This write up was originally published within my dotfiles.

NixOS is a great tool for declaratively managing system configurations (namely what packages and other config files are available), but there are still a number of imperative steps to run when setting up a brand new machine before installation. (Okay, there are some projects which seek to automate this process as well, but unless you are constantly (re-)provisioning new machines, it is probably overkill...). There's a number of available tutorials and guides on how to prepare a machine for NixOS installation, but I found all of them to be incredibly basic (e.g. set up single ext4 partition and move on), or didn't quite fit the requirements I was imposing.

Since this was also my first "real" Linux install, there were a number of things I was unsure of and had to research on my own to figure out whether it was relevant or what configurations to choose. Here I document all the steps I went through, along with (an attempt!) to capture my assumptions and deliberate decisions so that whether I got something wrong, it stops being correct in the future, or you simply disagree with my choices, it becomes easy to spot where to stray and where to follow this guide.

Acknowledgements

Huge thanks to Graham Christensen whose blog posts were my main inspiration and guide for installation:

Assumptions and Requirements

Below is a quick summary of the assumptions and requirements I had for the system to provide some historical context and keep the rest of the guide focused on running each step.

The installation was done in early December of 2020 on a brand new 1 TiB SSD. The disk has four partitions, and here is the final result:

  1. A 1 GiB unencrypted boot partition (more on this later). I chose 1 GiB because I've been bitten by having too small of a boot partition in the past, and it will be a headache to try to resize the partition if it turns out too small. Most people recommend using 300-500 MiB, but since I have plenty of storage to spare I decided to use 1 GiB and forget about it (note that every NixOS generation adds links in this partition, so having too many generations laying around can fill it up as well).
  2. A 32 MiB LUKS encrypted partition which contains the key for the remaining partitions. I forget exactly why I went with 32 MiB exactly, but I wanted to make this partition large enough to handle any LUKS upgrades or extra key configurations, and I have space to spare (I think the LUKS2 max header size is 4 MiB, and most people recommend having a partition about this big plus some space for the actual key).
  3. A 32 GiB swap partition because this machine has 16 GiB of RAM and I left some headroom in case I upgrade it. I don't plan on enabling swap (to avoid wearing out my SSD), but I made the partition anyway in case I change my mind.
  4. The remainder of the disk is managed by ZFS split into the following datasets:
    • /local - dataset for mounting /nix/store. It is not snapshotted since the nix store can be trivially repopulated/rebuilt if the data is lost or corrupted
    • /reserved - A 100 GiB reserved partition to act as an over-provisioning guard and preserve the SSD performance (SSDs avoid wearing out individual blocks by moving writes around. But if the drive fills up, the speed and health of the drive will decrease. By never mounting this dataset, and asking ZFS to ensure there is always 100 GiB available for it, I'm effecitvely capping the disk at 90%).
    • /system - dataset for mounting /root and /var. This dataset is regularly snapshotted so I can rollback in case something catastrophic happens. I have not yet decided to erase my darlings but if I do I would move my /root mount...
    • /user - dataset for storing user home directories, regularly snapshotted

Why ZFS?

I had generally heard good things about it, namely that it's a stable file system implementation which supports efficient snapshots, rollbacks, and data exports. I briefly looked into btrfs which also supports very similar features, but the NixOS support (at the time) was lacking, and since I had not previously used neither btrfs nor zfs, I went with the latter since I expected the experience to be smoother.

What about SSD over-provisioning?

SSDs are made up of flash storage which supports a (large, but) finite number of write operations before the medium begins to degrade. The SSD controller performs wear leveling by effectively writing new data in a new location by transparently remapping the block identifier to the new location. This requires having some free space on the disk to "move" the blocks around. If the disk fills up, the controller will be forced to do subsequent writes in the same spot.

Over-provisioning is a name that storage vendors give to the concept of reserving some storage capacity to avoid accidentally filling it up and degrading performance. Some vendors state that their modern products automatically achieve this in their firmware without any manual intervention (maybe the drive itself has more storage than advertised?). Other vendors peddle special tools like Samsung Data Magician (which simply creates an empty partition) to achieve the task.

Since I have lots of storage to spare on my 1 TiB drive, I decided to over-provision 10% of its capacity by creating a reserved ZFS pool which I will never mount. I can easily remove or shrink that reservation if needed, so this seemed like a sensible choice.

Why an unencrypted boot partition?

Ultimately, you have to trust some piece of software somewhere to take your keyboard input and unlock the disk without leaking the key somehow. An unencrypted boot partition means someone who gets access to the disk can put a compromised boot loader that can steal the key. Using an encrypted boot partition avoids this risk, but that means that the UEFI implementation needs to do the decryption, and someone who can access it could flash a compromised implementation which also steals the key. A solution to that can be to use Secure boot/Trusted boot but now we have to trust that the hardware itself isn't compromised with some other back-door... It's turtles all the way down.

