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Nixpkgs is a great set of canonical packages. But when working on one or more development versions of packages, it can be awkward.


libfoo's nix expression doesn't live with the libfoo source code

The canonical version of libfoo/default.nix lives in nixpkgs, but if you're the author of libfoo you likely want to maintain this file in your source tree. That way, you have the correct build instructions for the actual version you're developing, without having to merge in-development changes into nixpkgs.

Testing a full nix-build of your master branch

nix-shell works well for development changes, but you should also test that a full nix-build works, particularly if you're changing the build process. By default, this builds the archive specified in your nix expression, which is typically a release tarball. It's awkward to refer to "the current checkout" in a clean way. If you just use ./, your entire workspace is copied into the nix store every time you change anything. You also need to remember to set this back to a real src attribute for release. And finally, using a directory in development and a tarball for release can cause build inconsistencies.

Testing multiple inter-dependent packages

If libFoo depends on libBar, you may need to make changes to libBar by building libFoo against your in-development version of libBar. This is not trivial with nix - typically nix-shell will get you the release of libBar as it appears in your nixpkgs channel. You'd need to modify libFoo to point to your local libBar, and remember to undo that before publishing anything.


"Just fork nixpkgs"

All of these problems can be achieved by forking nixpkgs and using your local version, replacing real sources with locally-built tarballs from development sources, etc. But there are a number of problems with this:

  • You can't use nix-channel
  • There's no good workflow (that I know of). Building tarballs for specific in-development versions and using them in src attributes is tedious and easy to forget a step unless you script it, but it's also not well-suited to a generic scripting approach.
  • It doesn't compose. If you're working on multiple open source projects which take this approach, you'll end up with multiple long-running branches of nixpkgs. If you want to integrate multiple projects, you'll need to be handy with git merge and hope that the individual nixpkgs versions used actually vaguely compatible. It's also very hard to see what packages diverge from their upstream versions after a few merges.


The name comes from the pin functionality in opam and other package managers. The idea is that you mostly use the official repository for your packages, but sometimes you need to "pin" a given package to a specific version (or directory). This lets you pretend your local version is the official one, allowing you to test out packaging actions and inject your modified version into dependant packages.

When is a pin used?

Any time callPackage is used, there are two sets of arguments - the implicit arguments which are taken from the scope as needed, and the explicit argument. e.g:

pkgs.callPackage default.nix { foo = true; }

In this case pkgs are the implicit arguments, and foo is the only explicit argument.

Under nix-pin, all your active pins are injected with higher priority than the automatic scope, but lower priority than explicit arguments. Note that the pin name becomes the argument name - if you call a pin "foo", then it will automatically be substituted for every foo in every callPackage invocation. Typically names are unique enough that you're unlikely to encounter a naming conflict, although you may encounter issues if this is not the case.


manage pins:

# add a named pin, where the name specifies the attribute path where it should be overlaid (on `pkgs`)
nix-pin create vdoml root [--path path-to-nix-file]

# list pins (and pinned versions)
nix-pin status

# update a pin with the current workspace content (or a specific commit), so it will be used as a dependency for other (pinned) projects
nix-pin update [name] [--revision COMMIT]

build / shell

nix-pin [build|shell] [--path path/to/default.nix] [ nix-build-arguments ]

Like nix-build / nix-shell, but with all pins activated. A note is printed for each pin which is being used.

GC roots:

TODO, nothing is registered as a GC root yet. Pinned packages will be pruned on GC.

Full usage example:

(Note: you'll need at least nix-pin v0.3.0 to follow along, check your version with nix-instantiate --eval -A nix-pin.version '<nixpkgs>' or which nix-pin)

First, get a shell with the tools we'll need:

$ nix-shell -p git nix nix-pin

Now get the GNU sed source code.

sed isn't the best example since it uses autotools, so its release archives include generated files (like ./configure) which aren't present in the git repo, and which require a lot of extra dependencies to generate.

nix-pin is intended for repositories which are directly buildable, so for the sake of simplicity I'll be using a repo which inludes all the generated files, as well as the sed nix expression copied from nixpkgs (in default.nix).

