My Feedback about Nixpacks - an alternative to Buildpacks

2 months ago, I discovered Nixpacks - an alternative to Buildpacks to build a final container image that simply works. I’ve tried it with multiple projects, and the promise is very good. I feel it is less black magic than Buildpacks and easily extensible. In this article, I will share my feedback on the pros and the cons of this emerging project. Let's go!

Romaric Philogène

Romaric Philogène

August 19, 2022 · 9 min read
My Feedback about Nixpacks - an alternative to Buildpacks - Qovery
Written byRomaric Philogène

Romaric Philogène

CEO and co-founder of Qovery. Romaric has 10+ years of experience in R&D. From the Ad-Tech to the financial industry, he has deep expertise in highly-reliable and performant systems.

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Engineering

Nixpacks

Coming from the README.md

Nixpacks takes a source directory and produces an OCI-compliant image that can be deployed anywhere. The project was started [..] as an alternative to Buildpacks and attempts to address a lot of the shortcomings and issues that occurred when deploying thousands of user apps [..]. The biggest change is that system and language dependencies are pulled from the Nix ecosystem.

Nixpacks is available on Linux, MacOS, and Windows. You must also have Docker installed and running since Nixpacks relies on it. Once it's installed, you can execute the "nixpacks" cli command:

nixpacks 0.3.1

USAGE:
    nixpacks [OPTIONS] <SUBCOMMAND>

OPTIONS:
        --apt <apt>...                 Provide additional apt packages to install in the environment
    -b, --build-cmd <build_cmd>        Specify the build command to use
        --env <env>...                 Provide environment variables to your build
    -h, --help                         Print help information
    -i, --install-cmd <install_cmd>    Specify the install command to use
        --libs <libs>...               Provide additional nix libraries to install in the
                                       environment
    -p, --pkgs <pkgs>...               Provide additional nix packages to install in the environment
        --pin                          Pin the nixpkgs
    -s, --start-cmd <start_cmd>        Specify the start command to use
    -V, --version                      Print version information

SUBCOMMANDS:
    build    Create a docker image for an app
    help     Print this message or the help of the given subcommand(s)
    plan     Generate a build plan for an app

My feedback

Here are the pros and the cons coming from what I've tried and seen:

Pros

  • MIT License
  • Written in Rust (it's a language I particularly like)
  • Using NIX and Docker to create a reproducible build.
  • Building a final container image (OCI-compatible - so great to run on Kubernetes).
  • Compatible with Procfile (perfect for users coming from Heroku and using Buildpacks).
  • Possibility to specify the build and start command.
  • A bunch of programming languages supported out of the box 👍
  • We can easily add the support of a programming language and run our tests to validate it.

Cons

  • Still young - seems to be only used by the creator at the moment
  • By reading the Rust code, I think the team behind Nixpacks is not experienced yet with the language, so some stuff is not idiomatic (E.g using Result<Option<String>> instead of a custom enum type). It’s not a problem, but it’s probable that this version is still experimental and will lead to other major/breaking internal changes.
  • Running twice a build command does not use the local Docker cache even if the code has not changed - I guess it’s due to NIX.
  • It does not support (yet) the selection of multiple Procfile commands
  • I tried to build a Strapi app (NodeJS), and I didn’t succeed since it seems that we can’t specify the node version to use (Nixpacks scans the package.json and pick a version that is not the correct one). I think it can be improved easily.
  • I am pretty sure it works with all the simplest applications, but once apps use tons of dependencies that might link to C or Python or other languages inside, we might have failed to build (like for Buildpacks). The good part is that it is potentially easily reproducible (with NIX and the pin command).

Similar to Buildpacks with no black magic

It’s similar to Buildpacks but better since it generates a Dockerfile file and builds it with a NIX binary. Here is a schema of the process done by Nixpacks.

