Distributed build

From NixOS Wiki

When your local machine is too slow or doesn't have the right CPU architecture or operating system for the Nix derivation you want to build, you can delegate the build to some other remote machine. For this you need

  1. the Nix package manager installed on both machines; just follow the official installation instructions and prefer the normal "multi-user" install. You don't need to run NixOS; any operating system like Debian, Ubuntu, Arch, MacOS or others where the Nix package manager can be installed, should work.
  2. SSH access from the local to the remote machine.
  3. modify the local machine's Nix config to know about the remote machine.

There is a dedicated chapter in the Nix Manual but it may be difficult to follow for beginners.

This is an easier, step-by-step guide to setting up a "remote builder" machine to create distributed builds, and includes some SSH tips that are out of scope for the Nix Manual chapter.

Setting up SSH

The main tool to connect to a remote builder, exchange files and trigger builds is SSH.

Depending on how you installed the Nix package manager,

  • "multi-user" (system-wide installation; default on NixOS, preferred, normal case for most Linux distro users) or
  • "single-user" (installed only for a single user on the machine; used when no root/admin rights were available for the user),

on your local and remote machine you need to allow a certain local SSH user (on your local machine) to connect to a certain remote SSH user (on the remote machine):

Nix Installation

Local Machine

Nix Installation

Remote Builder

SSH Connection Requirements
Multi-user Multi-user Local: root user ------------SSH----> Remote: any user (most frequent case)
Single-user Multi-user Local: Your single-user -----SSH----> Remote: any user
Multi-user Single-user Local: root user ------------SSH----> Remote: your single-user for which Nix is installed with their UID (see Nix manual page).
Single-user Single-user Local: Your single-user -----SSH----> Remote: your single-user each of which Nix is installed for with their UID (see Nix manual page).

The thing to know about the "Multi-user" installation is that Nix is installed with a "nix-daemon" background process that runs as root and actually manages the builds on your behalf. So when you call "nix build ..." as a non-root user, this is delegated to the nix-daemon process, which runs as root. And this process can further delegate the build to a remote builder; that's why the local machine's root user needs the SSH access.

An alternative check is:

ssh <REMOTE-BUILDER> 'type nix-store'

The following sections guide you how to setup such authentication, with security in mind, and maximal comfort, assuming basic knowledge about SSH authentication keys.

General best practices

It is recommended to not allow root access to the remote machine, even if only via an SSH public/private key pair. Especially because it's not required in any of the 4 scenarios described in the table above.

In all of the cases above it is recommended to create an SSH public / private key pair without a passphrase, so that you won't have to run ssh-add along with ssh-agent prior to using the remote builder. When the local machine has NixOS / System-wide installation of Nix you'd probably need to spawn eval $(ssh-agent) while you are logged in as root. Not using a passphrase for the SSH key allows other users to enjoy the remote builder.

Since the access to the remote machine doesn't have to be privileged, you can choose to login to a weakly privileged, and password-locked user on the remote machine, which may help you feel comfortable with the fact root can access it without a passphrase.

When the remote machine doesn't have NixOS / System-wide Nix installation, the only option is to allow access without passphrase and with an SSH key to the user with Nix installed for them.

Recommended setup: multi-user Nix local –> multi-user Nix remote

For the common case where your local Nix is installed system-wide in multi-user mode, create a user on the remote machine that will have an unwriteable home directory, with a ~/.ssh/authorized_keys in it, that will allow SSH access to that user without a passphrase. The steps are:

  • ssh to the remote builder.
  • Run (requires privileges) useradd -m nixremote; -m makes sure a home directory is created for the nixremote user.
  • Run (requires privileges) usermod nixremote -L; -L locks the user such that nobody will be able to su to it
  • Run (requires privileges) mkdir ~nixremote/.ssh. Make sure to run this command as nixremote user or chown it afterwards

If your remote builder has Nix installed system-wide in multi-user mode, but you're not running NixOS, you may need to add something like the following to your /etc/ssh/sshd_config on this remote machine:

