Developing with nix-shell

Welcome to the 10th Nix pill. In the previous 9th pill we saw one of the powerful features of Nix: automatic discovery of runtime dependencies. We also finalized the GNU hello package.

In this pill, we will introduce the nix-shell tool and use it to hack on the GNU hello program. We will see how nix-shell gives us an isolated environment while we modify the source files of the project, similar to how nix-build gave us an isolated environment while building the derivation.

Finally, we will modify our builder to work more ergonomically with a nix-shell-focused workflow.

What is nix-shell?

The nix-shell tool drops us in a shell after setting up the environment variables necessary to hack on a derivation. It does not build the derivation; it only serves as a preparation so that we can run the build steps manually.

Recall that in a nix environment, we don't have access to libraries or programs unless they have been installed with nix-env. However, installing libraries with nix-env is not good practice. We prefer to have isolated environments for development, which nix-shell provides for us.

We can call nix-shell on any Nix expression which returns a derivation, but the resulting bash shell's PATH does not have the utilities we want:

$ nix-shell hello.nix
[nix-shell]$ make
bash: make: command not found
[nix-shell]$ echo $baseInputs
/nix/store/jff4a6zqi0yrladx3kwy4v6844s3swpc-gnutar-1.27.1 [...]

This shell is rather useless. It would be reasonable to expect that the GNU hello build inputs are available in PATH, including GNU make, but this is not the case.

However, we do have the environment variables that we set in the derivation, like $baseInputs, $buildInputs, $src, and so on.

This means that we can source our, and it will build the derivation. You may get an error in the installation phase, because your user may not have the permission to write to /nix/store:

[nix-shell]$ source

The derivation didn't install, but it did build. Note the following:

  • We sourced and it ran all of the build steps, including setting up the PATH for us.

  • The working directory is no longer a temp directory created by nix-build, but is instead the directory in which we entered the shell. Therefore, hello-2.10 has been unpacked in the current directory.

We are able to cd into hello-2.10 and type make, because make is now available.

The take-away is that nix-shell drops us in a shell with the same (or very similar) environment used to run the builder.

A builder for nix-shell

The previous steps require some manual commands to be run and are not optimized for a workflow centered on nix-shell. We will now improve our builder to be more nix-shell friendly.

There are a few things that we would like to change.

First, when we sourced the file, we obtained the file in the current directory. What we really wanted was the that is stored in the nix store, as this is the file that would be used by nix-build. To achieve this, the correct technique is to pass an environment variable through the derivation. (Note that $builder is already defined, but it points to the bash executable rather than our Our is passed as an argument to bash.)

Second, we don't want to run the whole builder: we only want to setup the necessary environment for manually building the project. Thus, we can break into two files: a for setting up the environment, and the real that nix-build expects.

During our refactoring, we will wrap the build phases in functions to give more structure to our design. Additionally, we'll move the set -e to the builder file instead of the setup file. The set -e is annoying in nix-shell, as it will terminate the shell if an error is encountered (such as a mistyped command.)

Here is our modified autotools.nix. Noteworthy is the setup = ./; attribute in the derivation, which adds to the nix store and correspondingly adds a $setup environment variable in the builder.

pkgs: attrs:
  defaultAttrs = {
    builder = "${pkgs.bash}/bin/bash";
    args = [ ./ ];
    setup = ./;
    baseInputs = with pkgs; [
    buildInputs = [ ];
    system = builtins.currentSystem;
derivation (defaultAttrs // attrs)

Thanks to that, we can split into and What does is source $setup and call the genericBuild function. Everything else is just some changes to the bash script.

Here is the modified

set -e
source $setup

Here is the newly added

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

function unpackPhase() {
    tar -xzf $src

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

function configurePhase() {
    ./configure --prefix=$out

function buildPhase() {

function installPhase() {
    make install

function fixupPhase() {
    find $out -type f -exec patchelf --shrink-rpath '{}' \; -exec strip '{}' \; 2>/dev/null

function genericBuild() {

Finally, here is hello.nix:

  pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { };
  mkDerivation = import ./autotools.nix pkgs;
mkDerivation {
  name = "hello";
  src = ./hello-2.12.1.tar.gz;

Now back to nix-shell:

$ nix-shell hello.nix
[nix-shell]$ source $setup

Now, for example, you can run unpackPhase which unpacks $src and enters the directory. And you can run commands like ./configure, make, and so forth manually, or run phases with their respective functions.

The process is that straightforward. nix-shell builds the .drv file and its input dependencies, then drops into a shell by setting up the environment variables necessary to build the .drv. In particular, the environment variables in the shell match those passed to the derivation function.


With nix-shell we are able to drop into an isolated environment suitable for developing a project. This environment provides the necessary dependencies for the development shell, similar to how nix-build provides the necessary dependencies to a builder. Additionally, we can build and debug the project manually, executing step-by-step like we would in any other operating system. Note that we never installed tools such gcc or make system-wide; these tools and libraries are isolated and available per-build.

Next pill

In the next pill, we will clean up the nix store. We have written and built derivations which add to the nix store, but until now we haven't worried about cleaning up the used space in the store.