tour of nix

14 Nov 2015


lately i’ve been working with emscripten 1.29.10 and i compiled nix-instantiate from c++ to javascript. why?

nix is a tricky programming language to get into. the motivation for ‘a tour of nix’ was to make it easier for new developers to get into nix. compiling nix-instantiate and later nix-repl to javascript might be enablers for new technologies like:

  • webbased editor with nix-syntax autocompletion, directly from the language itself by using nix-repl
  • extend the nix documentation with interactive API usage examples (much like ‘a tour of go’ and godocs)
  • use nix to deploy javascript

while the former points are all interesting targets in itself, this posting will focus on ‘a tour of nix’ and ‘emscripten’. A tour of Nix is a html5/javascript based tutorial about the nix programming language.

the 'A touf of nix'-webpage


nix-instantiate is a very good candidate among the various nix-tools. since emscripten emulates a complete POSIX-filesystem we

  1. clone nix/nixpkgs

    ‘nix’ contains nix-instantiate which we want to compile to javascript while ‘nixpkgs’ will be bundled with nix-instantiate.js so we can use the lib functions.

  2. development environment

    to play with the code, run:

    note: we will be using llvm instead of gcc since emscripten is llvm only!

  3. learn about nix-instantiate dependencies lists the dependencies of the vanialla nix-instantiate

    the dependencies of nix-instantiate

    what had to be changed:

    • the build-system was dramatically changed to use:

      • only builds nix-instantiate (all other targets removed)
      • static linking for all libs (.a instead of .so)
      • O3, -g0
    • source code changes: libraries were removed from nix-instantiate

      • bzip2, curl, ssl, sqlite3, dl, z, m, crypto, gc
      • removed sigaction(..) code
      • libstore requirement from nix-instantiate was removed
      • various other changes to make nix compile and work in a browser
    • bundle (a bash script) was added to src/nix-instantiate

    to test emscripten a simple ‘hello world’ example was created.

  4. the build using ‘./bundle’

  5. after you executed ./bundle:

    you can test if everything went fine, if it built a new version of:

    • nix-instantiate.js
    • nix-instantiate.js.mem
  6. nix-instantiate.js usage

    index.html includes nix-instantiate.js and calls it every time we want to evaluate a nix expression

    this is actually similar to calling nix-instantiate from the shell:

    note: i want to point out that callMain was used over cwrap

  7. code optimization

    check your webserver has compression enabled!

    this is how we at nixcloud set up mod_deflate for apache, which curiously is not a default option. this reduces the 30mb download to 6mb only!

  8. html5 specialities

    we got a working browser history, so you can use the ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons of your browser to navigate the page

     // implement browser forward and back button actions
     window.addEventListener("popstate", function(e) {
       var id = getURLParameter("id");
       var diff = id - current_question - 1;
     // update current question and modify the window.history
     var change_question = function(myinput) {
       window.history.pushState('', '',  window.location.pathname + '?id=' + (current_question + 1));



i especially wanted to thank aidanhs, the author of empython, for all his time with very valuable hints on how to address my problems.

happy nix-learning from paul and joachim! also thanks a lot for the irc support on emscripten from:!

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