Declarative and reproducible developer environments

In the Ad hoc developer environments tutorial we looked at providing shell environments for when we need a quick’n’dirty way of getting hold of some tools.

In this tutorial we’ll take a look how to create reproducible shell environments given a declarative configuration file called a Nix expression.

When are declarative shell environments useful?

This is the quickest approach to getting started with Nix:

  • use single command to invoke it via nix-shell

  • it works across different operating systems (Linux / MacOS)

  • you share the exact same environment with all developers

Developer environments allow you to:

  • provide CLI tools, such as psql, jq, tmux, etc

  • provide developer libraries, such as zlib, openssl, etc

  • set shell environment variables

  • execute bash during environment activation

Getting started

At the top-level of your project create shell.nix with the following contents:

{ pkgs ? import (fetchTarball "") {} }:

pkgs.mkShell {
  buildInputs = [


To understand the first line, read through pinning nixpkgs tutorial.

We import nixpkgs and make a shell with which and htop available in $PATH. zlib provides libraries and headers in case we’re compiling something against it. To enter the environment:

$ nix-shell
these paths will be fetched (0.07 MiB download, 0.20 MiB unpacked):
copying path '/nix/store/072a6x7rwv5f8wr6f5s1rq8nnm767cfp-htop-2.2.0' from ''...


The command will start downloading the missing packages from the binary cache.

Once it’s done, you are dropped into a new shell. This shell provides the packages specified in shell.nix.

Run htop to confirm that it is present. Quit the program by hitting q.

Now, try which htop to check where the htop command is on disk. You should see something similar to this:

[nix-shell:~]$ which htop

Customizing your developer environment

Given the following shell.nix:

{ pkgs ? import (fetchTarball "") {} }:

pkgs.mkShell {
  buildInputs = [

  shellHook = ''
    echo hello


Running nix-shell we observe:

$ nix-shell

[nix-shell:~]$ echo $MY_ENVIRONMENT_VARIABLE
  • The shellHook section allows you to execute bash while entering the shell environment.

  • Any attributes passed to mkShell function are available once the shell environment is active.

direnv: Automatically activating the environment on directory change

Besides activating the environment for each project, every time you change shell.nix you need to re-enter the shell.

You can use direnv to automate this process for you, with the downside that each developer needs to install it globally.

Setting up direnv

  1. Install direnv with your OS package manager

  2. Hook it into your shell

At the top-level of your project run:

echo "use nix" > .envrc && direnv allow

The next time your launch your terminal and enter the top-level of your project direnv will check for changes.

$ cd myproject
direnv: loading myproject/.envrc
direnv: using nix

Going forward