Friday, September 13, 2013

Composing FHS-compatible chroot environments with Nix (or deploying Steam in NixOS)

As described in a blog post from a while ago, NixOS deviates on certain aspects from the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard (FHS) for very good reasons. For example, NixOS lacks standard directories such as /usr/bin and /usr/lib that conventional Linux distributions have. The most important reason that Nix/NixOS deviates from the FHS is to provide reliable and reproducible deployment of packages.

The filesystem organization that Nix uses, in which every package is stored in a separate folder in a so called "Nix store", is typically not a problem to get software packaged and deployed in source form.

Packages in Nix are deployed from build recipes called Nix expressions that typically invoke functions implementing abstractions ensuring that the specified dependencies can be found in a convenient manner.

For example, when providing Java or Perl dependencies, the generic builder may automatically set some required environment variables, such CLASSPATH or PERL5LIB containing Java or Perl dependencies. Moreover, a number of build utilities have been patched (such as ld) to automatically add shared libraries to an ELF executable's RPATH allowing it to find the libraries that it needs (you could see this as as static linking of shared libraries to an executable).

However, deployment of third party binary packages is a bit complicated and inconvenient in NixOS for the following reasons:

  • Nearly all software must be deployed by the Nix package manager, since nearly all of the system's components reside in the Nix store.
  • Third party binaries frequently require shared libraries and other kinds dependencies to run. However, in most cases these dependencies cannot be found, because executables assume that they reside in standard FHS folders such as /usr/lib, which do not exist in NixOS.
  • Executables using dynamic libraries cannot find the dynamic linker (e.g. /lib/, because the corresponding file does not exist in NixOS.

As a solution, we often use PatchELF to change the path to the dynamic linker and modify the RPATH of a binary allowing it to find the libraries that it needs. We may also have to wrap executables in shell scripts to set certain environment variables, such as LD_LIBRARY_PATH.

Some applications that are packaged in Nixpkgs this way are Adobe Reader, Belastingaangifte (Dutch Tax administration) and the Android SDK, as I have described in two earlier blog posts.

However, I have recently developed something that can solve this problem in a different way.

Composing FHS-compatible chroot environments

In my previous blog post, I have described how Nix user environments work, which are symlink trees that blend the contents of a collection of packages into a single symlink tree. User environments are primarily used to allow end-users to conveniently access packages installed by Nix from a single location.

We can also use the user environment mechanism in combination with setting up a chroot environment to simulate an FHS-compatible filesystem. This allows us to run an unpatched binary that works out of the box, if all required dependencies of the package are (correctly) specified.

I have created a Nix function called buildFHSChrootEnv {} which makes it possible to compose such environments. This function roughly does the following:

  • It invokes buildEnv {} to compose a so-called "/usr user environment". In this user environment, we synthesize the contents of all our specified packages into a single Nix profile. This profile contains all static parts of all packages and is supposed to simulate both the /usr directory as well as the static folders in the root folder of the chroot environment, such as /bin and /lib.
  • Besides the dependencies of the binary that we want to run, we also need a collection of base packages, such as the bash shell, GNU Coreutils, glibc, and the shadow password suite, since we also have to be able to run a basic Linux system and do basic shell activities inside the chroot environment. These packages are always part of the /usr profile.
  • It generates a global bash profile setting the PS1 environment variable to configure the shell prompt and other miscellaneous settings that a program may need in order to run.
  • It generates a collection of scripts taking care of setting up (or destroying) the dynamic parts of the chroot environment, since Nix packages and user environment are static and can never change after they have been built.

Setting up the dynamic parts of the chroot environment

Merely composing a /usr profile is not enough to get a working chroot environment because they only contain the static parts of a system, such as executables, libraries, and data files. We also have to set up a few dynamic parts. A collection of configuration scripts bundled with the generated /usr profile can be used for this purpose:

  • init-*-chrootenv: Initializes most dynamic parts of the chroot environment inside a directory with write permissions (i.e. /run/chrootenv/<name>).

    First, it creates symlinks to the static folders of the /usr profile and the /usr symlink itself. Then the script ensures that the Name Service Switch (NSS) facilities work by symlinking /etc/{passwd,group,shadow,hosts,resolv.conf,nsswitch.conf) of the host system into the chroot environment. Then some other files from the host are symlinked, such as PAM configuration files and font configuration stuff. Finally, a few empty state folders are created, such as: /var, /run, /tmp.

    The initialization script has to be executed only once.
  • mount-*-chrootenv: Bind mounts a number of directories of the host system into the chroot folder, so that files from the host system can be used while we have entered the chroot environment.

    Currently, we bind mount the Nix store (/nix/store), directories used by the kernel: /dev, /dev/pts, /dev/shm, /proc, /sys, users' home directories: /home, a few state directories: /var, /run, and the host's /etc directory containing shared configuration files, such as the ones related to NSS and PAM.

    This script has to be executed every time we have booted into NixOS.
  • load-*-chrootenv: Enters the chroot environment and launches a shell. The shell inherits a few environment variables from the host environment, such as DISPLAY allowing someone to run GUI applications and TERM to make certain fancy console applications to work properly.
  • umount-*-chrootenv: Unmounts the bind mounts.
  • destroy-*-chrootenv: Removes the writable chrootenv directory.

tl;dr - Getting Steam to work under NixOS

If you're still awake and still interested in reading this blog post, I will reveal why I have done all this work, which is probably much more exciting to read. In fact, this function's primary use case is to get Steam working in NixOS. Steam is a very special piece of software compared to other binary-only packages, because:

  • Steam is also a deployment tool (like Nix) capable of automatically downloading, installing and upgrading software packages. In Steam's case, these software packages are mostly games.
  • Software packages installed by Steam have the same problems as the deployment of "ordinary" binary packages in NixOS -- they don't work out of the box, because they cannot find the dynamic linker and their dependencies, such as shared libraries.
  • Of course, we can patch the executables installed by Steam, but Steam wants control over them and does not like patched versions of software. Furthermore, patching the packages makes it impossible for Steam to update them.
  • It is also a bit impractical to patch the executables every time they are updated, because I have seen that the games I have are updated quite frequently.

