19 December 2021

Tools You Should Know About: nix-shell

Recently, I've discovered how to leverage Nix to reap a lot of its benefits with a very minimal investment; specifically, one that fits in one blog post.

I've been aware of the Nix toolset for over a decade now, but until recently it's always looked like it required a pretty big investment. Most of the documentation I've come across explains what the benefits are and how the tooling works in order to deliver those benefits, but always from the perspective of wanting to build a project using Nix as your build system. And, well, I usually already have a build system I'm pretty happy with, and I've never bit the bullet and actually learned the pretty arcane syntax of the Nix language.

In a nutshell

From the homepage:

The command nix-shell will build the dependencies of the specified derivation, but not the derivation itself. It will then start an interactive shell in which all environment variables defined by the derivation path have been set to their corresponding values, and the script $stdenv/setup has been sourced. This is useful for reproducing the environment of a derivation for development.

There you go. Now, let me explain in plainer terms why that's awesome and how you can leverage it immediately after you finish reading this blog post.

Why you should know about it

Most software projects have what I'd call "tool dependencies". In many languages, you have your more explicit "library" dependencies, usually managed by a language-specific package manager (gem for Ruby, Maven for Java, cargo for Rust, npm for JavaScript, etc.). To be clear, I am not, in this post, advocating replacing any of those with Nix.

But there's a layer under that: the language runtime or compiler, the language-specific package manager itself, all sorts of extra little scripts most projects tend to grow over time. Perhaps a linter, or some infrastructure-related tooling. Maybe the project contains scripts that only work with some versions of Bash. Maybe you need jq. Those are the types of dependencies I'm concerned with in this post.

In my experience, managing those tooling dependencies is usually left entirely to individual developers, based on some vague instructions in the README when you're lucky. This is not great for many reasons:

  • Developers need to figure out how to install the various tools the project needs, and sometimes even just what those tools are.
  • People may be adding dependencies without realizing it: when writing a new script, it's easy to accidentally depend on some CLI tool that's present on your machine, but maybe isn't on everyone's.
  • Most tools are installed "globally" on a machine. For example, on most OSes it's awkward to juggle multiple JVMs, or multiple versions of Node, or multiple versions of Bash or curl.

Ad-hoc solutions have been invented for that last point, such as rbenv and nvm. Those tend to be language-specific and only provide you with an easy way to manage your language installations (respectively Ruby and Node for rbenv and nvm). They typically don't do anything for other tools, and if you're working on a multi-language project you may have to contend with multiple such tools.

While that isn't the problem nix-shell was built to solve, it solves it beautifully. nix-shell is for you if you like any of these properties:

  • You don't want to worry about tooling for one project interfering in any way with tooling for other projects.
  • You always want to have the expected tools (with their expected versions) for every project you work on, with no extra effort expended on your part figuring out either what those tools are or how to install them.
  • You want to be confident everyone working on a project (for a value of "everyone" that covers macOS and Linux users; I'm not aware of any Windows support for Nix), including CI machines, is using the same set of tools down to the specific version.

Feature highlights

The Nix project as a whole has many parts, but this post focuses on one very specific way of using one of the tools in the (vast) Nix toolbox. Therefore, there's a single highlight: the ability to get a reproducible (across time as well as across machines) environment for either running a script or opening a shell.

A bit of context

The Nix project aims at building a completely reproducible world. "Nix" is a reproducible package manager (/ build system), as well as the name of the (purely functional) programming language used to define the corresponding "build rules", or "packages", called "derivations" in the Nix world; "NixOS" is a Linux-based operating system built around the Nix package manager, while the NixOps project brings the same level of reproducibility to infrastructure management.

When used outside NixOS, the Nix package manager can run alongside your OS's package manager (apt, yum, brew, etc.) without interfering with it in any way. The Nix package manager stores all of its packages under the /nix/store path, and packages under that path are named by the hash of their dependencies. Transitively, this is what allows Nix to manage the coexistence of many different versions of the same package, be that different versions of the source code or the same source code built against different sets of dependencies. Installing things with Nix is pretty easy; the tricky part is to get those weird hash-looking paths in your PATH. And that's where Nix tutorials usually want to take over your entire machine so they can manage your shell.

This is where nix-shell comes in. You can live in a world where your default state is to compeltely ignore your Nix installation, and then only add specific Nix packages to your PATH when working on specific projects.

The other question that this should raise is how do you know what hash to install in the first place. The answer to that is that Nix works with a repository of Nix "recipes" called nixpkgs, which is a GitHub repo that contains "derivations" for many, many, many programs. The way you find out specific hashes is that you tell Nix to use a specific commit from that repo as your "packages definitions", and from then on you only need to specify the package name (and sometimes some options) and Nix will figure out the appropriate hash itself.

