Guix for development

September 23, 2022

This wonderful article by Marius Bakke (thanks for using Haunt btw!) about guix shell hit the orange website front page recently. I left a comment to the effect of “hell yeah I use it for all my projects!” and someone asked me for an example of what I do. I sent them some links but I thought hey, this could be a blog post and I haven't written one of those in years!

The tl;dr is that Guix is a fantastic developer productivity tool that can easily automate development environment creation and pre-release build testing and you should give it a try but if you like what you already use then that's fine, too.

There's gotta be a better way!

This is the “Are you tired of this?” part of the infomercial. Read the next few paragraphs and picture me, in black and white, struggling to hold a large stack of boxes, all labeled “software.” I continue struggling to balance the boxes as you read. When you've reached the last paragraph of the section, I fall over, the boxes land on top of me and all over the floor, I'm covered in spaghetti, and in an exasperated voice I shout “There's gotta be a better way!”

When setting up a new computer for software development, I want to go from git clone to make in as little time as possible (adjust that for your VCS and build system of choice.) In the old days, this meant manually installing the dependencies through the distro package manager. If things are organized, the project README will have a list of what is needed and it's not so bad. If things are less organized, it's a cycle of installing packages and running ./configure or whatever until it succeeds. Hopefully none of the dependencies are too new to be found in the distro. And when working on multiple projects, hopefully there's no conflicts between the dependencies required for each of them, because your development environment is the entire system and there's no way to isolate different projects from each other.

Of course, different programming languages provide their own sets of tools for managing multiple projects. Python has virtualenv, Ruby has rvm and bundler, Node has nvm and npm, etc. But their domain is restricted to only the dependencies for that language and their runtimes. A system package manager is needed to bootstrap their use.

Nowadays it's “just use Docker.” Docker's take is that all this package management stuff is just too complicated. Instead, just create a disk image per project that encapsulates this hodgepodge of package managers and bespoke, artisinal, small-batch builds that gets run in isolation via Linux namespace magic. It works, of course, but I think Dockerfiles are clunky and the rather extreme level of isolation is usually unnecessary and makes things overly complicated for projects that need to interact with, say, the windowing system of the host computer. A lot of people are happy with Docker, though. Maybe you are, too. That's fine!

What I really want to say is “Computer, provision a development environment containing Guile 3, SDL2, make, and texinfo!” and have Majel Barrett-Roddenberry tell me that all of those things have been made available to me on my host system. No container, no virtual machine. It shouldn't matter if I have Guile 2 installed system-wide, Guile 3 should still be what's used in the context of the project. This is how Guix works and it's very good and cool and I'm going to tell you all about how I use it.

Two easy payments and one complicated payment

Guix is a general-purpose package manager that can be used on top of any distro and also it is a distro. I use it both on Ubuntu and as a standalone distro. It takes a few minutes to install on top of an existing distro but once it's there the magic begins. Software installed with Guix is not installed globally (/usr), which allows it to act like a virtualenv for everything. Guix provides the guix shell tool for creating temporary environments with an arbitrary set of software inside.

Let's start with a real world example. Here's how to build Guile's SDL2 bindings from a Git checkout using Guix:

git clone
cd guile-sdl2
echo $PWD >> $HOME/.config/guix/shell-authorized-directories
guix shell

Looks pretty straightforward except for that third line, which whitelists the project directory as a place that guix shell can be used for security reasons (though I think the potential risk is not worth this extra step that I'm now burdened with explaining!) I don't have to look at a README to know what software I need to install. The project is pre-configured to work with Guix and the software it installs does not affect the whole system.

So what's happening? Well, guix shell automatically searches the current directory for a guix.scm file and loads it. Inside that file is all the information needed to construct an environment that can build the source code:

(use-modules (guix git)
             (guix packages)
             (guix licenses)
             (guix build-system gnu)
             (gnu packages)
             (gnu packages autotools)
             (gnu packages guile)
             (gnu packages pkg-config)
             (gnu packages sdl)
             (gnu packages texinfo))

  (name "guile-sdl2")
  (version "0.7.0")
  (source (git-checkout (url (dirname (current-filename)))))
  (build-system gnu-build-system)
   '(#:make-flags '("GUILE_AUTO_COMPILE=0")
     (modify-phases %standard-phases
       (add-after 'unpack 'bootstrap
         (lambda _ (invoke "sh" "bootstrap"))))))
  (native-inputs (list autoconf automake pkg-config texinfo))
  (inputs (list guile-3.0-latest sdl2 sdl2-image sdl2-mixer sdl2-ttf))
  (synopsis "Guile bindings for SDL2")
  (description "Guile-SDL2 provides pure Guile Scheme bindings to the SDL2 C shared
library via the foreign function interface.")
  (home-page "")
  (license lgpl3+))

This is what's known as “configuration as code” and it looks kinda like a package.json (not code) or a .gemspec (code) file. guix.scm contains not just inert data, but a small Scheme program that returns a Guix package. guix shell sees to it that all of the dependencies (listed in the inputs and native-inputs sections) are available within the shell session it creates by downloading (or building, if necessary) the entire dependency tree. Going back to the earlier example, ./configure and make run in the context of that new shell session and are thus able to complete successfully.

Should you want/need more isolation from the host system, guix shell has you covered. The --pure flag will clear out most existing environments variables, such as $PATH, so that the resulting environment does not contain pointers to places like /usr. For more Docker-like isolation, the --container flag can be used, which will run the new shell session within a set of Linux namespaces so that the host system is inaccessible. I rarely use either flag.

guix shell runs pretty fast after it downloads all the required software the first time, and it can be run non-interactively, so it's pretty handy to use in scripts. It can even be used with direnv by adding this to .envrc:

eval $(guix shell --search-paths)

I'm an Emacs user, so I want to integrate guix shell there, as well. Turns out that's pretty easy via the emacs-direnv extension. With direnv-mode enabled, I can run M-x compile, enter make as the compilation command, and build my project from within Emacs using the environment built by guix shell. Pretty fancy! Thanks to Andrew Whatson for teaching me about this.

The same guix.scm file can be used with more than just guix shell. For example, guix build -f guix.scm will build the project from scratch outside of your project directory, which could reveal issues like forgetting to commit a new file (something I've done too many times.) guix package -f guix.scm will build and install the package, which could be used to confirm that a “real” build works the same as the version in the development environment.

Supplies are limited, order today!

I hope this helps someone out there considering a Guix-based development workflow or is just wondering what the deal is. I haven't come across too many people in this wild world that use guix shell the same way I do, so part of the motivation behind this post is an attempt to get more Guix users to adopt this pattern.

Oh and finally I should say that I'm not trying to convince anyone to give up what works for them, be it Docker, Nix, or whatever else. I don't think anyone is “doing it wrong.” Use what makes you feel productive and hack the good hack. This is just how I do it.