How Nixpacks works - Detect language -> Plan -> Generate Dockerfile -> Build
How Nixpacks works - Detect language -> Plan -> Generate Dockerfile -> Build

A plan looks like this:

~/I/q/console (staging|) $ nixpacks plan .
{
  "version": "0.0.24",
  "setup": {
    "pkgs": [
      {
        "name": "nodejs"
      },
      {
        "name": "yarn"
      }
    ],
    "libraries": [],
    "apt_pkgs": [],
    "baseImage": "ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806"
  },
  "install": {
    "cmd": "yarn install --frozen-lockfile --production=false"
  },
  "build": {
    "cmd": "yarn run build"
  },
  "start": {
    "cmd": "yarn run start"
  },
  "variables": {
    "NODE_ENV": "production",
    "NPM_CONFIG_PRODUCTION": "false"
  },
  "static_assets": {}
}

Understandable Errors

The usage of NIX makes errors understandable when something goes wrong, which is a convenient advantage compared to Buildpacks. For instance, when running "nixpacks build ." for one of my Strapi applications, I got the following error:

~/I/o/strapi-v4 (main|) $ nixpacks build .
=== Building (nixpacks v0.0.24) ===
=> Packages
    -> nodejs-12_x
    -> yarn { nodejs = nodejs-12_x }
=> Install
    -> yarn install --frozen-lockfile --production=false
=> Build
    -> yarn run build
=> Start
    -> yarn run start
[+] Building 1.3s (8/12)
 => [internal] load build definition from Dockerfile                                                                                                                            0.0s
 => => transferring dockerfile: 464B                                                                                                                                            0.0s
 => [internal] load .dockerignore                                                                                                                                               0.0s
 => => transferring context: 87B                                                                                                                                                0.0s
 => [internal] load metadata for ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806                                                                                                  0.5s
 => [1/8] FROM ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806@sha256:3d33b3f942fff25f99270e78177fe5ea39ce94b4090c5af336131a4a3d12794d                                            0.0s
 => [internal] load build context                                                                                                                                               0.1s
 => => transferring context: 477.36kB                                                                                                                                           0.0s
 => CACHED [2/8] WORKDIR /app/                                                                                                                                                  0.0s
 => CACHED [3/8] COPY environment.nix /app/                                                                                                                                     0.0s
 => ERROR [4/8] RUN nix-env -if environment.nix                                                                                                                                 0.7s
------
 > [4/8] RUN nix-env -if environment.nix:
#8 0.359 installing 'env'
#8 0.649 error: Package ‘nodejs-12.22.12in /nix/store/j86dwr6jqjrk1m7z7b1sk3wh8zswjpa7-nixpkgs/nixpkgs/pkgs/development/web/nodejs/v12.nix:11 is marked as insecure, refusing to evaluate.
#8 0.649
#8 0.649
#8 0.649        Known issues:
#8 0.649         - This NodeJS release has reached its end of life. See https://nodejs.org/en/about/releases/.
#8 0.649
#8 0.649        You can install it anyway by allowing this package, using the
#8 0.649        following methods:
#8 0.649
#8 0.649        a) To temporarily allow all insecure packages, you can use an environment
#8 0.649           variable for a single invocation of the nix tools:
#8 0.649
#8 0.649             $ export NIXPKGS_ALLOW_INSECURE=1
#8 0.649
#8 0.649         Note: For `nix shell`, `nix build`, `nix develop` or any other Nix 2.4+
#8 0.649         (Flake) command, `--impure` must be passed in order to read this
#8 0.649         environment variable.
#8 0.649
#8 0.649        b) for `nixos-rebuild` you can add ‘nodejs-12.22.12’ to
#8 0.649           `nixpkgs.config.permittedInsecurePackages` in the configuration.nix,
#8 0.649           like so:
#8 0.649
#8 0.649             {
#8 0.649               nixpkgs.config.permittedInsecurePackages = [
#8 0.649                 "nodejs-12.22.12"
#8 0.649               ];
#8 0.649             }
#8 0.649
#8 0.649        c) For `nix-env`, `nix-build`, `nix-shell` or any other Nix command you can add
#8 0.649           ‘nodejs-12.22.12’ to `permittedInsecurePackages` in
#8 0.649           ~/.config/nixpkgs/config.nix, like so:
#8 0.649
#8 0.649             {
#8 0.649               permittedInsecurePackages = [
#8 0.649                 "nodejs-12.22.12"
#8 0.649               ];
#8 0.649             }
#8 0.649 (use '--show-trace' to show detailed location information)
------
executor failed running [/bin/bash -ol pipefail -c nix-env -if environment.nix]: exit code: 1
Error: Docker build failed

In my experience, this error message is much more understandable than Buildpacks but still hard to interpret for a neophyte in building apps with Docker and NIX.

