NobbZ' Blog

<tt>callPackage</tt>, a tool for the lazy

A cat sleeping under a blanket
2022-09-17; Norbert Melzer

Kate Stone Matheson on Unsplash

This post has been released in the summer of nix blog on 2022-09-08. There the article has gone through thorough reviews and a lot of editorial changes such that we decided to release it with the reviewers mentioned as coauthors there.

This article is the original version of that article with only minor changes, mostly typofixes.

In nixpkgs, there is a massive use of the callPackage function, which provides us with a lot of benefits.

Basic examples

Though before even discussing the benefits, lets see how it actually gets used.

Given are these 2 files hello.nix and default.nix:

Usually I would prefer the usage of nix flakes, though that would introduce a lot of boilerplate in the examples for no reason, therefore I will use diamond paths and import for simplicity.

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> {}; in
pkgs.callPackage ./hello.nix {}
writeShellScriptBin "hello" ''
echo "hello, world!"

Building using nix-build will produce ./result/bin/hello, and running it will nicely greet you.

As you can see, writeShellScriptBin gets passed in by callPackage automatically.

For this simple setup, having to create an extra file, seems to be a lot of boilerplate, though if you continue reading, you will see, it is worth it!

1. Benefit: parametrized builds

Now lets change the default.nix:

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { }; in
hello = pkgs.callPackage ./hello.nix { };

Now we build using nix-build -A hello, the outcome will be the same as above.

Now to "parametrize" the build we also change the hello.nix a bit:

{ writeShellScriptBin
, audience ? "world"
writeShellScriptBin "hello" ''
echo "hello, ${audience}!"

Building this will still yield the same output as before, though now things get interesting, alter your default.nix yet another time:

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { }; in
hello = pkgs.callPackage ./hello.nix { };
people = pkgs.callPackage ./hello.nix { audience = "people"; };

Building via nix-build -A people will now yield a script that prints "hello, people" instead.

We can use the very same syntax to also overwrite the automatically discovered arguments like writeShellScriptBin, though that doesn't make sense here.

Though, for a Go program that expects buildGoModule it is common to see some expression like callPackage ./go-program.nix { buildGoModule = buildGo116Module; } to enforce a certain Go compiler version.

2. Benefit: overrides

As a consequence from the parametrized builds, we can also change the value of the parameters after the fact, using the derivations override function.

Consider this new default.nix:

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { }; in
rec {
hello = pkgs.callPackage ./hello.nix { };
people = pkgs.callPackage ./hello.nix { audience = "people"; };
folks = hello.override { audience = "folks"; };

Building and running the folks attribute, will give again a new version of the script.

All the other parameters will remain the same as the have been when hello was instantiated.

This is especially useful and often seen on packages that provide a whole lot of options to optimize the build.

An example to mention here is the neovim attribute in nixpkgs, which has has some overrideable arguments like extraLuaPackages, extraPythonPackages, or withRuby.

3. Benefit: modifiable

And now I want to introduce one of my most favorite benefits:

You can actually create your own version of callPackage, which comes in quite handy when you have large sets where the attributes to be built depend on each other.

In the next examples I will not implement or show the "called" files, as I think they are not necessary to understand the point I want to make.

Consider the following initial version:

let pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { }; in
rec {
a = pkgs.callPackage ./a.nix { };
b = pkgs.callPackage ./b.nix { inherit a; };
c = pkgs.callPackage ./c.nix { inherit b; };
d = pkgs.callPackage ./d.nix { };
e = pkgs.callPackage ./e.nix { inherit c d; };

Here you have to remember passing required arguments that are not in nixpkgs' toplevel manually.

This can become quite tedious quickly, especially the larger the set becomes.

Therefore we can use lib.callPackageWith to create our own callPackage version.

pkgs = import <nixpkgs> { };
callPackage = lib.callPackageWith (pkgs // packages);
packages = {
a = callPackage ./a.nix { };
b = callPackage ./b.nix { };
c = callPackage ./c.nix { };
d = callPackage ./d.nix { };
e = callPackage ./e.nix { };

Our modified callPackage now will exactly "know" how to resolve the dependencies through the set defined by pkgs // packages.

Nix' laziness does us a good favour here and makes this actually possible.


So using callPackage doesn't only make your code uniform to what you see a lot in nixpkgs already, it also gives you some things for free:

  1. parametrized builds
  2. overrideable builds
  3. cleaner implementation of large interdepending package sets

Further reading

There is also callPackages and lib.callPackages which do a pretty similar thing, though they expect that the returnvalue is not a package, but a packageset. Each of the attributes in the returned set will then be overrideable as if you had called callPackage on that.

{ runCommand }:
a = runCommand "a" { } "echo a > $out";
b = runCommand "b" { } "echo b > $out";
$ nix-build -E 'with import <nixpkgs> {}; (callPackages ./callpackages.nix { }).a.override { }'
this derivation will be built:
building '/nix/store/4sjzxijjfamjqgr8237lr638b8qkabnk-a.drv'...
$ nix-build -E 'with import <nixpkgs> {}; (callPackages ./callpackages.nix { }).a.override { runCommand = runCommandCC; }'
this derivation will be built:
building '/nix/store/qj9hg9qiahggi4yk6qsh4wv33jl33f36-a.drv'...

As you can see, 2 different paths have been produced, due to the fact that we replaced the runCommand.