute from a resource is TYPE.NAME.ATTR, hence digitalocean_ssh_key.default.id.

The configuration block also contains two provisioners. One copies a script, install-docker.sh to the machine and runs it. The contents of install-docker.sh are:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade -y
sudo apt-key adv --keyserver hkp://p80.pool.sks-keyservers.net:80 --recv-keys 58118E89F3A912897C070ADBF76221572C52609D
sudo apt-add-repository 'deb https://apt.dockerproject.org/repo ubuntu-xenial main'
sudo apt-get update
apt-cache policy docker-engine
sudo apt-get install -y docker-engine

You should also make sure the file is executable:

chmod +x install-docker.sh

The steps executed by this script are covered on Docker’s Official Website.

The second provisioner runs a command on the machine. We use string interpolation to set the IP address the swarm manager listens on. Once again, we use the TYPE.NAME.ATTR syntax, this time to get the private IP address of the machine.

To get a list of regions, sizes, and images available to use you can use the DigitalOcean API. It’s also worth noting that for the image we could have used docker-16-04 instead of ubuntu-16-04-x64. I used the Ubuntu base image because I prefer to install my own software rather than start with pre-configured images. This also lets us demonstrate using a provisioner to install software on the remote machine.

Run terraform plan. You will see that the plan calls for one machine to be created. Run terraform apply and the machine will be created and provisioned with Docker installed.

Adding Worker Nodes

Now that we understand Terraform a little more we can start going a little faster. Add the following to main.tf:

resource "digitalocean_droplet" "docker_swarm_worker" {
  count = 3
  name = "docker-swarm-worker-${count.index}"
  region = "nyc3"
  size = "512mb"
  image = "ubuntu-16-04-x64"
  ssh_keys = ["${digitalocean_ssh_key.default.id}"]
  private_networking = true

  provisioner "remote-exec" {
    script = "install-docker.sh"

  provisioner "remote-exec" {
    inline = [
      "docker swarm join --token ${data.external.swarm_join_token.result.worker} ${digitalocean_droplet.docker_swarm_manager.ipv4_address_private}:2377"

This is very similar to the last resource block. We’re even reusing the same install-docker.sh script from the manager resource block. The first key difference is that we supply a count configuration and set the value to 3. This tells Terraform that we want three of this resource. We name the resources accordingly by interpolating the index of each resource into the name of the resource.

The second key difference is that instead of initializing a swarm manager node we have this machine join the swarm as a worker node. In order to do that we need to retrieve the worker join token from the manager node as well as the IP address of the manager node. We already know how to get the manager node IP address – the same exact way we got it before when we set up the node’s listening address. To get the worker join token we can define an external data source. Add the following to main.tf:

data "external" "swarm_join_token" {
  program = ["./get-join-tokens.sh"]
  query = {
    host = "${digitalocean_droplet.docker_swarm_manager.ipv4_address}"

We reference the data provided from this block via data.TYPE.NAME.result.ATTR, or in our case, ${data.external.swarm_join_token.result.worker}. The program is an executable separate from terraform which accepts a query through stdin as a JSON object and returns back a JSON object over stdout. You can use any language you like, but for our purposes it is simple enough to write a shell script. Create a file called get-join-tokens.sh with the following contents:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# Exit if any of the intermediate steps fail
set -e

# Extract input variables
eval "$(jq -r '@sh "HOST=\(.host)"')"

# Get worker join token
WORKER=$(ssh -o StrictHostKeyChecking=no -o UserKnownHostsFile=/dev/null root@$HOST docker swarm join-token worker -q)
MANAGER=$(ssh -o StrictHostKeyChecking=no -o UserKnownHostsFile=/dev/null root@$HOST docker swarm join-token manager -q)

# Pass back a JSON object
jq -n --arg worker $WORKER --arg manager $MANAGER '{"worker":$worker,"manager":$manager}'

And make sure the file is executable:

chmod +x get-join-tokens.sh

In order for this script to work you must have jq installed on the same machine you are running terraform on. If you are on macOS with Homebrew installed this is as simple as running brew install jq. jq is a small utility which lets you deal with JSON directly in your shell without having to write weird sed things. The script receives a host parameter which it uses to execute two commands on the remote host over ssh. The first command retrieves the worker join token, and the second command retrieves the manager join token (not explicitly required for what we’re doing, but it’s still handy to have).

