nixpkgs has good built in support for building Docker images, but there is a significant amount of nuance to using it effectively and making small images.

It is very easy to accidentally put more stuff in than you want, and this post will document how to Not Do That. A useful companion to this post is the source code to the nixpkgs Docker module, at pkgs/build-support/docker/default.nix.

The way that Docker images are produced in nixpkgs is that they are built from scratch using standard tools. They may include Nix store paths or not, and they may also have certain derivations copied to the root of the filesystem as specified in contents. Only Nix store paths that are in the files in the image will be in the output.

A normal Docker image script

This is a sample Nix script for a Docker image, cleaned up from the Carnap sources, with some comments about things to watch out for.

{ }:
let inherit (import ./default.nix {}) app nixpkgs;
dockerEntrypoint = nixpkgs.writeScriptBin "" ''
exec ${app.out}/bin/myapp
in nixpkgs.dockerTools.buildImage {
name = "MyServer";
tag = "latest";
# everything in this is *copied* to the root of the image
contents = [
# run unprivileged with the current directory as the root of the image
extraCommands = ''
mkdir -p data
# Docker settings
config = {
Cmd = [ "" ];
WorkingDir = "/data";
ExposedPorts = {
"3000" = {};
Volumes = {
"/data" = {};

Looking for problems

Look at the image with dive

There is a nice tool called dive for investigating the size of Docker images.

To use it, import the Docker image to your daemon with docker image load -i ./result, then use dive to look at it by running dive your-image-name.

Extract it and poke at it the usual way

Since Nix-built images are often a single layer, dive may be more fancy than necessary, and it may be more convenient to just extract the image with tar and poke at it with du, ncdu, etc.


I had a 300MB Docker image that decompressed to 1GB or so. This presented significant deployment headaches due to the sheer time to deal with this. This is admittedly partially the size of the Haskell binaries in it, but it is not the only factor in this.

Putting files in contents that should not be

Nix does not work the same way with dependencies as other systems: you can refer to dependencies that are not explicitly declared and it will figure it out. In a normal derivation, you can put something like ${pkgs.bash}/bin/bash into a build script and it will just work: it will pull in the dependency as expected. If you put it in buildInputs or nativeBuildInputs, then it will go in the PATH and appear to build tools.

If the store paths end up in the outputs of the build, then they will show up as runtime dependencies.

See the nixpkgs manual section 6.3 for more details on this.

The same idea applies to the Docker tools: you can just reference things in build scripts or otherwise, and as long as they are paths in the Nix store (as in, they are from a Nix expression or Nix path expression), they will just work.

If you put things in contents, they will get rsynced to the root of the output image, which, if they are also in the closure due to references in build scripts or otherwise, you will get them duplicated. Just removing the big package from contents and only referencing it by interpolating it in build scripts saved about 50% on image size.

Unnecessary packages in the closure

It's possible to accidentally get packages that were not intended to be in the closure, into the closure. This can happen due to odd build scripts, stuff in nix-support, compilers including paths for no reason, and other reasons. If you know that the paths are in fact superfluous, they can be removed so the references are no longer there.

You can find where the paths are coming from with nix why-depends as below.

If you are using buildImage rather than buildLayeredImage, the contents of the image is available at passthru.layer on the buildImage derivation.

nix why-depends

After finding the bad package, it's possible to use nix why-depends to diagnose the exact cause path:

nix why-depends $(nix-build docker.nix -A passthru.layer) /nix/store/xxxxxxx-bad

Looking at dependency trees manually

To look at the dependency tree or graph of a store path that has an unexpected subtree:

For a tree view, use nix-store --query --tree ./result, where ./result is either the built Nix store path for the biggest subtree in your image or a symlink to it.

For smaller dependency graphs, a graph can be used: nix-store --query --tree ./result | dot -Tsvg -o deps.svg, then look at deps.svg in an image viewer.

Fixing unexpected runtime dependencies

You can then tell Nix that some paths are not supposed to be there by putting the offending package in disallowedReferences on your problem derivation.

Nix will throw an error on the next build that there are references that should not be there, and where they are. You can remove these in a post-install script using nixpkgs.removeReferencesTo (put it in nativeBuildInputs as usual; it's also in Haskell derivations by default):

pkgs.stdenv.mkDerivation {
# ...
nativeBuildInputs = with pkgs; [ removeReferencesTo ];
postInstall = with pkgs; ''
remove-references-to -t ${badPkg1} -t ${badPkg2} $out/bin/your-program