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How to install Nix in a Qubes OS AppVM

Written by Solène, on 15 May 2023.
Tags: #qubes #qubesos #nix #nixos

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1. Intro §

I'm still playing with Qubes OS, today I had to figure how to install Nix because I rely on it for some tasks. It turned out to be a rather difficult task for a Qubes beginner like me when not using a fully persistent VM.

Here is how to install Nix in an AppVm (only /home/ is persistent) and some links to the documentation about bind-dirs, an important component of Qubes OS that I didn't know about.

Qubes OS documentation: How to make any file persistent (bind-dirs)

Nix project website

2. bind-dirs §

Behind this unfriendly name is a smart framework to customize templates or AppVM. It allows running commands upon VM start, but also make directories explicitly persistent.

The configuration can be done at the local or template level, in our case, we want to create /nix and make it persistent in a single VM, so that when we install nix packages, they will be stay after a reboot.

The implementation is rather simple, the persistent directory is under the /rw partition in ext4, which allows mounting subdirectories. So, if the script finds /rw/bind-dirs/nix it will mount this directory on /nix on the root filesystem, making it persistent and without having to copy at start and sync on stop.

3. Setup §

A limitation for this setup is that we need to install nix in single user mode, without the daemon. I suppose it should be possible to install Nix with the daemon, but it should be done at the template level as it requires adding users, groups and systemd units (service and socket).

In your AppVM, run the following commands as root:

mkdir -p /rw/config/qubes-bind-dirs.d/
echo "binds+=( '/nix' )" > /rw/config/qubes-bind-dirs.d/50_user.conf
install -d -o user -g user /rw/bind-dirs/nix

This creates an empty directory nix owned by the regular Qubes user named user, and we tell bind-dirs that this directory is persistent.

/!\ It's not clear if it's a bug or a documentation issue, but the creation of /rw/bind-dirs/nix wasn't obvious. Someone already filled a bug about this, and funny enough, they reported it using Nix installation as an example.

GitHub issue: clarify bind-dirs documentation

Now, reboot your VM, you should have a /nix directory that is owned by your user. This mean it's persistent, and you can confirm that by looking at mount | grep /nix output which should have a line.

Finally, install nix in single user mode, using the official method:

sh <(curl -L https://nixos.org/nix/install) --no-daemon

Now, we need to fix the bash code to load Nix into your environment. The installer modified ~/.bash_profile, but it isn't used when you start a terminal from dom0, it's only used when using a full shell login with bash -l, which doesn't happen on Qubes OS.

Copy the last line of ~/.bash_profile in ~/.bashrc, this should look like that:

if [ -e /home/user/.nix-profile/etc/profile.d/nix.sh ]; then . /home/user/.nix-profile/etc/profile.d/nix.sh; fi # added by Nix installer

Now, open a new shell, you have a working Nix in your environment \o/

You can try it using nix-shell -p hello and run hello. If you reboot, the same command should work immediately without need to download packages again.

4. Configuration §

In your Qube settings, you should increase the disk space for the "Private storage" which is 2 GB by default.

5. Conclusion §

Installing Nix in a Qubes OS AppVM is really easy, but you need to know about some advanced features like bind-dirs. This is a powerful feature that will allow me to make lot of fun stuff with Qubes now, and using nix is one of them!

6. Going further §

If you plan to use Nix like this in multiple AppVM, you may want to set up a local substituter cache in a dedicated VM, this will make your bandwidth usage a lot more efficient.

How to make a local NixOS cache server