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Modularize Your NixOS Configuration

At this point, the skeleton of the entire system is configured. The current configuration structure in /etc/nixos should be as follows:

$ tree
├── flake.lock
├── flake.nix
├── home.nix
└── configuration.nix

The functions of these four files are:

  • flake.lock: An automatically generated version-lock file that records all input sources, hash values, and version numbers of the entire flake to ensure reproducibility.
  • flake.nix: The entry file that will be recognized and deployed when executing sudo nixos-rebuild switch. See Flakes - NixOS Wiki for all options of flake.nix.
  • configuration.nix: Imported as a Nix module in flake.nix, all system-level configuration is currently written here. See Configuration - NixOS Manual for all options of configuration.nix.
  • home.nix: Imported by Home-Manager as the configuration of the user ryan in flake.nix, containing all of ryan's configuration and managing ryan's home folder. See Appendix A. Configuration Options - Home-Manager for all options of home.nix.

By modifying these files, you can declaratively change the system and home directory status.

However, as the configuration grows, relying solely on configuration.nix and home.nix can lead to bloated and difficult-to-maintain files. A better solution is to use the Nix module system to split the configuration into multiple Nix modules and write them in a classified manner.

The Nix module system provides a parameter, imports, which accepts a list of .nix files and merges all the configuration defined in these files into the current Nix module. Note that imports will not simply overwrite duplicate configuration but handle it more reasonably. For example, if program.packages = [...] is defined in multiple modules, then imports will merge all program.packages defined in all Nix modules into one list. Attribute sets can also be merged correctly. The specific behavior can be explored by yourself.

I only found a description of imports in Nixpkgs-Unstable Official Manual - evalModules Parameters: A list of modules. These are merged together to form the final configuration. It's a bit ambiguous...

With the help of imports, we can split home.nix and configuration.nix into multiple Nix modules defined in different .nix files. Lets look at an example module packages.nix:

}: {
  imports = [
    (import ./special-fonts-1.nix {inherit config pkgs;}) # (1)
    ./special-fonts-2.nix # (2)

  fontconfig.enable = true;

This modules loads two other modules in the imports section, namely special-fonts-1.nix and special-fonts-2.nix. Both files are modules them self and look similar to this.

{ config, pkgs, ...}: {
    # Configuration stuff ...

Both import statements above are equivalent in the parameters they receive:

  • Statement (1) imports the function in special-fonts-1.nix and calls it by passing {config = config; pkgs = pkgs}. Basically using the return value of the call (another partial configuration [attritbute set]) inside the imports list.

  • Statement (2) defines a path to a module, whose function Nix will load automatically when assembling the configuration config. It will pass all matching arguments from the function in packages.nix to the loaded function in special-fonts-2.nix which results in import ./special-fonts-2.nix {config = config; pkgs = pkgs}.

Here is a nice starter example of modularizing the configuration, Highly recommended:

A more complicated example, ryan4yin/nix-config/i3-kickstarter is the configuration of my previous NixOS system with the i3 window manager. Its structure is as follows:

├── flake.lock
├── flake.nix
├── home
   ├── default.nix         # here we import all submodules by imports = [...]
   ├── fcitx5              # fcitx5 input method's configuration
   ├── default.nix
   └── rime-data-flypy
   ├── i3                  # i3 window manager's configuration
   ├── config
   ├── default.nix
   ├── i3blocks.conf
   ├── keybindings
   └── scripts
   ├── programs
   ├── browsers.nix
   ├── common.nix
   ├── default.nix   # here we import all modules in programs folder by imports = [...]
   ├── git.nix
   ├── media.nix
   ├── vscode.nix
   └── xdg.nix
   ├── rofi              #  rofi launcher's configuration
   ├── configs
   ├── arc_dark_colors.rasi
   ├── arc_dark_transparent_colors.rasi
   ├── power-profiles.rasi
   ├── powermenu.rasi
   ├── rofidmenu.rasi
   └── rofikeyhint.rasi
   └── default.nix
   └── shell             # shell/terminal related configuration
       ├── common.nix
       ├── default.nix
       ├── nushell
   ├── default.nix
       ├── starship.nix
       └── terminals.nix
├── hosts
   ├── msi-rtx4090      # My main machine's configuration
   ├── default.nix  # This is the old configuration.nix, but most of the content has been split out to modules.
   └── hardware-configuration.nix  # hardware & disk related configuration, autogenerated by nixos
   └── nixos-test       # my test machine's configuration
       ├── default.nix
       └── hardware-configuration.nix
├── modules          # some common NixOS modules that can be reused
   ├── i3.nix
   └── system.nix
└── wallpaper.jpg    # wallpaper

There is no need to follow the above structure, you can organize your configuration in any way you like. The key is to use imports to import all the submodules into the main module.

lib.mkOverride, lib.mkDefault, and lib.mkForce

In Nix, some people use lib.mkDefault and lib.mkForce to define values. These functions are designed to set default values or force values of options.

