AWS CloudFormation

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General AWS CloudFormation Concepts

AWS CloudFormation is a service that allows you to manage, configure and provision your AWS infrastructure as code.

AWS CloudFormation provides a common language for you to describe and provision all the infrastructure resources in your cloud environment.

Resources are defined using a CloudFormation template.

CloudFormation interprets the template and makes the appropriate API calls to create the resources you have defined.

Supports YAML or JSON.

CloudFormation can be used to provision a broad range of AWS resources.

Think of CloudFormation as deploying infrastructure as code.

CloudFormation has some similarities with AWS Elastic Beanstalk though they are also quite different as detailed in the table below:

CloudFormation vs Elastic Beanstalk

Key Benefits

Infrastructure is provisioned consistently, with fewer mistakes (human error).

Less time and effort than configuring resources manually.

You can use version control and peer review for your CloudFormation templates.

Free to use (you’re only charged for the resources provisioned).

It can be used to manage updates and dependencies.

It can be used to rollback and delete the entire stack as well.

Key Concepts

The following table describes the key concepts associated with AWS CloudFormation:

AWS CloudFormation Key Concepts


A template is a YAML or JSON template used to describe the end-state of the infrastructure you are either provisioning or changing.

After creating the template, you upload it to CloudFormation directly or using Amazon S3.

CloudFormation reads the template and makes the API calls on your behalf.

The resulting resources are called a “Stack”.

Logical IDs are used to reference resources within the template.

Physical IDs identify resources outside of AWS CloudFormation templates, but only after the resources have been created.

Template elements


  • List of resources and associated configuration values.

Not mandatory:

  • Template parameters (limited to 60).
  • Output values (limited to 60).
  • List of data tables.

Template components

Resources – the required Resources section declares the AWS resources that you want to include in the stack, such as an Amazon EC2 instance or an Amazon S3 bucket.

  • Mandatory.
  • Represent AWS components that will be created.
  • Resources are declared and can reference each other.

The following example YAML code declares an EC2 instance as a resource:

    Type: "AWS::EC2::Instance"
      ImageId: "ami-0ff8a91507f77f867"

Parameters – use the optional Parameters section to customize your templates. Parameters enable you to input custom values to your template each time you create or update a stack.

  • Provide inputs to your CloudFormation template.
  • Useful for template reuse.

The following example declares a parameter named InstanceTypeParameter. This parameter lets you specify the Amazon EC2 instance type for the stack to use when you create or update the stack.

Note: the InstanceTypeParameter has a default value of t2.micro. This is the value that AWS CloudFormation uses to provision the stack unless another value is provided.

    Type: String
    Default: t2.micro
      - t2.micro
      - m1.small
      - m1.large
    Description: Enter t2.micro, m1.small, or m1.large. Default is t2.micro.

Pseudo Parameters

Pseudo parameters are parameters that are predefined by AWS CloudFormation. You do not declare them in your template. Use them the same way as you would a parameter, as the argument for the Ref function.

Examples include:

  • AWS::AccountId – Returns the AWS account ID of the account in which the stack is being created.
  • AWS::NotificationARNs – Returns the list of notification Amazon Resource Names (ARNs) for the current stack.
  • AWS::Region – Returns a string representing the AWS Region in which the encompassing resource is being created.
  • AWS::StackId – Returns the ID of the stack as specified with the aws cloudformation create-stack command.

Mappings – the optional Mappings section matches a key to a corresponding set of named values.

  • Fixed variables.
  • Good for differentiating between regions, environments, AMIs etc.
  • Need to know the values in advance.
  • For user-specific values use parameters instead.

The following example has region keys that are mapped to two sets of values: one named HVM64 and the other HVMG2.

      HVM64: ami-0ff8a91507f77f867
      HVMG2: ami-0a584ac55a7631c0c
      HVM64: ami-0bdb828fd58c52235
      HVMG2: ami-066ee5fd4a9ef77f1

Exam tip: with mappings you can, for example, set values based on a region. You can create a mapping that uses the region name as a key and contains the values you want to specify for each specific region.