(why am I using sed if it's a bad example? Because it's a simple program that most people are familiar with, and it's used in many other derivations)

$ git clone
Cloning into 'nix-pin-example-sed'...
remote: Counting objects: 959, done.
remote: Compressing objects: 100% (656/656), done.
remote: Total 959 (delta 216), reused 959 (delta 216), pack-reused 0
Receiving objects: 100% (959/959), 2.01 MiB | 413.00 KiB/s, done.
Resolving deltas: 100% (216/216), done.
$ cd nix-pin-example-sed/

this repo includes a copy of the sed .nix file from nixpkgs, to make it self-contained:

$ head default.nix
{ stdenv, fetchurl, perl }:

stdenv.mkDerivation rec {
  name = "gnused-${version}";
  version = "4.4";

  src = fetchurl {
    url = "mirror://gnu/sed/sed-${version}.tar.xz";
    sha256 = "0fv88bcnraixc8jvpacvxshi30p5x9m7yb8ns1hfv07hmb2ypmnb";

Note that the src used in this derivation is the official gnused 4.4 release, but we've made a trivial modification in this repo:

$ git show 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1
commit 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1 (HEAD -> master, origin/master, origin/HEAD)
Author: Tim Cuthbertson <>
Date:   Sun Apr 29 18:37:38 2018 +1000

    add unnecessary output to sed

diff --git a/sed/sed.c b/sed/sed.c
index 15faff0..a627381 100644
--- a/sed/sed.c
+++ b/sed/sed.c
@@ -229,6 +229,8 @@ main (int argc, char **argv)
   int return_code;
   const char *cols = getenv("COLS");
+  fprintf(stderr, "Welcome to sed, the streamiest editor!\n");
   program_name = argv[0];
   initialize_main (&argc, &argv);

So, let's get pinning!

$ nix-pin create gnused .
INFO:root:Updating: gnused ...
INFO:root: - gnused: init at 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1
INFO:root:Created: {'root': '~/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed', 'revision': '1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1'}
INFO:root:Updating archive for gnused@1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1

First things first: build our local source code using the build instructions in default.nix (which we copied from nixpkgs):

$ nix-pin build
1 pin(s) configured
  - gnused: 1a2e134f (/home/tim/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed#default.nix)
DEBUG:root:found pin gnused for directory /home/tim/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed
DEBUG:root:Updating gnused
INFO:root:Updating: gnused ...
INFO:root: - gnused unchanged (1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1)
INFO:root: + nix-build --argstr pinConfig /home/tim/.config/nix-pin/pins.nix --arg buildPath null --argstr buildPin gnused --arg callArgs {} /nix/store/i94h8xfzwsr83lnwlhv2snbzli0sk8p2-nix-pin-0.3.0/share/nix/call.nix
trace: INFO: <pin:gnused> 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1 (~/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed#default.nix)
building '/nix/store/8xn0vkv8ckk7n1np84y5xiqdrpzmrjrx-drv-1.drv'...
Importing from archive: /nix/store/qldjwg3zdx8yy14q9bjhas3axk7iwdm7-gnused-1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1.tgz
these derivations will be built:
building '/nix/store/q1ym34g0mz8znhj1r2av338hy0437iyf-gnused-4.4.drv'...
# ( ... )

The build is stored in a result symlink (we're using nix-build under the hood), let's check that it built our modified version:

$ ./result/bin/sed --help
Welcome to sed, the streamiest editor!
Usage: ./result/bin/sed [OPTION]... {script-only-if-no-other-script} [input-file]...
# ( ... )

Perfect - it built our local source, rather than the official archive specified in default.nix.

