nixpkgs overlay nano howto

July 31, 2022

nixpkgs is a huge repository of various packages. But what if you want to package a tiny package and don’t plan to share it with anyone. Is it hard? How would you go about it?

There are many ways to do it: maintain a nixpkgs fork, use packageOverrides, overlays, flakes and many others methods.

I’ll focus here only on overlays method as it feels to me like the simplest way to write packages readily copyable to (or from) nixpkgs.

nixpkgs stucture

before we start with an example let’s have a look at nixpkgs “schema”. nixpkgs provides a pkgs map (“attribute set”) from package name to package definition (it’s nested in a few places):

pkgs = {
    callPackage = pkgPath: ...somehow-load-the-package;

    # unnested examples:
    glibc = callPackage ../development/libraries/glibc { ... };
    re2c = callPackage ../development/tools/parsing/re2c { };
    # ...

    # nested examples:
    python39Packages = {
      # the name is slightly changed for clarity
      callPythonPackage = pkgPath: ...somehow-load-python-package;

      black = callPackage ../development/python-modules/black { };
      blessed = callPackage ../development/python-modules/blessed { };
      # ...

Our goal here is to inject something very simple into top-level pkgs = { ... }; sturcture. We’ll ignore nested attributes.

overlays allow us to override existing attributes in pkgs or introduce the existing ones. Until you get familiar with the way attributes interact with one another I suggest adding only new attributes.

an example

Our running example will be ski package. It’s an autotools-based package with very conventional dependencies. Let’s package it!

I’ll do 3 things below:

  1. create /tmp/overlay/ski/default.nix expression ready to be included into nixpkgs repository
  2. create /tmp/overlay/local-packages.nix expression ready to be used in /etc/nixos/configuration.nix and/or in ~/.config/nixpkgs/overlays/.
  3. add our overlay to /etc/nixos/configuration.nix.

Here is a simple /tmp/overlay/ski/default.nix expression enough to build it:

# $ cat /tmp/overlay/ski/default.nix
{ lib , stdenv , fetchFromGitHub

, autoconf, automake, bison, flex, gperf
, libtool, pkg-config

, elfutils, libbfd, libiberty , ncurses

stdenv.mkDerivation rec {
  pname = "ski";
  version = "unstable-2022-07-07";

  src = fetchFromGitHub {
    owner = "trofi";
    repo = "ski";
    rev = "568efd789fab1f932aa926b1db86dcb75e9c115c";
    sha256 = "sha256-dwHccL89bXzsjDr8O1DmVHlBQQ6aHgNLEaHJCJqHG9w=";

  postPatch = ''

  nativeBuildInputs = [ autoconf automake
    bison flex gperf libtool pkg-config ];

  buildInputs = [ elfutils libbfd libiberty ncurses ];

  meta = with lib; {
    description = "ia64 (Itanium) instruction set simulator.";
    homepage = "";
    license = licenses.gpl2Only;
    platforms = platforms.linux;

Now we need to create an actual overlay expression. I’ll put it in a separate /tmp/overlay/local-packages.nix file as well:

# $ cat /tmp/overlay/local-packages.nix
final: prev: {
  # we create new 'ski' attribute here!
  ski = final.callPackage ./ski {};

  # add more packages below:
  # ...

Now we are ready to use the overlay in our /etc/nixos/configuration.nix:

{ config, pkgs, ... }:

  # Add an overlay to augment existing 'pkgs' map.
  nixpkgs.overlays = [
    (import /tmp/overlay/local-packages.nix)

  # use augmented 'pkgs':
  environment.systemPackages = with pkgs; [
  # ...

Now we can get ski installed into our system:

$ sudo nixos-rebuild switch
$ ski -help
    -help        Display command-line options
    -i <file>    Process initialization file at startup
    -rest <file> Restore simulation state from <file>
    -nonet       Disable networking feature
    -srcroot     Source Root Directory
    -forceuser   Force user-level simulation
    -forcesystem Force system-level simulation
    -strace      Trace system call execution
    -simroot     Simulated root directory
    -conslog <file> Log the console output to the specified file
    -palen <n>      Implemented physical address bits.  Default: 63
    -valen <n>      Implemented virtual address bits.  Default: 61
    -ridlen <n>     Implemented RR.rid bits.  Default: 24
    -keylen <n>     Implemented PKR.key bits.  Default: 24
    -grfile <n>     GR file size.  Default: 128

Seems to work!

We can also get the packages pulled into user’s <nixpkgs> expression:

$ mkdir -p ~/.config/nixpkgs/overlays/
$ ln -s /tmp/overlay/local-packages.nix ~/.config/nixpkgs/overlays/

Now we can use it as a nixpkgs attribute:

$ nix-build '<nixpkgs>' -A ski

A few relevant links: