Setting up Nix on macOS

Setting up Nix on macOS
📆 Mon Jan 15 2024 von Jacek Galowicz
(9 Min. Lesezeit)

I recently bought a Macbook because more and more people are asking me how to use Nix in certain situations under MacOS. In this article, we walk through installing Nix on MacOS and see how pleasant the experience is these days. After that, we show how to go declarative on MacOS with nix-darwin to enable compilation for Linux and Intel Macs, as well as some other nice features.

🤷 Why would one want to have Nix on a Mac?

There are multiple reasons:

In addition to that, we’re looking at nix-darwin in this article, which adds the following reasons on top:

This article is about two steps and provides additional info for each:

  1. Install Nix
  2. Bootstrap nix-darwin

On every new Mac, it’s just two command-line invocations if your nix-darwin configuration is already prepared.

🌱 Step 1: Installing Nix on macOS

There are multiple ways to install Nix. The possibly most obvious way (at least on GNU/Linux) is to use another package manager to install Nix. Generally, don’t do that.

Especially on macOS, three different ways work well:

  1. Official Nix installer from nixos.org
  2. Determinate System’s Nix Installer for the shell
  3. Determinate Systems’s graphical installer for macOS

The determinate systems installers have a few advantages over the original Nix installer:

The graphical installer has two additional perks:


The Determinate Systems Graphical Nix Installer in action

I chose to use Determinate System’s shell installer, which is a one-liner as described in their GitHub repository (spread over multiple lines here to increase readability):

curl \
  --proto '=https' \
  --tlsv1.2 \
  -sSf \
  -L https://install.determinate.systems/nix \
  | sh -s -- install

The installation just takes a minute or two. After running the command, the installer asks for the sudo password and then prints a nice explanation about what it will do with our system, which we can accept or deny:


The Determinate Systems Nix Installer makes installing Nix easy and quick

It’s advisable to check if there have been any errors during the installation and if there are none, close the shell and start a new one. We don’t need to restart the system.

To test if Nix generally works, just run GNU hello or any other package:

$ nix run "nixpkgs#hello"
Hello, world!

Please note that this command works with or without quotes, depending on your ZSH configuration.

If you’re new to Nix, make sure you get a copy of the Nix cheat sheet. It’ll give you the best possible overview of the commands available!

🛫 Step 2: Going declarative with nix-darwin

With Nix installed, we have all the Nix shell magic (using nix develop, nix shell) at our disposal and can build and run (using nix build and nix run) random projects/packages from the internet, which is great.

However, if we imagine having to install packages using nix profile install ... on every other Mac, we’re not much better off than with classical package management. Also, this doesn’t manage our configurations and services, which is exactly what we’re used to from NixOS.

The general idea is that we want to have one big configuration file (possibly scattered over multiple files for better structure and composability) that sets our system up as we want it with one single command.

This is where nix-darwin enters the scene: As the project description says, this project aims to bring the convenience of a declarative system approach to macOS.

The nix-darwin logo

Starting from zero, we can initialize a new nix-darwin configuration file in some configuration folder:

$ mkdir nix-darwin-config
$ cd nix-darwin-config
$ nix flake init -t nix-darwin

This creates a flake.nix file like this:

{
  description = "Example Darwin system flake";

  inputs = {
    nixpkgs.url = "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/nixpkgs-unstable";
    nix-darwin.url = "github:LnL7/nix-darwin";
    nix-darwin.inputs.nixpkgs.follows = "nixpkgs";
  };

  outputs = inputs@{ self, nix-darwin, nixpkgs }:
  let
    configuration = { pkgs, ... }: {
      # List packages installed in system profile. To search by name, run:
      # $ nix-env -qaP | grep wget
      environment.systemPackages =
        [ pkgs.vim
        ];

      # Auto upgrade nix package and the daemon service.
      services.nix-daemon.enable = true;
      # nix.package = pkgs.nix;

      # Necessary for using flakes on this system.
      nix.settings.experimental-features = "nix-command flakes";

      # Create /etc/zshrc that loads the nix-darwin environment.
      programs.zsh.enable = true;  # default shell on catalina
      # programs.fish.enable = true;

      # Set Git commit hash for darwin-version.
      system.configurationRevision = self.rev or self.dirtyRev or null;

      # Used for backwards compatibility, please read the changelog before changing.
      # $ darwin-rebuild changelog
      system.stateVersion = 4;

      # The platform the configuration will be used on.
      nixpkgs.hostPlatform = "x86_64-darwin";
    };
  in
  {
    # Build darwin flake using:
    # $ darwin-rebuild build --flake .#simple
    darwinConfigurations."simple" = nix-darwin.lib.darwinSystem {
      modules = [ configuration ];
    };

    # Expose the package set, including overlays, for convenience.
    darwinPackages = self.darwinConfigurations."simple".pkgs;
  };
}

At the beginning, we generally want to change two things here:

  1. The nixpkgs.hostPlatform setting must be aarch64-darwin on Macs with Apple Silicon CPUs. On Intel-based Macs it can be left as x86_64-darwin.
  2. The simple part at the bottom of the file in the darwinConfigurations."simple" attribute can be renamed to our hostname. This way we don’t need to provide the name explicitly when building or rebuilding the system configuration.

