2019 0003 0014

Migrating to NixOS

After running Arch Linux for the last decade, I’ve finally made the jump to NixOS. For me, this means updating two VMs (VirtualBox and VMWare) and a bare-metal install (an aging MacBook Air).

I’ve repurposed my old config repo to store both my dotfiles as well as the NixOS configuration.nix files.

Since I was already making a big transition, I decided to take the opportunity to retool a few more things in my dev setup:

  Old New
OS Arch Linux NixOS
Shell Bash Zsh
Terminal urxvt Alacritty
Multiplexer screen tmux
Window Manager XMonad i3
Editor Emacs Emacs

I initially wanted to make the jump from X11 to Wayland, but NixOS isn’t quite ready just yet.

My goal for this writeup is to document the rationale for making the switch, capture the stuff I wish I had known before diving into the Nix language, and describe the particulars of how I organize my new setup.


While I lack a single compelling reason to make the jump, there are a few pain points with my Arch setup that, together, pushed me to give NixOS a shot:

  • Falling behind on Arch changes. While I benefited a few times from Arch’s rolling update process, in practice I’ve rarely found it was something I needed. Not staying on top of Arch updates invariably leads to painful upgrades that take time to work through. Taking snapshots of my VMs reduced a lot of this upgrade risk, but it takes more time than I’m willing to spend to upgrade my bare-metal Arch install after neglecting it for extended periods.

  • Package drift among machines. Having my VMs get slightly different versions of packages from my Linux laptop, or forgetting to install the same set of packages across all machines was a minor but consistent annoyance. I kept a list of arch packages that I’d move from machine to machine, but nothing forced me to audit that the installed packages matched the list.

  • Limited local install options. I’ve grown reliant on Docker for infrastructural components (e.g. Postgres), but being able to install specific dev tools on a per-project basis (I’ve been playing with QGIS recently) is something I’ve constantly found painful, the few times I’ve bothered at all.


The big ideas behind the Nix ecosystem are covered in detail elsewhere; what was appealing to me in particular was Nix’s emphasis on reproducibility, file-driven configuration, and functional approach to its package repository, nixpkgs. You can think of the Nix package manager as a hybrid of apt-get and Python’s virtualenv with a sprinkling of git; you can use Nix to build multiple, isolated sets of packages on, say, a per-project basis, with the guarantee that Nix only needs to fetch (or build) shared dependencies once. Nix stores all built packages in the Nix store which serves as a local cache. Nix grafts together a collection of Linux directories (bin, usr, etc.) by symlinking the appropriate files contained in the packages that live in the Nix store. This isolated environment can be system-wide (in the case of NixOS), local to your user (nix-env) or tailed for a specific project (nix-shell).

nix-shell serves a few different roles in the Nix ecosystem, but one of those roles is to make dependencies defined in a “derivation” (Nix’s version of a makefile) available for use in a shell. These derivations are used to define a hermetically-sealed environment for building a package as well as collecting the commands to configure and run a build. We can re-use just the environment-prep part of a derivation along with nix-shell to drop us into a terminal that has exactly the packages we want. Here’s an example of a derivation for a TeX project:

with import <nixpkgs> {};

stdenv.mkDerivation {
  name = "my-document";
  buildInputs = with pkgs; [
  shellHook = "pdflatex document.tex"

With this derivation placed in shell.nix, running a nix-shell in the same directory will fetch the entirety of TeX Live (which is not small) and make all the related files, configuration, tools, fonts, commands, etc. available in the shell. It then uses one of these tools (pdflatex) to run the “build” of document.tex to generate a PDF. Writing a full derivation file isn’t necessary if you don’t need to be dropped into a shell for further work. The following is equivalent to the derivation above, but does not keep TeX Live available in the shell after it is done building the document:

nix run nixpkgs.texlive.combined.scheme-full -c pdflatex document.tex

I only rarely need TeX, so being able to make TeX available on a per-project basis without having all its commands pollute my PATH when doing non-TeX work is useful. Going further, I can mix-and-match versions of Python, the JVM, Postgres, etc. independently for each project I have without having to use sudo.


While the Nix Expression Language is somewhat esoteric, the big ideas aren’t far removed from features in mainstream functional languages. nixpkgs in particular can be conceptualized as a single large map (called an Attribute Set or attrset in Nix) from keys to derivations:

  # <snip>
  tmux = callPackage ../tools/misc/tmux { };
  # <snip>

You can see a meaty example of nixpkg’s package list here. This would normally be an unwieldy thing to build in memory on every interaction with the package manager, however Nix lazily loads the contents of this attrset. Nix even provides the option to make these attribute sets “recursive” allowing the values to reference sibling keys, e.g.

rec { a = 2; b = a+3; }

nixpkgs provides facilities to change or update existing packages with custom configuration, and add new entries to the package attrset. It does this by way of “overlays” which are a fixed point over the package attrset. Nix’s approach of effectively rebuilding a facsimile of the FHS on every run means that “manual” intervention to install things outside of a package manager (say, copying a ttf font into /usr/share/fonts) is not feasible, so having an easy way to fold your own set of custom packages into the package attrset is vital.

