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What would you like to do?

Nix Flake MVP


  • To provide Nix repositories with an easy and standard way to reference other Nix repositories.

  • To allow such references to be queried and updated automatically.

  • To provide a replacement for nix-channel, NIX_PATH and Hydra jobset definitions.

  • To enable reproducible, hermetic evaluation of packages and NixOS configurations.

Things that we probably won't do in the initial iteration:

  • Sophisticated flake versioning, such as the ability to specify version ranges on dependencies.

  • A way to specify the types of values provided by a flake. For the most part, flakes can provide arbitrary Nix values, but there will be some standard attribute names (e.g. packages must be a set of installable derivations).


  • A flake is (usually) a Git repository that contains a file named flake.nix at top-level.

  • Flakes provide an attribute set of values, such as packages, Nixpkgs overlays, NixOS modules, library functions, Hydra jobs, nix-shell definitions, etc.

  • Flakes can depend on other flakes.

  • Flakes are referred to using a flake reference, which is either a URL specifying its repository's location (e.g. github:NixOS/nixpkgs/release-18.09) or an identifier (e.g. nixpkgs) looked up in a lock file or flake registry. They can also specify revisions, e.g. github:NixOS/nixpkgs/98a2a5b5370c1e2092d09cb38b9dcff6d98a109f.

  • The flake registry is a centrally maintained mapping (on from flake identifiers to flake locations (e.g. nixpkgs -> github:NixOS/nixpkgs/release-18.09).

  • A flake can contain a lock file (flake.lock) used when resolving the dependencies in flake.nix. It maps flake references to references containing revisions (e.g. nixpkgs -> github:NixOS/nixpkgs/98a2a5b5370c1e2092d09cb38b9dcff6d98a109f).

  • The nix command uses the flake registry as its default installation source. For example, nix build nixpkgs.hello builds the hello package provided by the nixpkgs flake listed in the registry. nix will automatically download/upload the registry and flakes as needed.

  • nix build without arguments will build the flake in the current directory (or some parent).

  • The command nix flake update generates/updates flake.lock from flake.nix. This should probably also be done automatically when building from a local flake.

  • nixos-rebuild will build a configuration from a (locked) flake. Evaluation will be done in pure mode to ensure there are no unaccounted inputs. Thus the NixOS configuration can be reproduced unambiguously from the top-level flake.

  • Nix code can query flake metadata such as commitHash (the Git revision) or date (the date of the last commit). This is useful for NixOS to compute the NixOS version string (which will be the revision of the top-level configuration flake, uniquely identifying the configuration).

  • Hydra jobset configurations will consist of a single flake reference. Thus we can get rid of jobset inputs; any other needed repositories can be fetched by the top-level flake. The top-level flake can be locked or unlocked; if some dependencies are unlocked, then Nix will fetch the latest revision for each.

Example flake

A flake is a Git repository that contains a file named flake.nix. For example, here is the flake.nix for dwarffs, a small repository that provides a single package and a single NixOS module.

  # The flake identifier.
  name = "dwarffs";

  # The epoch may be used in the future to determine how Nix
  # expressions inside this flake are to be parsed.
  epoch = 2018;

  # Some other metadata.
  description = "A filesystem that fetches DWARF debug info from the Internet on demand";

  # A list of flake references denoting the flakes that this flake
  # depends on. Nix will resolve and fetch these flakes and pass them
  # as a function argument to `provides` below.
  # `flake:nixpkgs` denotes a flake named `nixpkgs` which is looked up
  # in the flake registry, or in `flake.lock` inside this flake, if it
  # exists.
  requires = [ flake:nixpkgs ];

  # The stuff provided by this flake. Flakes can provide whatever they
  # want (convention over configuration), but some attributes have
  # special meaning to tools / other flakes: for example, `packages`
  # is used by the `nix` CLI to search for packages, and
  # `nixosModules` is used by NixOS to automatically pull in the
  # modules provided by a flake.
  # `provides` takes a single argument named `deps` that contains
  # the resolved set of flakes. (See below.)
  provides = deps: {

    # This is searched by `nix`, so something like `nix install
    # dwarffs.dwarffs` resolves to this `packages.dwarffs`.
    packages.dwarffs =
      with deps.nixpkgs.packages;
      with deps.nixpkgs.lib;

      stdenv.mkDerivation {
        name = "dwarffs-0.1";

        buildInputs = [ fuse nix nlohmann_json boost ];