Nixpacks supports complex build (PHP Laravel)

Applications written in PHP are hard to containerize. I spent (wasted) hours with Qovery users deploying their Laravel apps because they need a web server (NGINX/Apache) and to run 3 to 4 processes inside a container. Just to give you the perspective of the complexity, here is a Dockerfile I’ve written for a hello world PHP Laravel app 😕

FROM php:8.1-fpm

# Set working directory
WORKDIR /var/www

# Add docker php ext repo
ADD https://github.com/mlocati/docker-php-extension-installer/releases/latest/download/install-php-extensions /usr/local/bin/

# Install php extensions
RUN chmod +x /usr/local/bin/install-php-extensions && sync && \
    install-php-extensions mbstring pdo_mysql zip exif pcntl gd memcached

# Install dependencies
RUN apt-get update && apt-get install -y \
    build-essential \
    libpng-dev \
    libjpeg62-turbo-dev \
    libfreetype6-dev \
    locales \
    zip \
    jpegoptim optipng pngquant gifsicle \
    unzip \
    git \
    curl \
    lua-zlib-dev \
    libmemcached-dev \
    nginx

# Install supervisor
RUN apt-get install -y supervisor

# Install composer
RUN curl -sS https://getcomposer.org/installer | php -- --install-dir=/usr/local/bin --filename=composer

# Clear cache
RUN apt-get clean && rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/*

# Add user for laravel application
RUN groupadd -g 1000 www
RUN useradd -u 1000 -ms /bin/bash -g www www

# Copy code to /var/www
COPY --chown=www:www-data . /var/www

# add root to www group
RUN chmod -R ug+w /var/www/storage

# Copy nginx/php/supervisor configs
RUN cp docker/supervisor.conf /etc/supervisord.conf
RUN cp docker/php.ini /usr/local/etc/php/conf.d/app.ini
RUN cp docker/nginx.conf /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/default

# PHP Error Log Files
RUN mkdir /var/log/php
RUN touch /var/log/php/errors.log && chmod 777 /var/log/php/errors.log

# Deployment steps
RUN composer install --optimize-autoloader --no-dev
RUN chmod +x /var/www/docker/run.sh

EXPOSE 80
ENTRYPOINT ["/var/www/docker/run.sh"]

And with Nixpacks, you just need to run "nixpacks build .":

~/I/o/test-laravel $ nixpacks build .
=== Building (nixpacks v0.0.24) ===
=> Packages
    -> php80
    -> perl
    -> nginx
    -> php80Packages.composer
    -> nodejs
=> Install
    -> mkdir -p /var/log/nginx && mkdir -p /var/cache/nginx && composer install && npm i
=> Build
    -> npm run prod
=> Start
    -> ([ -e /app/storage ] && chmod -R ugo+w /app/storage); perl /assets/transform-config.pl /assets/nginx.template.conf /nginx.conf && echo "Server starting on port $PORT" && (php-fpm -y /assets/php-fpm.conf & nginx -c /nginx.conf)
[+] Building 29.6s (16/16) FINISHED
 => [internal] load build definition from Dockerfile                                                                                                                                                                                                            0.1s
 => => transferring dockerfile: 826B                                                                                                                                                                                                                            0.0s
 => [internal] load .dockerignore                                                                                                                                                                                                                               0.0s
 => => transferring context: 2B                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 0.0s
 => [internal] load metadata for ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806                                                                                                                                                                                  0.4s
 => [internal] load build context                                                                                                                                                                                                                               1.1s
 => => transferring context: 19.06MB                                                                                                                                                                                                                            1.1s
 => [ 1/11] FROM ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806@sha256:3d33b3f942fff25f99270e78177fe5ea39ce94b4090c5af336131a4a3d12794d                                                                                                                          0.0s
 => CACHED [ 2/11] WORKDIR /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                                0.0s
 => CACHED [ 3/11] COPY environment.nix /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                   0.0s
 => CACHED [ 4/11] RUN nix-env -if environment.nix                                                                                                                                                                                                              0.0s
 => [ 5/11] COPY assets/transform-config.pl /assets/transform-config.pl                                                                                                                                                                                         0.1s
 => [ 6/11] COPY assets/php-fpm.conf /assets/php-fpm.conf                                                                                                                                                                                                       0.0s
 => [ 7/11] COPY assets/nginx.template.conf /assets/nginx.template.conf                                                                                                                                                                                         0.0s
 => [ 8/11] COPY . /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        0.6s
 => [ 9/11] RUN mkdir -p /var/log/nginx && mkdir -p /var/cache/nginx && composer install && npm i                                                                                                                                                              22.0s
 => [10/11] RUN npm run prod                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    3.3s
 => [11/11] COPY . /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        0.5s
 => exporting to image                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          1.4s
 => => exporting layers                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         1.4s
 => => writing image sha256:73e260fcd8fd69a76db8e81ae816b62237b613877cd0e87f7ed41eed1a13ad12                                                                                                                                                                    0.0s
 => => naming to docker.io/library/f4cc686f-5c91-4e41-ad98-999fda42fa0f                                                                                                                                                                                         0.0s

