Working Derivation


Welcome to the seventh nix pill. In the previous sixth pill we introduced the notion of derivation in the Nix language --- how to define a raw derivation and how to (try to) build it.

In this post we continue along the path, by creating a derivation that actually builds something. Then, we try to package a real program: we compile a simple C file and create a derivation out of it, given a blessed toolchain.

I remind you how to enter the Nix environment: source ~/.nix-profile/etc/profile.d/

Using a script as a builder

What's the easiest way to run a sequence of commands for building something? A bash script. We write a custom bash script, and we want it to be our builder. Given a, we want the derivation to run bash

We don't use hash bangs in, because at the time we are writing it we do not know the path to bash in the nix store. Yes, even bash is in the nix store, everything is there.

We don't even use /usr/bin/env, because then we lose the cool stateless property of Nix. Not to mention that PATH gets cleared when building, so it wouldn't find bash anyway.

In summary, we want the builder to be bash, and pass it an argument, Turns out the derivation function accepts an optional args attribute which is used to pass arguments to the builder executable.

First of all, let's write our in the current directory:

declare -xp
echo foo > $out

The command declare -xp lists exported variables (declare is a builtin bash function). As we covered in the previous pill, Nix computes the output path of the derivation. The resulting .drv file contains a list of environment variables passed to the builder. One of these is $out.

What we have to do is create something in the path $out, be it a file or a directory. In this case we are creating a file.

In addition, we print out the environment variables during the build process. We cannot use env for this, because env is part of coreutils and we don't have a dependency to it yet. We only have bash for now.

Like for coreutils in the previous pill, we get a blessed bash for free from our magic nixpkgs stuff:

nix-repl> :l <nixpkgs>
Added 3950 variables.
nix-repl> "${bash}"

So with the usual trick, we can refer to bin/bash and create our derivation:

nix-repl> d = derivation { name = "foo"; builder = "${bash}/bin/bash"; args = [ ./ ]; system = builtins.currentSystem; }
nix-repl> :b d
[1 built, 0.0 MiB DL]

this derivation produced the following outputs:
  out -> /nix/store/gczb4qrag22harvv693wwnflqy7lx5pb-foo

We did it! The contents of /nix/store/w024zci0x1hh1wj6gjq0jagkc1sgrf5r-foo is really foo. We've built our first derivation.

Note that we used ./ and not "./". This way, it is parsed as a path, and Nix performs some magic which we will cover later. Try using the string version and you will find that it cannot find This is because it tries to find it relative to the temporary build directory.

The builder environment

We can use nix-store --read-log to see the logs our builder produced:

$ nix-store --read-log /nix/store/gczb4qrag22harvv693wwnflqy7lx5pb-foo
declare -x HOME="/homeless-shelter"
declare -x NIX_BUILD_CORES="4"
declare -x NIX_BUILD_TOP="/tmp/nix-build-foo.drv-0"
declare -x NIX_LOG_FD="2"
declare -x NIX_STORE="/nix/store"
declare -x OLDPWD
declare -x PATH="/path-not-set"
declare -x PWD="/tmp/nix-build-foo.drv-0"
declare -x SHLVL="1"
declare -x TEMP="/tmp/nix-build-foo.drv-0"
declare -x TEMPDIR="/tmp/nix-build-foo.drv-0"
declare -x TMP="/tmp/nix-build-foo.drv-0"
declare -x TMPDIR="/tmp/nix-build-foo.drv-0"
declare -x builder="/nix/store/q1g0rl8zfmz7r371fp5p42p4acmv297d-bash-4.4-p19/bin/bash"
declare -x name="foo"
declare -x out="/nix/store/gczb4qrag22harvv693wwnflqy7lx5pb-foo"
declare -x system="x86_64-linux"

Let's inspect those environment variables printed during the build process.

  • $HOME is not your home directory, and /homeless-shelter doesn't exist at all. We force packages not to depend on $HOME during the build process.

  • $PATH plays the same game as $HOME

  • $NIX_BUILD_CORES and $NIX_STORE are nix configuration options

  • $PWD and $TMP clearly show that nix created a temporary build directory

  • Then $builder, $name, $out, and $system are variables set due to the .drv file's contents.

And that's how we were able to use $out in our derivation and put stuff in it. It's like Nix reserved a slot in the nix store for us, and we must fill it.

In terms of autotools, $out will be the --prefix path. Yes, not the make DESTDIR, but the --prefix. That's the essence of stateless packaging. You don't install the package in a global common path under /, you install it in a local isolated path under your nix store slot.

The .drv contents

We added something else to the derivation this time: the args attribute. Let's see how this changed the .drv compared to the previous pill:

$ nix derivation show /nix/store/i76pr1cz0za3i9r6xq518bqqvd2raspw-foo.drv
  "/nix/store/i76pr1cz0za3i9r6xq518bqqvd2raspw-foo.drv": {
    "outputs": {
      "out": {
        "path": "/nix/store/gczb4qrag22harvv693wwnflqy7lx5pb-foo"
    "inputSrcs": [
    "inputDrvs": {
      "/nix/store/hcgwbx42mcxr7ksnv0i1fg7kw6jvxshb-bash-4.4-p19.drv": [
    "platform": "x86_64-linux",
    "builder": "/nix/store/q1g0rl8zfmz7r371fp5p42p4acmv297d-bash-4.4-p19/bin/bash",
    "args": [
    "env": {
      "builder": "/nix/store/q1g0rl8zfmz7r371fp5p42p4acmv297d-bash-4.4-p19/bin/bash",
      "name": "foo",
      "out": "/nix/store/gczb4qrag22harvv693wwnflqy7lx5pb-foo",
      "system": "x86_64-linux"

Much like the usual .drv, except that there's a list of arguments in there passed to the builder (bash) with In the nix store..? Nix automatically copies files or directories needed for the build into the store to ensure that they are not changed during the build process and that the deployment is stateless and independent of the building machine. is not only in the arguments passed to the builder, it's also in the input derivations.