My threat model does not include someone physically accessing my machine, so an unencrypted boot partition works fine for me. Setting up a trusted boot sequence sounds interesting, but it's a project for another time.

Why LUKS and not native-ZFS encryption?

I chose to go with using LUKS to encrypt the entire disk and run ZFS from within it. LUKS has been around for a while and there is plenty of tooling/documentation/guides around it, so it seemed like a safe approach.

ZFS apparently supports natively encrypting the disk, which avoids some double indirection when trimming SSD blocks (and then having the decryption mapper propagate those to the device). There are some potential security concerns (like leaking dataset names/sizes and dedup tables), but none of them are within my threat model. What really convinced me against using native-ZFS encryption was the impression that the feature was somewhat newer, and I didn't want to risk having it eat my laundry...

Why use the allowDiscards flag with LUKS?

The allowDiscards option instructs the mapper to propagate trim commands issued by the underlying filesystem, which allows the SSD to better perform wear leveling. This option is disabled by default since there are some theoretical attack vectors from having it enabled (namely leaking which blocks are trimmed, an some potential oracle attacks if the attacker can influence what data is written to the disk).

Since this doesn't fit my threat model (namely someone gaining physical access to my disk) and since I am more worried about maintaining my SSD performance, I decided to enable this option.

Installation

On to the good stuff, actual installation steps start here! Note all commands should be run as root.

Installer preparation

  1. Download an installer and burn it to a bootable USB drive. Worth noting that if you already have an existing nix install you can create your own custom installer (e.g. if you're a power user or you need specific tools available during installation), but the base installer should cover all the bases.
  2. If there is an existing Windows installation on this machine (even if it is on an entirely separate drive), consider turning off the "Enable fast startup" option and rebooting before continuing. I had to do this to get my bluetooth/wifi (AX200) adapter to work (yay Windows hacks to gain speedup!).
  3. (Optional) if you have other drives in the machine, consider unplugging them to avoid accidentally overwriting the wrong disk due to a typo...
  4. Plug in the USB, reboot the computer, hit the appropriate keys during the BIOS, and boot into the USB

Partitioning the Disk

  1. If a graphical installer image was used, it should drop us in a desktop environment which should set up some basic stuff like networking. The rest of the commands all need root privileges, so open a terminal and switch to root to avoid having to prefix everything with sudo.

    sudo su
    
  2. Next, we need to figure out which disk we want to use.

    ls /dev
    
  3. In my case this is my second NVMe in this machine so I will be using nvme1n1, but you may see a different number based on what is connected. We'll store this in a variable to make it easier to copy-paste other commands, so make sure to replace the ... with your selected drive:

    DISK=/dev/...
    
  4. Next, it's time to partition the actual disk. I'm going to be creating the following partitions:

    • 1 GiB (unencrypted) boot partition - for storing the initial boot files
    • 32 MiB LUKS key partition - the key for the rest of the disk. This will be encrypted with a password that we remember (and type in during boot)
    • 32 GiB swap partition - for enabling system swap
    • The remainder of the drive will be our actual, usable, partition

    We're going to be using gdisk below, but if you know how to use another disk partition program, feel free to use it instead.

    gdisk "${DISK}"
    
    Click to expand!
    GPT fdisk (gdisk) version 1.0.5
    
    Partition table scan:
      MBR: not present
      BSD: not present
      APM: not present
      GPT: not present
    
    Creating new GPT entries in memory.
    
    Command (? for help): o
    This option deletes all partitions and creates a new protective MBR.
    Proceed? (Y/N): Y
    
    Command (? for help): n
    Partition number (1-128, default 1):
    First sector (34-1953525134, default = 2048) or {+-}size{KMGTP}:
    Last sector (2048-1953525134, default = 1953525134) or {+-}size{KMGTP}: +1G
    Current type is 8300 (Linux filesystem)
    Hex code or GUID (L to show codes, Enter = 8300): EF00
    Changed type of partition to 'EFI system partition'
    
    Command (? for help): n
    Partition number (2-128, default 2): 2
    First sector (34-1953525134, default = 2099200) or {+-}size{KMGTP}:
    Last sector (2099200-1953525134, default = 1953525134) or {+-}size{KMGTP}: +32M
    Current type is 8300 (Linux filesystem)
    Hex code or GUID (L to show codes, Enter = 8300):
    Changed type of partition to 'Linux filesystem'
    
