Reproducible data science with Nix, part 2 — running {targets} pipelines with Nix

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This is the second post in a series of posts about Nix. Disclaimer: I’m a super beginner with Nix. So this series of blog posts is more akin to notes that I’m taking while learning than a super detailed tutorial. So if you’re a Nix expert and read something stupid in here, that’s normal. This post is going to focus on R (obviously) but the ideas are applicable to any programming language.

So in part 1 I explained what Nix was and how you could use it to build reproducible development environments. Now, let’s go into more details and actually set up some environments and run a {targets} pipeline using it.

Obviously the first thing you should do is install Nix. A lot of what I’m showing here comes from the so if you want to install Nix, then look at the instructions here. If you’re using Windows, you’ll have to have WSL2 installed. If you don’t want to install Nix just yet, you can also play around with a NixOS Docker image. NixOS is a Linux distribution that uses the concepts of Nix for managing the whole operating system, and obviously comes with the Nix package manager installed. But if you’re using Nix inside Docker you won’t be able to work interactively with graphical applications like RStudio, due to how Docker works (but more on working interactively with IDEs in part 3 of this series, which I’m already drafting).

Assuming you have Nix installed, you should be able to run the following command in a terminal:

nix-shell -p sl

This will launch a Nix shell with the sl package installed. Because sl is not available, it’ll get installed on the fly, and you will get “dropped” into a Nix shell:


You can now run sl and marvel at what it does (I won’t spoil you). You can quit the Nix shell by typing exit and you’ll go back to your usual terminal. If you try now to run sl it won’t work (unless you installed on your daily machine). So if you need to go back to that Nix shell and rerun sl, simply rerun:

nix-shell -p sl

This time you’ll be dropped into the Nix shell immediately and can run sl. So if you need to use R, simply run the following:

nix-shell -p R

and you’ll be dropped in a Nix shell with R. This version of R will be different than the one potentially already installed on your system, and it won’t have access to any R packages that you might have installed. This is because Nix environment are isolated from the rest of your system (well, not quite, but again, more on this in part 3). So you’d need to add packages as well (exit the Nix shell and run this command to add packages):

nix-shell -p R rPackages.dplyr rPackages.janitor

You can now start R in that Nix shell and load the {dplyr} and {janitor} packages. You might be wondering how I knew that I needed to type rPackages.dplyr to install {dplyr}. You can look for this information online. By the way, if a package uses the . character in its name, you should replace that . character by _ so to install {data.table} write rPackages.data_table.

So that’s nice and dandy, but not quite what we want. Instead, what we want is to be able to declare what we need in terms of packages, dependencies, etc, inside a file, and have Nix build an environment according to these specifications which we can then use for our daily needs. To do so, we need to write a so-called default.nix file. This is what such a file looks like:

{ pkgs ? import (fetchTarball "") {} }:

with pkgs;

  my-pkgs = rWrapper.override {
    packages = with rPackages; [dplyr ggplot2 R];
mkShell {
  buildInputs = [my-pkgs];

I wont discuss the intricate details of writing such a file just yet, because it’ll take too much time and I’ll be repeating what you can find on the website. I’ll give some pointers though. But for now, let’s assume that we already have such a default.nix file that we defined for our project, and see how we can use it to run a {targets} pipeline. I’ll explain how I write such files.

Running a {targets} pipeline using Nix

Let’s say I have this, more complex, default.nix file:

{ pkgs ? import (fetchTarball "") {} }:

with pkgs;

  my-pkgs = rWrapper.override {
    packages = with rPackages; [
    (buildRPackage {
      name = "housing";
      src = fetchgit {
        url = "";
        branchName = "fusen";
        rev = "1c860959310b80e67c41f7bbdc3e84cef00df18e";
        sha256 = "sha256-s4KGtfKQ7hL0sfDhGb4BpBpspfefBN6hf+XlslqyEn4=";
    propagatedBuildInputs = [
mkShell {
  buildInputs = [my-pkgs];

So the file above defines an environment that contains all the required packages to run a pipeline that you can find on this Github repository. What’s interesting is that I need to install a package that’s only been released on Github, the {housing} package that I wrote for the purposes of my book, and I can do so in that file as well, using the fetchgit() function. Nix has many such functions, called fetchers that simplify the process of downloading files from the internet, see here. This function takes some self-explanatory inputs as arguments, and two other arguments that might not be that self-explanatory: rev and sha256. rev is actually the commit on the Github repository. This commit is the one that I want to use for this particular project. So if I keep working on this package, then building an environment with this default.nix will always pull the source code as it was at that particular commit. sha256 is the hash of the downloaded repository. It makes sure that the files weren’t tampered with. How did I obtain that? Well, the simplest way is to set it to the empty string "" and then try to build the environment. This error message will pop-up:

error: hash mismatch in fixed-output derivation '/nix/store/449zx4p6x0yijym14q3jslg55kihzw66-housing-1c86095.drv':
            got:    sha256-s4KGtfKQ7hL0sfDhGb4BpBpspfefBN6hf+XlslqyEn4=

So simply copy the hash from the last line, and rebuild! Then if in the future something happens to the files, you’ll know. Another interesting input is propagatedBuildInputs. These are simply the dependencies of the {housing} package. To find them, see the Imports: section of the DESCRIPTION file. There’s also the fetchFromGithub fetcher that I could have used, but unlike fetchgit, it is not possible to specify the branch name we want to use. Since here I wanted to get the code from the branch called fusen, I had to use fetchgit. The last thing I want to explain is the very first line:

{ pkgs ? import (fetchTarball "") {} }:

In particular the url. This url points to a specific release of nixpkgs, that ships the required version of R for this project, R version 4.2.2. How did I find this release of nixpkgs? There’s a handy service for that here. So using this service, I get the right commit hash for the release that install R version 4.2.2.