The other important aspect to nixpkgs is that it is versioned in git (conveniently alongside NixOS in the same repo). The Nix CLI tools can fetch and install the latest set of packages by rolling the local clone of nixpkgs forward and then rebuilding your packages. Such a rebuild can apply to all the packages on your entire system, or just a particular derivation’s local packages. This can work the other direction as well: If you prefer your package set to remain completely fixed, you can pin the nixpkgs clone to a particular git SHA. Stable releases of NixOS are handled as branches of the nixpkgs repo, which do get critical updates but avoid all the bleeding-edge changes that the master branch has.


NixOS goes a step further and utilizes attrsets to configure the OS itself. Not unlike application configuration (for which there are numerous libraries), NixOS defines your OS in a series of one or more attrsets that are merged together; unlike traditional configuration approaches that use a last-merged-wins strategy, however, NixOS’s properties provide per-field control over the priority of merges along with conditionals that control whether an option is merged or not.

This approach to OS configuration is useful for defining options amongst a set of similar but not identical OSs. For my NixOS config, I’ve created a base configuration.nix file that contains common options that I want set across all my machines (abbreviated example here):

{ config, pkgs, ... }:
  time.timeZone = "America/Chicago";
  environment.systemPackages = with pkgs; [feh vim wget];
  programs.zsh.enable = true;
  users.users.johndoe.shell = pkgs.zsh;
  # <snip>

I then import this common file into host-specific files that each contain options specific to that particular machine, e.g. a VM host:

{ config, pkgs, ... }:
  imports = [ ./configuration.nix ];
  services.vmwareGuest.enable = true;
  users.users.johndoe.shell = mkOptionDefault pkgs.bash;
  # <snip>

Note the mkOptionDefault function that reduces the priority of the pkgs.bash value from the default of 100 to 1500. Had I left off mkOptionDefault, NixOS would complain that johndoe.shell was declared twice. However, by reducing its priority, the configuration.nix’s definition of johndoe.shell = pkgs.zsh will take priority, despite it not being the “last” merged. In actuality, NixOS builds the configuration as a whole without any notion of ordering, and will fail loudly if it gets two property values with equal priority.

Notice above that the NixOS configuration includes option values that range from plain strings (e.g. time.timeZone) to more complex services that wire up nontrivial operations (schedule daemons to auto start, create systemd services, modprobe kernel modules, etc.). Unlike nixpkgs, NixOS doesn’t try to specify all these configuration options in a giant flat file; rather, it splits options into modules which keep options grouped into logical units. Modules let you create new options easily, as well at attach a meaning to each option by doing things such as configuring other module’s options, composing other modules together, writing files (also done through options, interestingly), and assorted other activities.

To introduce new options that vary among my work VMs and my personal laptop, I’ve written a custom NixOS module, which looks like

{config, pkgs, lib, ...}:

with lib;

  options = {
    settings = {
      username = mkOption {
        default = "malloc47";
        type = with types; uniq string;
      email = mkOption {
        default = "malloc47@gmail.com";
        type = with types; uniq string;
      # more options

This module lets me set a username for the machine being built, the keyboard layout I want to use, the email I want to use (for my git configuration), and many other options. I’ve written this module as a container of values for other modules to read, but takes no action itself (this is a trick so I can re-use the module for home-manger, discussed below). However, upon importing this module elsewhere, I can set or retrieve values for these options to parameterize the rest of my configuration. E.g.,

users.users.${config.settings.username}.shell = pkgs.zsh;

NixOS helpfully keeps a large index of all options across all modules defined in the base NixOS system, which is also available in man page form on an installed system:

> man configuration.nix

To utilize this declarative system configuration, NixOS provides the nixos-rebuild command which reads the configuration.nix file to find out what nixpkgs packages it requests, templates configuration files with the option values given, and eventually builds the entire file tree (as usual, symlinked back to the Nix store). NixOS persists every rebuild of your system as a sequentially numbered “generation,” which makes it easy to examine or roll back your entire system’s configuration to a prior state. These generations are listed in the bootloader, so if you break something in your most recent generation, you can boot into a prior generation to find out what went wrong.


I’ve traditionally versioned my home folder’s dotfiles in a git repo and deployed it with a hand-rolled script. Using a lightweight window manager (formerly XMonad) means that significant portions of my UI configuration live in my dotfiles, and this has led to increasingly awkward workarounds to make this configuration portable across the different hosts I regularly use. One example is controlling the Linux HiDPI settings which are, to put it mildly, a mess. I specify a slew of font tweaks, scaling factors, and DPI settings among half a dozen dotfiles. This makes it difficult to port my dotfiles from one machine to another.

The formal Nix ecosystem doesn’t (yet) have a systematic approach for writing files directly to a home folder. It can place arbitrary files in an /etc folder. If you’re the sole user of your machine and the application you want to configure looks at an /etc directory, you could have NixOS write your dotfiles there and forego keeping them in your home folder at all. My use case unfortunately doesn’t fit neatly into these constraints; I have enough home-folder-only applications that an /etc-based approach isn’t viable.