If you run terraform plan you should see that terraform plans on creating three new machines. Run terraform apply to get three new machines and have them join the Docker Swarm cluster. The machines will be created in parallel since they do not have any dependencies between each other, they only depend on the manager node. If you didn’t already run terraform apply from before then terraform will create and provision the manager node first and then create and provision the worker nodes.

Deploying a Service to the Docker Swarm Cluster

We now have a four-machine Docker Swarm cluster running on DigitalOcean. How do we deploy a service to the cluster? We’ll have to ssh in to the manager node and run a command there. How do we ssh into the manager node without knowing its IP address off hand? We could look up the IP address in our DigitalOcean control panel; however, Terraform has a better way: output variables. Create a file called outputs.tf with the following contents:

output "manager_public_ip" {
  value = "${digitalocean_droplet.docker_swarm_manager.ipv4_address}"

With that file created run terraform apply. There won’t be any changes made to our infrastructure; however, after terraform apply has run we will see the public IP address of the manager node. We can also retrieve the IP address at any time with the following command:

terraform output manager_public_ip

With that available to us, we can ssh into the manager node as such:

ssh root@$(terraform output manager_public_ip)

Now that we are in the machine, we can deploy, for example, an nginx service with two replicas:

docker service create -d --name nginx -p 80:80 --replicas 2 nginx

Wait just a bit, and you can see that two replicas of nginx have been deployed across the swarm:

$ docker service ps nginx
ID                  NAME                IMAGE               NODE                    DESIRED STATE       CURRENT STATE           ERROR               PORTS
x21ipowx6fjo        nginx.1             nginx:latest        docker-swarm-worker-1   Running             Running 3 seconds ago
pjq7e6yzlnxt        nginx.2             nginx:latest        docker-swarm-worker-2   Running             Running 3 seconds ago

In this case you can see that the two replicas have been deployed to two of the worker nodes. To access your service you can use any of the public IP addresses in the swarm, including the manager node or docker-swarm-worker-0, neither of which have the service deployed on them. Back on your local machine:

curl $(terraform output manager_public_ip)

You should see some generic nginx welcome HTML in your terminal. Huzzah!

Adding a Public Load Balancer

So now with the swarm set up, how do we let others access our service? We could give everyone the IP address of our manager node, or of any other arbitrary node, but there’s a better way. Let’s use Terraform to provision a public load balancer! This will require a few changes. First, add the following to main.tf:

resource "digitalocean_tag" "docker_swarm_public" {
  name = "docker-swarm-public"

resource "digitalocean_loadbalancer" "public" {
  name = "docker-swarm-public-loadbalancer"
  region = "nyc3"
  droplet_tag = "${digitalocean_tag.docker_swarm_public.name}"

  forwarding_rule {
    entry_port = 80
    entry_protocol = "http"
    target_port = 80
    target_protocol = "http"

  healthcheck {
    port = 22
    protocol = "tcp"

By now you should be able to read Terraform configuration files. Here we’re defining a tag to use identity our machines as well as a load balancer which will balance traffic between machines which have that tag. To tag our machines, we’ll have to edit the resource blocks to reference the tags:

resource "digitalocean_droplet" "docker_swarm_manager" {
  # ...
  tags = ["${digitalocean_tag.docker_swarm_public.id}"]
  # ...

resource "digitalocean_droplet" "docker_swarm_worker" {
  # ...
  tags = ["${digitalocean_tag.docker_swarm_public.id}"]
  # ...

One more step. Add an output variable to outputs.tf for the public IP address of the load balancer:

output "loadbalancer_public_ip" {
  value = "${digitalocean_loadbalancer.public.ip}"

If you run terraform plan you will see that terraform plans to modify all four machines by adding a tag to them. This operation does not require restarting or recreating the machines. It will also provision a load balancer. Run terraform apply. When everything is done you’ll see an IP address you can use to access the load balancer. You can also access the load balancer similarly to how we accessed the manager node before:

curl $(terraform output loadbalancer_public_ip)

Which node did the output come from? It doesn’t matter. The load balancer gave our request to one of the nodes. The swarm took over from there, routing our request to an available service.

