Matthew BauerBlogRSS

24 Jul 2018

Beginner’s guide to cross compilation in Nixpkgs

1 What is cross compilation?

First, compilation refers to converting human-readable source code into computer-readable object code. Usually the computer you are building the code for is the same as the computer you are running on1. In cross compilation, however, that is not the case. We can build code for any computer that our compiler supports!

Cross-compilation is not a new idea at all. GCC and Autoconf are ancient tools that we use internally in Nixpkgs. But, getting those ideas to work well with Nix’s functional dependency model has taken years and years of work from the Nix community. We are finally to the point where an end user can easily start cross compiling things themselves.

2 Unstable channel

/If you do not have Nix installed, you can install it available at NixOS.org. The rest of the guide will assume that Nix is already installed./

Much work has gone into bringing cross compilation support to Nixpkgs. While Nixpkgs has had some support for cross compiling for awhile, recent changes have made cross compilation much easier and more elegant. These changes will be required for this guide. We plan to have a stable version of this ready for 18.09. Before that though, you will need to use the unstable channel. Things can be built with the unstable channel fairly easily with Nix 2.0. For instance, to build the hello program,

nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable hello

The rest of the guide will use nixos-unstable as the channel. However, once 18.09 is released, you should be able to also use the stable channel.

3 Building things

One of the important principles of cross compilation in Nixpkgs is handling native and cross compilation identically. This means that it should be possible to cross-compile any package in Nixpkgs with little to no modification at all. If your derivation specifies its dependencies correctly, Nix/Nixpkgs can figure out how to build it.

So now it’s time to show what we can do with Nixpkgs cross compilation framework2. I’ve compiled a short list of cross package sets along with their corresponding attribute names.

  • Raspberry Pi (pkgsCross.raspberryPi)
  • x86_64 Musl (pkgsCross.musl64)
  • Android (pkgsCross.aarch64-android-prebuilt)
  • iPhone (pkgsCross.iphone64)
  • Windows (pkgsCross.mingwW64)

So, if you are familiar with Nixpkgs, you would know that if you wanted to build Emacs for your native computer you can just run,

$ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable pkgs.emacs

Likewise, if you wanted to build Emacs for a Raspberry Pi, you can just run,

$ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable pkgsCross.raspberryPi.emacs

The built package will be in the same ARM machine code used by the Raspbery Pi. The important thing to notice here is that we have the power to build in any package in Nixpkgs for any of the platforms listed above. Of course, many of these will have issues due to not being portable, but with time we can make both Nixpkgs & the free software world better at handling cross compilation. Any of the software listed in ‘nix search’ should be possible to cross compile through the pkgsCross attribute.

Some more examples of things that I have worked on,

  1. Windows

    $ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable pkgsCross.mingw32.hello
    $ nix run -f channel:nixos-unstable wine -c ./result/bin/hello.exe
    Hello, world!
    
  2. Android

    $ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable \
          pkgsCross.aarch64-android-prebuilt.curl
    
  3. iPhone3

    $ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable \
          pkgsCross.iphone64.haskell.packages.jq
    

Notice that the pkgsCross attribute is just sugar to a more powerful & composable interface to Nixpkgs. This can be specified from the command line with,

$ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable \
      --arg crossSystem '{ config = "<arch>-<vendor>-<kernel>-<environment>"; }'

For instance you may want to cross-compile Firefox for ARM64 Linux. This is as easy as4:

$ nix build -f channel:nixos-unstable \
      --arg crossSystem '{ config = "arm64-unknown-linux-gnu"; }'

You can be much more specific with what you want through crossSystem. Many more combinations are possible, but they all revolve around that four-part string config listed. It corresponds to <arch>-<vendor>-<kernel>-<environment> and is commonly called the LLVM triple5. The LLVM triple has become the standard way to specify systems accross many free software toolchains including GCC, Binutils, Clang, libffi, etc. There is more information that can be specified in crossSystem & localSystem within Nixpkgs but this is not covered here as they are heavily dependent on the specific toolchain being used.

4 When things break

While the fundamentals of cross compiling in Nixpkgs are very good, individual packages will sometimes be broken. This is sometime because the package definition in Nixpkgs is incorrect. There are some common mistakes that occur that I want to cover here. First, the difference between ‘build-time’ vs ‘runtime’ dependencies6.

  • build-time dependencies: tools that will be run on the computer doing the cross compiling
  • runtime dependencies: libraries and tools that will run on the computer we are targeting.

In Nixpkgs, build-time dependencies should be put in nativeBuildInputs. Runtime dependencies should be put in buildInputs. Currently, this distinction has no effect on native compilation but it is crucial for correct cross-compilation. There are proposals to Nixpkgs to enforce the use of buildInputs as nativeBuildInputs even on native builds but this is yet to be agreed on7.

Sometimes your package will pull in a dependency indirectly so that dependency is not listed in buildInputs or nativeBuildInputs. This breaks the package splicing that goes on behind the scenes to make pick up the package set to get each package. To fix it, you will have to splice the package yourself. This is fairly straightforward. For examples, let’s say that your package depends on the pkgs.git git executable to be available through the GIT_CMD variable, which means it is not listed in nativeBuildInputs. In this case, you should instead refer to git as pkgs.buildPackages.git. This will pick up the build package set instead of the target package set.

There are a few more things that can go wrong within Nixpkgs. If you need to conditionally do something only when cross compiling (say a configure flag like --enable-cross-compilation), you should use stdenv.hostPlatform != stdenv.buildPlatform. If you want to check, for instance, that the platform you are building for is a Windows computer, just use stdenv.hostPlatform.isWindows, in the same way that you can also check for Linux with stdenv.hostPlatform.isLinux. These cases are often necessary, but remember they should only be used when absolutely needed. The more code we share between platforms, the more code is tested.

Sometimes packages are just not written in a cross-friendly way. This will usually happen just because the software author has not thought of how to handle cross compilation8. We want to work with software authors to make this process easier & contribute to the portability of free software. This takes time but we are definitely making progress. Contributions are always encouraged to the Nixpkgs repo.

5 Further reading

The concepts introduced here are also available in the Nixpkgs manual. These are the relevant sections/chapters:

GNU Automake also has a section on build vs. host vs. target. This will help clarify some of the naming conventions in Nixpkgs:

Footnotes:

1

This is referred to as native compilation.

2

All examples are provided by the file lib/systems/examples.nix in Nixpkgs.

3

Cross-compilation to iPhone, unfortunately, requires that you download the unfree XCode environment. This is a consequence of Apple’s choices regarding what toolchains they allow.

4

In fact, each of these correspond to a value for crossSystem listed in lib/systems/examples.nix.

5

Of course there are 4 of them, so LLVM quadruple seems like a better name.

6

Like a few other parts of this article, this is somewhat of a simplification. There are many other types of dependencies but they all revolve around the build-time vs runtime distinction.

7

See strictDeps in pkgs/stdenv/generic/setup.sh.

8

Or even worse, they have thought about cross-compilation, but embraced many antipatterns that break with Nixpkgs’ cross-compilation framework.

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