    Command (? for help): c
    Partition number (1-2): 2
    Enter name: luks key
    
    Command (? for help): n
    Partition number (3-128, default 3):
    First sector (34-1953525134, default = 2164736) or {+-}size{KMGTP}:
    Last sector (2164736-1953525134, default = 1953525134) or {+-}size{KMGTP}: +32G
    Current type is 8300 (Linux filesystem)
    Hex code or GUID (L to show codes, Enter = 8300):
    Changed type of partition to 'Linux filesystem'
    
    Command (? for help): c
    Partition number (1-3): 3
    Enter name: swap
    
    Command (? for help): n
    Partition number (4-128, default 4):
    First sector (34-1953525134, default = 69273600) or {+-}size{KMGTP}:
    Last sector (69273600-1953525134, default = 1953525134) or {+-}size{KMGTP}:
    Current type is 8300 (Linux filesystem)
    Hex code or GUID (L to show codes, Enter = 8300):
    Changed type of partition to 'Linux filesystem'
    
    Command (? for help): c
    Partition number (1-4): 4
    Enter name: root
    
    Command (? for help): p
    Disk /dev/nvme1n1: 1953525168 sectors, 931.5 GiB
    Model: Samsung SSD 970 EVO Plus 1TB
    Sector size (logical/physical): 512/512 bytes
    Disk identifier (GUID): 22610B10-DB5F-467D-8B9E-ECD88878ABA5
    Partition table holds up to 128 entries
    Main partition table begins at sector 2 and ends at sector 33
    First usable sector is 34, last usable sector is 1953525134
    Partitions will be aligned on 2048-sector boundaries
    Total free space is 2014 sectors (1007.0 KiB)
    
    Number  Start (sector)    End (sector)  Size       Code  Name
       1            2048         2099199   1024.0 MiB  EF00  EFI system partition
       2         2099200         2164735   32.0 MiB    8300  luks key
       3         2164736        69273599   32.0 GiB    8300  swap
       4        69273600      1953525134   898.5 GiB   8300  root
    
    Command (? for help): w
    
    Final checks complete. About to write GPT data. THIS WILL OVERWRITE EXISTING
    PARTITIONS!!
    
    Do you want to proceed? (Y/N): Y
    OK; writing new GUID partition table (GPT) to /dev/nvme1n1.
    The operation has completed successfully.
    

LUKS Setup

  1. Now that the disk is partitioned, it's time to turn on encryption! First we'll initialize our cryptkey partition and fill it with random data. This will eventually become the key to decrypt our actual drive. Note that this is the day-to-day password used to unlock the computer at boot.

    cryptsetup luksFormat --type luks1 "${DISK}p2"
    cryptsetup luksOpen "${DISK}p2" cryptkey
    dd if=/dev/urandom of=/dev/mapper/cryptkey bs=1024 status=progress
    
  2. Next, we initialize the swap partition (which will share the same key written to our cryptkey partition along with the rest of the drive). Note that there is no backup key set for this partition, but there should never be any reason to try to recover any data written in the swap in case the cryptkey partition is damaged.

    cryptsetup luksFormat --type luks1 --keyfile-size 8192 --key-file /dev/mapper/cryptkey "${DISK}p3"
    # Mount the partition after creation
    cryptsetup luksOpen --keyfile-size 8192 --key-file /dev/mapper/cryptkey "${DISK}p3" cryptswap
    
  3. Now it's time to encrypt the rest of the drive. Note that first we'll initialize the drive with a backup passphrase. Make this a strong password (e.g. diceware) and write it down and store is someplace safe. If the cryptkey partition becomes damaged, this will be the only way to recover the data on the drive!

    # Initialize with a passphrase
    cryptsetup luksFormat --type luks1 "${DISK}p4"
    # Add the cryptkey partition as a keyfile for unlocking during boot
    cryptsetup luksAddKey --new-keyfile-size 8192 "${DISK}p4" /dev/mapper/cryptkey
    
  4. Finally, mount the root partition. Note the use of --allow-discards which may be a security risk. Read about the choices and assumptions above as to why I have chosen to use this flag, but feel free to omit it if desired.

    cryptsetup luksOpen --keyfile-size 8192 --key-file /dev/mapper/cryptkey --allow-discards "${DISK}p4" cryptroot
    
  5. Note that some guides recommend filling the drive with random data before doing the encryption to avoid leaking information about how big the drive is and which blocks are encrypted, etc. I am going to omit this step since I want to avoid wearing out my SSD,

Filesystem setup

  1. Initialize the boot partition as vfat

    mkfs.vfat "${DISK}p1"
    