Outputs – the optional Outputs section declares output values that you can import into other stacks (to create cross-stack references), return in response (to describe stack calls), or view on the AWS CloudFormation console.

  • Outputs can be imported into other stacks.
  • Can view the outputs in the console or using the AWS CLI.
  • Cannot delete a Stack if it’s outputs are being referenced by another CloudFormation Stack.

In the following example YAML code, the output named StackVPC returns the ID of a VPC, and then exports the value for cross-stack referencing with the name VPCID appended to the stack’s name

    Description: The ID of the VPC
    Value: !Ref MyVPC
      Name: !Sub "${AWS::StackName}-VPCID"

Conditions – the optional Conditions section contains statements that define the circumstances under which entities are created or configured.

  • Control the creation of resources based on a condition.
  • Applied to resources and outputs.

In the sample YAML code below, resources are created only if the EnvType parameter is equal to prod:

  CreateProdResources: !Equals [ !Ref EnvType, prod ]

Transform – the optional Transform section specifies one or more macros that AWS CloudFormation uses to process your template.

The transform section can be used to reference additional code stored in S3, such as Lambda code or reusable snippets of CloudFormation code.

The AWS::Serverless transform, which is a macro hosted by AWS CloudFormation, takes an entire template written in the AWS Serverless Application Model (AWS SAM) syntax and transforms and expands it into a compliant AWS CloudFormation template.

In the following example, the template uses AWS SAM syntax to simplify the declaration of a Lambda function and its execution role:

Transform: AWS::Serverless-2016-10-31
    Type: AWS::Serverless::Function
      Handler: index.handler
      Runtime: nodejs8.10
      CodeUri: 's3://testBucket/'

Intrinsic Functions

AWS CloudFormation provides several built-in functions that help you manage your stacks. Use intrinsic functions in your templates to assign values to properties that are not available until runtime.

EXAM TIP: At a minimum, know the intrinsic functions listed below for the exam. The full list can be found at:


  • Fn::Ref (or !Ref in YAML),
  • The intrinsic function Ref returns the value of the specified parameter or resource.
  • When you specify a parameter’s logical name, it returns the value of the parameter.
  • When you specify a resource’s logical name, it returns a value that you can typically use to refer to that resource, such as a physical ID.

The following resource declaration for an Elastic IP address needs the instance ID of an EC2 instance and uses the Ref function to specify the instance ID of the MyEC2Instance resource:

  Type: "AWS::EC2::EIP"
    InstanceId: !Ref MyEC2Instance


  • The Fn::GetAtt intrinsic function returns the value of an attribute from a resource in the template.
  • Full syntax (YAML): Fn::GetAtt: [ logicalNameOfResource, attributeName ]
  • Short form (YAML): !GetAtt logicalNameOfResource.attributeName

The following example template returns the SourceSecurityGroup.OwnerAlias and SourceSecurityGroup.GroupName of the load balancer with the logical name myELB.

AWSTemplateFormatVersion: 2010-09-09
    Type: AWS::ElasticLoadBalancing::LoadBalancer
        - eu-west-1a
        - LoadBalancerPort: '80'
          InstancePort: '80'
          Protocol: HTTP
    Type: AWS::EC2::SecurityGroup
      GroupDescription: ELB ingress group
        - IpProtocol: tcp
          FromPort: '80'
          ToPort: '80'
          SourceSecurityGroupOwnerId: !GetAtt myELB.SourceSecurityGroup.OwnerAlias
          SourceSecurityGroupName: !GetAtt myELB.SourceSecurityGroup.GroupName


  • The intrinsic function Fn::FindInMap returns the value corresponding to keys in a two-level map that is declared in the Mappings section.
  • Full syntax (YAML): Fn::FindInMap: [ MapName, TopLevelKey, SecondLevelKey ]
  • Short form (YAML): !FindInMap [ MapName, TopLevelKey, SecondLevelKey ]

The following example shows how to use Fn::FindInMap for a template with a Mappings section that contains a single map, RegionMap, that associates AMIs with AWS regions:

