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Aug 31, 2023 by Eelco Dolstra

Flake schemas: making flake outputs extensible

Flakes are a generic way to package Nix artifacts. Flake output attributes are arbitrary Nix values, so they can be packages, NixOS modules, CI jobs, and so on. While there are a number of “well-known” flake output types that are recognized by tools like the nix CLInix develop, for example, operates on the devShells output—nothing prevents you from defining your own flake output types.

Unfortunately, such “non-standard” flake output types have a big problem: tools like nix flake show and nix flake check don’t know anything about them, so they can’t display or check anything about those outputs. The nixpkgs flake, for instance, has a lib output that Nix knows nothing about:

# nix flake show nixpkgs
└───lib: unknown

This was a problem when we were creating FlakeHub: the FlakeHub web interface should be able to display the contents of a flake, including documentation, but we want to do so in an extensible way.

Today we’re proposing a solution to this problem: flake schemas. Flake schemas enable flakes to declare functions that enumerate and check the contents of their outputs. Schemas themselves are defined as a flake output named schemas. Tools like nix flake check and FlakeHub can then use these schemas to display or check the contents of flakes in a generic way.

In this approach, flakes carry their own schema definitions, so you are not dependent on some central registry of schema definitions—you define what your flake outputs are supposed to look like.

Here is an example of what the outputs of a flake, extracted using that flake’s schemas, look like in FlakeHub:

FlakeHub showing flake outputs extracted via flake schemas
FlakeHub showing flake outputs extracted via flake schemas

Using flake schemas #

While you can define your own schema definition (see below), usually you would use schema definitions provided by others. We provide a repository named flake-schemas with schemas for the most widely used flake outputs (the ones for which Nix has built-in support).

Declaring what schemas to use is easy: you just define a schemas output.

  # `flake-schemas` is a flake that provides schemas for commonly used flake outputs,
  # like `packages` and `devShells`.
  inputs.flake-schemas.url = github:DeterminateSystems/flake-schemas;

  # Another flake that provides schemas.
  inputs.other-schemas.url = ...;

  outputs = { self, flake-schemas, other-schemas }: {
    # Tell Nix what schemas to use.
    schemas = flake-schemas.schemas // other-schemas.schemas;

    # These flake outputs will now be checked using the schemas above.
    packages = ...;
    devShells = ...;

Defining your own schemas #

With schemas, we can now teach Nix about the lib output mentioned previously. Below is a flake that has a lib output. Similar to lib in Nixpkgs, it has a nested structure (e.g. it provides a function lists.singleton). The flake also has a schemas.lib attribute that tells Nix two things:

  1. How to list the contents of the lib output.
  2. To check that every function name follows the camelCase naming convention.
  outputs = { self }: {

    schemas.lib = {
      version = 1;
      doc = ''
        The `lib` flake output defines Nix functions.
      inventory = output:
          recurse = attrs: {
            children = builtins.mapAttrs (attrName: attr:
              if builtins.isFunction attr
                  # Tell `nix flake show` what this is.
                  what = "library function";
                  # Make `nix flake check` enforce our naming convention.
                  evalChecks.camelCase = builtins.match "^[a-z][a-zA-Z]*$" attrName == [];
              else if builtins.isAttrs attr
                # Recurse into nested sets of functions.
                recurse attr
                throw "unsupported 'lib' type")
        in recurse output;
    }; = x: x;
    lib.const = x: y: x;
    lib.lists.singleton = x: [x];
    #lib.ConcatStrings = ...; # disallowed

With this schema, nix flake show can now show information about lib:

# nix flake show
    ├───const: library function
    ├───id: library function
        └───singleton: library function

While nix flake check will now complain if we add a function that violates the naming convention we defined:

# nix flake check
warning: Evaluation check 'camelCase' of flake output attribute 'lib.ConcatStrings' failed.

For more information on how to write schema definitions, see the Nix documentation.

Find out more about how Determinate Systems is transforming the developer experience with Nix flakes

What schemas are not #

Flake schemas are not a type system for Nix, since that would be a huge project. They merely provide an interface that enables users to tell Nix how to enumerate and check flake outputs. For instance, for a NixOS configuration, this means using the module system to check that the configuration evaluates correctly; for a Nix package, it just means that the output attribute evaluates to a derivation.

Next steps #

Flake schemas are new, and they’re a valuable expansion of the user experience of FlakeHub and Nix flakes in general. We believe that incorporating schemas into Nix itself will make flakes more broadly valuable and cover use cases that we haven’t yet imagined. We’re looking for input from the community to see whether the current schema design covers all use cases. We’ve submitted a pull request to the Nix project that adds schema support to nix flake show and nix flake check. Please take a look!

As future work, schemas will enable us to finally make flakes configurable in a discoverable way: flake schemas can return the configuration options supported by a flake output—for the nixosConfigurations output, for example, these would be all the NixOS options—and then the Nix CLI can enable users to override options from the command line.

Conclusion #

Flake schemas solve a long-standing problem with flakes: the fact that Nix currently has built-in support for a only small set of output types, which made those outputs more equal than others. With schemas, all flake output types are on an equal footing.

Avatar for Eelco Dolstra
Written by Eelco Dolstra

Eelco started the Nix project as a PhD student at Utrecht University. He serves as president of the NixOS Foundation and is a member of the Nix team.