Skip to content
Permalink
flakes
Switch branches/tags
Go to file
 
 
Cannot retrieve contributors at this time
feature start-date author co-authors shepherd-team shepherd-leader related-issues
flakes
2019-07-09
Eelco Dolstra
TBD
Domen Kožar, Alyssa Ross, Shea Levy, John Ericson
Domen Kožar
(will contain links to implementation PRs)

Summary

This RFC proposes a mechanism to package Nix expressions into composable entities called "flakes". Flakes allow hermetic, reproducible evaluation of multi-repository Nix projects; impose a discoverable, standard structure on Nix projects; and replace previous mechanisms such as Nix channels and the Nix search path.

Motivation

Flakes are motivated by a number of serious shortcomings in Nix:

  • While Nix pioneered reproducible builds, sadly, Nix expressions are not nearly as reproducible as Nix builds. Nix expressions can access arbitrary files (such as ~/.config/nixpkgs/config.nix), environment variables, and Git repositories. This means for instance that it is hard to ensure reproducible evaluation of NixOS or NixOps configurations.

  • Nix projects lack discoverability and a standard structure. For example, it's just convention that a repository has a release.nix for Hydra jobs and a default.nix for packages.

  • There is no standard way to compose Nix projects. Typical ways are to rely on the Nix search path (e.g. import <nixpkgs>) or to use fetchGit or fetchTarball. The former has poor reproducibility, while the latter is bad UX because of the need to manually update Git hashes to update dependencies.

  • nix-channel needs a replacement: channels are hard to create, users cannot easily pin specific versions of channels, channels interact in ad hoc ways with the Nix search path, and so on.

The flakes mechanism seeks to address all these problems. This RFC, however, only describes the format and semantics of flakes; it doesn't describe changes to the nix command to support flakes.

Detailed design

Flakes

A flake is a directory that contains a file named flake.nix in the root directory. flake.nix specifies some metadata about the flake such as dependencies (called inputs), as well as its outputs (the Nix values such as packages or NixOS modules provided by the flake).

As an example, below is the flake.nix of dwarffs (a FUSE filesystem for automatically fetching DWARF debug symbols by ELF build ID). It depends on the Nixpkgs flake and provides a package (i.e. an installable derivation) and a NixOS module.

{
  description = "A filesystem that fetches DWARF debug info from the Internet on demand";

  outputs = { self, nixpkgs }: rec {
    packages.x86_64-linux.dwarffs =
      with nixpkgs.packages.x86_64-linux;
      with nixpkgs.builders;
      with nixpkgs.lib;

      stdenv.mkDerivation {
        name = "dwarffs-0.1.${substring 0 8 self.lastModifiedDate}";

        buildInputs = [ fuse nix nlohmann_json boost ];

        NIX_CFLAGS_COMPILE = "-I ${nix.dev}/include/nix -include ${nix.dev}/include/nix/config.h -D_FILE_OFFSET_BITS=64";

        src = self;

        installPhase =
          ''
            mkdir -p $out/bin $out/lib/systemd/system

            cp dwarffs $out/bin/
            ln -s dwarffs $out/bin/mount.fuse.dwarffs

            cp ${./run-dwarffs.mount} $out/lib/systemd/system/run-dwarffs.mount
            cp ${./run-dwarffs.automount} $out/lib/systemd/system/run-dwarffs.automount
          '';
      };

    nixosModules.dwarffs = ...;

    defaultPackage.x86_64-linux = packages.x86_64-linux.dwarffs;

    checks.build = packages.x86_64-linux.dwarffs;
  };
}

A flake has the following attributes:

  • description: A short description of the flake.

  • inputs: An attrset specifying the dependencies of the flake (described below).

  • outputs: A function that, given an attribute set containing the outputs of each of the input flakes keyed by their identifier, yields the Nix values provided by this flake. Thus, in the example above, inputs.nixpkgs contains the result of the call to the outputs function of the nixpkgs flake, and inputs.nixpkgs.packages.fuse refers to the packages.fuse output attribute of nixpkgs.