Scaling Horizontally

Horizontal scaling means to add more nodes to the swarm so we can handle more containers and services. Now that everything is set up it is super easy to horizontally scale our swarm. Simply update the count configuration for the worker nodes. For instance, if you change it from 3 to 5 and run terraform plan you will see that it plans to create and provision two new worker nodes. Because of our tag the machines will automatically be added to the public load balancer.

What if we want to scale down? It turns out we’ve created too many machines and we simply don’t need them all. Well, change 5 down to say, 1 and run terraform plan. You will see that terraform plans to destroy four machines. What if one of those machines has a service replica deployed to it? In the case of Docker Swarm this isn’t a big deal. When a machine goes down or leaves the swarm Docker Swarm is smart enough to deploy new replicas on the machines which remain a part of the swarm. You can verify this by changing the count to 1, running terraform apply and then accessing the manager node via ssh:

$ ssh root@$(terraform output manager_public_ip)
$ docker service ps nginx
ID                  NAME                IMAGE               NODE                    DESIRED STATE       CURRENT STATE                 ERROR               PORTS
q0n2j4vqva2j        nginx.1             nginx:latest        docker-swarm-worker-0   Running             Running about a minute ago
x21ipowx6fjo         \_ nginx.1         nginx:latest        docker-swarm-worker-1   Shutdown            Running 30 minutes ago
nobk0pw4pq57        nginx.2             nginx:latest        docker-swarm-manager    Running             Running about a minute ago
mis7c3lc5e4y         \_ nginx.2         nginx:latest        docker-swarm-worker-4   Shutdown            Assigned about a minute ago
pjq7e6yzlnxt         \_ nginx.2         nginx:latest        docker-swarm-worker-2   Shutdown            Running 30 minutes ago

You can see that as machines were destroyed Docker Swarm moved the replicas around to ensure that we always had two replicas of the nginx service available.

Scaling Vertically

Scaling vertically means to add more resources (ram, cpu, disk, network, etc) to the machines we already have rather than simply adding more machines to the swarm. Scaling out horizontally is easy, just add more machines by changing a single parameter! Scaling vertically, however, is a bit more involved and outside the scope of this article. The problem is that vertically scaling a machine requires the machine to be temporarily shut down. Terraform would do this to our machines in parallel meaning that we’d lose our swarm while it is scaling. Not good!

The solution is to force terraform to run serially:

terraform apply --parallelism 1

This will make terraform modify only one machine at a time instead of all at once. This will take a while, but it is better than having the entire swarm go down.

Another workaround is to add brand new larger machines to the swarm and then slowly destroy the smaller machines. In this case you would add the larger machines as new resources, run terraform apply, and then reduce the count of the smaller machines until you’re ready to remove the small machine configuration altogether (which tells terraform to destroy the machines). It is also worth noting for this approach that Docker Swarm lets you have multiple manager nodes in one swarm. Before destroying any smaller resources it would be a good idea to add a large manager node to the swarm, then you can safely remove all the smaller resources.

Cleaning Up

To clean up everything just run the following command:

terraform destroy

This will destroy and remove everything terraform has created and managed for you. Everything from the public ssh key in your DigitalOcean account to the machines and load balancer you created will be gone. If you want to see what terraform destroy will do before you run it you can use:

terraform plan -destroy

Along the way we were executing terraform apply to make changes to our infrastructure. We happened to go in an order that allowed terraform to incrementally build our infrastructure. That said, now that we have nothing terraform plan and terraform apply will still work. If you run terraform apply you will see terraform create a public key in your DigitalOcean account in parallel with a load balancer. After the key is created (though not necessarily after the load balancer is created) terraform will make a machine to act as the Docker Swarm manager node. After the manager node has been created it will make the worker nodes and all of the nodes will be publicly load balanced. terraform knows the order it needs to create resources in regardless of the order you define resources in because it is able to infer dependencies between resources based on the attributes you use to configure resources.


