If you’re reading this post, you’re probably familiar with the shortcomings of many linux package managers, whether that be rpm’s on redhat, deb’s on debian, or source/binary tarballs on gentoo or even bottles and source using homebrew on OSX, it never fails that you eventually get to a point where you need a package with a different library version than your system provides, and you end up building something from source.

But what if there was a better way? Enter nix. Nix package manager came about as a university research project to handle many of the shortcomings of typical package managers. Theoretically, every package on your system could use a different set of dependencies, because every package (even a new version of an already existing package) exists as hash in a directory. Even if the default libc version on the system is 2.3, if your package needs 2.2, all you need to do is point to the libc 2.2 directory. This allows for the following features:

1) Test package upgrades on a system while leaving the existing package in place 2) Rollback a package upgrade without affecting any other package on the system 3) Different versions used by different users on the same system

Lets talk about how this works at a low level. When we install a package in nix using nix-env some command, that package is placed into a directory in the nix store named by a hash that is generated using the package name, version and dependency tree. When another package depends on a package, it is built against that packages directory instead of /usr/lib or /usr/local/lib. When a package is upgraded, the other package remains, and a new directory hash is generated for the upgraded package. To free up disk space on the system, a garbage collector is ran that only removes packages that are not depended by any active existing packages. When a package is rolled back, all that is changed is the symlinks in the nix store directory to the hash of the old package. Also, since the hash is based on the dependency tree, this also means the same version of a package can be installed on the system depending on a different version of a package. This means even if the dependency is upgraded, this package will continue to rely on the older version until the package is rebuilt against the new dependency version.

So, this is great on a single user system, but what if you have multiple users on the system? Do you have to give write access to the nix store to all users on that system? Absolutely not! Nix provides the nix daemon for multi-user systems. What this does is instead of having the user running the command to install the package, it tells the daemon to fire off a job to install the package which keeps the entire nix store owned by the user the daemon is running as. Each user has a profile directory in the nix store they source to get their own personal set of packages they are using in the nix store. In this way some packages can be shared across users, and other ones can be specifically installed for that specific user.

So, now that we understand what nix is, lets setup our own nix store. We’ll work with the simpler nix store owned by a single user for this example:

curl nix|bash

ln -s /nix/profile ~/.profile-nix

That’s it, you now have your own nix store. Lets install some packages:

nix-env -i blah...

now lets install a specific version of X:

nix-env -i X
ls -hal /nix/foo

now lets install the latest one:

nix-env -i X
ls -hal /nix/foo
ls -hal /nix/store/4wjx372kx9djqqlywqscp21z8b17v7bl-X

You can see that X is now the latest, but the old version of X still exists

That’s pretty much the basics of nix. Stay tuned for another blog post on an OS built completely around nix, nixos!