  2. Initialize the swap partition

    mkswap /dev/mapper/cryptswap
    
  3. Next, it's time to initialize zfs. Feel free to pick any pool name you want, but consider keeping it unique if you manage other zfs pools elsewhere

    POOL=nvme-pool # change as desired
    zpool create "${POOL}" /dev/mapper/cryptroot
    # autotrim enabled to maintain SSD performance
    zpool set autotrim=on "${POOL}"
    
  4. Create the desired root datasets (or mounts) in the pool. Note that at the time of writing, using mountpoint=legacy is required for correct NixOS interoperation.

    zfs create -o compression=on -o mountpoint=legacy "${POOL}/local"
    zfs create -o compression=on -o mountpoint=legacy "${POOL}/system"
    zfs create -o compression=on -o mountpoint=legacy "${POOL}/user"
    zfs create -o compression=on -o mountpoint=legacy "${POOL}/reserved"
    
  5. Set a variable with the default username you wish to use which we'll use for creating a home directory later

    MY_USER=...
    
  6. Next, we create any child datasets. Note that the acltype=posixacl flag is required wherever /var will be mounted, so that users can access their own journal logs

    zfs create -o xattr=sa -o acltype=posixacl "${POOL}/system/var"
    
    zfs create "${POOL}/system/root"
    zfs create "${POOL}/user/home"
    zfs create "${POOL}/user/home/${MY_USER}"
    
  7. Set a quota and reservation on the reserved data set. This will ensure that the disk always has the specified amount of space available, and since we will never mount this partition, we're effectively saving some space from never being written (i.e. over-provisioning the SSD to maintain its performance)

    zfs set reservation=100G "${POOL}/reserved"
    zfs set quota=100G "${POOL}/reserved" # ensure we can't accidentally write more than 100G to this partition
    
  8. Next, we enable local snapshotting so that we can quickly recover past state if something goes wrong. Note that we only need to snapshot user data and the system root. Other easily-rebuilt partitions (like local) don't need snapshotting enabled. Also note that the actual snapshot frequency will be managed by our NixOS configuration

    zfs set com.sun:auto-snapshot=true "${POOL}/system"
    zfs set com.sun:auto-snapshot=true "${POOL}/user"
    
  9. Lastly, mount everything! If you forget to mount a zfs dataset to the right place, then data may get written in the wrong place and fail during boot!

    • I made the mistake of forgetting to mount the /nix/store path on the new drive. The installer happily filled the root partition with the data, but when my configuration correctly mounted the right dataset during boot, suddenly all the packages were missing!
    # Mount the root partition itself
    mount -t zfs "${POOL}/system/root" /mnt
    
    # Make directory entries for the subsequent mounts
    mkdir -p /mnt/boot
    mkdir -p /mnt/nix
    mkdir -p /mnt/var
    mkdir -p "/mnt/home/${MY_USER}"
    
    # Mount the boot partition
    mount "${DISK}p1" /mnt/boot
    
    # Mount the rest of our zfs datasets
    mount -t zfs "${POOL}/local/nix" /mnt/nix
    mount -t zfs "${POOL}/system/var" /mnt/var
    mount -t zfs "${POOL}/user/home/${MY_USER}" "/mnt/home/${MY_USER}"
    

NixOS installation

  1. Finally it's time to get nix involved! Run the generation command below and it should do a good job at auto-detecting any hardware and filesystem configurations

    nixos-generate-config --root /mnt
    
  2. Edit the generated config in /mnt/etc/nixos/configuration.nix. If you're new to NixOS, or missing your favorite editor/environment setup, consider lightly tweaking the default config (e.g. turning on ssh, setting up networking, etc.) to get things going and come back to flesh it out later. But before we continue there are a few more things to double check:

    1. Make sure that the initrd.luks.devices are correctly configured. If anything is missing, or the disk uuid is incorrect, carefully update the config and double check everything
    2. Also carefully note that the cryptkey declaration shows up before any other partions which are unlocked by it!
    3. Make sure to update the keyFileSize parameter to whatever was used during initialization
    4. Also make sure to set the allowDiscards flag if used above (noting the security caveats from before)
    5. Make sure that all filesystems are correctly mapped to their zfs data sets.
    6. Add any missing boot.initrd.availableKernelModules. For example, I had to add "amdgpu" to fix some screen resolution issues during early boot.
    7. Add your default user and set their home directory
  3. Time to actually install NixOS now! After the initial install is done, reboot and hope everything went well...

    nixos-install
    reboot
    
  4. If you got this far and were able to log in, congrats, you did it! A few more things to consider doing:

    • Change the password for your default user
    • Change the root password, or even better, lock the root account so no one can log into it directly