      HVM64: "ami-0ff8a91507f77f867"
      HVMG2: "ami-0a584ac55a7631c0c"
      HVM64: "ami-0bdb828fd58c52235"
      HVMG2: "ami-066ee5fd4a9ef77f1"
    Type: "AWS::EC2::Instance"
      ImageId: !FindInMap
        - RegionMap
        - !Ref 'AWS::Region'
        - HVM64
      InstanceType: m1.small


  • The intrinsic function Fn::ImportValue returns the value of an output exported by another stack.
  • You typically use this function to create cross-stack references.
  !Sub "${NetworkStackName}-SecurityGroupID"


  • Full syntax (YAML): Fn::Join: [ delimiter, [ comma-delimited list of values ] ]
  • Short form (YAML): !Join [ delimiter, [ comma-delimited list of values ] ]

The following example uses Fn::Join to construct a string value. It uses the Ref function with the Partition parameter and the AWS::AccountId pseudo parameter.

  - ''
  - - 'arn:'
    - !Ref Partition
    - ':s3:::elasticbeanstalk-*-'
    - !Ref 'AWS::AccountId'


  • The intrinsic function Fn::Sub substitutes variables in an input string with values that you specify.
  • In your templates, you can use this function to construct commands or outputs that include values that aren’t available until you create or update a stack.

The following example uses a mapping to substitute the ${Domain} variable with the resulting value from the Ref function:

Name: !Sub
  - www.${Domain}
  - { Domain: !Ref RootDomainName }

Stacks and Stack Sets


  • Deployed resources based on templates.
  • Create, update and delete stacks using templates.
  • Deployed through the Management Console, CLI or APIs.

Stack creation errors:

  • Automatic rollback on error is enabled by default.
  • You will be charged for resources provisioned even if there is an error.

Updating stacks:

  • AWS CloudFormation provides two methods for updating stacks: direct update or creating and executing change sets.
  • When you directly update a stack, you submit changes and AWS CloudFormation immediately deploys them.
  • Use direct updates when you want to quickly deploy your updates.
  • With change sets, you can preview the changes AWS CloudFormation will make to your stack, and then decide whether to apply those changes.

Stack Sets:

  • AWS CloudFormation StackSets extends the functionality of stacks by enabling you to create, update, or delete stacks across multiple accounts and regions with a single operation.
  • Using an administrator account, you define and manage an AWS CloudFormation template, and use the template as the basis for provisioning stacks into selected target accounts across specified regions.
  • An administrator account is the AWS account in which you create stack sets.
  • A stack set is managed by signing in to the AWS administrator account in which it was created.
  • A target account is the account into which you create, update, or delete one or more stacks in your stack set.

Before you can use a stack set to create stacks in a target account, you must set up a trust relationship between the administrator and target accounts.

CloudFormation Nested Stacks:

  • Nested stacks allow re-use of CloudFormation code for common use cases.
  • For example standard configuration for a load balancer, web server, application server etc.
  • Instead of copying out the code each time, create a standard template for each common use case and reference from within your CloudFormation template.

Best Practices

AWS provides Python “helper scripts” which can help you install software and start services on your EC2 instances.

  • Use CloudFormation to make changes to your landscape rather than going directly into the resources.
  • Make use of Change Sets to identify potential trouble spots in your updates.
  • Use Stack Policies to explicitly protect sensitive portions of your stack.
  • Use a version control system such as CodeCommit or GitHub to track changes to templates.

Serverless Application Model (SAM)

Use SAM for deploying serverless applications using CloudFormation.

SAM is an extension to CloudFormation used to define serverless applications.

Simplified syntax for defining serverless resources: APIs, Lambda Functions, DynamoDB Tables etc.

Use the SAM CLI to package your deployment code, upload it to S3 and deploy your serverless application.


  • There is no additional charge for AWS CloudFormation.
  • You pay for AWS resources (such as Amazon EC2 instances, Elastic Load Balancing load balancers, etc.) created using AWS CloudFormation in the same manner as if you created them manually.
  • You only pay for what you use, as you use it; there are no minimum fees and no required upfront commitments.