Given that is a plain file, it has no .drv associated with it. The store path is computed based on the filename and on the hash of its contents. Store paths are covered in detail in a later pill.

Packaging a simple C program

Start off by writing a simple C program called simple.c:

void main() {

And its

export PATH="$coreutils/bin:$gcc/bin"
mkdir $out
gcc -o $out/simple $src

Don't worry too much about where those variables come from yet; let's write the derivation and build it:

nix-repl> :l <nixpkgs>
nix-repl> simple = derivation { name = "simple"; builder = "${bash}/bin/bash"; args = [ ./ ]; gcc = gcc; coreutils = coreutils; src = ./simple.c; system = builtins.currentSystem; }
nix-repl> :b simple
this derivation produced the following outputs:

  out -> /nix/store/ni66p4jfqksbmsl616llx3fbs1d232d4-simple

Now you can run /nix/store/ni66p4jfqksbmsl616llx3fbs1d232d4-simple/simple in your shell.


We added two new attributes to the derivation call, gcc and coreutils. In gcc = gcc;, the name on the left is the name in the derivation set, and the name on the right refers to the gcc derivation from nixpkgs. The same applies for coreutils.

We also added the src attribute, nothing magical --- it's just a name, to which the path ./simple.c is assigned. Like, simple.c will be added to the store.

The trick: every attribute in the set passed to derivation will be converted to a string and passed to the builder as an environment variable. This is how the builder gains access to coreutils and gcc: when converted to strings, the derivations evaluate to their output paths, and appending /bin to these leads us to their binaries.

The same goes for the src variable. $src is the path to simple.c in the nix store. As an exercise, pretty print the .drv file. You'll see and simple.c listed in the input derivations, along with bash, gcc and coreutils .drv files. The newly added environment variables described above will also appear.

In we set the PATH for gcc and coreutils binaries, so that our build script can find the necessary utilities like mkdir and gcc.

We then create $out as a directory and place the binary inside it. Note that gcc is found via the PATH environment variable, but it could equivalently be referenced explicitly using $gcc/bin/gcc.

Enough of nix repl

Drop out of nix repl and write a file simple.nix:

  pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { };
pkgs.stdenv.mkDerivation {
  name = "simple";
  builder = "${pkgs.bash}/bin/bash";
  args = [ ./ ];
  gcc = pkgs.gcc;
  coreutils = pkgs.coreutils;
  src = ./simple.c;
  system = builtins.currentSystem;

Now you can build it with nix-build simple.nix. This will create a symlink result in the current directory, pointing to the out path of the derivation.

nix-build does two jobs:

  • nix-instantiate : parse and evaluate simple.nix and return the .drv file corresponding to the parsed derivation set

  • nix-store -r : realise the .drv file, which actually builds it.

Finally, it creates the symlink.

In the second line of simple.nix, we have an import function call. Recall that import accepts one argument, a nix file to load. In this case, the contents of the file evaluate to a function.

Afterwards, we call the function with the empty set. We saw this already in the fifth pill. To reiterate: import <nixpkgs> {} is calling two functions, not one. Reading it as (import <nixpkgs>) {} makes this clearer.

The value returned by the nixpkgs function is a set; more specifically, it's a set of derivations. Calling import <nixpkgs> {} into a let-expression creates the local variable pkgs and brings it into scope. This has an effect similar to the :l <nixpkgs> we used in nix repl, in that it allows us to easily access derivations such as bash, gcc, and coreutils, but those derivations will have to be explicitly referred to as members of the pkgs set (e.g., pkgs.bash instead of just bash).

Below is a revised version of the simple.nix file, using the inherit keyword:

  pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { };
pkgs.stdenv.mkDerivation {
  name = "simple";
  builder = "${pkgs.bash}/bin/bash";
  args = [ ./ ];
  inherit (pkgs) gcc coreutils;
  src = ./simple.c;
  system = builtins.currentSystem;

Here we also take the opportunity to introduce the inherit keyword. inherit foo; is equivalent to foo = foo;. Similarly, inherit gcc coreutils; is equivalent to gcc = gcc; coreutils = coreutils;. Lastly, inherit (pkgs) gcc coreutils; is equivalent to gcc = pkgs.gcc; coreutils = pkgs.coreutils;.

This syntax only makes sense inside sets. There's no magic involved, it's simply a convenience to avoid repeating the same name for both the attribute name and the value in scope.

Next pill

We will generalize the builder. You may have noticed that we wrote two separate scripts in this post. We would like to have a generic builder script instead, especially since each build script goes in the nix store: a bit of a waste.

Is it really that hard to package stuff in Nix? No, here we're studying the fundamentals of Nix.