Nix Derivation Basics

First import a pinned version of nixpkgs so that we all get the same result:

nix-repl> nixpkgs-src = builtins.fetchTarball {
            url = "";
            sha256 = "02k3l9wnwpmq68xmmfy4wb2panqa1rs04p1mzh2kiwn0449hl86j";

nix-repl> nixpkgs = import nixpkgs-src {}

We use the pinned version of nixpkgs so that everyone following the tutorial will get the exact same derivation.

Standard Derivation

nix-repl> hello-drv = nixpkgs.stdenv.mkDerivation {
            name = "hello.txt";
            unpackPhase = "true";
            installPhase = ''
              echo -n "Hello World!" > $out

nix-repl> hello-drv
Ā«derivation /nix/store/ad6c51ia15p9arjmvvqkn9fys9sf1kdw-hello.txt.drvĀ»
$ cat /nix/store/ad6c51ia15p9arjmvvqkn9fys9sf1kdw-hello.txt.drv

$ nix show-derivation /nix/store/ad6c51ia15p9arjmvvqkn9fys9sf1kdw-hello.txt.drv
  "/nix/store/ad6c51ia15p9arjmvvqkn9fys9sf1kdw-hello.txt.drv": {
    "outputs": {
      "out": {
        "path": "/nix/store/z449wrqvwncs8clk7bsliabv1g1ci3n3-hello.txt"
    "inputSrcs": [

Building Derivation

We can now build our derivation:

$ nix-build /nix/store/ad6c51ia15p9arjmvvqkn9fys9sf1kdw-hello.txt.drv

$ cat /nix/store/z449wrqvwncs8clk7bsliabv1g1ci3n3-hello.txt
Hello World!

This may take some time to load on your computer, as Nix fetches the essential build tools that are commonly needed to build Nix packages.

We can also build the derivation within Nix repl using the :b command:

nix-repl> :b hello-drv
[1 built, 0.0 MiB DL]

this derivation produced the following outputs:
  out -> /nix/store/z449wrqvwncs8clk7bsliabv1g1ci3n3-hello.txt

Tracing Derivation

Our hello-drv produce the same output as hello.txt in previous chapter, but produce different output in the Nix store. (previously we had /nix/store/925f1jb1ajrypjbyq7rylwryqwizvhp0-hello.txt)

We can trace the dependencies of the derivation back to its source:

$ nix-store --query --deriver /nix/store/z449wrqvwncs8clk7bsliabv1g1ci3n3-hello.txt

$ nix-store --query --deriver /nix/store/925f1jb1ajrypjbyq7rylwryqwizvhp0-hello.txt

Our hello.txt built from stdenv.mkDerivation is built from a derivation artifact hello.txt.drv, but our hello.txt created from builtins.path has no deriver. In other words, the Nix artifacts are different because they are produced from different derivations.

We can further trace the dependencies of hello.txt.drv:

$ nix-store -qR /nix/store/ad6c51ia15p9arjmvvqkn9fys9sf1kdw-hello.txt.drv

That's a lot of dependencies! Where are they being used? We will learn about it in the next chapter.

Derivation in a Nix File

We save the same earlier derivation we defined inside a Nix file named hello.nix. Now we can build our derivation directly:

$ nix-build 04-derivations/01-derivation-basics/hello.nix

We can also get the derivation without building it using nix-instantiate:

$ nix-instantiate 04-derivations/01-derivation-basics/hello.nix
warning: you did not specify '--add-root'; the result might be removed by the garbage collector

Ignore the warning from nix-instantiate, as we don't care whether the derivation is deleted during Nix garbage collection.

Notice that both the derivation and the build output have the same hash as the earlier result we had in nix repl.

Caching Nix Build Artifacts

We create hello-sleep.nix as a variant of hello.nix which sleeps for 10 seconds in its buildPhase. (We will go through how each phase works in the next chapter) The 10 seconds sleep simulates the time taken to compile a program. We can see what happens when we try to build the same Nix derivation multiple times.

First, instantiating a derivation is not affected by the build time:

$ time nix-instantiate 04-derivations/01-derivation-basics/hello-sleep.nix

real    0m0,217s
user    0m0,179s
sys     0m0,032s

The first time we build hello-sleep.nix, it is going to take about 10 seconds. We can also see the logs we printed during the build phase is shown:

$ time nix-build 04-derivations/01-derivation-basics/hello-sleep.nix
these derivations will be built:
building '/nix/store/58ngrpwgv6hl633a1iyjbmjqlbdqjw92-hello.txt.drv'...
unpacking sources
patching sources
no configure script, doing nothing
Building hello world...
Finished building hello world!
post-installation fixup
shrinking RPATHs of ELF executables and libraries in /nix/store/lm801yriwjj4298ry74hdv5j0rpkpacq-hello.txt
strip is /nix/store/bnjps68g8ax6abzvys2xpx12imrx8949-binutils-2.31.1/bin/strip
patching script interpreter paths in /nix/store/lm801yriwjj4298ry74hdv5j0rpkpacq-hello.txt
checking for references to /build/ in /nix/store/lm801yriwjj4298ry74hdv5j0rpkpacq-hello.txt...

real    0m12,202s
user    0m0,371s
sys     0m0,084s

But the next time we build hello-sleep.nix, it will take no time to build, and there is no build output:

$ time nix-build 03-nix-basics/05-derivation/hello-sleep.nix

real    0m0,310s
user    0m0,256s
sys     0m0,047s

Nix determines whether a derivation needs to be rebuilt based on the input derivation. For our case, in both calls to hello-sleep.nix, nix-build instantiates the derivation behind the scene: i.e. /nix/store/58ngrpwgv6hl633a1iyjbmjqlbdqjw92-hello.txt.drv. So it determines that the result has previously already been built, and reuses the same Nix artifact.

Derivation as File

With the duck-typing nature of Nix, derivations act just like files in Nix. We can actually treat the hello-drv we defined earlier as a file and read from it:

nix-repl> builtins.readFile hello-drv
querying info about missing paths"Hello World!"

How does that work? Internally Nix lazily builds a derivation when it is evaluated, and turns it into a file path. We can verify that by using builtins.toPath:

nix-repl> builtins.toPath hello-drv

With this property, we can also import derivations from a Nix file, and then use it as if the derivation has been built:

nix-repl> hello = import ./code/04-derivations/01-derivation-basics/hello.nix

nix-repl> builtins.readFile hello
querying info about missing paths"Hello World!"

We can even use a derivation as a string. Nix automatically builds the derivation when it is evaluated as a string:

nix-repl> "path of hello: ${hello}"
"path of hello: /nix/store/z449wrqvwncs8clk7bsliabv1g1ci3n3-hello.txt"