By using the buildFHSChrootEnv {} Nix function getting Steam (including the games installed by it) to run in NixOS is a piece of cake. First I had to package Steam itself, which was quite easy:

{stdenv, fetchurl, dpkg}:

stdenv.mkDerivation {
  name = "steam-";
  src = fetchurl {
    url =;
    sha256 = "1jyvk0h1z78sdpvl4hs1kdvr6z2kwamf09vjgjx1f6j04kgqrfbw";
  buildInputs = [ dpkg ];
  unpackPhase = "true";
  installPhase = ''
    mkdir -p $out
    dpkg -x $src $out
    cp -av $out/usr/* $out
    rm -Rf $out/usr

I just had to unpack the Steam Debian package and move its contents into the Nix store. I intentionally did not patch or wrap anything.

Then I had to create a Nix expression that composes a FHS-compatible chroot environment with Steam's dependencies and runtime settings (such as OpenGL driver settings):

{ buildFHSChrootEnv, steam
, xterm, libX11, zenity, python, mesa, xdg_utils, dbus_tools, alsaLib

buildFHSChrootEnv {
  name = "steam";
  pkgs = [ steam xterm libX11 zenity python mesa xdg_utils dbus_tools alsaLib ];
  profile = ''
    export LD_LIBRARY_PATH=/run/opengl-driver/lib:/run/opengl-driver-32/lib:/lib
    export FONTCONFIG_FILE=/etc/fonts/fonts.conf

After becoming the super user, I can install the above Nix expression providing the /usr environment profile and configuration scripts, by running:

$ su
# nix-env -f '<nixpkgs>' -iA steamChrootEnv

Now the chroot environment configuration scripts have been added to the system-wide Nix profile. I can initialize the chroot environment folder by running:

# init-steam-chrootenv

I can do the bind mounts by running:

# mount-steam-chrootenv

And then enter the chroot environment by running:

# load-steam-chrootenv

Now I have entered the chroot environment in which I can run the unpatched Steam executable. However, I should not run Steam as a root user. Therefore, I have to become "myself" again:

# su -s /bin/bash sander

And now I can finally run Steam, install my favourite games and play them:

$ steam

As you may see in the screenshot above, it works quite well on my machine. Moreover, to give you some proof that I'm not lying, I have also opened a terminal in the background showing you NixOS' root folder that does not contain most of the standard FHS directories.

So far, I have tried Half Life (and extensions), Half Life 2 (and extensions), Portal and Counter Strike and they all seem to work without any trouble. Isn't that AWESOME??? :P

Finally, if you need to discard the chroot environment (which should not be necessary IMHO :P), you could run:

# umount-steam-chrootenv
# destroy-steam-chrootenv


In this blog post, I have described the buildFHSChrootEnv {} Nix function that composes FHS-compatible chroot environments in NixOS, allowing me to run Steam and other third party binary packages without patching them.

Moreover, we still have control over the dependencies in the chroot environment, because apart from a number of common base packages, these chroot environments are composed from Nix expressions that provide exactly the dependencies that are specified. Undeclared dependencies cannot influence a binary package running in the chroot environment.

However, this approach also has a big drawback. In order to chroot, we need super-user privileges making it hard to properly support unprivileged user installations of such packages. Most "ordinary" Nix packages can be deployed by unprivileged users without any trouble. Therefore, I would not recommend this approach over patching executables with PatchELF, unless there is no other way, such as in Steam's case.


This is not the first attempt to get Steam packaged in Nixpkgs. In my attempt, I have tried to use the chroot approach which turns out to work. I'd like to thank Evgeny Egorochkin, Aszlig Neusepoff and Carles Pag├Ęs for their earlier efforts.


The buildFHSChrootEnv {} function as well as the Steam components are part of Nixpkgs.


  1. I have another crazy idea. Running package managers of other distributions in that environment. Not that i would need that, but i could troll other distributions, how can i run their stuff.

  2. Right now, this cannot be done because conventional package managers have the tendency to also modify or remove files. All static parts in the chroot (/bin, /lib, /sbin etc.) are symlinks referring to something that's inside the Nix store that cannot be modified.

    However, with some modifications I still think there is a way to do it. Some keywords in my head are: hard links and union filesystem...

  3. Very cool stuff! It is great to have steam running on nixos!

    Something that confused me when setting this up was that direct rendering for 32bit applications is not enabled by default when running a 64bit nixos system. This caused steam to complain and made every game I tried fail to start. To enable it I had to add "services.xserver.driSupport32Bit = true;" to configuration.nix. Just FYI for others who might be confused by this.

  4. In order to run any 32-bit OpenGL application in a 64-bit NixOS, this option has to be enabled. This issue is not restricted to generated chroot environments. For example, to run wine you also need to enable this.

    But I agree, it's not obvious to most users that this option is also required to make most Steam games work, so thanks for mentioning it!

  5. Hi. Thanks for the work. Is it possible to not mount $HOME into the chrooted environment and mount only current directory (at the time nix-shell is run)? I'd like to run tricky build system which has tendency to write to ~/.foocfg if it is available.

    1. With some modifications, yes, but it's not supported out of the box.