Nix-ify your environment

Over some vacation I put a bunch of effort into rebuilding my dotfiles and other environment configuration using home-manger, Nix, and the wealth of packages available in Nixpkgs. Previously, all of my system’s configuration was bespoke, unversioned files and random commands run to bring it to its current state. This has worked fine for a number of years, but has some drawbacks such as not being easily reproducible and portable between other systems.

Our developer acceleration team at Shopify is exploring the feasibility of Nix to solve a number of problems when it comes to supporting development environments for hundreds of software developers. Burke Libbey, who is spearheading a lot of Nix exploration on the developer acceleration team at Shopify, has a number of excellent resources, two of which are public that have inspired me to look into Nix on my own and write this article. He’s created a number of Nix related youtube videos, and an article on the Shopify Engineering blog diving into what Nix is. I won’t go into detail about what Nix is in this article as these resources can help. Instead, I’ll focus on some learnings I’ve had over my time switching to using home-manger, using the Nix language, and the Nix package manager.


Home-manager is a program built on top of Nix which makes it simple for a user to manage their environment. Home-manager has a long list of applications which it natively supports configuring, as well as the flexibility to configure programs not yet managed by home-manager. Configuring home-manager is generally as simple as settings a number of key-value pairs in a file. Home-manager then deals with installing, uninstalling, and configuring everything for you from a few simple commands. For example, here’s a simplified version of the home-manager config which installs and configures a few packages and plugins:

Here is [my full home-manager config]( for reference.

Some of the biggest factors that sold home-manager to me was easily being able to version my environment’s configuration, installing neovim and all the plugins I use by only specifying the name of the plugin, integrating fzf into my shell with only two config options, zsh installed and configured with plugins, and lastly having an escape hatch to specify custom options in my zshrc and neovim config.

All of this configuration is now versioned, and any edits I make to my home-manager config or associated config files just require one home-manager switch to be run to update my entire environment. If I want to try out some new vim plugins, a different shell, or someone else’s home-manager configuration, I can safely modify my configuration and know that I can revert back to the version I have stored in Git.

home-manager tips

I found the manpages for home-manager to be greatly useful at seeing which configuration options there are as well as what they do, what types it takes, etc. This can be accessed via man home-configuration.nix. I would always have it open when modifying my home-manager configuration.

By default home-manager stores its configuration in ~/.config/nixpkgs/home.nix. Home-manager provides an easy way to jump right into editing this file: home-manager edit. Since this configuration file isn’t in the nicest of places we can change the location of it and still have home-manager pick it up. The best way to configure this would be to use home-manager to configure itself by setting programs.home-manager.path = "~/src/";, or wherever your configuration file exists. If needed, the HOME_MANAGER_CONFIG environment variable can be set with the same value to tell the home-manager command where the config exists if something goes wrong.

In the switchover I challenged myself to change over from vim to neovim. This didn’t involve too much effort as my vim config needed a few updates to be compatible with neovim. A large amount of time was saved by the automatic install of the various vim plugins I use.

In the process I also moved away from using oh-my-zsh to plain old zsh. A fair amount of time was spent understanding the different zsh shell options and which ones oh-my-zsh provided me with. More time was spent configuring my shell’s prompt to use a plugin offering git information and its own theme. Oh-my-zsh does a fair amount of magic in the background at plugin and theme loading, but when looking at it’s source code, it’s actually incredibly simple.

A lot of language, tools, and other dependencies were left out of my home-manager’s config since Shopify’s internal dev tools handles the majority of this for us on a per-project basis.

If you’re having home-manager manage your shell, don’t forget to set the xdg.enable = true; option in your config. Some programs depend on the XDG_*_HOME environment variables to be present. I can see why this option isn’t enabled by default as many operating systems may have values that differ from the ones defaulted to by home-manager.

My main development environment is on OS X and therefore differs from Linux in some areas. One of the projects I’m going to keep my eye on is nix-darwin which appears to be solving the problem that NixOS solves for Linux: complete system configuration.


Similar to Docker, Canonical’s snap packages, and Nix ecosystems, we’re going to see a steady increase in the number of companies and individuals utilizing these technologies for their use cases of explicitly defining what software runs on their systems. Docker is already gained critical mass throughout enterprises, Canonical’s Snap packages are slowly picking up steam on Ubuntu-based systems, and Nix appears to be breaking into the scene. I’m rooting for Nix as it has a leg up on other systems with its complete and explicit control over all components which go into making up a program or even a complete system. I’m excited to see how much it will catch on.