        NIX_CFLAGS_COMPILE = "-I ${}/include/nix -include ${}/include/nix/config.h -D_FILE_OFFSET_BITS=64";

        src = cleanSource ./.;

        installPhase =
            mkdir -p $out/bin $out/lib/systemd/system

            cp dwarffs $out/bin/
            ln -s dwarffs $out/bin/mount.fuse.dwarffs

            cp ${./run-dwarffs.mount} $out/lib/systemd/system/run-dwarffs.mount
            cp ${./run-dwarffs.automount} $out/lib/systemd/system/run-dwarffs.automount

    # NixOS modules.
    nixosModules.dwarffs = import ./module.nix deps;

    # Provide a single Hydra job (`hydraJobs.dwarffs`).
    hydraJobs = deps.this.packages;

Similarly, a minimal flake.nix for Nixpkgs:

  name = "nixpkgs";

  epoch = 2018;

  description = "A collection of packages for the Nix package manager";

  provides = deps:
    let pkgs = import ./. {}; in
      lib = import ./lib;

      builders = {
        inherit (pkgs) stdenv fetchurl;

      packages = {
        inherit (pkgs) hello nix fuse nlohmann_json boost;

Note that packages is an unpolluted set of packages: non-package values like lib or fetchurl are not part of it.

Flake identifiers

A flake has an identifier (e.g. nixpkgs or dwarffs).

Flake references

Flake references are a URI-like syntax to specify the physical location of a flake (e.g. a Git repository) or to denote a lookup in the flake registry or lock file.

  • (flake:)?<flake-id>(/rev-or-ref(/rev)?)?

    Look up a flake by ID in the flake lock file or in the flake registry. These must specify an actual location for the flake using the formats listed below. Note that in pure evaluation mode, the flake registry is empty.

    Optionally, the rev or ref from the dereferenced flake can be overriden. For example,


    uses the 19.09 branch of the nixpkgs flake's GitHub repository, while


    uses the specified revision. For Git (rather than GitHub) repositories, both the rev and ref must be given, e.g.


  • github:<owner>/<repo>(/<rev-or-ref>)?

    A repository on GitHub. These differ from Git references in that they're downloaded in a efficient way (via the tarball mechanism) and that they support downloading a specific revision without specifying a branch. rev-or-ref is either a commit hash (rev) or a branch or tag name (ref). The default is master if none is specified. Note that in pure evaluation mode, a commit hash must be used.

    Flakes fetched in this manner expose rev and date attributes, but not revCount.





  • https:///.git(?attr(&attr)*)?




    where attr is one of rev=<rev> or ref=<ref>.

    A Git repository fetched through https. Note that the path must end in .git. The default for ref is master.


  • /path.git(?attr(&attr)*)?

    Like file://path.git, but if no ref or rev is specified, the (possibly dirty) working tree will be used. Using a working tree is not allowed in pure evaluation mode.





  • https:///.tar.xz(?hash=)


    A flake distributed as a tarball. In pure evaluation mode, an SRI hash is mandatory. It exposes a date attribute, being the newest file inside the tarball.


Note: currently, there can be only one flake per Git repository, and it must be at top-level. In the future, we may want to add a field (e.g. dir=<dir>) to specify a subdirectory inside the repository.

Flake lock files

This is a JSON file named flake.lock that maps flake identifiers used in the corresponding flake.nix to "immutable" flake references; that is, flake references that contain a revision (for Git repositories) or a content hash (for tarballs).


  "nixpkgs": "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/41c0c1bf292ea3ac3858ff393b49ca1123dbd553",
  "foo": ""


The flake attribute provides is a function that takes an argument named deps and returns a (mostly) arbitrary attrset of values. Some of the standard result attributes:

  • packages: A set of installable derivations used by the nix command. That is, commands such as nix install ignore all other flake attributes.

  • hydraJobs: Used by Hydra.

  • nixosModules: An attrset of NixOS modules.

  • nixosSystems: An attrset of calls to evalModules, i.e. things that nixos-rebuild can switch to. (Maybe this is superfluous, but we need to avoid a situation where nixos-rebuild needs to fetch its own nixpkgs just to do evalModules.)

  • shell: A specification of a development environment in some TBD format.

The function argument flakes is an attrset that contains an attribute for each dependency specified in requires. (Should it contain transitive dependencies? Probably not.) Each attribute is an attrset containing the provides of the dependency, in addition to the following attributes:

  • path: The path to the flake's source code. Useful when you want to use non-Nix artifacts from the flake, or if you want to store the source code of the dependency in a derivation. (For example, we could store the sources of all flake dependencies in a NixOS system configuration, as a generalization of system.copySystemConfiguration.)

