Friday, March 31, 2017

Subsituting impure version specifiers in node2nix generated package compositions

In a number of previous blog posts, I have described node2nix, a tool that can be used to automatically integrate NPM packages into the Nix packages ecosystem. The biggest challenge in making this integration possible is the fact that NPM does dependency management in addition to build management -- NPM's dependency management properties conflict with Nix's purity principles.

Dealing with a conflicting dependency manager is quite simple from a conceptual perspective -- you must substitute it by a custom implementation that uses Nix to obtain all required dependencies. The remaining responsibilities (such as build management) are left untouched and still have to be carried out by the guest package manager.

Although conceptually simple, implementing such a substitution approach is much more difficult than expected. For example, in my previous blog posts I have described the following techniques:

  • Extracting dependencies. In addition to the package we intend to deploy with Nix, we must also include all its dependencies and transitive dependencies in the generation process.
  • Computing output hashes. In order to make package deployments deterministic, Nix requires that the output hashes of downloads are known in advance. As a result, we must examine all dependencies and compute their corresponding SHA256 output hashes. Some NPM projects have thousands of transitive dependencies that need to be analyzed.
  • Snapshotting versions. Nix uses SHA256 hash codes (derived from all inputs to build a package) to address specific variants or versions of packages whereas version specifiers in NPM package.json configurations are nominal -- they permit version ranges and references to external artifacts (such as Git repositories and external URLs).

    For example, a version range of >= 1.0.3 might resolve to version 1.0.3 today and to version 1.0.4 tomorrow. Translating a version range to a Nix package with a hash code identifier breaks the ability for Nix to guarantee that a package with a specific hash code yields a (nearly) bit identical build.

    To ensure reproducibility, we must snapshot the resolved version of these nominal dependency version specifiers (such as a version range) at generation time and generate the corresponding Nix expression for the resulting snapshot.
  • Simulating shared and private dependencies. In NPM projects, dependencies of a package are stored in the node_modules/ sub folder of the package. Each dependency can have private dependencies by putting them in their corresponding node_modules/ sub folder. Sharing dependencies is also possible by placing the corresponding dependency in any of the parent node_modules/ sub folders.

    Moreover, although this is not explicitly advertised as such, NPM implicitly supports cyclic dependencies and is able cope with them because it will refuse to install a dependency in a node_modules/ sub folder if any parent folder already provides it.

    When generating Nix expressions, we must replicate the exact same behaviour when it comes to private and shared dependencies. This is particularly important to cope with cyclic dependencies -- the Nix package manager does not allow them and we have to break any potential cycles at generation time.
  • Simulating "flat module" installations. In NPM versions older than 3.0, every dependency was installed privately by default unless a shared dependency exists that fits within the required version range.

    In newer NPM versions, this strategy has been reversed -- every dependency will be shared as much as possible until a conflict has been encountered. This means that we have to move dependencies as high up in the node_modules/ folder hierarchy as possible which is an imperative operation -- in Nix this is a problem, because packages are cannot be changed after they have been built.

    To cope with flattening, we must compute the implications of flattening the dependency structure in advance at generation time.

With the above techniques it is possible construct a node_modules/ directory structure having a nearly identical structure that NPM would normally compose with a high degree of accuracy.

Impure version specifiers

Even if it would be possible to reproduce the node_modules/ directory hierarchy with 100% accuracy, there is another problem that remains -- some version specifiers always trigger network communication regardless whether the dependencies have been provided or not, such as:

  { "node2nix": "latest" }
, { "nijs": "git+" }
, { "prom2cb": "github:svanderburg/prom2cb" }

When referring to tags or Git branches, NPM is unable to determine to which version a package resolves. As a consequence, it attempts to retrieve the corresponding packages to investigate even when a compatible version in the node_modules/ directory hierarchy already exists.

While performing package builds, Nix takes various precautions to prevent side effects from influencing builds including network connections. As a result, an NPM package deployment will still fail despite the fact that a compatible dependency has already been provided.

In the package builder Nix expression provided by node2nix, I used to substitute these version specifiers in the package.json configuration files by a wildcard: '*'. Wildcards used to work fine for old Node.js 4.x/NPM 2.x installations, but with NPM 3.x flat module installations they became another big source of problems -- in order to make flat module installations work, NPM needs to know to which version a package resolves to determine whether it can be shared on a higher level in the node_modules/ folder hierarchy or not. Wildcards prevent NPM from making these comparisons, and as a result, some package deployments fail that did not use to fail with older versions of NPM.

Pinpointing version specifiers

In the latest node2nix I have solved these issues by implementing a different substitution strategy -- instead of substituting impure version specifiers by wildcards, I pinpoint all the dependencies to the exact version numbers to which these dependencies resolve. Internally, NPM addresses all dependencies by their names and version numbers only (this also has a number of weird implications, because it disregards the origins of these dependencies, but I will not go into detail on that).

I got the inspiration for this pinpointing strategy from the yarn package manager (an alternative to NPM developed by Facebook) -- when deploying a project with yarn, yarn pinpoints the installed dependencies in a so-called yarn.lock file so that package deployments become reproducible when a system is deployed for a second time.

The pinpointing strategy will always prevent NPM from consulting external resources (under the condition that we have provided the package by our substitute dependency manager first) and always provide version numbers for any dependency so that NPM can perform flat module installations. As a result, the accuracy of node2nix with newer versions of NPM has improved quite a bit.


The pinpointing strategy is part of the latest node2nix that can be obtained from the NPM registry or the Nixpkgs repository.

One month ago, I have given a talk about node2nix at FOSDEM 2017 summarizing the techniques discussed in my blog posts written so far. For convenience, I have embedded the slides into this web page:

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