AWS CloudFormation Drift Detection – Infrastructure Compliance at Scale

Cloud adoption is skyrocketing worldwide. In 2021, over 40% of the companies in the European Union used cloud computing for business purposes. But as adoption rates increase, cloud infrastructure is also becoming increasingly complex, making it very critical for businesses to maintain compliance and consistency to ensure reliable and secure operations.

AWS CloudFormation Drift Detection is a powerful tool that assists businesses in identifying and rectifying any configuration drift that might occur between the desired state defined in a CloudFormation template and the actual deployed resources.

This article explores the concept of CloudFormation drift, how it impacts your infrastructure, and how you can utilize AWS CloudFormation Drift Detection to maintain control and compliance in your AWS environment. But first, let’s briefly explain what AWS CloudFormation is.

What is AWS CloudFormation?

AWS CloudFormation is a service provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS) that enables you to automate the deployment and management of your AWS infrastructure resources. It allows you to define your infrastructure as code using templates, which can be written in either JSON or YAML format. These templates describe the desired configuration of various AWS resources such as compute instances, storage, networking components, databases, security groups, and more.

CloudFormation makes it easier to create and manage complex cloud environments by providing a consistent and repeatable way to provision resources. You define your infrastructure and its dependencies in a template, and CloudFormation takes care of provisioning and managing those resources according to the template specifications. This helps in maintaining consistency, reducing errors, and enabling efficient scaling and updates.

What is AWS CloudFormation Drift?

In the AWS ecosystem, CloudFormation is a widely used service that enables users to define their infrastructure as code (IaC). It allows developers and system administrators to create, manage, and update AWS resources using templates written in JSON or YAML. The templates define the desired state of the resources, and AWS CloudFormation handles the provisioning and configuration of those resources.

However, as cloud infrastructure evolves over time, manual changes may be introduced outside of CloudFormation. These alterations could include changes to resource attributes, security group rules, instance sizes, and more. Such changes create a discrepancy between the desired state (as defined in the CloudFormation template) and the actual state of resources. This discrepancy is known as “drift.”

The Impact of Drift on Your Infrastructure

Configuration drift can lead to various issues, including:

  1. Security Vulnerabilities: Drifted resources may deviate from the intended security settings, leaving your infrastructure vulnerable to potential breaches or unauthorized access.
  2. Performance Degradation: Misconfigured resources might lead to inefficiencies and performance bottlenecks, impacting the overall system performance.
  3. Compliance Violations: In regulated industries, deviation from the defined compliance standards can result in penalties and legal repercussions.
  4. Inconsistent Environments: Drifted resources can lead to inconsistencies across different environments, hindering collaboration and testing efforts.

Introducing AWS CloudFormation Drift Detection

To address these challenges, AWS CloudFormation offers a feature called “Drift Detection.” This feature allows users to identify the drift in their resources by comparing the actual configuration against the desired state specified in the CloudFormation template.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Drift Detection: When you initiate a drift detection operation, CloudFormation inspects the stack’s resources and identifies any differences between the desired and actual states.
  2. Drift Status: Once the drift detection process is complete, CloudFormation assigns a drift status to each resource within the stack. The status can be “IN_SYNC,” “MODIFIED,” “DELETED,” or “NOT_CHECKED.
  3. Drift Detection Reports: Users can view detailed reports generated by CloudFormation, providing insights into the specific resources that have drifted.
  4. Drift Remediation: After identifying drift, you can take corrective actions, such as updating the stack with the current resource configurations to bring them back to the desired state.

Detecting Drift in AWS CloudFormation

To perform drift detection, you can either use the AWS cloud security, AWS Command Line Interface (CLI), or AWS Software Development Kits (SDKs). CloudFormation maintains a detailed history of stack resource properties, which allows you to compare the current state with previous configurations.

