NixOS cheatsheet

Learning Nix, I felt the need to take notes. My future self will thank me for the reminders :wink:.

:bomb: I’m a total noob with Nix, I’m just writing just because my stupid brain forgets shit all the time. Don’t use this as a source of truth. I will update things as I learn more, but I have already seen a few talks that suggest that some of the CLI tools that I refer to here may be something of the past soon enough. You’ve been warned :wink:.

Nix Basics

In Nix* parlance you will often notice the terms profile and generation being thrown around. One should have a decent understanding of the nix store to demystify these concepts.

The nix store contains all packages that are installed on your system in unique directories which are prefixed by a cryptographic hash that contains the inputs involved in building the package such that every build of the exact same package would result to the same cryptographic hash for the installation directory, while a minor tweak, perhaps just the addition or removal of a single dependency or compiler flag, will produce a different prefix altogether.

In my system, for example, the GCC man pages are installed to /nix/store/81dm4qw-gcc-5.4.0-man/ where 81dm4qw represents a trucated hash since displaying full hashes in a post doesn’t help anyone :wink:. Any time, I have the gcc manpages installed and encounter the exact same hash in the directory name, I can be pretty confident that the files in that directory are similar to the ones I may have encountered before, perhaps even elsewhere. A different hash, however; would indicate that there is a difference in the the gcc manpages, its dependencies or perhaps the way they were built or installed.

Since the /nix/store paths are rather cryptic and kind of user-unfriendly in a certain way (i.e.: PATH would be a unlegible mess with just a small number of such paths added to it), Nix introduces the concept of profiles and generations.

Profiles are simply a representation of the packages are are available within a given environment and generations represent versions of those profiles.

In short, my personal profile ~/.nix-profile points to something in the /nix/var/nix/profiles directory which contains a manifest.nix file and a bin and share directory that contain symlinks to the appropriate destinations somewhere in /nix/store.

├── bin
│   │   ...
│   ├── tor -> /nix/store/${TOR_HASH}-tor-x.x.x/bin/tor
│   └── ...
├── manifest.nix -> /nix/store/${MANIFEST_HASH}-env-manifest.nix
└── share
    │   ...
    ├── tor -> /nix/store/${TOR_HASH}-tor-x.x.x/share/tor
    └── ...

4 directories, 4 files

With the bin directory as specified by my profile, added to $PATH, one can easily call all the executables inside this bin directory. In fact, with multiple profile directories containing their own bin directories, one can switch environments by simply rerouting symlinks. This is the where NixOS gets to boast atomic profile switches or updates.

Note that $HOME/.nix-profile is symlinked to /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/vid/profile in my case, which happens to be symlinked to /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/vid/profile-NN-link (where NN is some number). Inside the /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/vid directory I find a couple of symlinks that fit the profile-NN-link pattern which makes the changing of my profile as simple as just switching the profile symlink to point to one of those profile-NN-link targets :wink:. Atomic AF!


NixOS allows the use of packages like any other sane distribution out there. One can actually use NixOS like you would any other distribution by imperatively adding the packages you need using a tool like nix-env , however; NixOS’s package manager nix allows a more powerful method for controlling the packages on your box.

nix-env Operations

So the nix-env CLI boasts a few operations:

  • --install or -i
  • --upgrade or -u
  • --uninstall or -e
  • --set
  • --set-flag
  • --query
  • --switch-profile or -S
  • --list-generations
  • --delete-generations
  • --switch-generations or -G and
  • --rollback

all of which are discussed at length at the man nix-env or nix-env --help pages, yet I repeated them here in order to provide an escape for the lazy future self.

Query for available packages

You can only install packages once you know their names. Using the query operation of nix-env allows one to explore whatever is installed in the current generation or whatever is available for installation in the nix expression.

The current generation basically represents the entire constellation of packages that are currently installed and part of your nix profile.

Query -q available -a packages that match the provided argument while preserving -P already installed packages on the system (i.e.: retain formerly installed versions of a specified derivation while attempting to install the version specified in the argument).

nix-env -qaP firefox

Which, for debian-based distro users, is more analogous to apt-cache search firefox.

Running nix-env -qaP pasystray provides me with the output

nixos.pasystray              pasystray-0.6.0
nixos-17.03-small.pasystray  pasystray-0.6.0

which indicates that version 0.6.0 of pasystray is available in the nixos and nixos-17.03-small channels

One may also specify the nix expression by specifying the path to the nix expression using the -f flag

nix-env -f ~/.nix-defexpr -qa

which becomes helpful when testing changes to a nixpkgs repository.

