Getting started with Nix Flakes and devshell

Post on February 13, 2021 Updated on Feb 16, 2021
nix, Flakes

1 Introduction

I finally converted my blog project to use Nix Flakes and numtide/devshell. I want to write down what I learnt about Nix Flakes and devshell.

2 What is Nix Flakes and Why you might care about it

Nix Flakes are a set of experimental features in the Nix package manager.

If you are not familiar with Flakes yet, here is a list of resources on it.

Some of goals of Flakes are

3 How to install/uninstall Flakes

3.1 install

Right now, Nix Flakes is not enabled by default. We need to explicitly enable it.

3.1.1 NixOS

adding the following in the configuration.nix

{ pkgs, ... }: {
  nix = {
    package = pkgs.nixFlakes;
    extraOptions = ''
      experimental-features = nix-command flakes

3.1.2 non-NixOS

nix-env -iA nixpkgs.nixFlakes

and add

experimental-features = nix-command flakes

to ~/.config/nix/nix.conf (if current shell user is nix trusted users) or /etc/nix/nix.conf

Install Nix Flakes installer I am not sure whether this step is still needed

sh <(curl -L

You can type nix-env --version to verify. The Flakes version should looks like nix-env (Nix) 2.4pre20210126_f15f0b8. (the version was 3.0, and version rollbacked to 2.4)

3.2 uninstall

3.2.1 NixOS

just revert the change in configuration.nix and do nixos-rebuild switch

3.2.2 non-NixOS

nix-env -iA nixpkgs.nix should bring out nix to the mainline version, and we need to revert the nix.conf change. Of course, multi-user version needs to restart nix-daemon.

4 How to bootstrap a Nix Flakes project

use nix flake init to generate the flake.nix, nix flake update to generate flake.lock file.

An important thing about Flakes, to improve the reproducibility, Flakes requires us to git staging all the flake.nix changes.

5 (Selective) Anatomy of flake.nix

Beside description, flake.nix has 2 top-level attributes

5.1 inputs

a typical input might look like

  inputs = {
    nixpkgs.url = "github:nixos/nixpkgs/nixpkgs-unstable";
    flake-utils.url = "github:numtide/flake-utils/master";

here, it declares two dependencies nixpkgs and flake-utils. We can use nix flake update to lock down dependencies.

We can point to a branch: inputs.nixpkgs.url = "github:Mic92/nixpkgs/master";.

or revision: inputs.nix-doom-emacs.url = "github:vlaci/nix-doom-emacs?rev=238b18d7b2c8239f676358634bfb32693d3706f3";

for non-Flakes dependency, we need to declare that.

{ = "github:foo/bar/branch"; = false;

Further, we can override a Flake dependency’s input

  inputs.sops-nix.url = "github:Mic92/sops-nix";
  inputs.sops-nix.inputs.nixpkgs.follows = "nixpkgs";

5.2 outputs

5.2.1 Schema

I skipped all the nixos related attributes.

{ self, ... }@inputs:
  # Executed by `nix flake check`
  checks."<system>"."<attr>" = derivation;
  # Executed by `nix build .#<name>`
  packages."<system>"."<attr>" = derivation;
  # Executed by `nix build .`
  defaultPackage."<system>" = derivation;
  # Executed by `nix run .#<name>`
  apps."<system>"."<attr>" = {
    type = "app";
    program = "<store-path>";
  # Executed by `nix run . -- <args?>`
  defaultApp."<system>" = { type = "app"; program = "..."; };


So for each <attr>, we can have

and we can define a default <attr>.

5.3 flake-utils

flake-utils ,as its name indicates, is a utility package help us write flake.

For example, it has eachDefaultSystem function take a lambda and iterate through all the systems supported by nixpkgs an hydra. So we can reuse the same lambda to build for different systems.

Using flake-utils.lib.eachSystem [ "x86_64-linux" ], you target fewer systems.

flattenTree takes a tree of attributes and flatten them into a one level key-value (attribute to derivation), which is what Flakes packages outputs expects.

flattenTree { hello = pkgs.hello; gitAndTools = pkgs.gitAndTools }


  hello = «derivation»;
  "gitAndTools/git" = «derivation»;
  "gitAndTools/hub" = «derivation»;

mkApp is a helper function to construct nix app.

here is an example

  description = "Flake utils demo";

  inputs.flake-utils.url = "github:numtide/flake-utils";

  outputs = { self, nixpkgs, flake-utils }:
    flake-utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem (system:
      let pkgs = nixpkgs.legacyPackages.${system};
      in rec {
        packages = flake-utils.lib.flattenTree {
          hello = pkgs.hello;
          gitAndTools = pkgs.gitAndTools;
        defaultPackage = packages.hello;
        apps.hello = flake-utils.lib.mkApp { drv = packages.hello; };
        defaultApp = apps.hello;

6 Case Study 1: nix-tree

utdemir has this nice and concise example using Flakes with a Haskell project. I think it is a great starting point to understand Flakes.

in nix-tree, the outputs looks likes

  outputs = { self, nixpkgs, flake-utils }: # list out the dependencies
      overlay = self: super: { # a pattern of bring build artifacts to pkgs
        haskellPackages = super.haskellPackages.override {
          overrides = hself: hsuper: {
            nix-tree = hself.callCabal2nix "nix-tree"
              (self.nix-gitignore.gitignoreSourcePure [
              ] ./.) { };
        nix-tree =
          self.haskell.lib.justStaticExecutables self.haskellPackages.nix-tree;
    in {
      inherit overlay;
    } // flake-utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem (system: # leverage flake-utils
        pkgs = import nixpkgs {
          inherit system;
          overlays = [ overlay ];
      in {
        defaultPackage = pkgs.nix-tree;
        devShell = pkgs.haskellPackages.shellFor { # development environment
          packages = p: [ p."nix-tree" ];
          buildInputs = with pkgs.haskellPackages; [
          withHoogle = false;

Let’s break down the function a little bit. The outputs have 2 dependencies nixpkgs and flake-utils.

