Matthew BauerBlogRSS

15 Oct 2017

Nix and Org

This is a guide on getting Org to work with Nix. Specifically, I want to show how you can write Nix expressions within an Org document. This might not seem useful at first, but I think by the end of this guide it will become clear how powerful the combination of these tools are. First, some background on what these tools are for those unfamiliar.

Org was started in 2003 as an extension, or ‘mode’, to the Emacs text editor. Carsten Dominik, frustrated with Emacs builtin outliner, sought to create something that he could use to organize all of his notes and projects in a tree structure. Since then, Org has grown to include features for note-taking, hyperlinking, todo lists, spreadsheets, literate programming, and even exporting to HTML and LaTeX (in fact, this blog is composed in Org). It is the literate programming feature, called Babel, that will be used extensively in this guide. All of Org’s features are written in extensible Lisp that manipulate plain-text ‘.org’ files. Carsten’s creation has become extremely popular among Emacs users and since 2007 has been included in Emacs. The easiest way to start using Org is to download Emacs directly from the GNU website.

Let’s start by creating a new Org file. Once you have Emacs started, you can create a new file by pressing C‑x C‑f. If you are unfamiliar with this notation, that means press and hold the Control key, then press x, then press f. Now we can name the new file at the ‘Find file: ’ prompt. Let’s type ‘’ here and then press enter. Now we have an empty Org mode file to type into. You can save it at any time with C‑x C‑s.

#+title: Org Demo
#+date: <2017-10-15 Sun>

This is just a plain-text document. Keep this document open because we’ll be
editing this file throughout the tutorial.

Now that you have an Org file setup, make sure you leave Emacs open and we’ll refer back to this file later. Next, some background on Nix.

Nix was started in 2004 as a purely functional package manager. It solves many problems in traditional package management. For instance, multiple versions of a package can be used at the same time, each package gets unique dependencies, bad upgrades can be rolled back, and unused packages can be garbage collected. More information on Nix is available from the Nix homepage. Nix can be installed on both Linux and macOS machines. It is fairly easy to setup, provided you have sudo access. Run the following in a terminal to install Nix,

$ curl | sh

Once Nix has been installed, we can go back to Emacs and start writing to Let’s append some documentation to the Org file on what we’ll be building.

This Org file builds the Nix expression for ‘Hello World’.

To put source code in our Org file, we’ll need to know some Org syntax. The directives #+begin_src and #+end_src tell Org that we are writing in another language. nix is the name of the language and hello.nix is the file that Org will write (tangle) the code to.

#+begin_src nix :tangle hello.nix
/* Nix code goes here */

Finally, we can write in Nix’s expression language to create a Hello World package. Nix’s syntax can be confusing to new users so I’ll be as verbose as possible. Almost everything is a function in Nix, so, let’s define some arguments for a Hello World function. Functions with multiple arguments are defined with { a, b, c }: where each argument is a comma separated identifier between { and }. We’ll need stdenv (Nix’s standard environment) and fetchurl (Nix’s function to download a URL) to build Hello World.

{ stdenv, fetchurl }:

Next, we need to provide a definition for Hello World. We want to build Hello World from some source files. That’s called a derivation in Nix and we can accomplish it by calling the stdenv.mkDerivation function. The keyword rec tells Nix that our arguments to stdenv.mkDerivation might be recursive, meaning our args might need to reference each other.

stdenv.mkDerivation rec {

Let’s give this derivation a name.

name = "hello-2.10";

Then provide a source using fetchurl.

  src = fetchurl {
    url = "mirror://gnu/hello/${name}.tar.gz";
    sha256 = "0ssi1wpaf7plaswqqjwigppsg5fyh99vdlb9kzl7c9lng89ndq1i";

That’s it! We’ve defined a Nix expression that will build Hello World.

Unfortunately, this won’t work on it’s own because Nix doesn’t know what stdenv and fetchurl refer to. We’ll need to define another Nix expression to bootstrap this one. Since this is all in Org mode that’s as easy as just adding another code block. We’ll call it bootstrap.nix and it will just call hello.nix as a package using the stdenv and fetchurl defined in Nixpkgs.

#+begin_src nix :tangle bootstrap.nix
{ nixpkgs ? <nixpkgs> }:

with import nixpkgs {};

callPackage ./hello.nix {}

Let’s see if this works. Type M‑x (which means hold down the meta key and press x) and then type org‑babel‑tangle‑file followed by enter. After this was run, you’ll have a file called hello.nix and a file called bootstrap.nix in the current directory. Open up a terminal and we can build Hello World.

$ nix-build
$ ./result/bin/hello
Hello World!

This is pretty useful on its own, but I don’t want to have to tangle the file each time I make a change. Let’s tangle Org within a Nix expression. Is this possible in Nix?

Recently Nix has added a feature called IFD which stands for Import From Derivation. It allows us to use generated Nix expressions within another Nix expression. That way we can derive hello.nix from a Nix expression and then derive hello.nix, avoiding org‑babel‑tangle‑file completely.

To do this, we’ll need to create another Nix file that we’ll call default.nix. Like the boostraper, I won’t break down exactly what’s going on in this post, but it follows the basic Import From Derivation process outlined above calling Org’s tangler.

#+begin_src nix :tangle default.nix
{ nixpkgs ? <nixpkgs> }:

with import nixpkgs {};

import (runCommand "bootstrap.nix-generated" {
  buildInputs = [ emacs ];
} ''
    mkdir -p $out
    cd $out
    cp ${./}
    emacs --batch -l ob-tangle --eval "(org-babel-tangle-file \"\")"
    cp bootstrap.nix default.nix
) { inherit nixpkgs; }

We still need to tangle everything one last time. Type M‑x and then type org‑babel‑tangle‑file followed by enter. A new default.nix file will appear. That default.nix file along with is all you need to build this expression. To verify this, let’s first remove those old files so we know they aren’t being referenced accidentally.

$ rm -f hello.nix bootstrap.nix

Finally, we can build our Hello World expression!

$ nix-build
$ ./result/bin/hello
Hello World!

In this guide I’ve shown you an easy way to write Nix expressions in Org. Now that you have this environment setup, you should try hacking around You can always run nix‑build to see if a binary builds. Try using other sources, creating a new derivation, adding other dependencies, or hack something else up. I recommend reading through the Nix Pills series for learning Nix and the Org Mode Guide for learning Org.