A dive into the trinity

A joke that originated from my roomate Andrew goes something like this

nixos trinitarianism

Naturally, as with all things cursed, seeing that compelled me to try it. As with anything new, it seemed scary at first - a massive departure from the typical package management paradigm. However, having used it on-and-off for a couple weeks or so, I can confidently say there's a lot to like about it!

The motivation

So why NixOS over all the other distros out there? NixOS definitely pales in comparison to the mainstay distros (Debian, Ubutntu, RHEL, etc) in terms of official support from software vendors.

The big motivation for NixOS is avoiding DLL hell. You think Linux doesn't suffer from DLL hell? Think again! Think of the multiple times you've seen apt or pacman fail leaving you with a system full of garbage in your /usr/bin! Think of the multitude of precompiled Linux binaries that will never run on your machine because of a different libc! Think of the amount of library packages you installed for schoolwork once and never touched again! That's what Nix is trying to avoid, in the big picture.

Of course, there's been other efforts to prevent this - most notably, Fedora's Silverblue aims to do something similar - with an immutable root and flatpaks to manage a package's dependencies. However, NixOS's approach to doing this differs from Silverblue significantly.

NixOS attempts to avoid this DLL (or rather, package) hell by taking inspiration from the world of functional programming - the seminal paper that describes Nix as a whole lays out the functional nix language that NixOS uses to determine package dependecies and settings.

The DevOps and sysadmin people will be immediately drawn to the reproducability that NixOS provides - the "godfile" configuration.nix is all that is needed to re-create an OS (sans any user data, obviously), and a typical NixOS development environment strives to be completely reproducable - the same source code should yield the same binary.

Great, how do I get started?

There is no substitute for hands-on experience! Trust me, unlike other distros, this isn't something that you can learn by osmosis! It's very much equivalent to learning your first functional language!

You'd want to get the NixOS ISO and write it to a boot USB, then follow the instructions to install it. These instructions are very sparse, so don't be afraid to Google!

Some installation notes and stumbling blocks:

  1. The live ISO automatically assumes DHCP. While this is to be expected, it's a bit of a stumbling block for people without DHCP (ahem, ACM UMN server closet). To get around this, we first tell the live system the static IP

    ifconfig <dev name> xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx netmask xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx
    route add default gw xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx
    echo "nameserver >> /etc/resolv.conf

    Then, in configuration.nix, we need to specify the same parameters.

        networking.hostName = "hostname";
        networking.useDHCP = false;
        networking.defaultGateway = {
            address = "xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx"
            interface = "eth0";
        networking.interfaces.eth0.ipv4.addresses = [{
            address = "xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx";
            prefixLength = 24;
        networking.nameservers = [ "" "" ];
  2. Early KMS - early KMS, where the display driver and KMS is initialized during the initramfs stage, has some benefits in terms of laptop power savings, DRI2, and some alleged kernel space power savings. To enable early KMS on a NixOS configuration, edit configuration.nix

    boot.initrd.availableKernelModules = [ "i915" ];
    boot.initrd.kernelModules = [ "i915" ];

    Note that i915 is the Intel kernel module! Do lsmod to investigate what modules you need rather than blindly using i915!

Even more to talk about

There is a lot to the Nix ecosystem, as you can see from the trinity at the top of the post. We've only scratched the surface of NixOS! Not the Nix ecosystem, just one piece of it. I really do encourage you to try it out on your own, and do stay tuned for my NixOS updates!

Til next time, Shaun.