  • meta: An attrset containing the following:

    • description

    • commitHash (or rev?) (not for tarball flakes): The Git commit hash.

    • date: The timestamp of the most recent commit (for Git repositories), or the timestamp of the most recently modified file (for tarballs).

    • revCount (for Git flakes, but not GitHub flakes): The number of ancestors of the revision. Useful for generating version strings.

Non-flake dependencies

It may be useful to pull in repositories that are not flakes (i.e. don't contain a flake.nix). This could be done in two ways:

  • Allow flakes not to have a flake.nix file, in which case it's a flake with no requires and no provides. The downside of this approach is that we can't detect accidental use of a non-flake repository. (Also, we need to conjure up an identifier somehow.)

  • Add a flake attribute to specifiy non-flake dependencies, e.g.

    nonFlakeRequires.foobar = github:foo/bar;

Flake registry

The flake registry maps flake IDs to flake references (where the latter cannot be another indirection, i.e. it must not be a flake:<flake-id> reference).

The default registry is kept at It looks like this:

    "version": 1,
    "flakes": {
        "dwarffs": {
            "uri": "github:edolstra/dwarffs/flake"
        "nixpkgs": {
            "uri": "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/release-18.09"

Nix automatically (re)downloads the registry. The downloaded file is a GC root so the registry remains available if is unreachable. TBD: when to redownload?

Nix UI

Commands for registry / user flake configuration:

  • nix flake list: Show all flakes in the registry.

  • nix flake add <flake-ref>: Add or override a flake to/in the user's flake configuration (~/.config/nix/flakes.nix). For example, nix flake add nixpkgs/nixos-18.03 overrides the nixpkgs flake to use the nixos-18.03 branch. There should also be a way to add multiple branches/revisions of the same flake by giving them a different ID, e.g. nix flake add --id nixpkgs-ancient nixpkgs/nixos-16.03).

  • nix flake remove <flake-id>: Remove a flake from the user's flake configuration. Any flake with the same ID in the registry remains available.

  • nix flake lock <flake-id>: Lock a flake. For example, nix flake lock nixpkgs pins nixpkgs to the current revision.

Commands for creating/modifying a flake:

  • nix flake init: Create a flake.nix in the current directory.

  • nix flake update: Update the lock file for the flake.nix in the current directory. In most cases, this should be done automatically. (E.g. nix build should automatically update the lock file is a new dependency is added to flake.nix.)

  • nix flake check: Do some checks on the flake, e.g. check that all packages are really packages.

  • nix flake clone: Do a Git clone of the flake repository. This is a convenience to easily start hacking on a flake. E.g. nix flake clone dwarffs clones the dwarffs GitHub repository to ./dwarffs.

TODO: maybe the first set of commands should have a different name from the second set.

Flags / configuration options:

  • --flakes (<flake-id>=<flake-ref>)*: add/override some flakes.

  • (In nix) --flake <flake-ref>: set the specified flake as the installation source. E.g. nix build --flake ./my-nixpkgs hello.

The default installation source in nix is the packages from all flakes in the registry, that is:

builtins.mapAttrs (flakeName: flakeInfo:
  (getFlake flakeInfo.uri).${flakeName}.provides.packages or {})

(where builtins.flakeRegistry is the global registry with user overrides applied, and builtins.getFlake downloads a flake and resolves its dependencies.)

It may be nice to extend the default installation source with the packages from the flake in the current directory, so that

nix build hello

does something similar to the old

nix-build -A hello

Specifically, it builds packages.hello from the flake in the current directory. Of course, this creates some ambiguity if there is a flake in the registry named hello.

Maybe the command

nix shell

should do something like use to initialize the shell, but probably we should ditch nix shell / nix-shell for direnv.

Pure evaluation and caching

Flake evaluation should be done in pure mode. Thus:

  • Flakes cannot do NIX_PATH lookups via the <...> syntax.

  • They can't read random stuff from non-flake directories, such as ~/.nix/config.nix or overlays.

This enables aggressive caching or precomputation of Nixpkgs package sets. For example, for a particular Nixpkgs flake closure (as identified by, say, a hash of the fully-qualified flake references after dependency resolution) and system type, an attribute like packages.hello should always evaluate to the same derivation. So we can:

  • Keep a local evaluation cache (say ~/.cache/nix/eval.sqlite) mapping (<flake-closure-hash, <attribute>) -> (<drv-name>, <drv-output-paths>, <whatever other info we want to cache>).

