Installing NixOS

Posted on January 24, 2018

If you’re not used to the arcana of hands on Linux installations, then installing NixOS might be a little intimidating. The official documentation does a good job of explaining what needs to be done, but you might have to piece different sections together to get the job done. Our team all currently run NixOS on their work machines, so we have an install guide that provides a more step-by-step experience. It’s been tested a couple of times now, so I thought we should make it public.

Conventions

I’ll be using $ for regular user login prompts, # for root login prompts, and -- for comments.

Requirements

Our team have some requirements for security and as a result of the hardware we use. They are:

  • LVM disk partitioning
  • Luks encryption for the entire LVM physical volume
  • UEFI boot loader and boot partition
  • USB stick install

We don’t dual boot, so this guide will only cover a full disk installation.

Installation media

Firstly, we need to get the appropriate install media. We use the 64-bit minimal install CD. This, and others, are available on the NixOS downloads page.

Once you’ve obtained the installation media, copy it to a USB stick. Note that this will destroy anything on the USB stick. The snippet below uses $DISK as a placeholder for the USB stick you want the installer on, and $INSTALLER_ISO as a placeholder for the image file you downloaded. The bs=1M option sets the block size of the copy to one megabyte, which speeds up the copy.

-- identify which disk you want the installer on
$ lsblk

-- no output until it's finished
# dd if=$INSTALLER_ISO of=$DISK bs=1M

System configuration

There are apparently some things in the UEFI system setup (fancy new BIOS) need to be configured for NixOS to install happily. To access the menu on your machine and make the changes, consult your favourite search engine. My Dell requires you to press F2 at the beginning of a boot to access the menu.

Once in the menu:

  • Ensure safe boot is disabled
  • Ensure UEFI mode is enabled

Installation

Now that your UEFI setup is configured, it’s time to boot the installation media. Once again, on my Dell machine one must press F12 during boot to open the boot menu and select the USB device as the one to boot from. This varies from machine to machine.

Note that from here on in we’ll be in root prompts the whole time. The NixOS install environment helpfully drops you in a shell with root logged in.

Networking

Having internet access during an OS install can be handy to pull in configs. In the case of NixOS, if you want anything more than a very bare bones system to boot into, you’re going to want internet access to pull in system packages.

If you can’t just plug in an ethernet cable, then you’re probably going to want to use WiFi. To make that happen do the following:

-- Generates the actual key used to authenticate on your WPA secured network
# wpa_passphrase $SSID $PASSPHRASE > /etc/wpa_supplicant.conf

-- Restarts WPA Supplicant, which gives us WiFi for now
# systemctl restart wpa_supplicant.service

Partitioning

Time to destroy some valuable data! Just kidding. You won’t make a mistake, and more importantly, you have 3 copies of your data on at least 2 different types of storage media and in 2 different physical locations that are unlikely to be hit by the same disaster right? Right?!

Jokes aside, this process will wipe anything on the disk. Consider yourself warned.

As I understand it, a UEFI boot device requires a GUID partition table (GPT). Hence we’ll be using gdisk instead of the venerable fdisk. If you’re installing on a system that doesn’t use UEFI, then you can do a similar job with good ’ol fdisk.

To start, we’ll delete any existing partitions and start with a clean slate:

-- Identify the disk to install NixOS on - something like /dev/nvme0n1 or /dev/sda.
-- We'll refer to it as $DISK.
# lsblk

-- Open gdisk on the disk we're installing on
# gdisk $DISK 

-----------------------
-- BEGIN GDISK COMMANDS

-- print the partitions on the disk
Command: p

-- Delete a partition. Select the partition number when prompted.
-- Repeat for all partitions.
Command: d

-- END GDISK COMMANDS
---------------------

Now we create the partitions we need: an EFI boot partition, and an LVM partition. LVM (logical volume management) allows us to more easily change our partitions (size and layout) should we need. In our case, the LVM partition will contain our root and swap partitions.

This code block assumes we’re still at a gdisk prompt.

-- Create the EFI boot partition
Command: n
Partition number: 1
First sector: <enter for default>
Last sector: +1G       --  make a 1 gigabyte partition
Hex code or GUID: ef00 -- this is the EFI System type

-- Create the LVM partition
Command: n
Partition number: 2
First sector: <enter for default>
Last sector: <enter for default - rest of disk>
Hex code or GUID: 8e00 -- Linux LVM type

-- Write changes and quit
Command: w

Encryption and LVM

Our partition table and primary partitions are in place. Now we can encrypt the partition that will contain our LVM partitions. This is the second partition that we created above - so should be something like /dev/nvme0n1p2 or /dev/sda2. We’ll refer to it as $LVM_PARTITION below. Note that our boot partition won’t be encrypted. I can’t think of a reason why you would want this, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t need partitioning advice from me. Also note that our swap partition is encrypted. You don’t have any control over what’s moved into your swap space, so it could end up containing all sorts of private stuff in the clear - for example passwords copied from a password manager.

In our example below, we’re creating a swap space that is the same size as our RAM (16GB), and filling the rest of the disk with our root filesystem. You might want to tweak these sizes for your machine.

