nixos-rebuild is the command you run to bring your system’s configuration in line with /etc/nixos/configuration.nix.

What happens behind the scenes is the following:

Your system configuration is evaluated

This typically means evaluating /etc/nixos/configuration.nix in the context of a set of packages. The set of packages is the one pointed to by the NIX_PATH variable – specifically, the part after nixpkgs=:

echo $NIX_PATH
/home/asymmetric/.nix-defexpr/channels nixpkgs=/nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/root/channels/nixos nixos-config=/etc/nixos/configuration.nix /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/root/channels

Packages are downloaded/built

including nix itself! That’s why you see two building/downloading sections

A system profile is created

System profiles are directories in the nix store encapsulating a snapshot of the system state:

  • system-wide binaries
  • kernel options
  • files in /etc
  • manpages
  • shared libraries

A system profile store path could look something like /nix/store/a50aw2gj9dsn1yk3dsp33xw5y9zqfih9-nixos-system-asbesto-19.09.1484.84586a4514d.

These directories are symlinked into well-known, human-readable locations; the location depends on whether the profile is a running or a boot one.

  • The running system profile is the one currently active on your system, and it’s volatile: it is symlinked in /run/current-system, meaning that when your system reboots, it will be lost.
  • The boot system profile is the one your machine booted from, or will boot from. It’s symlinked at /nix/var/nix/profiles/system, and is therefore persistent. Your bootloader contains an entry that tells it to load the kernel pointed to by the /nix/var/nix/profiles/system/kernel symlink.

Why do we need this distinction? It is to allow users to test a new system configuration out, before adding an entry into the bootloader (achieved via nixos-rebuild test); or to add an entry to the bootloader, without changing the running system (nixos-rebuild boot).

User profiles

User profiles exist alongside system profiles, and encapsulate a user’s view of the system (binaries, manpages, etc.)

They are symlinked under /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/$(whoami)/.

A user’s $PATH variable points to their current user profile’s /bin:

echo $PATH
/run/wrappers/bin /home/asymmetric/.nix-profile/bin /nix/var/nix/profiles/default/bin /run/current-system/sw/bin

As you can see above, the user’s profile is also symlinked at ~/.nix-profile. Additionally, there’s a profile called default - this is the “global” user profile: if you run nix-env -i as root, packages installed will be available to all users of the system.


Name Actions Locations Persistent Rollback
boot system profile nixos-rebuild boot~/~switch /nix/var/nix/profiles/system
running system profile nixos-rebuild test~/~switch /run/current-system
user profile nix-env -i /nix/var/nix/profiles/per-user/$(whoami)[1] ❌[2]
default user profile nix-env -i[3] /nix/var/nix/profiles/default
  1. Also symlinked at ~/.nix-profile

  2. Rollback implemented by Home Manager

  3. When run as root