1. AWS Management Console

  • Go to the CloudFormation service in the AWS Management Console.
  • Select the stack you want to examine.
  • Click on the “Stack Actions” dropdown and choose “Detect drift.”
  • The drift detection process will run, and you can view the results in the “Stack Drift” tab.


  • Use the command aws cloudformation detect-stack-drift followed by the stack name or stack ID.


  • Utilize the appropriate SDK for your preferred programming language to perform drift detection programmatically.

Understanding Drift Statuses

When CloudFormation completes the drift detection process, each resource will be assigned one of the following drift statuses:

  1. IN_SYNC: The resource’s current configuration matches the desired state defined in the CloudFormation template.
  2. MODIFIED: The resource’s current configuration differs from the desired state specified in the template. It indicates that the resource has drifted and requires attention.
  3. DELETED: The resource is no longer present in the stack’s current configuration but still exists in the stack’s template.
  4. NOT_CHECKED: CloudFormation cannot determine the drift status of the resource due to insufficient permissions or other reasons.

Drift Detection Reports

CloudFormation generates detailed drift detection reports to assist you in understanding the scope and impact of configuration drift. These reports provide valuable information, which includes the following:

  • A list of resources with their respective drift statuses.
  • Time and date of the last drift detection operation.
  • CloudFormation stack drift status (DRIFTED, IN_SYNC, etc.).
  • Drift detection operation ID for tracking purposes.

Remediation of Drifted Resources

Once you identify resources that have drifted, you can take the necessary remediation actions to bring them back to the desired state. There are two primary approaches for remediation:

  1. Manual Remediation: In this approach, you manually update the drifted resources to match the desired state by making the necessary configuration changes. After rectifying the configuration, you can choose to update the stack using CloudFormation to synchronize it with the desired state.
  2. Automated Remediation: Manual remediation can be time-consuming and error-prone for large-scale infrastructures with frequent changes. To automate drift remediation, you can use AWS CloudFormation StackSets. StackSets enable you to deploy and update stacks across multiple AWS accounts and regions, ensuring consistent configurations at scale.


AWS CloudFormation Drift Detection is an invaluable tool that helps organizations ensure compliance, security, and consistency across their cloud infrastructure. You can use it to proactively detect and address configuration drift, helping you maintain control over your AWS environment, reduce the risk of security breaches, and ensure the seamless functioning of your applications.

As cloud environments continue to grow in complexity, leveraging the capabilities of CloudFormation Drift Detection is essential for businesses seeking scalable, resilient, and secure cloud operations. By embracing this powerful AWS feature, you can confidently manage your cloud resources and focus on delivering value to your customers without worrying about configuration drift.

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Q1. What are the advantages of AWS CloudFormation?

Ans. Here are the advantages of using AWS CloudFormation

  • Automated Deployment: Streamlines resource provisioning through templates, reducing manual setup errors.
  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC): Treats infrastructure as code, allowing version control, collaboration, and reusability.
  • Consistency: Ensures consistent environments across development, testing, and production stages.
  • Efficiency: Reduces setup time and effort, enabling quick scaling and faster development cycles.
  • Rollback and Recovery: Facilitates easy rollback to previous stack versions in case of issues.
  • Visual Representation: Provides a visual representation of complex architectures through templates.
  • Support for Multiple Services: Manages a wide range of AWS resources, including EC2 instances, databases, networking, and more.
  • Resource Relationships: Handles dependencies between resources, ensuring correct creation and deletion order.
  • Customization: Allows parameterization for dynamic resource configuration in different environments.
  • Integration with DevOps: Integrates seamlessly into CI/CD pipelines for automated, continuous deployment.
  • Scalability: Easily scales applications up or down by adjusting resource counts in templates.

Q2. What are the disadvantages of CloudFormation?