    In addition to the outputs of each input, each input in inputs also contains some metadata about the inputs. These are:

    • outPath: The path in the Nix store of the flake's source tree. This means that you could import Nixpkgs in a more legacy-ish way by writing

      with import inputs.nixpkgs { system = "x86_64-linux"; };
      

      since nixpkgs still contains a /default.nix. In this case we bypass its outputs entirely and only use the flake mechanism to get its source tree.

    • rev: The commit hash of the flake's repository, if applicable.

    • revCount: The number of ancestors of the revision rev. This is not available for github repositories (see below), since they're fetched as tarballs rather than as Git repositories.

    • lastModifiedDate: The commit time of the revision rev, in the format %Y%m%d%H%M%S (e.g. 20181231100934). Unlike revCount, this is available for both Git and GitHub repositories, so it's useful for generating (hopefully) monotonically increasing version strings.

    • lastModified: The commit time of the revision rev as an integer denoting the number of seconds since 1970.

    • narHash: The SHA-256 (in SRI format) of the NAR serialization of the flake's source tree.

    The value returned by the outputs function must be an attribute set. The attributes can have arbitrary values; however, some tools may require specific attributes to have a specific value (e.g. the nix command may expect the value of packages.x86_64-linux to be an attribute set of derivations built for the x86_64-linux platform).

Flake inputs

The attribute inputs specifies the dependencies of a flake. These specify the location of the dependency, or a symbolic flake identifier that is looked up in a registry or in a command-line flag. For example, the following specifies a dependency on the Nixpkgs and import-cargo repositories:

# A GitHub repository.
inputs.import-cargo = {
  type = "github";
  owner = "edolstra";
  repo = "import-cargo";
};

# An indirection through the flake registry.
inputs.nixpkgs = {
  type = "indirect";
  id = "nixpkgs";
};

Each input is fetched, evaluated and passed to the outputs function as a set of attributes with the same name as the corresponding input. The special input named self refers to the outputs and source tree of this flake. Thus, a typical outputs function looks like this:

outputs = { self, nixpkgs, import-cargo }: {
  ... outputs ...
};

It is also possible to omit inputs entirely and only list them as expected function arguments in outputs. Thus,

outputs = { self, nixpkgs }: ...;

without an inputs.nixpkgs attribute will simply look up nixpkgs in the flake registry.

Repositories that don't contain a flake.nix can also be used as inputs, by setting the input's flake attribute to false:

inputs.grcov = {
  type = "github";
  owner = "mozilla";
  repo = "grcov";
  flake = false;
};

outputs = { self, nixpkgs, grcov }: {
  packages.x86_64-linux.grcov = stdenv.mkDerivation {
    src = grcov;
    ...
  };
};

The following input types are specified at present:

  • git: A Git repository or dirty local working tree.

  • github: A more efficient scheme to fetch repositories from GitHub as tarballs. These have slightly different semantics from git (in particular, the revCount attribute is not available).

  • gitlab: Like github, but for Git repositories hosted on GitLab.

  • tarball: A .tar.{gz,xz,bz2} file.

  • path: A directory in the file system. This generally should be avoided in favor of git inputs, since path inputs have no concept of revisions (only a content hash) or tracked files (anything in the source directory is copied).

  • hg: A Mercurial repository.

Transitive inputs can be overriden from a flake.nix file. For example, the following overrides the nixpkgs input of the nixops input:

inputs.nixops.inputs.nixpkgs = {
  type = "github";
  owner = "my-org";
  repo = "nixpkgs";
};

It is also possible to "inherit" an input from another input. This is useful to minimize flake dependencies. For example, the following sets the nixpkgs input of the top-level flake to be equal to the nixpkgs input of the dwarffs input of the top-level flake:

inputs.nixops.follows = "dwarffs/nixpkgs";

The value of the follows attribute is a /-separated sequence of input names denoting the path of inputs to be followed from the root flake.