SetEnv PATH=/nix/var/nix/profiles/default/bin:/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin

Explanation: This extends the $PATH variable on your remote builder for your ssh connection such that the installed Nix tools like /var/nix/var/nix/profiles/default/bin/nix-store can be found on this remote builder when connecting through ssh from your local machine. Otherwise you will get an error on your local machine like "ssh.. nix-store: command not found". The reason is that the Nix ssh connection uses an "non-interactive" shell on the remote builder that doesn't load any .bashrc files like a normal "interactive" shell would do, when connect manually.

Then, on your local machine, create the private / public key pair without a passphrase, as root:

# ssh-keygen -f /root/.ssh/nixremote

Copy the contents of /root/.ssh/nixremote.pub from your local machine to the remote builder ~nixremote/.ssh/authorized_keys.

Then to further harden the setup, remove write permissions from everyone on the remote host's nixremote home directory:

# chmod -R a-w ~nixremote

Now you want to make it easy for root on your local machine to connect to nixremote@builder. You can do that by creating the following /root/.ssh/config on the local machine:

Host builder # Replace by IP address, or add a ProxyCommand, see `man ssh_config` for full docs.
        # Prevent using ssh-agent or another keyfile, useful for testing
        IdentitiesOnly yes
        IdentityFile /root/.ssh/nixremote
        # The weakly privileged user on the remote builder – if not set, 'root' is used – which will hopefully fail
        User nixremote

You may also want to make nix on the remote machine trust that new user by adding it to nix.settings.trusted-users if it's using NixOS, or by manually adding trusted-users = nixremote to /etc/nix/nix.conf.

Modify the local machine's Nix config to know about the remote machine.

The Nix package manager on your local machine needs to know that the remote builder exists and what its supported features are. See official supportedFeatures documentation.

If your local machine uses NixOS, you can mention the remote builder within a NixOS nix.buildMachines section. For example:

{ config, pkgs, ... }:

  # You can see the resulting builder-strings of this NixOS-configuration with "cat /etc/nix/machines".
  # These builder-strings are used by the Nix terminal tool, e.g.
  # when calling "nix build ...".
  nix.buildMachines = [{
    # Will be used to call "ssh builder" to connect to the builder machine.
    # The details of the connection (user, port, url etc.)
    # are taken from your "~/.ssh/config" file.
    hostName = "builder";
    # CPU architecture of the builder, and the operating system it runs.
    # Replace the line by the architecture of your builder, e.g.
    # - Normal Intel/AMD CPUs use "x86_64-linux"
    # - Raspberry Pi 4 and 5 use  "aarch64-linux"
    # - M1, M2, M3 ARM Macs use   "aarch64-darwin"
    # - Newer RISCV computers use "riscv64-linux"
    # See https://github.com/NixOS/nixpkgs/blob/nixos-unstable/lib/systems/flake-systems.nix
    # If your builder supports multiple architectures
    # (e.g. search for "binfmt" for emulation),
    # you can list them all, e.g. replace with
    # systems = ["x86_64-linux" "aarch64-linux" "riscv64-linux"];
    system = "x86_64-linux";
    # Nix custom ssh-variant that avoids lots of "trusted-users" settings pain
    protocol = "ssh-ng";
    # default is 1 but may keep the builder idle in between builds
    maxJobs = 3;
    # how fast is the builder compared to your local machine
    speedFactor = 2;
    supportedFeatures = [ "nixos-test" "benchmark" "big-parallel" "kvm" ];
    mandatoryFeatures = [ ];
  # required, otherwise remote buildMachines above aren't used
  nix.distributedBuilds = true;
  # optional, useful when the builder has a faster internet connection than yours
  nix.extraOptions = ''
    builders-use-substitutes = true

Remote builders' features

Each builder is declared with a set of supportedFeatures. When a builder lacks one of the requiredSystemFeatures of a derivation, it will be ignored. Here are some features used in nixpkgs:

Feature Derivations requiring it
kvm Everything which builds inside a vm, like NixOS tests
nixos-test Machine can run NixOS tests
big-parallel kernel config, libreoffice, evolution, llvm and chromium
benchmark Machine can generate metrics (means the builds usually takes the same amount of time)

Non-standard Nix installations

If you are not root on the remote builder and have used nix-user-chroot or PRoot to install nix there (see Nix Installation Guide) then nix is not available on the PATH of the remote builder. We describe a solution for nix-user-chroot which is easily adapted to PRoot.

  • Create a script ~/bin/nix_wrapper.sh as follows:
exec ~/bin/nix-user-chroot ~/.nix bash -c '
. ~/.nix-profile/etc/profile.d/nix.sh

Of course, adapt this script to the location of the store and nix-user-chroot. Make the script executable.

  • In ~/.ssh/authorized_keys, locate the line corresponding to ~/.ssh/nixremote.pub and prepend this: command="/home/something/bin/nix_wrapper.sh".

Now ssh will transparently run nix-user-chroot when you connect to the remote builder with the specified ssh key.

Further use of remote builders

Force builds on remote builder

Your local machine is also a builder, so when connecting to remote builders fails, Nix will fall back to building locally. To never use the local machine, set the --max-jobs <n>/-j<n> Nix option to 0 as follows:

$ nix-build -j0 blah

Using remote builders as substituters

If you have two remote builders A and B (where A has higher speed than B), if a derivation foo.drv is already built on B, and your local machine needs to build foo.drv, then it will:

  • build (possibly remotely) all the build dependencies of foo.drv
  • build foo.drv on A

Even if foo.drv is also on A, you will still have to build the build dependencies of foo.drv before sending the build to A, which will build it instantly since it is in cache.

To solve this problem, you can set up your remote builders as substituters. Every time (the local machine's) nix considers building a derivation, it will connect to the remote builders to check whether it is already available there. Here is how to set this up via ssh. See also Binary Cache for an alternative using http and nix-serve.

1. On the remote builder, create a binary cache key:

$ nix-store --generate-binary-cache-key builder-name cache-priv-key.pem cache-pub-key.pem

The private key must be readable only by the user running the build: ??? on multi-user installs, and the owner of /nix on single-user installs. builder-name is only here for your convenience to distinguish several public keys, it has no functional meaning.

2. On the remote builder, set up nix to sign all store paths it builds: in the nix configuration (/etc/nix/nix.conf on multi-user installs and ~/.config/nix/nix.conf on single user installs), add the following line:

secret-key-files = /path/to/cache-priv-key.pem

If necessary, restart the nix daemon.

3. The previous point does not retroactively sign existing paths in the store of the builder. To do so, run

$ nix sign-paths --all -k /path/to/cache-priv-key.pem

4. In the nix configuration of the local machine, append the content of cache-pub-key.pem to the option trusted-public-keys. Also append ssh-ng://builder to the option substituters. If you only want to use the remote builder occasionally as a substituter, use trusted-substituters instead of substituters. Then, when you want to use the builder, pass --option extra-substituters ssh-ng://builder to the nix command you run.


  • How do I know if I'm distributing my build at all?
    • Run nix build with --max-jobs 0.
  • How do I know why my builds aren't being distributed?
    • Run nix build -vvvvvvvvv 2>&1 | less and search for decline.
  • I can nix store ping but the build doesn't distribute.
    • If on NixOS, Check that nix store ping command works when run as root.
    • If you configured builders on the command line (with --builders), make sure your account is in nix.trustedUsers in /etc/nixos/configuration.nix. Only /etc/nix/nix.conf is taken into account otherwise.
  • I can ping the store as root, but I'm getting "broken pipe" errors when trying to distribute.
    • You may have hit bug #46038. Add nix.distributedBuilds = true; to configuration.nix and nixos-rebuild switch.

See also