-- You will be asked to enter your passphrase - DO NOT FORGET THIS
# cryptsetup luksFormat $LVM_PARTITION

-- Decrypt the encrypted partition and call it nixos-enc. The decrypted partition
-- will get mounted at /dev/mapper/nixos-enc
# cryptsetup luksOpen $LVM_PARTITION nixos-enc
    
-- Create the LVM physical volume using nixos-enc
# pvcreate /dev/mapper/nixos-enc 

-- Create a volume group that will contain our root and swap partitions
# vgcreate nixos-vg /dev/mapper/nixos-enc

-- Create a swap partition that is 16G in size - the amount of RAM on this machine
-- Volume is labeled "swap"'
# lvcreate -L 16G -n swap nixos-vg

-- Create a logical volume for our root filesystem from all remaining free space.
-- Volume is labeled "root"
# lvcreate -l 100%FREE -n root nixos-vg

Create our filesystems

In the below snippet, $BOOT refers to the boot partition created above - something like /dev/sda1.

-- Create a FAT32 filesystem on our boot partition
# mkfs.vfat -n boot $BOOT

-- Create an ext4 filesystem for our root partition
# mkfs.ext4 -L nixos /dev/nixos-vg/root

-- Tell our swap partition to be a swap
# mkswap -L swap /dev/nixos-vg/swap

-- Turn the swap on before install
# swapon /dev/nixos-vg/swap

Mount filesystems and prep for install

We’re almost there. Now it’s time to mount the partitions we’ve created, put our system configuration in place, and finally, pull the trigger.

The snippet below uses $BOOT_PARTITION as a placeholder for the UEFI boot partition we created earlier. This was the first partition on the disk, and will probably be something like /dev/sda1 or /dev/nvme0n1p1.

# mount /dev/nixos-vg/root /mnt
# mkdir /mnt/boot
# mount $BOOT_PARTITION /mnt/boot

Now that we have filesystems we can write to, let’s generate our initial config.

# nixos-generate-config --root /mnt

Configuration

NixOS is primarily configured by /etc/nixos/configuration.nix. Given that our root filesystem is mounted at /mnt, that will be /mnt/etc/nixos/configuration.nix for now. Let’s open it up and set some important options.

If anything is broken in your config, installation should fail with an error message to help diagnose your problem. Furthermore, because NixOS is the way it is, you can radically reconfigure your system later knowing that you can fallback to a known good configuration, and once you’re confident everything works, clean up packages you no longer need. In short, don’t stress too much about installing and configuring absolutely everything. It’s fine to start with a small but working system and build up as you learn what you want.

-- Vim 4 life! Or, you know, use `nano` or whatever else you might prefer.
vim /mnt/etc/nixos/configuration.nix

It is of critical importance that we tell NixOS we have a LUKS encrypted partition that needs to be decrypted before we can access any LVM partitions. We do that like so.

boot.initrd.luks.devices = [
  { 
    name = "root";
    device = "/dev/nvme0n1p2";
    preLVM = true;
  }
];

NixOS also needs to know that we’re using EFI, however this was correctly configured for me automatically.

boot.loader.systemd-boot.enable to true

I also use network manager and its associated applet to manage my networking. If you’d like to do the same, add the following, as well as the applet package mentioned below.

networking.networkmanager.enable = true;

In addition to these core configuration items, you might want to install some packages to get you started. Our NixOS install will be very bare without them. Packages can be specified as additional configuration items, and there should be a commented out section of configuration that you can uncomment and edit. For example, a fairly modest set of packages would look something like this. Note that networkmanagerapplet is included to give us a tray icon to configure networking from.

As the comment in the configuration file tells you, you can search for packages to install with nix-env -qaP | grep $PACKAGE.

environment.systemPackages = (with pkgs; [
  firefox
  git
  htop
  networkmanagerapplet
  nix-prefetch-scripts
  nix-repl
  vagrant
  vim
  wget
  which
  xscreensaver
]);

One last thing I’ll call out, is specifying your user. It’s not a good idea to use root all the time, so to create your user, add/uncomment something like the following. In the example below, we’ll create a user called “qfpl”. We’ll give them a home directory and add them to a few groups. Most importantly, you probably want your user to be a member of wheel so they can run privileged commands with sudo.

users.extraUsers.qfpl = {
  createHome = true;
  extraGroups = ["wheel" "video" "audio" "disk" "networkmanager"];
  group = "users";
  home = "/home/qfpl";
  isNormalUser = true;
  uid = 1000;
};

By default you’ll get Plasma as your desktop environment. If you want something else, then you’ll have to do some research on what’s available and how to configure it.

There’s a bunch of other stuff commented out in the generated configuration.nix and I encourage you to read through it and uncomment and/or set anything that takes your fancy. For example, setting your time zone is probably a good idea. To see an example of a full configuration with XMonad configured as the window manager, you can check out my config on GitHub.

Pull the trigger!

Once you’re happy with your configuration, we can pull the trigger on an install.

# nixos-install
-- IT'LL ASK YOU FOR YOUR ROOT PASSWORD NOW - DON'T FORGET IT
# reboot

Go get a coffee while everything installs, and hopefully you’ll reboot to your new system.

If something has gone wrong, don’t worry. You can always boot back into the installation media, mount your partitions again, change your configuration, and install again.

Assuming your system has booted to a login screen, you’re going to want to set your user’s password so you don’t login to your graphical environment as root. To do this, press Ctrl-Alt-F1 to open a terminal, login as root, and run passwd $USER, replacing $USER with the name of the user you configured. Once set, run reboot to reboot your machine and login as your regular user.

References

Here are the sources I consulted in putting this together.

We’re using functional programming to set up the infrastructure that we use from day to day.

> Andrew McCluskey

Andrew digs referential transparency, static typing, coffee, and table tennis.