Overrides and follows can be combined, e.g.

inputs.nixops.inputs.nixpkgs.follows = "dwarffs/nixpkgs";

sets the nixpkgs input of nixops to be the same as the nixpkgs input of dwarffs. It is worth noting, however, that it is generally not useful to eliminate transitive nixpkgs flake inputs in this way. Most flakes provide their functionality through Nixpkgs overlays or NixOS modules, which are composed into the top-level flake's nixpkgs input; so their own nixpkgs input is usually irrelevant.

Lock files

Inputs specified in flake.nix are typically "unlocked" in that they don't specify an exact revision. To ensure reproducibility, Nix will automatically generate and use a lock file called flake.lock in the flake's directory. The lock file contains a graph structure isomorphic to the graph of dependencies of the root flake. Each node in the graph (except the root node) maps the (usually) unlocked input specifications in flake.nix to locked input specifications. Each node also contains some metadata, such as the dependencies (outgoing edges) of the node.

For example, if flake.nix has the inputs in the example above, then the resulting lock file might be:

{
  "version": 6,
  "root": "n1",
  "nodes": {
    "n1": {
      "inputs": {
        "nixpkgs": "n2",
        "import-cargo": "n3",
        "grcov": "n4"
      }
    },
    "n2": {
      "inputs": {},
      "locked": {
        "owner": "edolstra",
        "repo": "nixpkgs",
        "rev": "7f8d4b088e2df7fdb6b513bc2d6941f1d422a013",
        "type": "github",
        "lastModified": 1580555482,
        "narHash": "sha256-OnpEWzNxF/AU4KlqBXM2s5PWvfI5/BS6xQrPvkF5tO8="
      },
      "original": {
        "id": "nixpkgs",
        "type": "indirect"
      }
    },
    "n3": {
      "inputs": {},
      "locked": {
        "owner": "edolstra",
        "repo": "import-cargo",
        "rev": "8abf7b3a8cbe1c8a885391f826357a74d382a422",
        "type": "github",
        "lastModified": 1567183309,
        "narHash": "sha256-wIXWOpX9rRjK5NDsL6WzuuBJl2R0kUCnlpZUrASykSc="
      },
      "original": {
        "owner": "edolstra",
        "repo": "import-cargo",
        "type": "github"
      }
    },
    "n4": {
      "inputs": {},
      "locked": {
        "owner": "mozilla",
        "repo": "grcov",
        "rev": "989a84bb29e95e392589c4e73c29189fd69a1d4e",
        "type": "github",
        "lastModified": 1580729070,
        "narHash": "sha256-235uMxYlHxJ5y92EXZWAYEsEb6mm+b069GAd+BOIOxI="
      },
      "original": {
        "owner": "mozilla",
        "repo": "grcov",
        "type": "github"
      },
      "flake": false
    }
  }
}

This graph has 4 nodes: the root flake, and its 3 dependencies. The nodes have arbitrary labels (e.g. n1). The label of the root node of the graph is specified by the root attribute. Nodes contain the following fields:

  • inputs: The dependencies of this node, as a mapping from input names (e.g. nixpkgs) to node labels (e.g. n2).

  • original: The original input specification from flake.lock, as a set of builtins.fetchTree arguments.

  • locked: The locked input specification, as a set of builtins.fetchTree arguments. Thus, in the example above, when we build this flake, the input nixpkgs is mapped to revision 7f8d4b088e2df7fdb6b513bc2d6941f1d422a013 of the edolstra/nixpkgs repository on GitHub.

    It also includes the attribute narHash, specifying the expected contents of the tree in the Nix store (as computed by nix hash-path), and may include input-type-specific attributes such as the lastModified or revCount. The main reason for these attributes is to allow flake inputs to be substituted from a binary cache: narHash allows the store path to be computed, while the other attributes are necessary because they provide information not stored in the store path.

