Welcome to the 8th Nix pill. In the previous 7th pill we successfully built a derivation. We wrote a builder script that compiled a C file and installed the binary under the nix store.

In this post, we will generalize the builder script, write a Nix expression for GNU hello world and create a wrapper around the derivation built-in function.

8.1. Packaging GNU hello world

In the previous pill we packaged a simple .c file, which was being compiled with a raw gcc call. That's not a good example of a project. Many use autotools, and since we're going to generalize our builder, it would be better do it with the most used build system.

GNU hello world, despite its name, is a simple yet complete project which uses autotools. Fetch the latest tarball here: http://ftp.gnu.org/gnu/hello/hello-2.10.tar.gz.

Let's create a builder script for GNU hello world, hello_builder.sh:

export PATH="$gnutar/bin:$gcc/bin:$gnumake/bin:$coreutils/bin:$gawk/bin:$gzip/bin:$gnugrep/bin:$gnused/bin:$binutils/bin"
tar -xzf $src
cd hello-2.10
./configure --prefix=$out
make install

And the derivation hello.nix:

with (import <nixpkgs> {});
derivation {
  name = "hello";
  builder = "${bash}/bin/bash";
  args = [ ./hello_builder.sh ];
  inherit gnutar gzip gnumake gcc coreutils gawk gnused gnugrep;
  binutils = binutils-unwrapped;
  src = ./hello-2.10.tar.gz;
  system = builtins.currentSystem;

Nix on darwin

The darwin (i.e. macOS) stdenv diverges from the Linux stdenv in several ways. A main difference is that the darwin stdenv relies upon clang rather than gcc as its C compiler. We can adapt this early example of how a stdenv works for darwin by using this modified version of hello.nix:

with (import <nixpkgs> {});
derivation {
  name = "hello";
  builder = "${bash}/bin/bash";
  args = [ ./hello_builder.sh ];
  inherit gnutar gzip gnumake coreutils gawk gnused gnugrep;
  gcc = clang;
  binutils = clang.bintools.bintools_bin;
  src = ./hello-2.10.tar.gz;
  system = builtins.currentSystem;

Please be aware that similar changes may be needed in what follows.

Now build it with nix-build hello.nix and you can launch result/bin/hello. Nothing easier, but do we have to create a builder.sh for each package? Do we always have to pass the dependencies to the derivation function?

Please note the --prefix=$out we were talking about in the previous pill.

8.2. A generic builder

Let's create a generic builder.sh for autotools projects:

set -e
unset PATH
for p in $buildInputs; do
  export PATH=$p/bin${PATH:+:}$PATH

tar -xf $src

for d in *; do
  if [ -d "$d" ]; then
    cd "$d"

./configure --prefix=$out
make install

What do we do here?

  1. Exit the build on any error with set -e.

  2. First unset PATH, because it's initially set to a non-existant path.

  3. We'll see this below in detail, however for each path in $buildInputs, we append bin to PATH.

  4. Unpack the source.

  5. Find a directory where the source has been unpacked and cd into it.

  6. Once we're set up, compile and install.

As you can see, there's no reference to "hello" in the builder anymore. It still does several assumptions, but it's certainly more generic.

Now let's rewrite hello.nix:

with (import <nixpkgs> {});
derivation {
  name = "hello";
  builder = "${bash}/bin/bash";
  args = [ ./builder.sh ];
  buildInputs = [ gnutar gzip gnumake gcc binutils-unwrapped coreutils gawk gnused gnugrep ];
  src = ./hello-2.10.tar.gz;
  system = builtins.currentSystem;

All clear, except that buildInputs. However it's easier than any black magic you are thinking in this moment.

Nix is able to convert a list to a string. It first converts the elements to strings, and then concatenates them separated by a space:

nix-repl> builtins.toString 123
nix-repl> builtins.toString [ 123 456 ]
"123 456"

Recall that derivations can be converted to a string, hence:

nix-repl> :l <nixpkgs>
Added 3950 variables.
nix-repl> builtins.toString gnugrep
nix-repl> builtins.toString [ gnugrep gnused ]
"/nix/store/g5gdylclfh6d224kqh9sja290pk186xd-gnugrep-2.14 /nix/store/krgdc4sknzpw8iyk9p20lhqfd52kjmg0-gnused-4.2.2"

Simple! The buildInputs variable is a string with out paths separated by space, perfect for bash usage in a for loop.

