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nix-ld

Run unpatched dynamic binaries on NixOS.

Where is this useful?

While many proprietary packages in nixpkgs have already been patched with autoPatchelfHook patching, there are cases where patching is not possible:

  • Use binary executable downloaded with third-party package managers (e.g. vscode, npm or pip) without having to patch them on every update.
  • Run games or proprietary software that attempts to verify its integrity.
  • Run programs that are too large for the nix store (e.g. FPGA IDEs).

While there are other solutions such as buildFHSUserEnv that restore a Linux file hierarchy as found on common Linux systems (ld-linux-x86-64.so.2), these sandboxes have their own weaknesses:

  • setuid binaries cannot be executed inside a fhsuserenv
  • inside a buildFHSUserEnv you can not use other sandbox tools like bwrap or 'nix build'.
  • buildFHSUserEnv requires a subshell which does not work well with direnv

How does nix-ld work?

Also read this blog post to get the explaination in full detail. A summary is below:

Precompiled binaries that were not created for NixOS usually have a so-called link-loader hardcoded into them. On Linux/x86_64 this is for example /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2. for glibc. NixOS, on the other hand, usually has its dynamic linker in the glibc package in the Nix store and therefore cannot run these binaries. Nix-ld provides a shim layer for these types of binaries. It is installed in the same location where other Linux distributions install their link loader, ie. /lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 and then loads the actual link loader as specified in the environment variable NIX_LD. In addition, it also accepts a comma-separated path from library lookup paths in NIX_LD_LIBRARY_PATH. This environment variable is rewritten to LD_LIBRARY_PATH before passing execution to the actual ld. This allows you to specify additional libraries that the executable needs to run.

Installation

nix-ld is now part of nixpkgs and will be available NixOS 22.05. There one can enable it with the following nixos setting:

{
  programs.nix-ld.enable = true;
}

To install nix-ld from the repository instead, use the following method:

$ sudo nix-channel --add https://github.com/Mic92/nix-ld/archive/main.tar.gz nix-ld
$ sudo nix-channel --update

/etc/nixos/configuration.nix

{
  imports = [
    <nix-ld/modules/nix-ld.nix>
  ];
}

With nix flake

Add the following lines to /etc/nixos/flake.nix. Replace myhostname with the actual hostname of your system.

# flake.nix
{
  inputs.nixpkgs.url = "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/master";
  inputs.nix-ld.url = "github:Mic92/nix-ld";
  # this line assume that you also have nixpkgs as an input
  inputs.nix-ld.inputs.nixpkgs.follows = "nixpkgs";
  
  outputs = { nix-ld, nixpkgs, ... }: {
    # replace `myhostname` with your actual hostname
    nixosConfigurations.myhostname = nixpkgs.lib.nixosSystem {
      system = "x86_64-linux";
      modules = [
        # ... add this line to the rest of your configuration modules
        nix-ld.nixosModules.nix-ld
      ];
    };
  };
}

Usage

After setting up the nix-ld symlink as described above, one needs to set NIX_LD and NIX_LD_LIBRARY_PATH to run executables. For example, this can be done with a shell.nix in a nix-shell like this:

with import <nixpkgs> {};
mkShell {
  NIX_LD_LIBRARY_PATH = lib.makeLibraryPath [
    stdenv.cc.cc
    openssl
    # ...
  ];
  NIX_LD = lib.fileContents "${stdenv.cc}/nix-support/dynamic-linker";
}

A full example is shown in ./examples/masterpdfeditor.nix.

In nix-autobahn there is also a script called nix-autobahn-ld that automates generating shell expressions.

In nix-alien there is another script called nix-alien-ld that uses another strategy, wrapping the program in a writeShellScriptBin with the NIX_LD/NIX_LD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variables set.

To figure out what libraries a program needs, you can use ldd on the binary or set the LD_DEBUG=libs environment variable.

Known Issues

LD_LIBRARY_PATH is inherited by child processes

nix-ld is currently rewrites NIX_LD_LIBRARY_PATH to LD_LIBRARY_PATH. This can cause problems if a program loaded with this loader executes a normal binary, which should not get these libraries. In the future, it may be possible to redirect execution back to nix-ld after the actual library loader has done its job by changing the entry point in memory to fix this.

FAQ

How to find libraries for my executables?

You can use tools like nix-autobahn, nix-alien or use nix-index

Why not set LD_LIBRARY_PATH directly instead of NIX_LD_LIBRARY_PATH?

LD_LIBRARY_PATH affects all programs, which can inject the wrong libraries in correct build nix application that have an RPATH set in their executable.

Does this work on non-NixOS system?

No. Normal Linux distributions will have their own link-loader. Replacing those with nix-ld will break the system.