Abhinav's Notes

Just, Nix Shell and Podman are a Killer Combo

Let’s say, for some unclear reasons, you need to compile the “Hello World” C program using a variety of C compilers.

#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
    printf("Hello World");
    return 0;

Let’s also say that your dev machine is a MacBook, and some of these C compilers run only on Linux.

Let’s start with Clang. Clang is the default C compiler on macOS, and you probably have it already installed. Let such be the case, and you compile hello.c by running:

clang -o hello-clang hello.c

Well and good. But you don’t want to be typing all that every time you need to compile (your unusual circumstances compell you to compile the file again and again). So you put it in a justfile:

    clang -o hello-clang hello.c

Great! Now you use Just, a modern command runner, to run Clang, like so:

just build-clang

Just when you think you troubles are over, you remember that you need to compile the file using GCC as well. macOS does not come with GCC installed, and now you need to figure out how to install it and its dependencies. You can Homebrew that stuff, but you know better.

Enter Nix. Nix is a lot of things, but for the purpose of this post, it is a way to easily create reproducible development environments. So after installing Nix, you quickly put together the shell.nix file that gathers your dependencies, and makes them present your shell’s $PATH:

with (import <nixpkgs> { });
mkShell {
  buildInputs = [ just gcc ];

Next, you expand the justfile so that it compiles hello.c with GCC:

in_nix_shell := env_var_or_default("IN_NIX_SHELL", "false")
root_dir := justfile_directory()

_run-in-nix-shell cmd *args:
    #!/usr/bin/env -S sh -eu
    if [ "{{ in_nix_shell }}" = "false" ]; then
        nix-shell "shell.nix" --run "just \"{{ root_dir }}/{{ cmd }}\" {{ args }}"
        just "{{ root_dir }}/{{ cmd }}" {{ args }}

    gcc -o hello-gcc hello.c

build-gcc: (_run-in-nix-shell "_build-gcc")

With this setup, you compile hello.c with GCC by running:

just build-gcc

The _run-in-nix-shell Just command takes care of automatically starting the nix-shell if required. nix-shell downloads GCC and its dependencies for you, and sets them up correctly, so that you don’t have to care about a thing in the world.

Except one thing: now you also need to compile hello.c with TinyCC, and for some bizzare reasons, it so happens that TinyCC runs only on Linux, and not on macOS. You can spin up a Docker container, but again, you know better.

You decide to use Podman.

First you alter shell.nix to set up Podman et al., and TinyCC:

with (import <nixpkgs> { });
mkShell {
  buildInputs =
    # packages available on both linux and macos
    [ just gcc ]
    # packages available only on linux
    ++ (lib.optionals stdenv.isLinux [ tinycc ])
    # macos tooling to run linux packages
    ++ (lib.optionals stdenv.isDarwin [ podman qemu ]);

Then you write the Just commands to create and operate a Podman container:

container_name := "demo"

    podman machine init --cpus 12 --memory 8192 --disk-size 50 \
      --volume $HOME:$HOME || true

_start-vm: _create-vm
    podman machine start || true

    podman machine stop

_create-container: _start-vm
    podman container ls -a | grep {{ container_name }} > /dev/null || \
        podman create -t --name {{ container_name }} -w /workdir \
            -v {{ root_dir }}:/workdir nixos/nix

_start: _create-container
    podman start {{ container_name }}

_stop: && _stop-vm
    podman stop {{ container_name }} || true

And the helper commands to run Just commands in the Podman container:

_podman-exec cmd *args: _start && _stop
    podman exec -it {{ container_name }} nix-shell \
      --command "just {{ cmd }} {{ args }}"

_run-in-podman cmd *args:
    #!/usr/bin/env -S sh -eu
    if [ "{{ os() }}" = "macos" ]; then
        just _podman-exec "{{ cmd }}" {{ args }}
        just "{{ cmd }}" {{ args }}


And finally, the commands to run TinyCC on hello.c:

    tcc -o hello-tcc hello.c

_build-tcc: (_run-in-podman "__build-tcc")

build-tcc: (_run-in-nix-shell "_build-tcc")

Finally, you compile hello.c with TinyCC by running:

just build-tcc

You watch in amazement as Nix downloads Podman and QEMU, Just sets up and runs the container, Nix downloads TinyCC within the container, and TinyCC finally compiles the file. Everything cleans up afterwards, and you are left with a hello-tcc binary file in your directory, which you cannot run because it was compiled on Linux, and you are on macOS. But whatever. You job was to compile, not to run. You pack up your laptop, move to the living room, and open it again to browse Reddit. A day well spent.

Bonus tip

This justfile runs fine on a Linux machine as well, except the build-clang command. Also, if you have Just installed at the OS level, you can run Just commands from other directories as well, like this:

just ~/Projects/just-nix-podman-demo/build-tcc

And everything will Just Work.


The use-case described in this post is a rather trivial and contrived example, but this pattern has served me well in real-world use-cases.