3. Explore Nix development environments

Quick start / Explore Nix development environments
Guide 3 of 7
In this guide

Use the nix develop command to activate a Nix development environment defined in Nixpkgs

Run a command inside a development environment without actually entering that environment

Explore Nix development environments tailored to specific programming languages

Explore a more mixed development environment

Use nix develop to activate an environment defined in a local flake

One of Nix's key features for developing software is Nix development environments. You can define development environments of any complexity using the Nix language. We'll cover that a bit later, but for now let's get a feel for what a Nix development environment is and how it works.

The nix develop command activates a Nix environment:

nix develop "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#example"

You should be greeted by a new shell prompt, something like this:

(nix:zero-to-nix-env) bash-5.1$

🚀 Success! You're now in a Bash environment that includes curl and Git. You may already have both in your environment, but run these commands to see that something new is happening:

type curl
type git

For curl, for example, you should see a strange path like this (the hash part should be different on your machine):

/nix/store/ 1. Nix store prefix
sglc12hc6pc68w5ppn2k56n6jcpaci16 2. Hash part
curl-7.86.0-bin 3. Package name
bin/curl 4. Program path

What happened here? The Nix CLI did a few things:

  • It used the github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix flake reference to pull in some Nix code and built a specific flake output (more on this later).
  • It built the packages specified in the environment configuration (again, more on this later).
  • It set up an environment with a PATH that enables the git and curl packages to be discovered in the Nix store.

Two other things that you can provide in Nix development environments:

  1. Although this example doesn't include one, you can define shell hooks, which are arbitrary shell code that runs whenever the environment starts up. Some example use cases for shell hooks:
    • echo information about the environment to the console whenever the environment is activated

    • Run things like checks and linters

    • Ensure that other desired hooks, like Git hooks, are properly set up. Run this to see an example shell hook:

      nix develop "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#hook"
  2. Nix development environments support environment variables as well. Run echo $FUNNY_JOKE to access a (hilarious) value that's available only in the Nix environment. Some example use cases for environment variables:
    • Set logging levels using LOG_LEVEL or whatever is appropriate for the tools you're using.
    • Set the environment using variables like NODE_ENV (for Node.js) to development, dev, and so on.

Let's leave the Nix development environment to prepare for the next section:


If you have Git installed, check your PATH for it using type git. It should be at a global path like /usr/bin/git. And if you run echo $FUNNY_JOKE again you should get an empty string (unless you happen to have that variable set on your machine!).

Run commands inside the development environment

While it's fun to explore the environment, you don't always want to be inside the environment to use it. The nix develop command provides a --command (or -c) flag that you can use to run commands that use the environment but from your current environment. Here are some examples for the environment we used earlier:

nix develop "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#example" --command git help
nix develop "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#example" --command curl https://example.com

In both cases, you're running a package in the Nix store and nothing from your global environment. As you can see, Nix development environments are hermetic in that they're isolated from the surrounding environment (such as your environment variables and paths like /bin and /usr/bin).

Language-specific environments

As we did in the last section, let's get a bit more specific and explore how Nix can benefit more specific programming environments. Select one of these programming languages:

Select your language

Now explore the Nix development environment for JavaScript:

nix develop "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#javascript"

First, let's see the Nix store path for Node.js:

type node

Now use Node to run a program:

node --eval "console.log('1 + 1 = ' + (1 + 1))"

Like usual, run exit to leave the Nix environment and return to your usual environment.

Beyond language-specific environments

In the previous section, we explored Nix environments tailored to specific programming languages. But Nix environments are infinitely flexible, enabling you to combine whichever packages you like. Let's explore an example of this:

nix develop "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#multi"

This Nix environment has several tools available:

As in the previous examples, you can run commands like type python and type kubectl to see that these tools are all discoverable in the Nix store and not somewhere like /usr/bin. This list could easily include 100 packages. It's up to you. We won't cover how to create these environments just yet, but we hope that you come away from this guide with a basic sense of what Nix development environments provide.

Nix development environments and direnv

direnv is a popular tool that automatically loads specific environment variables whenever you cd into a directory (and then unloads those variables when you cd out of the directory). The combination of direnv and Nix can be quite powerful, enabling you to automatically load Nix development environments whenever you navigate to a directory. For more info, see Effortless dev environments with Nix and direnv on the Determinate Systems blog.

From a local flake

Earlier in this guide, we activated a Nix development environment defined in a flake on GitHub. While using an environment in this way is helpful, it's more common to use a development environment defined in a local flake in the current directory.

First, tell us which language you prefer:

Select your language

To get started in your JavaScript project, create an empty directory and initialize a flake template:

mkdir nix-javascript-dev && cd nix-javascript-dev
nix flake init --template "github:DeterminateSystems/zero-to-nix#javascript-dev"

Once the template has been initialized, run ls . to see the contents of the directory, which should include two important files:

  • The flake.nix file defines the flake for your project.
  • The flake.lock pins all of the flake inputs—essentially the Nix dependencies—in your flake.nix file to specific Git revisions.

One of the flake outputs of this Nix flake is a development environment for JavaScript. To enter that development environment:

nix develop

Now that we've entered the development environment, we can do some exploring, starting with Nix store paths.

Ordinarily when you run type node on a Unix system, you get a path like /usr/bin/node. Try running it in the Nix development environment:

type node

You should see a (rather strange) path like this:

node is /nix/store/i88kh2fd03f5fsd3a948s19gliggd2wd-nodejs-18.12.1/bin/node

Probably not what you expected! What happened here? A few things:

  • Nix looked at the devShells flake outputs in flake.nix to figure out which Nix packages to include in the development environment (Nix specifically looked at the packages array).
  • Nix built the packages specified under packages and stored them in the Nix store under /nix/store.

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