The most Nix-native experience I’ve found for managing dotfiles is home-manager. It is not only written and managed via the Nix Expression Language, but it follows the same philosophy as the rest of NixOS. This includes a similar approach for splitting configuration into modules and, in fact, it supports importing my custom module mentioned above. Though home-manager can be run with a separate home.nix file and a home-manager CLI utility to trigger “rebuilds” of your home folder, it additionally exposes a NixOS module that can be used in a system-level configuration.nix file to rebuild your home folder following a system-wide rebuild. Being the sole user of my systems, having NixOS and home-manager work in lockstep is preferable for me.

home-manager encompasses more than just copying dotfiles to your home folder. Some broad use cases include:

  • Installing packages locally for your user
  • Placing dotfiles in your home folder
  • Generating dotfiles from a declarative configuration
  • Creating per-user systemd services (I use this for emacs --daemon, and it is quite handy).

It does all this by building a single package, home-manager-path, that includes all the configured local packages and dotfiles. It then installs this package into your local Nix environment (traditionally managed by nix-env). Similar to how the rest of Nix works, each dotfile is symlinked into your home folder from the home-manager-path package contained in the Nix store. This works similarly to how my old, hacky script managed my dotfiles.

The choice between having home-manager generate your dotfiles whole-cloth, or writing your dotfiles by hand is entirely up to you. If you’re like me and have pre-written dotfiles sitting around, it’s easy to re-use these by

home.file.".inputrc".source = ./.inputrc;

which insures that the .inputrc file in the same folder as the home.nix file is deployed to ~/.inputrc in your home folder. home-manager supports more complex parameters–my emacs configuration has too many files to enumerate explicitly, and home-manager can symlink the entire directory to my home folder, creating nested directories as necessary:

home.file.".emacs.d" = {
  source = ./.emacs.d;
  recursive = true;

home-manager lets me specify file contents directly inside of home.nix, which is useful if I want to reference options defined in the aforementioned custom module:

home.file."fonts.el" = {
  target = ".emacs.d/config/fonts.el";
  text = ''
    (provide 'fonts)
    (set-frame-font "${config.settings.fontName}-${toString config.settings.fontSize}")
    (setq default-frame-alist '((font . "${config.settings.fontName}-${toString config.settings.fontSize}")))

Since I’ve never had an extensive .tmux.conf file, I can use home-manger to generate it for me:

programs.tmux = {
  enable = true;
  terminal = "tmux-256color";
  shortcut = "u";

which creates a ~/.tmux.conf file with (among other contents):

set  -g default-terminal "tmux-256color"

# rebind main key: C-u
unbind C-b
set -g prefix C-u
bind u send-prefix
bind C-u last-window

The ability to have disparate applications with varied configuration languages wrapped by a single, type safe, functional meta-language is cool. If the idea of writing Nix code to generate your dotfiles is too weird, you can always fall back to having it symlink your hand-rolled dotfiles. If you prefer a hybrid, most home-manager modules have an extra option (or similar) to interleave arbitrary configuration in the dotfiles it generates.


My newly restructured config repo is now laid out with the following directories:

  • /nixos/configuration.nix : general OS configuration that applies to all hosts
    • Imports home.nix to build my home folder
    • Imports overlays from pkgs/
  • hosts/ : host specific configuration:
    • Imports hardware configuration from hardware/
    • Imports general NixOS configuration from nixos/
    • Imports custom modules from modules/
  • hardware/ : low-level configuration (file systems, kernel modules, etc.) for use by individual hosts
  • config/home.nix + dotfiles
    • Imports keyboard layout from xkb/
    • Imports custom modules from modules/
  • modules/ : my custom configuration module, and any future modules
  • personal/ : private git submodule for non-public dotfiles
  • pkgs/ : overlays for custom packages
  • xkb/ : keyboard layouts

To bootstrap a new host after doing a vanilla install of NixOS, I need to:

  1. Generate the appropriate hardware/ file (or re-use an existing one if the hardware matches).
  2. Customize a new host/ file, including the options defined in modules/settings.nix to match the needs of the new machine (e.g. set a work email or change the default font size for HiDPI screens).
  3. Following this, I generally symlink the host/<hostname>.nix file to /etc/nixos/configuration.nix so that NixOS rebuilds don’t have to be passed the file explicitly.
  4. Finally, running nixos-rebuild will construct the complete OS and my home folder with the exact set of packages and dotfiles I’ve defined for all of my machines.

Alternatively, I could inject the configuration into the machine prior to doing a NixOS install or even build a custom NixOS ISO that includes my configuration in the image. Since bootstrapping my configuration is only something I’ve had to do once per platform, I haven’t been compelled to optimize further yet.


So far I’ve been happy with my NixOS setup; I do miss the ease of the AUR and the extensively documented ArchWiki. Perhaps the most important change I’ve noticed is how much bolder I can be with toying on bare hardware; the few times I’ve messed up my system, I just boot back into the previous generation.