Nix packages for reproducible environments (lazy-mode)

[ nix make shell ]

How to pin nix packages in shell scripts, ci pipelines and other build processes

Reproducible software environments are very nice to have, they can immensely reduce the amount of migraine induced by software updates. After some trial-and-error I came up with a few ways to abuse Nix to create reproducible linux environments without writing any Nix code. Plugging into the Nix ecosystem for this has a few advantages, for one the package collection contains everything I would ever need:

The Nix Packages collection (Nixpkgs) is a set of over 80 000 packages for the Nix package manager. ―

Also, the nix-shell application can be used in multiple handy ways to execute commands inside these environments.

To pin packages to a specific version, a commit hash of the NixOS/nixpkgs git repository is used. The commit hash is set either via the NIX_PATH environment variable or the nix-shell -I flag in the form of an archive URL.

With the Nix package manager installed, the latest commit hash can be grabbed like this:

cmd="curl -sSL | jq -r '.sha'"
nix-shell --pure -I "nixpkgs=${url}" -p "cacert" "curl" "jq" --run "${cmd}"

In this example, the -I flag is used to pin a specific version of the package collection and the -p flag is used to declared packages required in the environment. Because the --pure flag is set, the environment will not allow invocations of software, that was not declared for the environment.


The command can be wrapped in different ways, e.g. called from a makefile:


# compact command
.PHONY: build
	nix-shell --pure -I nixpkgs=$(NIXPKGS) -p hugo --run "hugo --verbose"

# long command
define serve
hugo serve                \
    --buildDrafts         \
    --buildFuture         \
    --watch               \
    --bind ""    \
    --port "8080"
.PHONY: serve
	nix-shell --pure -I nixpkgs=$(NIXPKGS) -p hugo --run "$(serve)"


The nix-shell command and the package declarations can also be set directly in a scripts shebang header:

#!/usr/bin/env nix-shell
#! nix-shell -I nixpkgs=
#! nix-shell -p cacert hugo
#! nix-shell -i sh --pure
# shellcheck shell=sh
set -e
hugo --verbose

The 2 packages cacert and hugo are both available in the whole scripts scope.

With the shellcheck directive shell=sh, we can make sure that shellcheck does not misbehave.

GitHub Actions

With the following GitHub Actions steps, it is possible to pin packages and cache them too, to drastically reduce the traffic required for downloads:

- name: 'Checkout repo'
  uses: actions/checkout@v3.5.3

  # do pre-build stuff

- name: 'Install Nix'
  uses: cachix/install-nix-action@v22
    nix_path: "nixpkgs=channel:nixos-23.05"

- name: 'Activate Nix store cache'
  uses: actions/cache@v3.3.1
  id: nix-cache
    path: "/tmp/nixcache"
    key: "nix-store-${{ hashFiles(format('{0}/', github.workspace)) }}"

- name: "Import Nix store cache"
  if: "steps.nix-cache.outputs.cache-hit == 'true'"
  run: nix-store --import < /tmp/nixcache

- name: 'Build application'
  run: ./

- name: "Export Nix store cache"
  if: >
    ( github.ref == 'refs/heads/main' || github.ref == 'refs/heads/master' )
    && steps.nix-cache.outputs.cache-hit != 'true'    
  run: nix-store --export $(find /nix/store -maxdepth 1 -name '*-*') > /tmp/nixcache

  # do post-build stuff

The workflow makes use of cachix/install-nix-action to bootstrap the Nix package manager in the CI environment. Actually, at some point in the past, this websites deployment was also done by a GitHub Actions pipeline using Nix.

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