Lightweight Linux VMs on NixOS

Often I find myself needing a pristine Linux system for testing some program that is expected to work on a user’s machine with an environment that is possibly quite different to mine. I could spin up a virtual machine, but that is too heavyweight. Alternatively, I could use Docker, but a Docker container is conceptually more of a process and less of a system.

Enter LXD, which advertises itself as offering a “user experience similar to virtual machines but using Linux containers instead.” Or, as u/Floppie7th puts it, “LXD makes ‘pet’ containers. Basically, VMs without the virtual hardware and extra kernel.” In other words, LXD allows us to spin up lightweight (Linux) VMs on a Linux machine, where one cares more about the separation of userland than hardware or kernel.

Installing lxd

On NixOS, you can install LXD by adding virtualisation.lxd.enable = true; to your configuration.nix. You might also want to add yourself to the lxd user group so as to not have to use sudo when running the lxc command.

Running a Ubuntu container

Let us run a bare Ubuntu container to get started:

lxc launch ubuntu:18.04 pristine -c security.nesting=true

(Note that security.nesting flag is being enabled so that we may be able to install Nix later; you may leave it disabled if you would not be using Nix).

We named the container “pristine”, and you can check its status in lxc list—it should be in the RUNNING state.

Entering the container

This will drop us in the root shell:

lxc exec pristine -- /bin/bash

However, usually, it is better to create a user account (with sudo access) first, and then use it:

lxc exec pristine -- adduser --shell /bin/bash --ingroup sudo srid

Then you may directly log in as that user as follows:

lxc exec pristine -- su - srid -c 'tmux new-session -A -s main'

Note that we use tmux so that programs requiring tty will work correctly.

Installing Nix

Assuming you have enabled the security.nesting flag on the container, you should now be able to install Nix by following the official instructions.

I use Nix to develop and install my programs, so the above is all I need to do in order to begin testing them on a pristine Linux machine without much fanfare.

Running a NixOS container

The official image server for LXD does not support NixOS. However, we can build our own using nixos-generators. Let’s wrap the commands in a script (call it buildLxcImage.sh):

#! /usr/bin/env nix-shell
#! nix-shell -p nixos-generators
#! nix-shell -i bash
set -xe

CONFIGURATIONNIX=$1
METAIMG=`nixos-generate -f lxc-metadata \
  | xargs -r cat \
  | awk '{print $3}'`
IMG=`nixos-generate -c ${CONFIGURATIONNIX} -f lxc \
  | xargs -r cat \
  | awk '{print $3}'`

lxc image import --alias nixos ${METAIMG} ${IMG}

You will need a configuration.nix (see mine) to build a NixOS image, using this script:

# Builds the "nixos" lxc image
./buildLxcImage.sh configuration.nix

Then launch a container:

lxc launch nixos childnixos -c security.nesting=true

Access its root shell:

lxc exec childnixos -- /run/current-system/sw/bin/bash

If the configuration.nix also declares a user account, you can instead directly log in as that user:

lxc exec childnixos -- /run/current-system/sw/bin/su - srid  \
  -c 'tmux new-session -A -s main'
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