  • Download a precomputed cache (e.g.<flake-closure-hash>.sqlite). So a command like nix search could avoid evaluating Nixpkgs entirely.

Of course, this doesn't allow overlays. With pure evaluation, the only way to have these is to define a top-level flake that depends on the Nixpkgs flake and somehow passes in a set of overlays.

TODO: in pure mode we have to pass the system type explicitly!

Hydra jobset dependencies

Hydra can use the flake dependency resolution mechanism to fetch dependencies. This allows us to get rid of jobset configuration in the web interface: a jobset only requires a flake reference. That is, a jobset is a flake. Hydra then just builds the hydraJobs attrset provided by the flake. (It omitted, maybe it can build packages.)

NixOS system configuration

NixOS currently contains a lot of modules that really should be moved into their own repositories. For example, it contains a Hydra module that duplicates the one in the Hydra repository. Also, we want reproducible evaluation for NixOS system configurations. So NixOS system configurations should be stored as flakes in (local) Git repositories.


  provides = flakes: {
    nixosSystems.default =
      flakes.nixpkgs.lib.evalModules {
        modules =
          [ { networking.firewall.enable = true;
              hydra.useSubstitutes = true;
            # The latter could be extracted automatically from `flakes`.

  requires =
    [ "nixpkgs/nixos-18.09"
      ... lots of other module flakes ...

We can then build the system:

nixos-rebuild switch --flake ~/my-system

This performs dependency resolution starting at ~/my-system/flake.nix and builds the system attribute in nixosSystems.default.

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tomberek commented May 22, 2019

This seems to subsume most of my standard Nix setup for projects ( Is this being developed via a RFC? Can/should it?

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joepie91 commented Jun 3, 2019

I like the overall concept a lot, but I'm not entirely convinced by the flake identifier syntax. I have two main concerns:

  1. Should this be special syntax at all? It seems like the identifiers only appear in pre-determined places, so I don't immediately see a reason why it can't simply be a string with a certain expected format. We already have some strange special cases in the parser (like the URL syntax), and I'm not sure it'd be wise to add more, from a complexity and future-proofing perspective.
  2. If there is a good reason for it to be special syntax, we should take into account that we probably want semantic versioning support in the future (rather sooner than later, IMO!) and the syntax would need to support such a change. For example, it should be possible to extend it with @<version-string> without clashing with other syntax. Has that been considered?

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edolstra commented Jun 4, 2019

On 1: it is a string with a certain expected format, which happens to be URL-like. So since it's URL-like you can use the URL syntax (which is just another literal for strings), but you can also write it as a string.

On 2: this could be supported using URL query parameters, e.g. github:NixOS/patchelf?min_ver=1.2.

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joepie91 commented Jun 4, 2019

I don't know, it feels like this adds a lot of unnecessary gotchas to the language. It's already confusing to people why the URL syntax exists in the first place and whether it has any purpose at all, so reusing that syntax for yet another thing that is even semantically different (a flake identifier is not a URL!) would just make things worse. That I didn't even recognize this as being "URL syntax" until you explicitly told me, further confirms that point.

The query parameter suggestion is also very unergonomic; pretty much every other package manager uses @version-spec, and especially when using semver specifiers (~, ^), which need to be URL-encoded in URLs, you end up with effectively unreadable version specifications if you try to express them as a URL.

This syntactic approach feels like it's trying to be 'clever' at the cost of ergonomics and readability, especially considering that it doesn't seem to actually have any benefits over normal string literals. I'd propose treating simple string literals ("flake:nixpkgs@^1.0.0", "github:NixOS/patchelf@~1.2.0') as the recommended and supported way of expressing dependencies, and recommending against using URL literal syntax.

(Also, github:NixOS/patchelf isn't a semantically valid URL anyway; that's basically just exploiting an inaccuracy in how URLs are handled in Nix.)

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ghost commented Jun 6, 2019

Yeah, URL syntax is confusing for me.

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Valodim commented Apr 5, 2020

Thanks for your work on this, the flakes mechanism look super exciting!

This document shows up as first google hit on "nix flakes" for me, and up top says "Last activity 3 days ago". However, it doesn't seem to reflect the latest state of thinking, e.g. the "requires" syntax is different from rfc42 (where it's also called "inputs"). I'd appreciate a note on top that mentions this and points to the authoritative source (rfc42, presumably).

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zanculmarktum commented Sep 12, 2020

@Valodim: "Last activity 3 days ago" shows the latest activity of the user (edolstra) not the latest commit.

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