Nix: caveat emptor

I'm setting up a new website, which gave me an excuse to try out Nix, the stateless package manager, and Docker, the tool that lets you run all of your apps in light-weight containers on a host.

Nix may be a great tool, and help you avoid the possibility of moving parts in your builds, but there are still a lot of edges to smooth out, just simple stuff to make it easier to figure out what's going on and build things.


Installation was very easy! There are 2 choices - install an entire operating system, or install just the package manager. You can't really deploy the operating system to anything besides AWS, so I chose the package manager.

You install it with

bash <(curl

No wgetting sources, configuring installation directories, "Permission Denied" errors, it just works and this is one of the main reasons I like this format even if everyone yells all the time that it's a security risk. It is, but there are no better ways to install things at the command line, currently.

Trying it out

Here was where things started to go wrong. The obvious name of the command for a tool named nix is nix, right?

$ nix
zsh: command not found: nix

$ find /  -name nix -executable -type f
No matches found

Okay, this is annoying, back into the docs to see what actually got installed onto my system. From the install page, there's a link to read more about Nix, but no link to a quickstart, or "Try it out", or anything like that. I click "Help" and get this sentence:

This makes me think I am going to need to parse a PDF to find the information I need.

The manual

I open the very large Nix manual. Missed the section that said "Quick Start" while scanning the Table of Contents, maybe because it came before the chapter on "Installation". Instead I start reading "Basic package management". The command I am looking for is nix-env and finally there is something I can type into a shell and run, I'm not quite sure what this does, but this way I can at least verify that it was installed properly:

However, I don't get the same list of packages.

[nix@gazelle ~]$ nix-env -qaf nixpkgs-version '*'
error: getting information about `/home/nix/nixpkgs-version': No such file or directory

This is frustrating, and the note ("nixpkgs-version is where you've unpacked the release") is not very helpful, as nix handled the installation for me, and I don't know where the release is unpacked.

At this point I abandon the manual and Google around for anyone who's tried installing Nix. I find a nice tutorial explaining how to install Nix, search for packages and install them. Problem solved, and a good reminder that documentation should be designed for people that don't read.

Note, my DigitalOcean box with 512MB of memory was not enough to run Nix; I got a "error: unable to fork: Cannot allocate memory" when I tried starting the program, and had to add a 256MB swapfile.

Seeing what else I can do

Normally when I download a new tool I'll pull up the help menu to see all of the things that are possible with the command. For example, if you type python -h, you get:

usage: python [option] ... [-c cmd | -m mod | file | -] [arg] ...
Options and arguments (and corresponding environment variables):
-B     : don't write .py[co] files on import; also PYTHONDONTWRITEBYTECODE=x
-c cmd : program passed in as string (terminates option list)
-d     : debug output from parser; also PYTHONDEBUG=x
-E     : ignore PYTHON* environment variables (such as PYTHONPATH)
-h     : print this help message and exit (also --help)
-i     : inspect interactively after running script; forces a prompt even
         if stdin does not appear to be a terminal; also PYTHONINSPECT=x

Nix doesn't provide anything for "-h", and typing "--help" pulls up the man page, which has the information I want but is pretty heavy weight. Also, with a new user running Bash, the man page came up without the ANSI escape sequences getting escaped. Haven't figured out whether this is my problem or Nix's.

The existence of an extraordinarily large footgun

One time I typed nix-env --install and hit Enter without specifying a package. Nix was a second away from trying to install literally every single package it has, over 5000 of them. This seems like something that no one would want to do, yet it's currently extremely easy to do by accident.

The most frustrating problem of the day

Soon after this, lots of network operations began failing with the cryptic error message 20: unable to get local issuer certificate. The answers on StackOverflow and suggest that this is due to a certificate not being there. I was very confused, because there was a certificate in /etc/ssl/certs, other SSL operations were working just fine, and the debug output from curl at the command line indicated it was using the certificate bundle.

It finally took an strace command to see that the network requests were not actually looking in /etc/ssl/certs for the certificate, but somewhere deep in the /nix directory. Setting GIT_SSL_CAINFO=/etc/ssl/certs/ca-bundle.crt in the environment fixed the issue. Once I figured this out, I found people complaining about this problem all over the place.

This means the default installation of git and curl will certainly break git clone for everyone, and really should ship with certificates, or at least a warning when you download the package that you need to get an up-to-date certificate store from somewhere.


There is a stateless package manager, and it can download packages and all of their dependencies. That's really cool, but for the moment there are quite a few usability problems that make this really hard for people to get started with.

Liked what you read? I am available for hire.

One thought on “Nix: caveat emptor

  1. David

    the PAGER var is not set when reading man pages (re: nix-env –help). if you install something like less (`nix-env -i less`) then export PAGER=’less -RS’ will fix the problem above.


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