  • flake: A Boolean denoting whether this is a flake or non-flake dependency. Corresponds to the flake attribute in the inputs attribute in flake.nix.

The original and locked attributes are omitted for the root node. This is because we cannot record the commit hash or content hash of the root flake, since modifying flake.lock will invalidate these.

The graph representation of lock files allows circular dependencies between flakes. For example, here are two flakes that reference each other:

{
  inputs.b = ... location of flake B ...;
  # Tell the 'b' flake not to fetch 'a' again, to ensure its 'a' is
  # *this* 'a'.
  inputs.b.inputs.a.follows = "";
  outputs = { self, b }: {
    foo = 123 + b.bar;
    xyzzy = 1000;
  };
}

and

{
  inputs.a = ... location of flake A ...;
  inputs.a.inputs.b.follows = "";
  outputs = { self, a }: {
    bar = 456 + a.xyzzy;
  };
}

Lock files transitively lock direct as well as indirect dependencies. That is, if a lock file exists and is up to date, Nix will not look at the lock files of dependencies. However, lock file generation itself does use the lock files of dependencies by default.

Reproducible evaluation

Lock files are not sufficient by themselves to ensure reproducible evaluation. We also need to disallow certain impurities that the Nix language previously allowed. In particular, the following are disallowed in a flake:

  • Access to files outside of the top-level flake or its inputs, as well as paths fetched using fetchTarball, fetchGit and so on without a commit hash or content hash. In particular this means that Nixpkgs will not be able to use ~/.config/nixpkgs anymore.

  • Access to the environment. This means that builtins.getEnv "<var>" always returns an empty string.

  • Access to the system type (builtins.currentSystem).

  • Access to the current time (builtins.currentTime).

  • Use of the Nix search path (<...>); composition must be done through flake inputs or fetchX builtins.

Drawbacks

Pure evaluation breaks certain workflows. In particular, it breaks the use of the Nixpkgs configuration file. Similarly, there are people who rely on $NIX_PATH to pass configuration data to NixOps configurations.

Alternatives

For composition of multi-repository projects, the main alternative is to continue on with explicit fetchGit / fetchTarball calls to pull in other repositories. However, since there is no explicit listing of dependencies, this does not provide automatic updating.

Instead of a flake.nix, flakes could store their metadata in a simpler format such as JSON or TOML. This avoids the Turing tarpit where getting flake metadata requires the execution of an arbitrarily complex, possibly non-terminating program.

Flakes could be implemented as an external tool on top of Nix. Indeed, there is nothing that flakes allow you to do that couldn't previously be done using fetchGit, the --pure-eval flag and some shell scripting. However, implementing flake-like functionality in an external tool would defeat the goals of this RFC. First, it probably wouldn't lead to a standard way to structure and compose Nix projects, since we might well end up with numerous competing "standards". Second, it would degrade rather than improve the Nix UX, since users would now have to deal with Nix and the flake-like tool on top of it.

Unresolved questions

  • Should flakes have arguments (like "system type")? This must be done in a way that maintains hermetic evaluation and evaluation caching.

  • Currently, if flake dependencies (repositories or branches) get deleted upstream, rebuilding the flake may fail. (This is similar to fetchurl referencing a stale URL.) We need a command to gather all flake dependencies and copy them somewhere else (possibly vendor them into the repository of the calling flake).

  • Maybe flake metadata should be stored in a flake.json or flake.toml file. This would prevent ambiguities when the Nix language changes in a future edition.

Future work

  • Currently flake outputs are untyped; we only have some conventions about what they should be (e.g. packages should be an attribute set of derivations). For discoverability, it would be nice if outputs were typed. Maybe this could be done via the Nix configurations concept (https://gist.github.com/edolstra/29ce9d8ea399b703a7023073b0dbc00d).

Acknowledgments

Funding for the development of the flakes prototype was provided by Target Corporation. The flakes project was inspired/motivated by Shea Levy's work on require.nix and ensuing discussions at NixCon 2018.