Use 'docker scan' to run Snyk tests against images to find vulnerabilities and learn how to fix them
=== Successfully Built! ===

Run:
  docker run -it f4cc686f-5c91-4e41-ad98-999fda42fa0f

This example convinced me to go further in trying Nixpacks.

Building a real-world React app didn't work

I've noticed that Docker is not well known by most frontend developers; Nixpacks would be super useful here to make frontend app deployment on Kubernetes easier. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to build our Qovery v3 console React app with Nixpacks. It's a real app with different kinds of dependencies, and this is where it fails. Python seems to be required for a library. I think it is fixable with not too much effort, but it does not work out of the box.

Building a simple React app worked

In this case, with a brand new simple "hello world" react app it works

~/I/o/react-app (main|) $ nixpacks build .
=== Building (nixpacks v0.0.24) ===
=> Packages
    -> nodejs
=> Install
    -> npm ci
=> Build
    -> npm run build
=> Start
    -> npm run start
[+] Building 59.8s (13/13) FINISHED
 => [internal] load build definition from Dockerfile                                                                                                                                                                                                            0.0s
 => => transferring dockerfile: 419B                                                                                                                                                                                                                            0.0s
 => [internal] load .dockerignore                                                                                                                                                                                                                               0.0s
 => => transferring context: 2B                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 0.0s
 => [internal] load metadata for ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806                                                                                                                                                                                  0.3s
 => [1/8] FROM ghcr.io/railwayapp/nixpacks:debian-1655126806@sha256:3d33b3f942fff25f99270e78177fe5ea39ce94b4090c5af336131a4a3d12794d                                                                                                                            0.0s
 => [internal] load build context                                                                                                                                                                                                                              10.0s
 => => transferring context: 223.77MB                                                                                                                                                                                                                           9.9s
 => CACHED [2/8] WORKDIR /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  0.0s
 => [3/8] COPY environment.nix /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                            0.5s
 => [4/8] RUN nix-env -if environment.nix                                                                                                                                                                                                                      10.9s
 => [5/8] COPY . /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          2.7s
 => [6/8] RUN npm ci                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           23.0s
 => [7/8] RUN npm run build                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     5.6s
 => [8/8] COPY . /app/                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          3.6s
 => exporting to image                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          3.1s
 => => exporting layers                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         3.1s
 => => writing image sha256:6eec677e41fb2c2a218207e97fefd4ddbeb9bae5448367cc5726160310cd7f1b                                                                                                                                                                    0.0s
 => => naming to docker.io/library/c9330f44-3258-46a7-a489-ea2af6107834                                                                                                                                                                                         0.0s

Use 'docker scan' to run Snyk tests against images to find vulnerabilities and learn how to fix them
=== Successfully Built! ===

Run:
  docker run -it c9330f44-3258-46a7-a489-ea2af6107834

To Conclude

Nixpacks is a promising alternative to Buildpacks, and I am pretty sure it will be well received by the open-source community. We even consider using it in Qovery as soon as we are confident in its future. The team behind made a very good job in providing an elegant solution to a complex problem - building a final OCI image without necessarily spending time to write a Dockerfile while keeping it auditable via a "nixpacks plan" command.

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