This is enough to start. Bootstrapping this new configuration can be done even without installing any nix-darwin-related packages with a single command:

$ nix run nix-darwin -- switch --flake .

The last parameter still needs to be --flake .#simple if we didn’t rename the configuration attribute at the bottom of the file.

The installation process might warn us of files that could destructively be overwritten. We need to back up or remove them (on a new Mac, I typically just delete) first:


nix-darwin warns at bootstrap time in case of potential overwrites

After handling these files, we can simply run the script again. nix-darwin is now bootstrapped on our system, which gives us the darwin-rebuild command that is similar to nixos-rebuild on NixOS hosts. We can now run darwin-rebuild switch --flake . anytime.

Additional nix-darwin goodies

The new nix-darwin config did not do much to our system. It’s just a starting point. What now?

Have a look at the nix-darwin configuration options Documentation which lists and describes all the available options. This overview is a goldmine - there is something for everyone.

Let’s have a look at a few nice examples:

Unlocking sudo via fingerprint

If we have a Mac with Touch ID, we can unlock sudo commands with our fingerprint instead of typing the password. This is of course not exclusive to nix-darwin users, but these have it particularly easy to enable it.

Simply add the following line to the new config:

security.pam.enableSudoTouchIdAuth = true;

Rebuild and apply the config using

$ darwin-rebuild switch --flake .

Generally, reboots aren’t necessary, but this specific setting needs a reboot.

Voila, this is how it looks in action:


Unlocking sudo via fingerprint on macOS

Setting System Defaults

nix-darwin provides configuration lines for many different macOS default settings. These can typically be altered using UI application setting dialogues or with the defaults terminal command. However, nix-darwin manages them all for us:

system.defaults = {
  dock.autohide = true;
  dock.mru-spaces = false;
  finder.AppleShowAllExtensions = true;
  finder.FXPreferredViewStyle = "clmv";
  loginwindow.LoginwindowText = "nixcademy.com";
  screencapture.location = "~/Pictures/screenshots";
  screensaver.askForPasswordDelay = 10;
};

This example configuration snippet sets:

Apple Silicon Macs: Compile Intel Binaries

Apple Silicon Macs can install Rosetta, which enables the system to run binaries for Intel CPUs transparently.

The installation still needs to be done manually in the terminal with this command:

$ softwareupdate --install-rosetta --agree-to-license

After that, we can add this line to our nix-darwin configuration and rebuild again:

nix.extraOptions = ''
  extra-platforms = x86_64-darwin aarch64-darwin
'';

Now, we can build and run binaries for both CPUs:

$ nix run "nixpkgs#legacyPackages.aarch64-darwin.hello"
Hello, world!
$ nix run "nixpkgs#legacyPackages.x86_64-darwin.hello"
Hello, world!

Although this feature is a relatively specific developer use case, it’s nice to see how easy it is to configure.

Building Linux binaries

If we want to build binaries or even full system images for GNU/Linux systems, we typically end up delegating builds to remote builders.

nix-darwin provides a neat Linux builder that runs a NixOS VM as a service in the background. It can simply be activated with one additional configuration line:

nix.linux-builder.enable = true;

It works on both Apple Silicon and Intel-based Macs.

The VM itself is bootstrapped by downloading it from the official NixOS cache. It comes with pre-installed SSH keys, which nix-darwin also handles elegantly for us on the host side.

After rebuilding the system, we can test it. With a quick dummy derivation that simply writes the output of the command uname -a into its output path, we can check that it is executed in fact on our new Linux builder:

$ nix build \
  --impure \
  --expr '(with import <nixpkgs> { system = "aarch64-linux"; }; runCommand "foo" {} "uname -a > $out")'
$ cat result
Linux localhost 6.1.72 #1-NixOS SMP Wed Jan 10 16:10:37 UTC 2024 aarch64 GNU/Linux

Wow - how does it work?

This specific VM is also documented in the nixpkgs documentation.

📲 Updating the System

Updating the system involves two steps:

  1. Updating the Nix flake inputs
  2. Rebuilding the system
$ nix flake update
$ darwin-rebuild switch --flake .

If the configuration resides in a git repository, nix flake update --commit-lock-file can automatically commit the lock file changes.

Conclusion

Some Apple fans might like setting up a new system each time, but most of us want things to be simple and in sync.

Nix in combination with nix-darwin is an unbeatable combination - on a new Mac, we can simply perform two steps:

  1. Install Nix with one of the installers
  2. Run nix run nix-darwin -- --flake github:my-user/my-repo#my-config

…and we’re done. From Finder etc. UI settings, over preinstalled packages, to additional daemons, it’s all in there!

If you have questions on how Nix fits into your corporate workflow or how to make it work for you to make your teams even more productive, don’t hesitate to reach out to us via mail or schedule a quick call ! 💪

Have a look at the next macOS article where we improve the Linux builder!