Speed up NixOS deployments

If you want to avoid spending resources on building in your production server on-premise, NixOS has several neat strategies.

Some of these strategies can let you ship binaries from your local machine. Others are suited for sharing binaries between servers.

Also consider Cachix, a highly trusted managed Nix binary cache as a service that can take care of all this for you.

Use staging server to speed up builds in production

This tutorial will guide you through using a staging environment as a Nix store via SSH in detailed steps.

The advantage of using the SSH technique is that you will get an automated private binary cache that doest not expose proprietary code publicly. The downside is that it’s a slightly annoying to setup because it’s not really possible to do all of this declaratively.

With this technique, Shipnix runs database migrations and ships compiled Elm (>6.000 loc) and Haskell code (>16.000 loc, not including framework) in under 30 seconds in production.

It lets you build only once and the staging server can this way easily double down as a CI server.

We will assume the following example:

Sign packages with a private/public key pair

Sharing your binaries between servers requires you to sign your packages with a private/public keypair.

First, log in to the shell of your staging server.

ssh ship@stage.yourapp.com

From here, log into root

sudo su root

Create a binary folder inside /etc/shipnix and cd into it.

mkdir -p /etc/shipnix/binary
cd /etc/shipnix/binary

Next, generate a private and public key pair for your packages. Replace stage.yourapp.com with your actual staging server url.

nix-store --generate-binary-cache-key stage.yourapp.com cache-priv-key.pem cache-pub-key.pem

Print the contents of the public key. Copy and paste the key into an intermediate text document for later use.

$ cat cache-pub-key.pem

Note the SSH public key of your root user

In this step, we will need to take note of another public key, the one belonging to your root user on your production server, which is responsible for rebuilding NixOS.

Start a new ssh session into your production server.

ssh ship@yourapp.com

Log into the root user and print the contents of the public key file. Also copy this key to your intermediary text document. They should be easy to differentiate because one is shorter and has a different prefix.

$ sudo su root
$ cat /root/.ssh/id_rsa.pub
ssh-rsa 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 ship@yourapp

Add sshServe configuration

Now that these steps are done, add these rules to your configuration.nix. Replace the example public key with the root public key (the long one) you stored earlier.

  nix.sshServe.enable = if environment == "stage" then true else false;
nix.sshServe.keys =
if environment == "stage" then [
"ssh-rsa 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 ship@yourapp"
] else [ ];
nix.extraOptions =
if environment == "stage" then ''
secret-key-files = /etc/shipnix/binary/cache-priv-key.pem
else "";

This enables a special user in your staging server named nix-ssh that will do the job of sharing binaries over SSH. In nix.extraOptions, you declare the location of the signing private key to enable secure communication with your production server.

Now you can commit, push and deploy. You only need to deploy the stage server for now.

Next, return to the root shell of your production server or spin up a new session again like this:

ssh ship@stage.yourapp.com


sudo su root

Still from the production server, make an attempt at ssh-ing into your nix-ssh user shell.

$ ssh nix-ssh@yourapp.com

You will be prompted to verify the host. Just type yes and hit enter.

You will be denied access with an error message saying PTY allocation request failed on channel 0. This is expected as you are not supposed to access this user via SSH. The important thing was that you added your staging server to known_hosts.

This is a confusing extra step, but should not be missed as your build will hang, waiting for someone to answer this prompt interactively if you don’t do this manually first.

Final bit of NixOS configuration

The difficult bit is now over.

Now, you can add the following rules below to your configuration.nix.

Remember to replace ssh://nix-ssh@stage.yourapp.com corresponding to your staging server. Paste in the public key (the shorter one) you noted earlier that is used to sign your Nix packages:

  nix.settings.substituters =
if environment == "production" then [
] else [];
nix.settings.trusted-public-keys =
if environment == "production" then [
# the trusted sshServe public key
] else [];

If you already have some substituters and trusted.public-keys settings defined in your configuration, make sure you insert the already existing values in both the production and else case.

All the configuration should be done now.

First deploy your staging server through the server dashboard.

When the staging deploy is finished, try deploying your production server.

You should notice a considerable speed-up already on the first deploy, and for future deploy as long as you deploy the staging server first.