HNix: Enhancing Nix with Haskell

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Last week we introduced Nix, the purely functional package manager. We saw how it used some different conceptual techniques from functional programming. With these concepts, it seeks to solve some problems in package management. It shares many concepts with Haskell, so it is most often used by Haskell developers.

Because of the Haskell community's interest in Nix, an interesting project has arose alongside it. This is HNix, which I mentioned a few weeks ago in my article about BayHac. HNix is a Haskell implementation of various components of Nix. In this quick article, we’ll look at the different elements of this project.

The Nix Language and the Nix Store

The term “Nix” is a little overloaded. It refers to the package manager or the operating system, but also refers to a language. The Nix language is how we specify the values that represent our different packages. The core repository of this project implements the Nix language in Haskell.

This implementation would make it easier to integrate Nix with your Haskell code. For example, you could combine Nix versioning of your packages with a database schema. This could ensure that you can automatically handle migrations.

Another part of the project is an interface to the Nix Store. The store deals with how Nix actually saves all the different packages on your system. While Nix does sandbox its packages, it can still be useful to have a programmatic interface on them. This allows you to manipulate a representation of this store in-memory, rather than on the file system. For instance, one store implementation has no side effects at all, to allow for unit testing. Another would read from the file system. But then it would perform all write effects in memory without modifying anything.

Open Source Haskell

One of the main reasons I’m discussing HNix is that it’s a good gateway to open source Haskell. If you’ve wanted to contribute to an OS Haskell project and weren’t sure where to start, HNix is a great option. The maintainers are very friendly guys. They'd be more than happy to help you get started in understanding the code base. At BayHac I was very impressed with how well organized the project was. Specifically, the maintainers made it easy for new people to get involved in the project. They laid out many different issue tickets that were doable even for non-experts.

So to get started, take a look at the repository. The README instructions are pretty thorough. Then you can go through the issues section for a little bit and pick up one of the tickets with a “Help Wanted” label. You can email one of the maintainers for help (John Wiegley is probably your best bet). Tagging them in an issue comment should also work if you need some direction.

Conclusion

Haskell depends a lot of open source contributions. A lot of the core pieces of infrastructure (GHC, Stack, Cabal) are all maintained via open source. When you can make these contributions, you’ll be able to rapidly improve your Haskell, add value to the community, and meet great people along the way! Next week, we’ll look at another open source Haskell project.

And if you’ve never written any Haskell before, don’t be afraid! You can start your learning journey with our Beginners Checklist. You’ll be able to make solid contributions much quicker than you think!