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20 December 2021 — by Eelco Dolstra
Nix 2.4 and 2.5
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A couple of weeks ago Nix 2.4 was released. This was the first release in more than two years. More than 195 individuals contributed to this release. Since Tweag is the biggest contributor to the Nix project, I’d like to highlight some of the features that Tweag has worked on.

Flakes

Flakes are a new format to package Nix-based projects in a more discoverable, composable, consistent and reproducible way. A flake is just a repository or tarball containing a file named flake.nix that specifies dependencies on other flakes and returns any Nix assets such as packages, Nixpkgs overlays, NixOS modules or CI tests.

You can read more about flakes in the following blog posts:

The development of flakes was sponsored by Target Corporation and Tweag.

Content-addressed store

Nix’s store can now be content-addressed, meaning that the hash component of a store path is the hash of the path’s contents. Previously Nix could only build input-addressed store paths, where the hash is computed from the derivation dependency graph. Content-addressing allows deduplication, early cutoff in build systems, and unprivileged closure copying.

The content-addressed store (CAS) is described in detail in RFC 0062. It is still marked as experimental, and your input is welcome. You can read more about CAS in these blog posts:

CAS was developed by Tweag and Obsidian Systems, who were supported by an IPFS Grant.

UX improvements

The Nix command line interface (CLI) - commands such as nix-env and nix-build - is pretty old and doesn’t provide a very good user experience. A couple of years ago we started working on a new CLI: a single nix command to replace the nix-* commands that aims to be more modern, consistent, discoverable and pleasant to use.

However, work on the new CLI had stalled somewhat because we didn’t have a discoverable packaging mechanism for Nix projects. Thanks to flakes, we now do! As a result, in Nix 2.4, the nix command has seen a lot of work and is now almost at feature parity with the old CLI. It is centered around flakes; for example, a command like

> nix run nixpkgs#hello

runs the hello application from the nixpkgs flake.

Most of the work on the new CLI was done by Tweag. We organized a Nix UX team to review the state of the Nix user experience and plan improvements. A major result of the UX team is a set of CLI guidelines for the Nix project. More UX improvements are coming up, including an interactive progress indicator.

Experimental features and release schedule

The previous Nix release (2.3) was in September 2019. Having a 2-year gap between releases is something we want to avoid in the future, since it’s bad for both contributors and users that there is an unbounded amount of time before a new feature shows up in a stable release. The thing that has historically caused long gaps between Nix releases is new experimental features landing in master that we weren’t quite sure about, and doing a new release meant having to support these features indefinitely. However, Nix 2.4 introduces a mechanism to mark features as experimental, requiring them to be enabled explicitly on the command line or in the nix.conf configuration file. Thanks to this, we can merge experimental features in a way that still allows them to be changed or removed, while still getting feedback from adventurous users.

Therefore, starting with Nix 2.4, we have switched to a 6-weekly release schedule, meaning that we do a new release every 6 weeks. In fact, Nix 2.5.0 was already released a few days ago!

Non-blocking garbage collector

A very old annoyance with large Nix stores (such as CI systems) is that garbage collection can take a long time, and during that time, you couldn’t start new builds. Instead you would get the infamous message

waiting for the big garbage collector lock...

Nix 2.5 has a new garbage collector that makes this a thing of the past: the collector no longer prevents new builds from proceeding. The development of the new collector was sponsored by Flox.

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in joining the Tweag team.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
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