NixOps is easier than I thought

TL;DR: if you have an underpowered machine or two in your house or a small server that you’re already managing using NixOS, and you find that running nixos-rebuild on it takes too long, you can easily keep your current configuration untouched and let a more beefy machine build it. Jump to the end of this post for a sample NixOps specification and instructions on how to use it.

Also, NixOps apparently has some issues involving local state that make it hard to share a deployment with other machines. I just read about a tool called morph that is almost a drop-in replacement for NixOps and doesn’t share these issues. Sadly it is 3AM here and this here setup works well enough for me so I really can’t be bothered to check it out right now, but maybe at some point I will and maybe you might want to do it upfront. This is a good post about it.

I have a Raspberry Pi 3B+ sitting next to my router. I use it to host a couple things to my local network. Here’s a photo.

The Pi 3 in its natural habitat.
The Pi 3 in its natural habitat.

That hunk of metal I just got also acts as a heatsink and it brought down the CPU temperature by 10°C. That’s pretty good!

You might remember it from a previous post, in which I talked about my experience with NixOS’ distributed builds. It’s a slow machine and you really don’t want to build things directly on it, so at the time I reached for distributed builds to make the experience of rebuilding my configuration a little less painful. That worked out alright, but we can do better.

While distributed builds do make executing a nixos-rebuild much faster, the Nix expression describing the whole system is still evaluated on the Pi itself, which in the best case results in a virtually nonfunctional system for a couple minutes, and in the worst a slow death as swap fills out. I usually pull the plug when that happens because I can’t stand watching the poor thing suffer.

But! There is a fourth solution to this issue that I failed to consider on the previous post though: NixOps! The NixOps user manual describes it as:

[…] a tool for deploying NixOS machines in a network or cloud.

This description initially put me off from using it. It makes it sound like something you’d only use when you have a bunch of servers, and that just using it for managing one machine would be overkill. It also makes it sound like there’s a big learning curve, I mean there’s a big one page html manual about it and ain’t nobody got the time to read all that. Figuring out Nix already took me long enough.

And surely I couldn’t just import the configuration I was using for the Pi and expect it to work with NixOps, right? I’d seen a couple posts about NixOps but they usually involved creating a new server with a new configuration that I didn’t really care about, so maybe I’d have to make some changes.

…Or would I?

This might be a gross oversimplification, but all NixOps does is evaluate a system configuration on your machine, build it, copy the results on one or more target machines and make them switch to that configuration.

In other words, it’s like it runs nixos-rebuild using the Pi’s /etc/nixos/configuration.nix but on another computer, and all the Pi has to do is download the results of the rebuild and run it. In yet other words, it does exactly what I needed.

I was initially worried that I’d have to make some changes to the Pi’s system configuration to deploy it with NixOps, but all I had to do was write a nix expression telling NixOps where to deploy the configuration and some details about the machine architecture, as described in the user manual.

If you’re following this at home, make sure to include all your configuration files when you import your existing one, including the hardware-configuration.nix file!

  network.description = "Raspberry Pi";
  pi3 = { config, pkgs, lib, ... }: {
    deployment.targetHost = "192.168.1.x";
    nixpkgs.localSystem = {
      system = "aarch64-linux";
      config = "aarch64-unknown-linux-gnu";
    imports = [

To build an arm64 configuration on an x86_64 system you have to enable arm64 emulation, but I already had that set up from when I was using it for distributed builds, I think I got it from here. In any case, this is all you need to add to your build machine’s configuration.

  boot.binfmt.emulatedSystems = [ "aarch64-linux" ];

Then you have to allow your build machine to log into the target machine via SSH as root, install the nixops command and it’s just a couple of nixops commands to create the deployment and send it to the Pi.

$ nixops create ./rpi.nix -d rpi
$ nixops deploy -d rpi

These commands will create a new deployment called rpi using the specification file above and deploy it. Not that hard after all!

Summing up, NixOS is really nice and you, hypothetical reader who isn’t using it, should try it. All issues with documentation and tooling notwithstanding. Here’s a couple things that are tangentially related to this post.

Good night.