A short exploration of multi-user nix and interacting with the Nix User Repository without root


For multi-user nix installations 1, the NIX_PATH variable is empty. Here I briefly go over two approaches to mitigate this, one with nix-channel and the other by manual pinning. Note that this post will eventually be superseded for most cases by a better flake workflow.


The idea behind using a channel is essentially that the tar at a particular commit / tag will be downloaded and stored, typically at $HOME/.nix-defexpr/channels. This is in-fact a symlink typically as seen below.

1tree -L 2 ~/.nix-defexpr/
3├── channels -> /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/rg/channels
4└── channels_root -> /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/root/channels

This is in keeping with the profile data, since by default in a multi-user setup we have the equivalent of running nix-env --switch-profile /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/rg/profile.

With that aside out of the way, we can start by setting up baseline channels:

1# Bad idea, see notes
2# nix-channel --add https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/archive/nixos-21.05.tar.gz nixpkgs
3nix-channel --add https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/archive/nixos-unstable.tar.gz unstable
4nix-channel --add https://github.com/nix-community/NUR/archive/master.tar.gz nur
5nix-channel --update

This leads to:

1tree /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/rg/channels
3├── manifest.nix -> /nix/store/smh16xjbbhcrlzhrlbl71nm16dhz7pb5-env-manifest.nix
4├── nixpkgs -> /nix/store/c1hfsx2v1cy50j7ax3y34gwwpzzvrvm5-nixpkgs-21.05/nixpkgs
5├── nur -> /nix/store/za2fqbj1z9q6hiip39642hjfa0a59mls-nur/nur
6└── unstable -> /nix/store/a4bb70ihv8x8zxj0zw4wdafl62n9a92q-unstable/unstable

Now we can use these names ('<nur>' , '<unstable>' and '<nixpkgs>' ) to write a relatively straightforward config.nix as follows:

 1# Uses the channel form of the installation
 2# Goes in ~/.config/nixpkgs/config.nix
 4  # NUR setup
 5  pkgs = import <unstable>; # nixos-unstable channel
 6  packageOverrides = pkgs: {
 7    nur = import <nur> { # Also defined as a channel
 8      inherit pkgs;
 9    };
10  };

The above snippet can be modified to swap out unstable for nixpkgs as well. It is generally a good idea to define nixpkgs anyway to make sure we can do things like nix-env -iA cowsay -f '<nixpkgs>' . This allows us to now interact with nur packages without any trouble.

1nix-shell -p nur.repos.mic92.hello-nur
3> Hello, NUR!


  • We need to define pkgs since by default NIX_PATH is empty here
  • For more on packageOverrides, there’s a pill for that
  • For a refresher on profiles, there’s the nix manual, specifically chapter 10
  • Defining nixpkgs as a channel causes warning: name collision in input Nix expressions and it gets skipped
  • The problem with channels is of course that it is hard to keep control of update which occur when users run nix-channel --update

Pinning Packages

To mitigate the impurity introduced by nix-channel --update we can opt to instead pin both the pkgs and nur to a particular hash. The benefit is that we can dispense with any channel management and still be guaranteed to have the same behavior across different machines.

The star snippet here is focused around builtins.fetchTarball, which takes a url and a sha256 hash. Using this, our config.nix now becomes:

 1# A config.nix
 3  pkgs = import (builtins.fetchTarball {
 4    url = "https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/archive/2588a6c9f1a3279d523e7bd0068da4e12db76ca8.tar.gz";
 5    sha256 = "0x1q5sf04qk6d05gn4rr2hmlfz17mfkd9fsxwc0kdbhx5yl65zwy";
 6  });
 7  packageOverrides = pkgs: {
 8    nur = import
 9      (builtins.fetchTarball {
10        url = "https://github.com/nix-community/NUR/archive/4a81d63c672ffdbbb999eb2549c0eb0934b3384b.tar.gz";
11        sha256 = "09bg0xifdk6rw35w472rk0dj69w08c1ksb3a3qrzay0ww69495zk";
12      }
13      )
14      {
15      inherit pkgs;
16    };
17  };

To update things in a controlled manner, use a commit from the repository as the URL, and then:

2nix-prefetch-url --unpack $url

Which will emit the required hash. With this setup the usage is as before:

1nix-env -f '<unstable>' -iA nur.repos.mic92.hello-nur
3> Hello, NUR!

Note that the uninstall is still best done after checking the name with nix-env -qa:

1nix-env -e hello # not hello-nur


Locale Errors

For some, dropping into nix-shell causes bash: warning: setlocale: LC_ALL: cannot change locale (en_US.UTF-8). In this case add the following to the .bashrc or its equivalent rc file.

1export LOCALE_ARCHIVE="$(nix-build --no-out-link "<nixpkgs>" -A glibcLocales)/lib/locale/locale-archive"


Much of the channel workflow is discussed directly in this issue. The main usage of this is actually to setup and use user defined packages in a more natural way, and to move away from channels which typically only update NIX_PATH when run as root, which in turn causes much confusion. NUR is also flake compatible and this will be explored further in a another post.

  1. Like the setup on the elja super-computing cluster of the Icelandic Research High Performance Compute cluster ↩︎