You can explore the source code of lib.mkDefault and lib.mkForce by running nix repl -f '<nixpkgs>' and then entering :e lib.mkDefault. To learn more about nix repl, type :? for the help information.

Here's the source code:

  # ......

  mkOverride = priority: content:
    { _type = "override";
      inherit priority content;

  mkOptionDefault = mkOverride 1500; # priority of option defaults
  mkDefault = mkOverride 1000; # used in config sections of non-user modules to set a default
  mkImageMediaOverride = mkOverride 60; # image media profiles can be derived by inclusion into host config, hence needing to override host config, but do allow user to mkForce
  mkForce = mkOverride 50;
  mkVMOverride = mkOverride 10; # used by ‘nixos-rebuild build-vm’

  # ......

In summary, lib.mkDefault is used to set default values of options with a priority of 1000 internally, and lib.mkForce is used to force values of options with a priority of 50 internally. If you set a value of an option directly, it will be set with a default priority of 1000, the same as lib.mkDefault.

The lower the priority value, the higher the actual priority. As a result, lib.mkForce has a higher priority than lib.mkDefault. If you define multiple values with the same priority, Nix will throw an error.

Using these functions can be very helpful for modularizing the configuration. You can set default values in a low-level module (base module) and force values in a high-level module.

For example, in my configuration at ryan4yin/nix-config/blob/c515ea9/modules/nixos/core-server.nix, I define default values like this:

{ lib, pkgs, ... }:

  # ......

  nixpkgs.config.allowUnfree = lib.mkDefault false;

  # ......

Then, for my desktop machine, I override the value in ryan4yin/nix-config/blob/c515ea9/modules/nixos/core-desktop.nix like this:

{ lib, pkgs, ... }:

  # import the base module
  imports = [

  # override the default value defined in the base module
  nixpkgs.config.allowUnfree = lib.mkForce true;

  # ......

lib.mkOrder, lib.mkBefore, and lib.mkAfter

In addition to lib.mkDefault and lib.mkForce, there are also lib.mkBefore and lib.mkAfter, which are used to set the merge order of list-type options. These functions further contribute to the modularization of the configuration.

As mentioned earlier, when you define multiple values with the same override priority, Nix will throw an error. However, by using lib.mkOrder, lib.mkBefore, or lib.mkAfter, you can define multiple values with the same override priority, and they will be merged in the order you specify.

To examine the source code of lib.mkBefore, you can run nix repl -f '<nixpkgs>' and then enter :e lib.mkBefore. To learn more about nix repl, type :? for the help information:

  # ......

  mkOrder = priority: content:
    { _type = "order";
      inherit priority content;

  mkBefore = mkOrder 500;
  mkAfter = mkOrder 1500;

  # The default priority for things that don't have a priority specified.
  defaultPriority = 100;

  # ......

Therefore, lib.mkBefore is a shorthand for lib.mkOrder 500, and lib.mkAfter is a shorthand for lib.mkOrder 1500.

To test the usage of lib.mkBefore and lib.mkAfter, let's create a simple Flake project:

# Create flake.nix with the following content
 cat <<EOF | sudo tee flake.nix
  description = "Ryan's NixOS Flake";

  inputs = {
    nixpkgs.url = "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/nixos-23.11";

  outputs = { self, nixpkgs, ... }@inputs: {
    nixosConfigurations = {
      "nixos-test" = nixpkgs.lib.nixosSystem {
        system = "x86_64-linux";

        modules = [
          # Demo module 1: insert 'git' at the head of the list
          ({lib, pkgs, ...}: {
            environment.systemPackages = lib.mkBefore [pkgs.git];

          # Demo module 2: insert 'vim' at the tail of the list
          ({lib, pkgs, ...}: {
            environment.systemPackages = lib.mkAfter [pkgs.vim];

          # Demo module 3: simply add 'curl' to the list
          ({lib, pkgs, ...}: {
            environment.systemPackages = with pkgs; [curl];

# Create flake.lock
 nix flake update

# Enter the nix repl environment
 nix repl
Welcome to Nix 2.13.3. Type :? for help.

# Load the flake we just created
nix-repl> :lf .
Added 9 variables.

# Check the order of systemPackages
nix-repl> outputs.nixosConfigurations.nixos-test.config.environment.systemPackages
[ «derivation /nix/store/0xvn7ssrwa0ax646gl4hwn8cpi05zl9j-git-2.40.1.drv»
  «derivation /nix/store/7x8qmbvfai68sf73zq9szs5q78mc0kny-curl-8.1.1.drv»
  «derivation /nix/store/bly81l03kh0dfly9ix2ysps6kyn1hrjl-nixos-container.drv»
  «derivation /nix/store/qpmpv

q5azka70lvamsca4g4sf55j8994-vim-9.0.1441.drv» ]

As you can see, the order of systemPackages is git -> curl -> default packages -> vim, which matches the order we defined in flake.nix.

Although adjusting the order of systemPackages may not be useful in practice, it can be helpful in other scenarios.


Released under the MIT License.