Nix and small containers with Docker multi-stage builds

by Marco - (10 min read)

Multi Stage builds are great for minimizing the size of your container. The general idea is you have a stage as your builder and another stage as your product. This allows you to have a full development and build container while still having a lean production container. The production container only carries its runtime dependencies.

FROM golang:1.7.3
WORKDIR /go/src/
RUN go get -d -v
COPY app.go .
RUN CGO_ENABLED=0 GOOS=linux go build -a -installsuffix cgo -o app .

FROM alpine:latest
RUN apk --no-cache add ca-certificates
WORKDIR /root/
COPY --from=0 /go/src/ .
CMD ["./app"]

(from Docker's docs on multi-stage)

Sounds great, right? What's the catch? Well, it's not always easy to know what the runtime dependencies are. For example you may have installed something in /lib that was needed in the build process. But it turned out to be a shared library and now it needs to be included in the production container. Tricky! Is there some automated way to know all your runtime dependencies?

Enter Nix

Nix is a functional and immutable package manager. It works great for reproducible builds. It keeps track of packages and their dependencies via their content hashes. And, relevant for this exercise, it also keeps track of the dependencies of a built package. That means we can use Nix to build our project and then ask Nix what our runtime dependencies are. With that information we can copy just those files to the product stage of our multi-stage build and end up with the smallest possible docker container.

Our general strategy will be to use a Nix builder to build our code. Ask the Nix builder to tell us all the runtime dependencies of our built executable. Then copy the executable with all it's runtime dependencies to a fresh container. Our expectation is that this will result in a minimal production container.


As a simple example let's package a "Hello World" program in Rust. The code is what you'd expect:

pub fn main() {
    println!("Hello, world!");

Nix build expression

If we were just building this locally, we'd just run cargo build --release. But we are going to have Nix build this for us so that it can track the runtime dependencies. Therefore we need a default.nix file to describe the build process. Our default.nix build file looks like this:

with (import <nixpkgs> {});
rustPlatform.buildRustPackage {
  name = "hello-rust";
  buildInputs = [ cargo rustc ];
  src = ./.;
  # This is a shasum over our crate dependencies
  cargoSha256 = "1s4vg081ci6hskb3kk965nxnx384w8xb7n7yc4g93hj55qsk4vw5";
  # Use this to figure out the correct Sha256
  # cargoSha256 = lib.fakeSha256;
  buildPhase = ''
    cargo build --release
  checkPhase = "";
  installPhase = ''
    mkdir -p $out/bin
    cp target/release/hello $out/bin

Breaking down the Nix expression: we specify what our inputs our to our build: cargo and rustc; we figure out what the sha256sum is of our crate dependencies; and we define some commands to build and install the executable.

We can verify this works locally on our machine by running nix-build . (assuming you have Nix installed locally). You'll end up with a symlink named result that points the compiled executable residing in /nix/store. Running ./result/bin/hello should print "Hello, world!".

Docker file

Now that we've built our Nix expression that defines how the code is built, we can add Docker to the mix. The goal is to have a builder stage that runs the nix-build command, then have a production stage that copies the executable and its runtime dependencies from builder. The production stage container will therefore have only the minimal amount of stuff needed to run.

# Use nix as the builder
FROM nixos/nix:latest AS builder

# Update the channel so we can get the latest packages
RUN nix-channel --update nixpkgs


# Run the builder first without our code to fetch build dependencies.
# This will fail, but that's okay. We just want to have the build dependencies
# cached as a layer. This is just a caching optimization that can be removed.
COPY default.nix .
RUN nix-build . || true

COPY . .

# Now that our code is here we actually build it
RUN nix-build .

# Copy all the run time dependencies into /tmp/nix-store-closure
RUN mkdir /tmp/nix-store-closure
RUN echo "Output references (Runtime dependencies):" $(nix-store -qR result/)
RUN cp -R $(nix-store -qR result/) /tmp/nix-store-closure

ENTRYPOINT [ "/bin/sh" ]

# Our production stage
FROM scratch
# Copy the runtime dependencies into /nix/store
# Note we don't actually have nix installed on this container. But that's fine,
# we don't need it, the built code only relies on the given files existing, not
# Nix.
COPY --from=builder /tmp/nix-store-closure /nix/store
COPY --from=builder /app/result /app
CMD ["/app/bin/hello"]

If we build this Dockerfile with docker build ., we'll end up with an 33MB container. Compare this to a naive Dockerfile where we end up with a 624 MB container! That's an order of magnitude smaller for a relatively simple change.

Note that our executable has a shared library dependency on libc. Alpine linux doesn't include libc, but this still works. How? When we build our code we reference the libc shared library stored inside /nix/store. Then when we copy the executable nix tells us that the libc shared library is also a dependency so we copy that too. Our executable uses only the libc inside /nix/store and doesn't rely on any system provided libraries in /lib or elsewhere.


With a simple Nix build expression and the use of Docker's multi stage builds we can use Docker's strength of providing a consistent and portable environment with Nix's fine grained dependency resolution to create a minimal production container.

A note on statically linked executables

Yes, you could build the hello world example as a statically linked musl-backed binary. But that's not the point. Sometimes code relies on a shared library, and it's just not worth or impossible to convert it. The beauty of this system is that it doesn't matter if the output executable is fully statically linked or not. It will work just the same and copy over the minimum amount of code needed for the production container to work.

A note on Nix's dockerTools

Nix proves a set of functions for creating Docker images: pkgs.dockerTools. It's very cool, and I recommend checking it. Unlike docker it produces deterministic images. Note, for all but the simplest examples, KVM is required.

A note on Bazel's rules_docker

I don't know much about this, but I'd assume this would be similar to what I've described. If you know more about this, please let me know!