Web Development Environment on Specified Version of NodeJS, with Nix

The nix-shell recipie for web developers

The Goal

Web development was fun but setting up the environment can sometimes be tedious because you might need multiple versions of NodeJS installed (hint: not all npm packages are compatible with all versions of NodeJS). Many developers uses nvm to manage their NodeJS versions, and it works great.

However, since we are NixOS fans and Nix itself is a great package management tool, we would like to use it to manage our web development environment as well.

This article is designed as a tutorial to not only show you the final configuration, but also how to get ther step by step so that you learn some tricks along the way.

Start From A Simple shell.nix

The tool that we will be using today is called nix-shell . If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend Nix Pill ’s chapter on this topic. In one sentence, nix-shell can be used to setup an environment where your packages of choice are installed and read-to-use, without touching your main environment.

Let’s start with a simple shell.nix that gives you NodeJS.

shell.nix

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> {};

in pkgs.mkShell rec {
  name = "webdev";
  
  buildInputs = with pkgs; [
    nodejs yarn
  ];
}    

By calling nix-shell on this shell.nix, you get into a new shell environment with NodeJS (and yarn ) installed. You can easily verify this by

$ node --version
v12.13.0

It gives me v12.13.0 of NodeJS because I am currently running NixOS 19.09 and this is the default version of NodeJS in it.

NodeJS 10.x Instead

Everything works fine until we need a NodeJS older than v12.13.0. In this case, if the version you want is v10.x, you are lucky because <nixpkgs> has already packaged that for you. Instead of nodejs, you specify explicity nodejs-10_x in your shell.nix.

shell.nix

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> {};

in pkgs.mkShell rec {
  name = "webdev";
  
  buildInputs = with pkgs; [
    nodejs-10_x 
    (yarn.override { nodejs = nodejs-10_x })
  ];
}    

Oh and if you are using yarn like we do, you need to override the NodeJS package it uses with yarn.override so that it’d play nicely with the older version of NodeJS. The default yarn uses the current version of NodeJS in <nixpkgs>.

NodeJS, Your OWN Version

The curse of version rises again when some old repo requires v8.x of NodeJS. Unfortunately this version is so old that even <nixpkgs> does not have it (to be fair, it once has nodejs-8_x, but the package has been dropped since not long ago).

This is not the end of the world, because as proud NixOS users, we can always build the package by ourselves. Let’s first take a look at how v12.x and v10.x are built in <nixpkgs>, and it turns out that they are really simple (v10.x as an example):

nixpkgs/pkgs/development/web/nodejs/v10.nix

{ callPackage, openssl, enableNpm ? true }:

let
  buildNodejs = callPackage ./nodejs.nix { inherit openssl; };
in
  buildNodejs {
    inherit enableNpm;
    version = "10.17.0";
    sha256 = "13n5cvb340ba7vwm8il7bjrmpz89h6cibhk9rc3kq9ymdgbnf9j1";
  }

All thanks to the this buildNodejs helper function. This is the key to make it possible to build any version of NodeJS.

The first step is to find buildNodejs because it is not exposed directly via <nixpkgs>. The above code shows that it is in the file pkgs/development/web/nodejs/nodejs.nix, which is a relative path w.r.t. <nixpkgs>. By calling callPackage on it (it is not necessary but highly recommended to understand how callPackage works via another Nix Pill).

As Lily Ballard has pointed out, below is the best syntax to callPackage such file.

buildNodejs = callPackage <nixpkgs/pkgs/development/web/nodejs/nodejs.nix> {};

This makes building shell.nix for v8.x as simple as

shell.nix

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> {};

    buildNodejs = pkgs.callPackage <nixpkgs/pkgs/development/web/nodejs/nodejs.nix> {};
    
    nodejs-8 = buildNodejs {
      enableNpm = true;  # We need npm, do we?
      version = "8.17.0";
      sha256 = "1zzn7s9wpz1cr4vzrr8n6l1mvg6gdvcfm6f24h1ky9rb93drc3av";
    };

in pkgs.mkShell rec {
  name = "webdev";
  
  buildInputs = with pkgs; [
    nodejs-8
    (yarn.override { nodejs = nodejs-8; })
  ];
}    

As an usual practice, we need to get the sha256 for the tarball of NodeJS. In worst case, You can build it once and wait for the error message to tell you the correct sha256.

Bring Them All

To be able to switch between multiple versions of NodeJS, the above shell.nix can be extended to include multiple version and the user can set nodejs-current to whichever is needed.

shell.nix

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> {};

    buildNodejs = pkgs.callPackage <nixpkgs/pkgs/development/web/nodejs/nodejs.nix> {};

    nodejs-12 = buildNodejs {
      enableNpm = true;
      version = "12.13.0";
      sha256 = "1xmy73q3qjmy68glqxmfrk6baqk655py0cic22h1h0v7rx0iaax8";
    };

    nodejs-10 = buildNodejs {
      enableNpm = true;
      version = "10.19.0";
      sha256 = "0sginvcsf7lrlzsnpahj4bj1f673wfvby8kaxgvzlrbb7sy229v2";
    };

    nodejs-8 = buildNodejs {
      enableNpm = true;
      version = "8.17.0";
      sha256 = "1zzn7s9wpz1cr4vzrr8n6l1mvg6gdvcfm6f24h1ky9rb93drc3av";
    };

    nodejs-current = nodejs-12;

in pkgs.mkShell rec {
  name = "webdev";
  
  buildInputs = with pkgs; [
    nodejs-current
    (yarn.override { nodejs = nodejs-current; })
  ];
}

And you can find the full source code that we actually use here . If you are also looking into have a determinsitic web development environment, we hope this tiny tutortial helps.

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Break Yang
Automate Things

I am a software engineer by trade, working on automating things (e.g. cars). I spent my school years studying Math, Control, Economics and Computer Vision.

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