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NixOS review: pros and cons

Written by Solène, on 22 January 2021.
Tags: #nixos #linux

Comments on Mastodon

Hello, in this article I would like to share my thoughts about the NixOS Linux distribution. I've been using it daily for more than six months as my main workstation at work and on some computer at home too. I also made modest contributions to the git repository.

NixOS official website

Introduction §

NixOS is a Linux distribution built around Nix tool. I'll try to explain quickly what Nix is but if you want more accurate explanations I recommend visiting the project website. Nix is the package manager of the system, Nix could be used on any Linux distribution on top of the distribution package manager. NixOS is built from top to bottom from Nix.

This makes NixOS a system entirely different than what one can expect from a regular Linux/Unix system (with the exception of Guix sharing the same idea with a different implementation). NixOS system configuration is stateless, most of the system is in read-only and most of paths you know doesn't exist. The directory /bin/sh only contains "sh" which is a symlink.

The whole system configuration: fstab, packages, users, services, crontab, firewall... is configured from a global configuration file that defines the state of the system.

An example of my configuration file to enable graphical interface with Mate as a desktop and a french keyboard layout.

services.xserver.enable = true;
services.xserver.layout = "fr";
services.xserver.libinput.enable = true;
services.xserver.displayManager.lightdm.enable = true;
services.xserver.desktopManager.mate.enable = true;

I could add the following lines into the configuration to add auto login into my graphical session.

services.xserver.displayManager.autoLogin.enable = true;
services.xserver.displayManager.autoLogin.user = "solene";

Pros §

There are a lot of pros. The system is really easy to setup, installing a system (for a reinstall or replicate an installation) is very easy, you only need to get the configuration.nix file from the other/previous system. Everything is very fast to setup, it's often only a few lines to add to the configuration.

Every time the system is rebuilt from the configuration file, a new grub entry is made so at boot you can choose on which environment you want to boot. This make upgrades or tries very easy to rollback and safe.

Documentation! The NixOS documentation is very nice and is part of the code. There is a special man page "configuration.nix" in the system that contains all variables you can define, what values to expect, what is the default and what it's doing. You can literally search for "steam", "mediawiki" or "luks" to get information to configure your system.

All the documentation

Builds are reproducible, I don't consider it a huge advantage but it's nice to have it. This allow to challenge a package mirror by building packages locally and verifying they provide the exact same package on the mirror.

It has a lot of packages. I think the NixOS team is pretty happy to share their statistics because, if I got it right, Nixpkgs is the biggest and up to date repository alive.

Search for a package

Cons §

When you download a pre compiled Linux program that isn't statically built, it's a huge pain to make it work on NixOS. The binary will expect some paths to exist at usual places but they won't exist on NixOS. There are some tricks to get them work but it's not always easy. If the program you want isn't in the packages, it may not be easy to use it. Flatpak can help to get some programs if they are not in the packages though.

Running binaries

It takes disk space, some libraries can exist at the same time with small compilation differences. A program can exist with different version at the same time because of previous builds still available for boot in grub, if you forget to clean them it takes a lot of memory.

The whole system (especially for graphical environments) may not feel as polished as more mainstream distributions putting a lot of efforts into branding and customization. NixOS will only install everything and you will have a quite raw environment that you will have to configure. It's not a real cons but in comparison to other desktop oriented distributions, NixOS may not look as good out of the box.

Conclusion §

NixOS is an awesome piece of software. It works very well and I never had any reliability issue with it. Some services like xrdp are usually quite complex to setup but it worked out of the box here for me.

I see it as a huge Lego© box with which you can automate the building of the super system you want, given you have the schematics of its parts. Once you need a block you don't have in your recipes list, you will have a hard time.

I really classify it into its own category, in comparison to Linux/BSD distributions and Windows, there is the NixOS / Guix category with those stateless systems for which the configuration is their code.