First thing, it construct an overlay contains the local nix-tree as Haskell package and a derivation for the executable.

Next, for eachDefaultSystem, it initialize the new nixpkgs with relevant system and overlay, and construct defaultPackage and devShell. devShell is Nix Flakes’ version of nix-shell (without -p capability, if you want to use nix-shell -p, there is nix shell). We can start a development shell by nix develop command. There is nix develop integration with direnv

7 How to use non-flake dependency

Let’s say if I want to use easy-purescript-nix in my project. First I need to add it as inputs

  inputs.easy-ps = {
    url = "github:justinwoo/easy-purescript-nix/master";
    flake = false;

there are more than one packages in easy-purescript-nix. I can added them into an overlay and add the overlay into the pkgs.

  outputs = {self, nixpkgs, easy-ps}: {
   overlay = final: prev: {

        purs = (prev.callPackage easy-ps {}).purs;
        spago = (prev.callPackage easy-ps {}).spago;
} // (
  flake-utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem  (system:
      pkgs = import nixpkgs {
        inherit system;
        overlays = [self.overlay];
        in rec {
            devShell = {
            packages =  [

On the another hand, you can use flake-compat to use Flakes project from mainline (legacy) Nix.

8 Case Study 2: todomvc-nix

todomvc-nix is a much more complex example. It needs to build Haskell (even ghcjs, which usually is more chanlleing to build) and rust source code.

You can checkout the code yourself to see how one can override different haskell packages and using numtide/devshell to customize the nix develop experience.

9 numtide/devshell

devshell (not to confuse with Nix Flakes devShell) is numtide project to customize per-project developer environments. The marketing slogan is “like virtualenv, but for all the languages”.

I think it is fair to say that devshel is still early stage of development. (Although one can argue almost every thing mentioned in this article is in the early stage of development.) Lots of usages are subject to future changes. Using devshell probably requires you to read throught the source code. But I think devshell is a really exicting project.

9.1 How to “install” devshell

devshell does aim to support non-Flakes and Flakes Nix. I am only going to cover the Flakes version, the non-Flakes usage is covered at the devshell’s doc.

First thing is to declare devshell as an input, and we need to import devshell overlay into our instance of nixpkgs.

flake-utils.lib.eachSystem [ "x86_64-darwin" ] (system:
       pkgs = import nixpkgs {
         inherit system;
         overlays = [ devshell.overlay overlay ];

the overlay would bring devshell attribute into the pkgs. devshell has functions like mkShell and fromTOML. fromTOML allows us to configure the devshell using TOML file.

  # assuming we import devshell.overlay
  # and there is devshell.toml file
  devShell = pkgs.devshell.fromTOML ./devshell.toml;

mkShell allows us to use Nix experssions.

{ devShell = pkgs.devshell.mkShell { name = "blog-dev-shell"; }; }

Here is My devshell config. devshell document page has a list of configuration options.

9.2 environments variables

This is kind of like shellHook in the old mkShell function. We can define environment variables in our devshell.

TOML version looks like

name = "GO111MODULE"
value = "on" 

Nix version looks little verbose

  devshell = pkgs.devshell.mkShell {
    env = [{
      name = "NODE_ENV";
      value = "development";

9.3 packages

Of course, we can define packages for our devshell TOML version

packages = [

Nix counterpart is more flexible, imagine I have a custom haskellPackages with lots of overlays, I can reference it in flake.nix pretty easily.

  devshell =
    pkgs.devshell.mkShell { packages = [ myHaskellEnv pkgs.nixpkgs-fmt ]; };

9.4 commands

I think this is a cool feature in devshell. Using Nix expressions we can define some common commands for your project.

  devshell = pkgs.devshell.mkShell {
    commands = [
        name = "cssWatch";
        category = "css";
        command =
          "ls tailwind/*.css | ${pkgs.entr}/bin/entr ${pkgs.yarn}/bin/yarn build";
        name = "siteClean";
        category = "static site";
        help = "clean static site files";
        command = "${}/bin/blog clean";
        name = "yarn";
        category = "javascript";
        package = "yarn";

Everytime, you can enter devshell, all commands and a motd (message of the day) will be displayed. the commands are grouped by their category. packages won’t show up in there.

🔨 Welcome to blog-dev-shell



[general commands]

  menu      - prints this menu


  node      - Event-driven I/O framework for the V8 JavaScript engine
  yarn      - Fast, reliable, and secure dependency management for javascript



[static site]

  siteClean - clean static site files
  siteWatch - Watch static site files


  entr      - Run arbitrary commands when files change

9.5 modules

Right now, all the build-in modules are in devshell/extra directory.

One can write custom module. For example, nixpkgs haskell-modules has a nice shellFor function, we can turn it into a haskell module for devshell.

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