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How to use NixOps in a team

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NixOps is a fantastic tool for getting reproducible servers running in no time. NixOps can deploy to many different targets including VirtualBox, Google’s GCE and Amazon’s cloud services AWS.

As we have discovered NixOps has the downside of storing all its state (such as the IP address of a server) in a binary SQLite database. That in combination with some defaults such as absolute paths make it a bit cumbersome to share deployments. This post describes how to work around these issues.

Defining a server

We’ll define an extremely simple server that doesn’t do anything other than warming this planet:

# network.nix
    region = "eu-west-1";
in rec {
    network.description = "test-network";
    resources.ec2KeyPairs.test-keys = { inherit region; };
    server = { resources, pkgs, lib, ... }: {
        deployment.targetEnv = "ec2";
        deployment.ec2.region = region;
        deployment.ec2.instanceType = "t1.micro";
        deployment.ec2.spotInstancePrice = 7;
        deployment.ec2.keyPair = resources.ec2KeyPairs.test-keys;

Trick 1 and 2: Confining NixOps to a single directory

Our first two tricks are to circumvent the default NixOps-behaviour of using absolute paths (by using angular brackets <...>), and to store the state for our deployment in a local file (by using -s ...):

$ NIX_PATH=${NIX_PATH}:. nixops create -s localstate.nixops -d test '<network.nix>'
created deployment ‘1b699a42-5709-11e5-ad66-542696dce997’

The angular brackets <...> tell the nix command to search for network.nix in the NIX_PATH. And we just set NIX_PATH to point to the current directory.

Using a local state file (-s localstate.nix) means we can check the state into git (more on that later).

Trick 3: Using direnv to simplify

That’s a lot of environment variables and parameters to type. In order to clean up the command invocation we’re using a wonderful tool called direnv which exports environment variables from a .envrc file when entering a directory.

An .envrc for AWS deployment typically looks like this:

export AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY="eexie9Ieeel9XieCThish5..."
export NIX_PATH=${NIX_PATH}:.
export NIXOPS_STATE=localstate.nixops

We can now inspect the test network we just created with nixops info:

$ nixops info
Network name: test
Network UUID: f29084f8-570c-11e5-83af-542696dce997
Network description: test-network
Nix expressions: <network.nix>

And deploy:

$ nixops deploy
test-keys> uploading EC2 key pair ‘charon-f29084f8-570c-11e5-83af-542696dce997-test-keys’...
server...> creating EC2 instance (AMI ‘ami-0126a576’, type ‘t1.micro’, region ‘eu-west-1’)...
server...> waiting for spot instance request ‘sir-01pq1vda’ to be fulfilled... [pending-evaluation] [fulfilled]
server...> cancelling spot instance request ‘sir-01pq1vda’... [request-canceled-and-instance-running]
server...> waiting for IP address... [pending] [running] /
server...> waiting for SSH......

Trick 4: Sharing secrets in git

Keeping AWS keys or any secrets in git unencrypted is a recipe for disaster. Bitcoin miners constantly scan Github for accidental AWS key uploads and will have spent thousands of your $CURRENCY before you can blink. The NixOps state file itself contains SSH root keys, exposing those keys is the same as having the machine owned with a zero day exploit.

Keeping either the statefile or the .envrc with your AWS keys in git unencrypted is grossly negligent. I know this is common knowledge but I prefer to over-communicate on this issue.

We’re using a tool called git-crypt to securely share secrets in a git repository. git-crypt creatively uses the .gitattribute file to encrypt certain files in the repository.

First we initialize git-crypt:

$ git-crypt init
Generating key...
$ git-crypt status
not encrypted: .envrc
not encrypted: localstate.nixops
not encrypted: network.nix

Now we set up the .gitattributes file:

$ cat .gitattributes
localstate.nixops filter=git-crypt
.envrc filter=git-crypt diff=git-crypt

Double-check the encryption works:

$ git-crypt status
    encrypted: .envrc
not encrypted: .gitattributes
    encrypted: localstate.nixops *** WARNING: diff=git-crypt attribute not set ***
not encrypted: network.nix

Note that we didn’t set diff=git-crypt on localstate.nixops because it is a binary SQLite file.

A safer .gitattributes

Keeping encrypted files in many different places in the repository can cause accidental exposure due to human mistakes so we generally have a secrets directory for all the secret things (except for .envrc which needs to stay top-level).

For example:

$ cat .gitattributes
secrets/* filter=git-crypt
.envrc filter=git-crypt diff=git-crypt

Pinning a specific NixOS release

As of Nix 1.9 one can refer to a specific release using HTTP, so we tend to pin our relase like so in the .envrc file to make sure that everyone with the repository references the same set of nix packages:

# .envrc
export NIX_PATH=nixpkgs=https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs-channels/archive/nixos-15.09.tar.gz:.

Downsides of this scheme

  • Many commands like deploy, backup, etc modify the state file, requiring either a commit or the conscious choice to blast away state file changes with git checkout -f if you are sure it’s safe to do so.

  • The SQLite format isn’t easy to diff. I’m sure we could improve the diff using e.g. sqldiff but I think I’d prefer a text format based on e.g. protocol buffers or JSON.

This works well

This bag of tricks might look a bit complicated but works very well for us in practice.