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Running your own Raspberry Pi Nix cache at home for fun and profit

I like NixOS a lot, but one thing I really hate about it is its massively inefficient use of bandwidth. Because derivations are addressed via their inputs, every time a package changes, all of the packages depending on it have to be rebuilt by Hydra and re-downloaded by everyone. Even if the only thing that changed is the cryptographic hash of one of its dependencies, like it happens regularly for Electron apps (eww). This might be totally acceptable for people with decent internet, but I live in a student flat with a 1MB/s downlink, and every time one of the core packages in Nixpkgs change, I basically have to redownload my entire system, which takes hours.

After much trial and error, the solution I came up with is the following:

In my case, this speeds up the upgrade by a factor of ~50.

While this sounds simple in theory, there were quite a lot of caveats on the way. In this blog post, I will explain in detail how I put this scheme into practice.

Server build farm

I am aware of Hydra, but it seemed too complex for my use case. What I settled for is a systemd timer running a script that runs

TMPDIR=$(mktemp -d)
git clone ${repo} .
nix flake update --commit-lock-file
git push
cd /
rm -rf $TMPDIR

to upgrade the flake.lock in my repository and then

nix build my-config-flake#nixosConfigurations.fnord.config.system.build.toplevel` --out-link path/to/out-link

to build the system. This is a pretty minimalist solution, but it works perfectly well for me. If you want to, you can even write a small NixOS module for automatically setting up multiple systemd times for all of your configs like I did.

In order to sign the builds, I generated a binary cache key with nix-store --generate-binary-cache-key and then added it to my NixOS configuration with

nix.settings = {
    secret-key-files = "/var/lib/secrets/nix/cache-priv-key.pem";

This will cause Nix to automatically sign all the builds on your server with the specified key. To use the binary cache we are going to set up later, we will need to add the corresponding public key to all machines via nix.settings.trusted-public-keys.

Raspberry Pi Nix cache

If you’re a NixOS fanatic like me, the chances are that you already have a Raspberry Pi running NixOS sitting around somewhere. If the server is supposed to push build artifacts to the Raspberry Pi, the two should be in some sort of VPN so the server can connect to the Raspberry Pi by itself too. This is very simple with NixOS, see for instance the NixOS wiki article on WireGuard for instructions.

Now, the most straightforward solution would be to install nix-serve on the Raspberry Pi and have the server push the build artifacts with nix copy. While this would work, this has several problems in practice:

What I settled for was buying an 1TB hard drive, setting up an unencrypted Nix cache partition on it and connecting it to the Pi with a SATA to USB bridge. The partition being unencrypted should not be a security problem because we are signing our builds, but this is a good opportunity to check that you did not include any secrets in your system config.

To be precise, I set up a static binary cache on the external hard drive. This means that there is no server like nix-serve that dynamically generates the NAR files and provides the HTTP Nix cache API, but simply a directory structure that looks like this:

├── nix-cache-info
├── 0003v03ig6x84rz2byjb2lp3my11a4c7.narinfo
├── 000qf73rdzndncvmyriilz7idcna6kxa.narinfo
├── [...]
├── zzy1clxl8j7fayxjzx14kbk1pbr97p3i.narinfo
├── zzy4svjm00h3s7jaxf9zvhsvgslmqd6w.narinfo
├── nar
│   ├── 0008wx67x34khxh06spm4zxyslb3fklj070ydbgh8jh5whs33grc.nar.xz
│   ├── 000a257k85pzl39370iylfz8nrk7dr3xgw2h51ash0mcw7bibkb3.nar.xz
│   ├── [...]
│   ├── 1zzkqdg6d6x60wmzhf4rl63q04xqyhpkpwn8xi4xmvj9czpmvq2h.nar.xz
│   └── 1zzl4x1n14l7xzcbic46mgy47pfvikmm3dxcklprb73s8zx11hn1.nar.xz

We can then set up an nginx server on the Pi pointing to this directory with:

services.nginx.virtualHosts."" = {
    locations."/".root = "/var/lib/static-nix-cache";

where you should replace with your Pi’s IP address. This will set up an unencrypted HTTP server, but again, since we’re in a LAN and signing all the builds, this should not be an issue. If you are as paranoid as I am, you can set up your own SSL CA to encrypt the traffic between the Pi and your other machines too.

Since we are probably going to be interested in the build artifacts for less than ~2 weeks in total, it is sensible to also set up a systemd timer periodically garbage-collecting all files that are older than a certain threshold, for instance 14 days:

systemd.services.static-nix-cache-gc = {
    description = "Static Nix cache garbage collection";
    serviceConfig.Type = "oneshot";
    path = with pkgs; [ coreutils ];
    script = ''
        cd /var/lib/static-nix-cache
        find -atime +14 -exec rm {} \;

    startAt = "09:00";

The question remains how we are to copy the build artifacts to the Pi. It turns out that nix copy does not seem to support copying files via SSH/SFTP. What I ended up doing instead was FUSE-mounting the SFTP directory on my server with

systemd.services.sshfs-etheria-static-nix-cache = {
    wantedBy = [ "multi-user.target" ];
    after = [ "network.target" "wg-quick-c5h10-main.service" ];
    wants = [ "network.target" ];
    script = ''
        mkdir -p /mnt/etheria-static-nix-cache
        ${pkgs.sshfs}/bin/sshfs -f -v -o allow_other root@etheria_deploy:/var/lib/static-nix-cache /mnt/etheria-static-nix-cache

and then copying the artifacts into it at the end of the build farm timer script with

nix copy path/to/out-link --to /mnt/etheria-static-nix-cache

(If you know a better way to do this, feel free to hit me up :) )

Configuring the binary cache

Configuring the cache on my machines at home was pretty straightforward:

nix.settings = {
    substituters = [ "" ]; # the IP address of your Pi
    trusted-public-keys = [
        "etheria.local:Wi/1tMJgOE+lZr4aJ2fSO8lS6EAuSxJCWZLcyD2sV/c=" # The public key we generated earlier

The only caveat is that we can’t do this on mobile devices (laptop, tablet, etc.), because Nix builds will fail if one of the binary caches isn’t reachable. But apart from that, this setup has been working perfectly fine for half a year now for me.