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It seems like I can use either user-data with a template file or a "remote-exec" provisioner with inline commands to bootstrap. So which one is considered more idiomatic?

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The user-data field is native to AWS, whereas the remote-exec provisioner is specific to terraform  which is just one of many ways to call AWS-API 

User-data can be viewed in AWS-CONSOLE and is an important part of using Auto Scaling Groups in AWS,  It's not possible to do that with Terraform's remote-exec provisioner.

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