Using nix for your OCaml project



In this article, we discuss several strategies for starting to use nix for ocaml development. We'll include strategies for new projects, as well as ones for converting large existing codebases to be based on Nix.


What is nix (at a high level)?

nix can refer to a few things within the nix ecosystem:

How does nixpkgs work?

nixpkgs is a repository of nix code, which is used by default to configure the nix package manager. It's hosted at

nixpkgs provides several channels -- effectively, these are special git commits which we can point the nix package manager at. Channelse come in a few different flavors:

You can also clone/fork nixpkgs and point nix to this repo instead. This can be useful for adding e.g. private repositories, but other mechanisms like overlays are probably better for this.

What's an overlay?

A nix overlay is a function which can be used to override package definitions from a nix channel. You can use these to get nix to use different package versions, or provide new packages that aren't in the public nixpkgs.

What's a flake?

I like to think of a flake as "nix's version of package.json".

Technically, it's a standardized way to provide a project-level nix configuration, which defines a few things:

This is an extremely useful tool for just about any software project. We'll be writing a flake later on for our OCaml project.

How does nix fit into an existing OCaml project?

Most OCaml projects use opam -- the OCaml Package Manager -- to manage project dependencies.

nix replaces opam for your project, since it not only provides OCaml packages, but it can also provide your entire OCaml toolchain.


An ocaml + nix starter project

Let's start by using a Nix flake for our project. The easiest way to do this is to use a template. If you'd like to use a template, feel free to -- you can do so by running:

$ nix flake init -t github:sixstring982/flakes#ocaml-dune-project

But for now let's go ahead and write one from scratch. This should help us get a good idea about how flakes work, and what's necessary to create one.


  # Human-readable project description.
  description = "My OCaml project";

  # Flakes can use other flakes as "inputs".
  inputs = {
    # Pin nixpkgs to the unstable channel. Other channels can
    # be used here instead.
    nixpkgs.url = "github:NixOS/nixpkgs/nixpkgs-unstable";

    # Import flake-utils, which provides useful utilities for
    # writing flakes.
    flake-utils.url = "github:numtide/flake-utils";

    # Import nix-filter, which can help us filter our project
    # files, to avoid unnecessary rebuilds.
    nix-filter.url = "github:numtide/nix-filter";

  # Outputs describe the things that nix is going to set up for
  # our project, and any other things for other flakes to depend on.
  outputs = { self, nixpkgs, flake-utils }:
      # Set up some commonly-used bindings
      legacyPackages = nixpkgs;

      # Version of the OCaml compiler you'd like to use (e.g. 5.1).
      ocamlVersion = "ocamlPackages_5_1";
      # List of available OCaml packages in nixpkgs for our compiler
      ocamlPackages = legacyPackages.ocaml-ng.${ocamlVersion};

      # This should be the name of your OCaml project, as opam sees it.
      projectName = "my_project";
      projectVersion = "0.0.1";

      # Filtered sources (prevents unecessary rebuilds)
      sources = {
        ocaml = nix-filter.lib {
          root = ./.;
          include = [
            (nix-filter.lib.inDirectory "bin")
            (nix-filter.lib.inDirectory "lib")
            (nix-filter.lib.inDirectory "test")

        nix = nix-filter.lib {
          root = ./.;
          include = [
            (nix-filter.lib.matchExt "nix")
    # eachDefaultSystem allows us to easily make this package cross-platform.
    flake-utils.lib.eachDefaultSystem(system: {
      # These packages are built by this project.
      # You can use `nix build` to build these.
      packages = {
        # The `default` package builds when running `nix build` with no
        # arguments.
        default = self.packages.${system}.${projectName};

        # Our package is one which is built with `dune`.
        ${projectName} = ocamlPackages.buildDunePackage {
            pname = ${projectName};
            version = ${projectVersion};
            duneVersion = "3";
            src = sources.ocaml;

            # Here, we list other OCaml libraries that our project
            # depends on.
            buildInputs = [
              # ocamlPackages.opium

            strictDeps = true;

            preBuild = "dune build ${projectName}.opam";

      # Flakes can have development shells, which can be enterred
      # via `nix develop`.
      devShells = {
        default = legacyPackages.mkShell {
          # Tools that you'll need available via your command line
          # when working on this project
          packages = [

          # Tools that are available via building your project
          inputsFrom = [

TIP: If you want your flake to reload every time you use it, set up direnv and write use flake into .envrc

This approach should work great for setting up a new OCaml project which depends solely on dependencies found in nixpkgs.

Using nix in an existing ocaml project

However, if you're wanting to adapt an existing OCaml project to replace opam with nix, you'll need to migrate somehow.

Impure option: opam-nix

If you're OK with an impure option -- i.e. still using opam to manage your OCaml packages, but getting the other benefits from nix -- you could use opam-nix.

opam-nix is a flake developed by tweag, which fakes opam to some degree, allowing you to easily bootstrap an existing opam project with nix.

You'll likely run into problems using this with a larger codebase, however. it may be better to use a pure option if this ends up happening to you.

Pure options

Happy option: Use nixpkgs as-is

If all of your dependencies are already in nixpkgs, it's fairly straightforward to migrate your project to use nix in a pure fashion -- simply use the flake above, and fill out the buildInputs section with all of your build inputs.

Note that the versions of these inputs may change depending on the ones that are in nixpkgs -- as seen later on in this article, you'll need to use overlays in order to override these versions if you need to do so.

Unhappy path

If you need to depend on other packages which are not already in nixpkgs, you have a few options:

Contribute to nixpkgs

If you need to depend on a package which could be added to nixpkgs, you could contribute to nixpkgs in order to add it. Keep in mind that this may be a lot of work if this package is not compatible with other packages in nixpkgs -- you may need to upgrade other packages at this time as well.

See this pull request as an example of adding an OCaml package which was not already available.

Using overlays

If a package that you need to depend on is going to be tricky to get into nixpkgs, you couuld override the nixpkgs definition in your flake with an overlay.

Here's what you would need to change in the above flake in order to add a new package -- in this case, upgrading riot to 0.0.7:

# Here, we tell `nix` that we want to overlay `nixpkgs` with some overrides.
# We'll need to use functional updates for the entire `ocaml-ng` definition,
# and any sub-definitions that need updating.
# This pattern can be used to override any number of nix packages, OCaml or
# otherwise.
legacyPackages = import nixpkgs {
  inherit system; overlays = [
  (final: prev: {
    ocaml-ng = prev.ocaml-ng // {
      ${ocamlVersion} = prev.ocaml-ng.${ocamlVersion} // {
        riot = prev.ocaml-ng.${ocamlVersion}.riot.overrideAttrs (_: {
          version = "0.0.7";

          src = legacyPackages.fetchFromGitHub {
            owner = "leostera";
            repo = "riot";
            rev = "7dc78950b5dc172aef74bacee977abd2011005d2";
            sha256 = "sha256-YiUok7cwczyl8ee3LkNiWU/O+hWQdqTGRFVmJOLMpsw=";

          propagatedBuildInputs = with final.ocaml-ng.${ocamlVersion}; [

Thanks for reading!

Feel free to reach out if you have any comments to:
sixstring982 (at) gmail (dot) com.