Nix and NixOS: first impressions

by Ian Macalinao

July 19, 2019

Since March, I’ve been using NixOS as my primary operating system and Nix as my primary package manager. Everything is configured in my dotfiles which are synchronized via Git between three machines:

In this post, I’ll go over some of the advantages and disadvantages of switching my setup over from Bash scripts, brew, and Arch’s pacman to Nix/NixOS.

Why did I switch to Nix/NixOS?

My old setup had many lot of problems, some of which included:

I had been hearing a lot about the virtues of Nix since late last year (2018), and in March 2019 I finally decided to pull the trigger.

The main reasons why I transitioned over were:

After trying out NixOS in a VM for about a week, I backed up and reformatted my Arch SSD and started from scratch.

What went well

Aside from the above advantages, there are many things I’ve found to be really useful that I didn’t know of when I first installed NixOS.

General service/program configuration

There are several things I never set up on my Arch computer because I thought they would be too complicated to set up in my dotfiles, and if I broke things I wouldn’t easily be able to replicate my issues.

One thing I implemented was an nginx ingress for my HTTP services. I have a few HTTP services on my machine that I’d like to expose to anyone on the local network (all configured and installed through Nix):

I wanted a way to be able to share certain services with other people and devices on my network without having to expose more than port 80, so I set up an nginx proxy. This was really easy to setup, and I did not need to write any actual nginx config. I was also easily able to add the fancyindex extension to nginx without having to recompile or install anything extra. Setting up htpasswd was also very easy as I just had to read an htaccess file from my secrets repo.

Other things I’ve configured via Nix include VSCode (including packages), Private Internet Access, and Jupyter notebook. They were all much easier to set up than if I had done the manual way.

XOrg configuration

One of the big reasons I got NixOS was that my XMonad installation didn’t work properly on Arch out of the box. Nix would let me remove all of the confounding factors that might have been interfering with a proper installation of the window manager.

Here’s my configuration:

In my configuration.nix:

services.xserver = {
  enable = true;
  # displayManager.startx.enable = true;
  dpi = 96;

  desktopManager = {
    default = "xfce";
    xterm.enable = false;
    xfce = {
    enable = true;
  };
};

In my home-manager config:

xsession.enable = true;

xsession.windowManager.xmonad = {
  enable = true;
  enableContribAndExtras = true;
  config = ../dotfiles/xmonad/xmonad.hs;
};

Through this, I’m able to set up an XMonad config and get it working properly on startup. Also, since it’s code as configuration, I’m able to transfer this between machines or to friends I’m evangelizing XMonad to. It was super easy to set up, and debugging was pretty painless since I’d just have to nixos-rebuild switch whenever I made changes.

What went poorly

Nix/NixOS are not for the faint of heart. You have to be reasonably proficient with a lot of things to use NixOS at all. While most things are made 10x easier by Nix, some things are extremely difficult, and you don’t know whether or not you’re even able to do what you’re trying to do.

If you already don’t like writing custom logic in your build scripts, you will have an even worse time just trying to get your system to behave the way you want it to if you diverge even slightly from defaults. Think debugging webpack configuration, but instead of just worrying about JavaScript you have to worry about your entire system.

There’s several UX issues that make me not recommend this to beginners or people that have tight deadlines.

Sometimes nixpkgs-unstable just breaks.

A package I wanted to install uses Wine on the backend, but when I tried to install it, it started to complain that qtbase could not build. There are several solutions to this problem, including:

This is all really annoying to do, and you can waste a lot of time if you don’t know Nix very well (like me). I often just don’t install the package and wait for it to get fixed in Nixpkgs. There’s also a simple workaround: to install via Brew/installer script on my Mac.

Sometimes you get a random build error with no error message.

While writing this blog post, I was trying to upgrade my Hakyll installation (what I use to generate my blog). I was getting an error that digest-0.0.1.2 failed to build with a cryptic error message. The solution was to add zlib to the nix section of my stack.yaml, but nowhere in the error message did it say that I had missing zlib headers, that I needed to install zlib, etc.

I found out what I needed to do via Google, but the fix was still a guess. It would have been much better if I knew what I had to do from a compile error or equivalent. There is probably a way to find the error, but I couldn’t find out how.

You need to write a derivation for everything not in Nixpkgs.

Technically, you can use installer scripts that install to /usr/local/bin, but it’s not correct. You should be managing everything through Nix to reap its rewards. Fortunately, there’s a lot of helper functions that make installing things like Go CLIs very easy, but it still requires running a bunch of commands and writing code.

Many packages don’t exist.

One example is a Linux League of Legends installer for Arch. Now I’m forced to only use my Mac for League, which is a shame because I have a 1080Ti. I also tried creating a Nix derivation, but something in nixpkgs-unstable was broken.

Documentation can be really old.

If you’re configuring a package, most tutorials tell you to use packageOverrides; however, this is deprecated. There are plenty of other things in Nix that have new and better ways of doing them but they are largely undocumented, probably due to the small community relative to Nix’s surface area.

Next steps

I’ve had a really great experience with Nix so far, despite its high learning curve and some complications. There’s a few things I want to try over the next few months:

I highly recommend Nix/NixOS to anyone adept at *nix (no pun intended), and I also recommend it for anyone trying to provision a suite of applications on Macs (like an IT person). It’s truly the best OS and package manager I’ve used.

You can see my current configuration in my dotfiles repo on GitHub. Feel free to fork it and reach out if you have any questions!