We just demonstrated demonstrated using Terraform to create and manage infrastructure. However, usage of Terraform is not limited to simply provisioning production infrastructure. Consider the following use cases.

Staging Environments

Now that you have a command to spin up infrastructure at will you can create identical environments very easily. With one more variable to control resource names you can create an identical staging environment to try out new things in. If anything gets messed up beyond repair just run terraform destroy && terraform apply and you’re back to good as new!

Test Environments

With Terraform you can easily spin up new infrastructure for the sole purpose of running end-to-end tests before a production deployment. In an era where cloud providers charge by the hour it is very cheap to provision and tear down infrastructure on a whim.

Demo Environments

In a similar vein to spinning up environments for the sole purpose of testing you can spin up environments for the sole purpose of demos. Who needs to demo off of staging or production when you can get a fresh environment lickety–split?

Customer Environments

Finally, in the case where you want to run individual customers on their own infrastructure it’s easy to spin up identical infrastructure as needed. Not only is spinning up new infrastructure simple but updating existing infrastructure is dead simple. Need to add an extra web server to a bunch of identical environments? No problem. Some customers require more resources than others? Variables to the rescue!

Odds and Ends

Configuration Management (Chef)

Terraform is explicitly not a configuration management tool. You may have noticed that we didn’t follow basic security measures in setting up our nodes. We didn’t set up a firewall, turn off SSH password access, turn off root access over SSH, or even create non-root users. These tasks are better left to a tool like Chef which will make configuration easier to manage throughout the lifetime of your resources. Terraform even ships with a Chef provisioner which will install, configure, and run the Chef client on a remote resource and a Chef provider which can manage resources that exist within a Chef server.

Other Resources and Providers

Terraform is not limited to spinning up virtual hardware in the cloud. It can provision DNS (DNSimple, CloudFlare, etc), source code repositories (including setting up webhooks for GitHub, GitLab, and BitBucket), bare metal servers (Packet, Scaleway, etc), most resources on AWS and GCP, resources within databases (PostgreSQL, MySQL), and even set up services like PagerDuty and Mailgun. Terraform has a lot of capabilities – I’ve only really scratched the surface here. Be sure to check out the full list of official providers as well as the documentation for official provisioners.

Managing Configuration

Since infrastructure in Terraform is represented as code it is very easy to check in to version control. It’s a good idea to make a commit before running terraform apply, and you should never run terraform apply more than once without committing in between – you’re just inviting a world full of hurt otherwise.

You may also want to refactor common configuration into variables. For instance, I used the same droplet size for all of my nodes – that could have been a variable. For an example that uses more variables, check out this post’s accompanying repository.

On the topic of variables, it’s a good idea to keep sensitive information (such as your DigitalOcean API token) in variables. If you use a terraform.tfvars file that has sensitive information in it you should place that file in your .gitignore so it doesn’t get committed.

For more information on variables, check out the official variables documentation.


Throughout this article we’ve been running and provisioning everything from our local machine. But what if we’re working on a team and we want to share the state of our infrastructure? What if provisioning resources will just take a long time and we don’t want to depend on our local machine being available? That’s where backends come in. Terraform supports a number of backends including S3 and gcs, be sure to check out the full list of backend types.

What if I want to manage my existing infrastructure with Terraform?

If you have existing infrastructure you’d like to start managing with Terraform you’re in luck. Terraform has a mechanism which allows you to import existing infrastructure. The specifics are outside the scope of this article, but if you find yourself wanting to let Terraform manage existing infrastructure be sure to check out the page on importing existing infrastructure.


Terraform is a powerful tool which makes provisioning and managing infrastructure easy. While other tools like Chef are focused on managing how software and configuration is deployed across existing infrastructure, Terraform is focused on the (virtual) hardware side of things allowing you to easily and repeatedly deploy and update infrastructure. Whether you’re looking to quickly try things out on your favorite cloud provider or you need a way to reliably manage large pieces of infrastructure, Terraform is likely the tool for you. Feel free to check out this article’s accompanying GitHub repository for a complete working example.

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