Here are some disadvantages of AWS CloudFormation:

  • AWS-Centric: CloudFormation is tightly integrated with AWS services, which means it’s primarily suited for managing AWS resources. If you have a multi-cloud or hybrid environment, using CloudFormation might limit your options.
  • Complexity: Templates can become complex, especially for larger stacks or intricate architectures. This complexity might make it harder to troubleshoot issues and understand the overall configuration.
  • Limited Portability: CloudFormation templates are specific to AWS, which might make it difficult to migrate to another cloud provider or use the same templates outside of AWS.
  • Versioning and Rollbacks: While CloudFormation provides some versioning and rollback capabilities, managing and tracking changes to templates and stacks can be challenging, especially in complex scenarios.
  • Lack of Modularity: While CloudFormation has introduced features like StackSets for managing multiple accounts and regions, achieving true modularity and reusability in templates can be more challenging compared to other tools like Terraform.
  • Resource Updates: CloudFormation updates often involve deleting and recreating resources, which can lead to disruptions, especially for stateful resources like databases.
  • Learning Curve: Understanding CloudFormation’s JSON or YAML syntax and learning the intricacies of how resources are defined and linked might require some learning curve, especially for newcomers.
  • Third-Party Integrations: While CloudFormation supports many AWS services natively, integrating third-party services or custom scripts might be more challenging compared to more generalized tools.

Q3. Is CloudFormation SaaS, PaaS, or IaaS?

Ans. AWS CloudFormation can be categorized as a service that falls under the “Infrastructure as Code (IaC)“concept, which is a methodology for managing and provisioning infrastructure resources through code-like templates. However, if we were to loosely fit it into the traditional “SaaS,” “PaaS,” or “IaaS” categories, it aligns most closely with “IaaS” (Infrastructure as a Service).

Q4. What is an AWS CloudFormation template?

Ans. An AWS CloudFormation template is a JSON or YAML formatted text file that defines the AWS resources and their configurations needed to create and manage an entire infrastructure stack. The template provides a declarative way to specify the desired state of resources, their relationships, properties, and any dependencies between them. This allows you to define your infrastructure as code, making it versionable, repeatable, and shareable.

Q5. What are the differences between CloudFormation and Terraform?

Ans. Here are the key differences between AWS CloudFormation and HashiCorp Terraform:

Vendor Focus

  • CloudFormation: Specifically designed for managing AWS resources, providing tight integration with AWS services.
  • Terraform: Supports multiple cloud providers (including AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, and more) and can manage resources across different clouds.

Ecosystem and Community

  • CloudFormation: Has a strong focus on AWS resources and services, with less diversity in terms of community-contributed extensions.
  • Terraform: Benefits from a large and active community, resulting in a broader range of community-driven modules that cover various providers and services.

Configuration Language

  • CloudFormation: Uses JSON or YAML templates for defining resources and configurations.
  • Terraform: Employs Hashi Corp Configuration Language (HCL), designed to be more human-readable and expressive for infrastructure definition.

Resource Updates

  • CloudFormation: Uses a stack-based approach, where changes are often applied by updating the entire stack.
  • Terraform: Supports targeted updates, allowing specific resources to be changed without affecting others, potentially leading to more controlled and efficient updates.

State Management

  • CloudFormation: Manages stack state internally within AWS without external visibility.
  • Terraform: Uses a state file that can be stored and versioned externally, providing better visibility into the current infrastructure state.

Dependency Handling

  • CloudFormation: Requires explicit ordering of resources to handle dependencies.
  • Terraform: Automatically detects and manages resource dependencies, leading to less manual intervention.

Flexibility and Abstraction

  • CloudFormation: Offers resource-level control but might have limitations in handling certain complex scenarios.
  • Terraform: Provides more abstraction and flexibility, enabling users to create intricate infrastructure configurations.


  • CloudFormation: Integrated into the AWS ecosystem, making it easy to use within AWS environments.
  • Terraform: Suitable for multi-cloud or hybrid environments, allowing consistent management across various platforms.

Ultimately, the choice between CloudFormation and Terraform depends on your organization’s cloud strategy, requirements, and familiarity with the tools. It’s advisable to evaluate both tools based on your specific needs before deciding.

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