Let’s, for the sake of argument, suppose that I have the nixpkgs repository checked out to the my_nixpkgs directory. When I’ve made changes to the nixpkgs repository I spawn a nix shell within which I try to install the modified or newly added package. After modifying the nixpkgs repository to add a terraform_0_11 derivation, one can verify that the newly added package is listed by querying the index

nix-env -f nixpkgs=my_nixpkgs -qaP terraform_0_11

and subsequently install the new package by running

nix-env -f nixpkgs=my_nixpkgs -i terraform_0_11

which may be done in the current shell, or even better a seperate nix-shell just to keep things isolated :wink:.

Install a package only for the duration of a session

nix-shell -p libjpeg openjdk


Within the Nix ecosystem, packages are delivered through the medium of channels, which represent a collection of assets that fly under a given flag.

The channels repository provides references for every channel in relation to the nixpkgs repository.

A simple glance into the [branches inside the nixpkgs-channels repository] provide the insight into the cannels that are available, which as of the 26th of June 2017 include:

  • nixpkgs-unstable (development branch, bleeding edge, not recommended for production)
  • nixos-unstable-small
  • nixos-17.03 (stable channel, think Ubuntu LTS-ish :wink:)
  • nixos-17.03-small

among some stale branches

  • nixos-14.12
  • nixos-14.12-small

which I suppose you’d generally want to avoid.

The Upgrading NixOS section in the manual provides a clear explanation and recommendation regarding the channels so feel free to consult the source :wink:. The gist is that new PR’s are generally merged into channels postfixed as -small a bit faster than their stable counterparts.

List the channels on your current system using nix-channel --list and find the expressions for your channels within the ~/.nix-defexpr directory

├── channels -> /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/vid/channels
└── channels_root -> /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/root/channels

which indicates that the system is set up with a path for the root channel (which are shared among all users of the system) and private channels which as user specific.

NOTE: that running sudo nix-channel --list will provide a listing of the channels as known to the user root, which may differ from the regular user who’s channel listing you may review through nix-channel --list.

Adding the nixos-17.03-small channel may be done by executing nix-channel --add

Name collision in input Nix expression, skipping…

$ nix-env -qaP go
warning: name collision in input Nix expressions, skipping ‘/store/vidbina.home/.nix-defexpr/channels_root/nixos’
nixos.go_bootstrap  go-1.4-bootstrap-20161024
nixos.go_1_6        go-1.6.4
nixos.go            go-1.7.4

After running nix-channel --list, I realised that I had added a non-stable channel under the nixos name and wondered if perhaps the nixos name for a channel is already used by Nix* internals and therefore collides.

Wondering whether the name collision issue may be attributed to the previous adding of a channel under an already “reserved” name, being nixos, prompted the idea to remove the channel to observe whether it resolved the issue.

The former execution of nix-channel --add nixos. pparently confused my setup which already contained a (root) channel named nixos.

After removing the recently added user channel named nixos nix-channel --remove nixos and re-adding it without specifying the optional name nix-channel --add, the channel was added with the name nixos-17.03-small.

NOTE: Adding channels without providing the name simply names the channel in accordance to the last phrase of the channel URL with the suffix -stable or -unstable removed from the name such that nixos-17.03-small remains nixos-17.03-small and nixos-unstable-small becomes nixos-small :wink:.

An update through nix-channel --update was required to enforce the changes after which a query actually presented the results from the different channels. :victory:

$ nix-env -qaP go
nixos.go_bootstrap              go-1.4-bootstrap-20161024
nixos-17.03-small.go_bootstrap  go-1.4-bootstrap-20161024
nixos.go_1_6                    go-1.6.4
nixos-17.03-small.go_1_6        go-1.6.4
nixos.go                        go-1.7.4
nixos-17.03-small.go            go-1.7.4

If you still are still looking at this error message study these Nix dev mailing list and Stackexchange threads for more information. Godspeed :rocket:


I’ve been using NixOS for the better part of the last 2 months now and I still find myself fighting its syntax and eco-system from time to time. Since I’m a big believer in practice, I decided to tweak a few packages to my liking or at least attempt to add some functionality that I needed as an exercise in wrapping my mind around the Nix-verse.

Let’s simplify our lives by making the Nix repl available.

nix-env -i nix-repl

Within the nix repl it becomes easy to try out different statements and expressions and perform some introspection. Inside the REPL one may

  • enter :? for the help menu
  • double TAB to trigger the autocompleter which exposes whatever is in scope :wink: (e.g.: functions and variables).
Screenshot of nix-repl

A helpful resource to keep close is the syntax summary does exactly what its name implies :wink:.