How it works in practice

Installing Nix

First, you need to have Nix installed. This is a one-time action, and on macOS you'll need sudo access to do it. (You can do a "single-user" install on Linux without giving sudo access to the install script if you manually create a writeable /nix before running the install script).

Initializing a project

To initiate a new project where Nix is in charge of your dependencies (or add a nix-shell configuration to an existing project), run:

nix-shell -p niv --run "niv init -b nixpkgs-unstable"

This will create a Nix configuration in the directory ./nix that specifies the revision for nixpkgs as the latest commit on the nixpkgs-unstable branch at the time of running that command. (There may be reasons to choose other branches, but if you're not familiar with Nix, nixpkgs-unstable is a good default.)

Next, we'll want to create a shell.nix file, with content that looks like this:

  sources = import ./nix/sources.nix;
  pkgs = import sources.nixpkgs {};
pkgs.mkShell {
  buildInputs = [

This is Nix language for "load the definitions from nixpkgs, and build the buildInputs list."

At this point, if you had started in an empty directory, this should look like this:

$ tree -a
├── nix
│   ├── sources.json
│   └── sources.nix
└── shell.nix

1 directory, 3 files

where sources.json and sources.nix have been created by niv.

And that's pretty much it. You can now run scripts using this environment:

$ nix-shell --run "java -version; terraform -v; bash --version"
openjdk version "1.8.0_292"
OpenJDK Runtime Environment (Zulu (build 1.8.0_292-b10)
OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (Zulu (build 25.292-b10, mixed mode)
Terraform v1.1.2
on darwin_amd64
GNU bash, version 5.1.8(1)-release (x86_64-apple-darwin17.7.0)
Copyright (C) 2020 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
License GPLv3+: GNU GPL version 3 or later <http://gnu.org/licenses/gpl.html>

This is free software; you are free to change and redistribute it.
There is NO WARRANTY, to the extent permitted by law.

You can open up a new (Bash, by default) shell with those three tools loaded in PATH:

$ terraform -v
zsh: command not found: terraform
$ nix-shell

[nix-shell:/tmp]$ terraform -v
Terraform v1.1.2
on darwin_amd64

[nix-shell:/tmp]$ exit

By default, the nix-shell command will add its buildInputs to the current PATH, which is usually what you want for local development (so you can still access your own, personal, project-independant tools like emacs or vim). But, particularly on CI, you may want to run some script using only the nix-shell-provided environment so you can make sure it's "complete". You can do that with the --pure option to nix-shell, which resets the PATH to just the buildInputs, and clears most environment variables. For example:

$ nix-shell --pure --keep GITHUB_TOKEN --run ./my-script.sh

would run my-script.sh using just the configuration in the local shell.nix file, clearing all environment variables except GITHUB_TOKEN (--keep can be specified multiple times to keep multiple env vars).


nix-shell as presented in the previous section would alread be pretty nice, but combined with direnv it's a real game changer. Assuming you have direnv installed (perhaps because you read my post about it), you can add an .envrc file to the project above with this content:

use nix

source_env_if_exists .envrc.private

to automatically load the shell.nix dependencies whenever you cd into the project, and unload them when you cd out. If you work on multiple projects that use slightly different versions of many dependencies, having such a setup in each of them makes it really easy.

Updating the nixpkgs revision

Besides not having to look up the current commit on the tip of the nixpkgs-unstable branch, using niv to manage the nixpkgs revision allows you to later upgrade to the current latest with:

nix-shell -p niv --run "niv update"

which will automatically update nix/sources.json to point to the latest version at the time of running.

Where to find package names

One of the most recurrent problems in my work when setting up machines is to find out what the name of a package is, when I already have a pretty good idea of what it should be. Many package managers have some sort of search feature for that, but for Nix, the way I usually go about it is to check this file in the nixpkgs repository. The names on the left of the equality operators are the top-level package names that you can access through the pkgs. prefix in the shell.nix file sample above.

nix-shell shebang

If you can assume everyone using your project is going to have Nix installed, but may not be using direnv (or you don't want to setup direnv on CI, for example), you can use nix-shell as your shebang with a syntax that looks like:

#!/usr/bin/env nix-shell
#!nix-shell -i bash shell.nix

The first line instructs your OS to execute the file with nix-shell; the second line is parsed by nix-shell itself and in this case indicates it should run the file through the bash interpreter after having loaded the environment described in shell.nix. You may want to add a --pure argument on that second line in some circumstances.


Hopefully by this point you know how to use Nix to provide reproducible toolsets for your projects. My point is not that there is nothing else to learn about Nix; time invested learning more about it would be well spent. But I hope to have made the point that you can leverage it very easily, even with little investment.

I myself can't think of any reason not to add both direnv and nix-shell to every new project I create from now on, so that's what I'm going to do by default.

Tags: tyska