Using pins as dependencies

Now for the next step, let's use our modified sed in the rest of nixpgs. I poked around some derivations, and found that a program called cdecl is pretty simple, and uses gnused in its build process:

$ nix-pin build --path '<nixpkgs>' --no-out-link --show-trace -A cdecl
1 pin(s) configured
  - gnused: 1a2e134f (/home/tim/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed#default.nix)
INFO:root: + nix-build --argstr pinConfig /home/tim/.config/nix-pin/pins.nix --arg buildPath null --arg buildPin null --arg callArgs {} --no-out-link --show-trace -A cdecl /nix/store/i94h8xfzwsr83lnwlhv2snbzli0sk8p2-nix-pin-0.3.0/share/nix/call.nix
trace: INFO: <pin:gnused> 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1 (~/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed#default.nix)
these derivations will be built:
building '/nix/store/b5kdjz15nsliql3gxvhfkw4jvjf6xlk8-cdecl-2.5.drv'...
# ( ... )
Welcome to sed, the streamiest editor!
# ( ... )

Great! Without doing anything special, our gnused got picked up and used as a build-time dependency in other packages. The exact algorithm simply matches a pin name (here, gnused) against the name of arguments supplid by callPackage. If a pin matches an automatically supplied argument, you'll get the pin instead.

We could have done this by modifying packageOverrides in ~/.nixpkgs/config.nix to make our sed the one and only sed, but that gets inconvenient, as you need to maintain the correct src (you'll need to keep making some kind of archive and updating sha256 on every code modification). You'd then want to remove that any time you contribute to nixpkgs, otherwise your builds will not be reproducible (since nobody else has those same overrides).

To show how easy it is to build modifications with nix-pin, let's make that header a bit less lame:

$ sed -i 's/streamiest/stream/' sed/sed.c
$ nix-pin build
1 pin(s) configured
  - gnused: 1a2e134f (/home/tim/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed#default.nix)
DEBUG:root:found pin gnused for directory /home/tim/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed
DEBUG:root:Updating gnused
INFO:root:Updating: gnused ...
INFO:root: - gnused: updated to cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c (from 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1)
INFO:root:Updating archive for gnused@cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c
INFO:root:removing cache path /home/tim/.cache/nix-pin/gnused-1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1.tgz
INFO:root: + nix-build --argstr pinConfig /home/tim/.config/nix-pin/pins.nix --arg buildPath null --argstr buildPin gnused --arg callArgs {} /nix/store/i94h8xfzwsr83lnwlhv2snbzli0sk8p2-nix-pin-0.3.0/share/nix/call.nix
trace: INFO: <pin:gnused> cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c (~/dev/nix/nix-pin/example/nix-pin-example-sed#default.nix)
building '/nix/store/gzf3rdkwb377bsrypa7p9yhfykywhscb-drv-1.drv'...
Importing from archive: /nix/store/vja9smyk0482kads6pimf2gcfmpl0f5f-gnused-cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c.tgz
these derivations will be built:
building '/nix/store/rysf6bzj36a981a7ykr3frp6wcscxj6g-gnused-4.4.drv'...
# ( ... )
$ ./result/bin/sed --help
Welcome to sed, the stream editor!
Usage: ./result/bin/sed [OPTION]... {script-only-if-no-other-script} [input-file]...
# ( ... )

Note that in the output above, the gnused pin was updated from 1a2e134fdc3f4cf2e23c7a4a3b3aa8155ac126f1 to cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c. The first commit is the head of the master branch, but what's the second? We didn't actually commit anything!

$ git show cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c
commit cf5a401bcbbbf7d6942879fdb7b86108f9c7f77c
Merge: 1a2e134 246388d
Author: nobody <>
Date:   Thu Jan 1 00:00:00 1970 +0000

    WIP on master: 1a2e134 add unnecessary output to sed

diff --cc sed/sed.c
index a627381,a627381..5070d9d
--- a/sed/sed.c
+++ b/sed/sed.c
@@@ -229,7 -229,7 +229,7 @@@ main (int argc, char **argv
    int return_code;
    const char *cols = getenv("COLS");
--  fprintf(stderr, "Welcome to sed, the streamiest editor!\n");
++  fprintf(stderr, "Welcome to sed, the stream editor!\n");
    program_name = argv[0];
    initialize_main (&argc, &argv);

nix-pin created an anonymous commit (via git stash create, which creates a commit but doesn't stash anything), and used that as the current src. That way you'll get all your changes to your tracked files, but it still only includes files known to git, so you don't get builds that accidentally rely on files that exist in your workspace but ignored by git.

Thanks for following along, happy pinning!