So to drop to a practical use case. I’ve been meaning to override something in firefox for a while. Firefox, like any other Nix module, is defined in [nixpkgs][nixpkgs-firefox] as a function that takes some configuration flags and dependencies as a set of arguments and returns a set of options, which in Nix syntax looks a bit like inputs: outputs but is explained in detail in the Nix documentation on writing Nix expressions.

Tip :bulb: Feel free to enter all of the expressions displayed in the text as


into the REPL in order to follow along. It’s the best way to learn :wink:.


A doubling lambda $x \mapsto x\times 2$ is expressed in Nix as

x: x*2

and could be called by passing an argument, let’s say $24$, as

(x: x*2) 24

where it is important to note that the lambda is enclosed between parenthesis to indicate to the language how to tokenize the expression.

A function call in Nix looks like fn arg and without the parenthesis, the expression

x: x*2 24

will represent a lambda that takes x, multiplies x by two and then applies 24 to the output of the multiplication. What the hell does that even mean?!? :confused: Since x*2 does not yield a function we are basically committing an offense by attempting to apply 24 to the output of a multiplication operation.

Nix is user-friendly enough to throw error: attempt to call something which is not a function but an integer, at … whenever we pull crap like this.

Nix seem to deal with unary functions only, therefore passing multiple arguments to a function isn’t possible. What we can do, however; is pass a set that contains an arbitrary amount of values to meet our needs. Calculating the area of a triangle by returning half the product of the base $b$ and height $h$ could be represented as follows

areaOfTriangle = { b, h }: b*h/2

and subsequently called by passing a set with a and b defined :wink:.

areaOfTriangle { b = 12; h = 12; }


Of course, being able to bind expressions to names is cool, but using globals isn’t1. Inside the REPL you may be able to do this, but don’t get too used to it. The let statement allows one to specify a binding that will be limited to the scope that follows the in keyword.

let n = 12; in {
  name = "example";
  n = n;
  version = "v0.${toString n}";

is a much cleaner way to deal with bindings.


Learn x in y provides an excellent

Demystifying the Firefox package

The firefox attribute in all-packages.nix is bound to the output of wrapFirefox firefox-unwrapped { }.

In this case, the wrapFirefox binding has the output of

callPackage ../applications/networking/browsers/firefox/wrapper.nix { }

assigned to it, which begs the question… what is callPackage? Well, callPackage is a convenience function that basically fills in the blanks on a package import that may require some attributes that are defined in nixpkgs.

In all-packages The wrapper function takes a set with dependencies such as stdenv, lib and some plugins, then it takes a browser set and subsequently a configuration set for the browserName, desktopName and an icon, among some other configurations, and returns a derivation.

(((wrapFirefox {}) browser) {})
__functionArgs (wrapFirefox)

Understanding what we feed into wrapFirefox requires understanding what rrecursive set firefox from firefox/packages.nix

:l nixpkgs # ignore if <nixpkgs> is already loaded
__attrNames firefox

In order to observe the output derivation whenever we call firefox

The wrapper takes a set containing stdenv, lib, config, esteidfirefoxplugin, among others and returns a lambda that takes another set browser that returns another lambda that takes a set that requires a configuration set for the browser and populates some default attributes based on the browser binding established prior after which we return a derivation.

{ stdenv, lib, makeDesktopItem, makeWrapper, config
, flashplayer, hal-flash
, MPlayerPlugin, ffmpeg, gst_all, xorg, libpulseaudio, libcanberra_gtk2
, supportsJDK, jrePlugin, icedtea_web
, trezor-bridge, bluejeans, djview4, adobe-reader
, google_talk_plugin, fribid, gnome3/*.gnome_shell*/
, esteidfirefoxplugin
, vlc_npapi
, libudev

# configurability of the wrapper itself
{ browserName ? browser.browserName or (builtins.parseDrvName
, name ? (browserName + "-" + (builtins.parseDrvName
, desktopName ? # browserName with first letter capitalized
  (lib.toUpper (lib.substring 0 1 browserName) + lib.substring 1 (-1) browserName)
, nameSuffix ? ""
, icon ? browserName
# build output set
{ ... }
wrapFirefox { stdenv ? stdenv, meta = {}  } {} {}

and returns a lambda that

:l nixpkgs # ignore if <nixpkgs> is already loaded
firefox.plugins # or
let ff = wrapFirefox firefox-unwrapped {}; in ff.plugins
  1. Using globals is unsustainable because it becomes increasingly harder to keep track of which globals are defined and who assigns values to global references. This could lead to name collisions or even worse, if bindings are mutable, changes of global references.