8.3. A more convenient derivation function

We managed to write a builder that can be used for multiple autotools projects. But in the hello.nix expression we are specifying tools that are common to more projects; we don't want to pass them everytime.

A natural approach would be to create a function that accepts an attribute set, similar to the one used by the derivation function, and merge it with another attribute set containing values common to many projects.

Create autotools.nix:

pkgs: attrs:
  with pkgs;
  let defaultAttrs = {
    builder = "${bash}/bin/bash";
    args = [ ./builder.sh ];
    baseInputs = [ gnutar gzip gnumake gcc binutils-unwrapped coreutils gawk gnused gnugrep ];
    buildInputs = [];
    system = builtins.currentSystem;
  derivation (defaultAttrs // attrs)

Ok now we have to remember a little about Nix functions. The whole nix expression of this autotools.nix file will evaluate to a function. This function accepts a parameter pkgs, then returns a function which accepts a parameter attrs.

The body of the function is simple, yet at first sight it might be hard to grasp:

  1. First drop in the scope the magic pkgs attribute set.

  2. Within a let expression we define a helper variable, defaultAttrs, which serves as a set of common attributes used in derivations.

  3. Finally we create the derivation with that strange expression, (defaultAttrs // attrs).

The // operator is an operator between two sets. The result is the union of the two sets. In case of conflicts between attribute names, the value on the right set is preferred.

So we use defaultAttrs as base set, and add (or override) the attributes from attrs.

A couple of examples ought to be enough to clear out the behavior of the operator:

nix-repl> { a = "b"; } // { c = "d"; }
{ a = "b"; c = "d"; }
nix-repl> { a = "b"; } // { a = "c"; }
{ a = "c"; }

Exercise: Complete the new builder.sh by adding $baseInputs in the for loop together with $buildInputs. As you noticed, we passed that new variable in the derivation. Instead of merging buildInputs with the base ones, we prefer to preserve buildInputs as seen by the caller, so we keep them separated. Just a matter of choice.

Then we rewrite hello.nix as follows:

  pkgs = import <nixpkgs> {};
  mkDerivation = import ./autotools.nix pkgs;
in mkDerivation {
  name = "hello";
  src = ./hello-2.10.tar.gz;

Finally! We got a very simple description of a package! Below are a couple of remarks that you may find useful as you're continuing to understand the nix language:

  • We assigned to pkgs the import that we did in the previous expressions in the "with". Don't be afraid, it's that straightforward.

  • The mkDerivation variable is a nice example of partial application, look at it as (import ./autotools.nix) pkgs. First we import the expression, then we apply the pkgs parameter. That will give us a function that accepts the attribute set attrs.

  • We create the derivation specifying only name and src. If the project eventually needed other dependencies to be in PATH, then we would simply add those to buildInputs (not specified in hello.nix because empty).

Note we didn't use any other library. Special C flags may be needed to find include files of other libraries at compile time, and ld flags at link time.

8.4. Conclusion

Nix gives us the bare metal tools for creating derivations, setting up a build environment and storing the result in the nix store.

Out of this pill we managed to create a generic builder for autotools projects, and a function mkDerivation that composes by default the common components used in autotools projects instead of repeating them in all the packages we would write.

We are familiarizing ourselves with the way a Nix system grows up: it's about creating and composing derivations with the Nix language.

Analogy: in C you create objects in the heap, and then you compose them inside new objects. Pointers are used to refer to other objects.

In Nix you create derivations stored in the nix store, and then you compose them by creating new derivations. Store paths are used to refer to other derivations.

8.5. Next pill

...we will talk a little about runtime dependencies. Is the GNU hello world package self-contained? What are its runtime dependencies? We only specified build dependencies by means of using other derivations in the "hello" derivation.