Ok, but before building the environment defined by this file, let me just say that I know what you’re thinking. Probably something along the lines of: damn it Bruno, this looks complicated and why should I care? Let me just use {renv}!! and I’m not going to lie, writing the above file from scratch didn’t take me long in typing, but it took me long in reading. I had to read quite a lot (look at part 1 for some nice references) before being comfortable enough to write it. But I’ll just say this:

  • continue reading, because I hope to convince you that Nix is really worth the effort
  • I’m working on a package that will help R users generate default.nix files like the one from above with minimal effort (more on this at the end of the blog post)

If you’re following along, instead of typing this file, you can clone this repository. This repository contains the default.nix file from above, and a {targets} pipeline that I will run in that environment.

Ok, so now let’s build the environment by running nix-build inside a terminal in the folder that contains this file. It should take a bit of time, because many of the packages will need to be built from source. But they will get built. Then, you can drop into a Nix shell using nix-shell and then type R, which will start the R session in that environment. You can then simply run targets::tar_make(), and you’ll see the file analyse.html appear, which is the output of the {targets} pipeline.

Before continuing, let me just make you realize three things:

  • we just ran a targets pipeline with all the needed dependencies which include not only package dependencies, but the right version of R (version 4.2.2) as well, and all required system dependencies;
  • we did so WITHOUT using any containerization tool like Docker;
  • the whole thing is completely reproducible; the exact same packages will forever be installed, regardless of when we build this environment, because I’m using a particular release of nixpkgs (8ad5e8132c5dcf977e308e7bf5517cc6cc0bf7d8) so each piece of software this release of Nix installs is going to stay constant.

And I need to stress completely reproducible. Because using {renv}+Docker, while providing a very nice solution, still has some issues. First of all, with Docker, the underlying operating system (often Ubuntu) evolves and changes through time. So lower level dependencies might change. And at some point in the future, that version of Ubuntu will not be supported anymore. So it won’t be possible to rebuild the image, because it won’t be possible to download any software into it. So either we build our Docker image and really need to make sure to keep it forever, or we need to port our pipeline to newer versions of Ubuntu, without any guarantee that it’s going to work exactly the same. Also, by defining Dockerfiles that build upon Dockerfiles that build upon Dockerfiles, it’s difficult to know what is actually installed in a particular image. This situation can of course be avoided by writing Dockerfiles in such a way that it doesn’t rely on any other Dockerfile, but that’s also a lot of effort. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Docker should be canceled. I still think that it has its place and that its perfectly fine to use it (I’ll take a project that uses {renv}+Docker any day over one that doesn’t!). But you should be aware of alternative ways of running pipelines in a reproducible way, and Nix is such a way.

Going back to our pipeline, we could also run the pipeline with this command:

nix-shell /path/to/default.nix --run "Rscript -e 'setwd(\"/path/to\");targets::tar_make()'"

but it’s a bit of a mouthful. What you could do instead is running the pipeline each time you drop into the nix shell by adding a so-called shellHook. For this, we need to change the default.nix file again. Add these lines in the mkShell function:

mkShell {
  buildInputs = [my-pkgs];
  shellHook = ''
     Rscript -e "targets::tar_make()"

Now, each time you drop into the Nix shell in the folder containing that default.nix file, targets::tar_make() get automatically executed. You can then inspect the results.

In the next blog post, I’ll show how we can use that environment with IDEs like RStudio, VS Code and Emacs to work interactively. But first, let me quickly talk about a package I’ve been working on to ease the process of writing default.nix files.

Rix: Reproducible Environments with Nix

I wrote a very early, experimental package called {rix} which will help write these default.nix files for us. {rix} is an R package that hopefully will make R users want to try out Nix for their development purposes. It aims to mimic the workflow of {renv}, or to be more exact, the workflow of what Python users do when starting a new project. Usually what they do is create a completely fresh environment using pyenv (or another similar tool). Using pyenv, Python developers can install a per project version of Python and Python packages, but unlike Nix, won’t install system-level dependencies as well.

If you want to install {rix}, run the following line in an R session:


You can then using the rix() function to create a default.nix file like so:

rix::rix(r_ver = "current",
         pkgs = c("dplyr", "janitor"),
         ide = "rstudio",
         path = ".")

This will create a default.nix file that Nix can use to build an environment that includes the current versions of R, {dplyr} and {janitor}, and RStudio as well. Yes you read that right: you need to have a per-project RStudio installation. The reason is that RStudio modifies environment variables and so your “locally” installed RStudio would not find the R version installed with Nix. This is not the case with other IDEs like VS Code or Emacs. If you want to have an environment with another version of R, simply run:

rix::rix(r_ver = "4.2.1",
         pkgs = c("dplyr", "janitor"),
         ide = "rstudio",
         path = ".")

and you’ll get an environment with R version 4.2.1. To see which versions are available, you can run rix::available_r(). Learn more about {rix} on its website. It’s in very early stages, and doesn’t handle packages that have only been released on Github, yet. And the interface might change. I’m thinking of making it possible to list the packages in a yaml file and then have rix() generate the default.nix file from the yaml file. This might be cleaner. There is already something like this called Nixml, so maybe I don’t even need to rewrite anything!

But I’ll discuss this is more detail next time, where I’ll explain how you can use development environments built with Nix using an IDE.


Hope you enjoyed! If you found this blog post useful, you might want to follow me on Mastodon or twitter for blog post updates and buy me an espresso or, or buy my ebooks. You can also watch my videos on youtube. So much content for you to consoom!

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