Fundamentals of Stdenv

Welcome to the 19th Nix pill. In the previous 18th pill we dived into the algorithm used by Nix to compute the store paths, and also introduced fixed-output store paths.

This time we will instead look into nixpkgs, in particular one of its core derivations: stdenv.

The stdenv is not treated as a special derivation by Nix, but it's very important for the nixpkgs repository. It serves as a base for packaging software. It is used to pull in dependencies such as the GCC toolchain, GNU make, core utilities, patch and diff utilities, and so on: basic tools needed to compile a huge pile of software currently present in nixpkgs.

What is stdenv?

First of all, stdenv is a derivation, and it's a very simple one:

$ nix-build '<nixpkgs>' -A stdenv
$ ls -R result/
nix-support/  setup


It has just two files: /setup and /nix-support/propagated-user-env-packages. Don't worry about the latter. It's empty, in fact. The important file is /setup.

How can this simple derivation pull in all of the toolchain and basic tools needed to compile packages? Let's look at the runtime dependencies:

$ nix-store -q --references result

How can it be? The package must be referring to those other packages somehow. In fact, they are hardcoded in the /setup file:

$ head result/setup
export SHELL=/nix/store/zmd4jk4db5lgxb8l93mhkvr3x92g2sx2-bash-4.3-p39/bin/bash
initialPath="/nix/store/a457ywa1haa0sgr9g7a1pgldrg3s798d-coreutils-8.24 ..."
defaultNativeBuildInputs="/nix/store/sgwq15xg00xnm435gjicspm048rqg9y6-patchelf-0.8 ..."

The setup file

Remember our generic in Pill 8? It sets up a basic PATH, unpacks the source and runs the usual autotools commands for us.

The stdenv setup file is exactly that. It sets up several environment variables like PATH and creates some helper bash functions to build a package. I invite you to read it.

The hardcoded toolchain and utilities are used to initially fill up the environment variables so that it's more pleasant to run common commands, similar to what we did with our builder with baseInputs and buildInputs.

The build with stdenv works in phases. Phases are like unpackPhase, configurePhase, buildPhase, checkPhase, installPhase, fixupPhase. You can see the default list in the genericBuild function.

What genericBuild does is just run these phases. Default phases are just bash functions. You can easily read them.

Every phase has hooks to run commands before and after the phase has been executed. Phases can be overwritten, reordered, whatever, it's just bash code.

How to use this file? Like our old builder. To test it, we enter a fake empty derivation, source the stdenv setup, unpack the hello sources and build it:

$ nix-shell -E 'derivation { name = "fake"; builder = "fake"; system = "x86_64-linux"; }'
nix-shell$ unset PATH
nix-shell$ source /nix/store/k4jklkcag4zq4xkqhkpy156mgfm34ipn-stdenv/setup
nix-shell$ tar -xf hello-2.10.tar.gz
nix-shell$ cd hello-2.10
nix-shell$ configurePhase
nix-shell$ buildPhase

I unset PATH to further show that the stdenv is sufficiently self-contained to build autotools packages that have no other dependencies.

So we ran the configurePhase function and buildPhase function and they worked. These bash functions should be self-explanatory. You can read the code in the setup file.

How the setup file is built

Until now we worked with plain bash scripts. What about the Nix side? The nixpkgs repository offers a useful function, like we did with our old builder. It is a wrapper around the raw derivation function which pulls in the stdenv for us, and runs genericBuild. It's stdenv.mkDerivation.

Note how stdenv is a derivation but it's also an attribute set which contains some other attributes, like mkDerivation. Nothing fancy here, just convenience.

Let's write a hello.nix expression using this newly discovered stdenv:

with import <nixpkgs> { };
stdenv.mkDerivation {
  name = "hello";
  src = ./hello-2.10.tar.gz;

Don't be scared by the with expression. It pulls the nixpkgs repository into scope, so we can directly use stdenv. It looks very similar to the hello expression in Pill 8.

It builds, and runs fine:

$ nix-build hello.nix
$ result/bin/hello
Hello, world!

The stdenv.mkDerivation builder

Let's take a look at the builder used by mkDerivation. You can read the code here in nixpkgs:

  # ...
  builder = attrs.realBuilder or shell;
  args =
    attrs.args or [
      (attrs.builder or ./
  stdenv = result;
  # ...

Also take a look at our old derivation wrapper in previous pills! The builder is bash (that shell variable), the argument to the builder (bash) is, and then we add the environment variable $stdenv in the derivation which is the stdenv derivation.

You can open and see what it does:

source $stdenv/setup

It's what we did in Pill 10 to make the derivations nix-shell friendly. When entering the shell, the setup file only sets up the environment without building anything. When doing nix-build, it actually runs the build process.

To get a clear understanding of the environment variables, look at the .drv of the hello derivation:

$ nix derivation show $(nix-instantiate hello.nix)
warning: you did not specify '--add-root'; the result might be removed by the garbage collector
  "/nix/store/abwj50lycl0m515yblnrvwyydlhhqvj2-hello.drv": {
    "outputs": {
      "out": {
        "path": "/nix/store/6y0mzdarm5qxfafvn2zm9nr01d1j0a72-hello"
    "inputSrcs": [
    "inputDrvs": {
      "/nix/store/hcgwbx42mcxr7ksnv0i1fg7kw6jvxshb-bash-4.4-p19.drv": [
      "/nix/store/sfxh3ybqh97cgl4s59nrpi78kgcc8f3d-stdenv-linux.drv": [
    "platform": "x86_64-linux",
    "builder": "/nix/store/q1g0rl8zfmz7r371fp5p42p4acmv297d-bash-4.4-p19/bin/bash",
    "args": [
    "env": {
      "buildInputs": "",
      "builder": "/nix/store/q1g0rl8zfmz7r371fp5p42p4acmv297d-bash-4.4-p19/bin/bash",
      "configureFlags": "",
      "depsBuildBuild": "",
      "depsBuildBuildPropagated": "",
      "depsBuildTarget": "",
      "depsBuildTargetPropagated": "",
      "depsHostBuild": "",
      "depsHostBuildPropagated": "",
      "depsTargetTarget": "",
      "depsTargetTargetPropagated": "",
      "name": "hello",
      "nativeBuildInputs": "",
      "out": "/nix/store/6y0mzdarm5qxfafvn2zm9nr01d1j0a72-hello",
      "propagatedBuildInputs": "",
      "propagatedNativeBuildInputs": "",
      "src": "/nix/store/svc70mmzrlgq42m9acs0prsmci7ksh6h-hello-2.10.tar.gz",
      "stdenv": "/nix/store/6kz2vbh98s2r1pfshidkzhiy2s2qdw0a-stdenv-linux",
      "system": "x86_64-linux"

It's so short I decided to paste it entirely above. The builder is bash, with -e arguments. Then you can see the src and stdenv environment variables.

The last bit, the unpackPhase in the setup, is used to unpack the sources and enter the directory. Again, like we did in our old builder.


The stdenv is the core of the nixpkgs repository. All packages use the stdenv.mkDerivation wrapper instead of the raw derivation. It does a bunch of operations for us and also sets up a pleasant build environment.

The overall process is simple:

  • nix-build

  • bash -e

  • source $stdenv/setup

  • genericBuild

That's it. Everything you need to know about the stdenv phases is in the setup file.

Really, take your time to read that file. Don't forget that juicy docs are also available in the nixpkgs manual.

Next pill...

...we will talk about how to add dependencies to our packages with buildInputs and propagatedBuildInputs, and influence downstream builds with setup hooks and env hooks. These concepts are crucial to how nixpkgs packages are composed.