A Dotfile History

Posted on 2022-04-11

Much has changed since I made a brief post about my dotfiles and which tools I use, but my fondness for managed dotfiles has not changed. Being able to track the changes I make to setup on one machine greatly reduces the complexity of setting up new ones or apply the changes to the other machines that I use.

This post started as a sub-section of a more elaborate post describing to how to manage full system configurations using nix flakes. However, as I continued writing I realized that what was intended as a slight digressions grew out of proportions and would probably be better as an individual post entirely.

I respect that not everyone cares about how I managed dotfiles in the past, but I’m sure most people have a turbulent relationship with dotfiles in one way or another so the following post might be interesting to you. In any case, I write this mostly for myself to remember.

Primordial soup, aka rotfiles

In my early days of Linux I’m fairly certain I didn’t have any management of dotfiles at all. The first memory I have of any kind of “dotfile curation” was a .vimrc copied between myself and a few friends. I definitely did not use any form of version control. No application to manage or install configurations. No consideration regarding which version or even which applications were installed on a machine nor any means of upgrading existing applications and configurations.

Configuration files were left to rot or forgotten on decommissioned machines and through the means of “customization” Darwinism only the most fit1 tweaks would stand a chance of surviving. While without sensible tracking and diffing, useful changes to configuration files on one system would easily be forgotten and eventually lost.

One of the first attempts I remember of keeping my dotfiles on a leash was to turn my user home directory into a git repository. By this I mean to simply git init inside of $HOME. At the time it must have felt like the greatest idea ever, but it quickly turns out there are a bunch of issues with this approach. Most of which I no longer remember, but I imagine just the fact that any git related tool (like a bash prompt status) used under $HOME will always detect that it’s running in some git worktree would suck quite bad. Similarly, without smart use of e.g. excludes there will always be a bunch of untracked files in the worktree.

It must have felt promising then to stumble over the Ask HN: What do you use to manage dotfiles? post over at the orange site. The top-rated comment details how to rather use a bare git repository somewhere under $HOME and defining a shell alias setting the --git-dir and --work-tree to point to the bare repo and $HOME respectively:

git init --bare $HOME/.myconf
alias config='/usr/bin/git --git-dir=$HOME/.myconf/ --work-tree=$HOME'
config config status.showUntrackedFiles no

The date of the Hacker News thread (February 10th, 2016) suspiciously coincides with the first commit of my dotfiles repo that I still have to this date2:

commit 61a3f80babec8c1339391462590dafe7ff30fe7f
Author: Martin Myrseth <mm@myme.no>
Date:   Wed Feb 10 11:59:23 2016 +0100

    Inital import of tuple

From the .zshrc of that commit:

alias conf="GIT_DIR=~/.dotfiles GIT_WORK_TREE=~ git"

I don’t think I was very impressed by this workflow because less than a year later I seem to have made the decision to switch setup again (without a mention as to why):

commit 6b0faf6ced6b20669fb3bab8b68617e94ea3ffb9
Author: Martin Myrseth <mm@myme.no>
Date:   Wed Dec 21 10:53:02 2016 +0100

    Switch to a GNU Stow based setup

As the commit message above hints at I made the decision to stop having git mess about with files in my user home and use a more specialized tool the job. GNU stow is a general purpose “link farm” manager which merges and replicates distinct directory structures in a single location using symbolic links. In fact it’s actually quite similar to how complete nix profiles are built from merging together the build outputs of many smaller nix packages using symbolic links.

This is quite useful for dotfiles management as the symbolic links allow for all the configurations to be stored in a git repository in an arbitrary location on disk, but then installed into $HOME. At the same time the symbolic links ensure that changes made to files under $HOME are reflected back into the repository.

One thing that I think makes the Stow approach superior to the bare git repo approach is that Stow can manage sub-parts of the configurations independently. It’s relatively easy to exclude or remove unwanted sections of the configurations simply by not installing them or using Stow’s remove action. git on the other hand would see such a removal as a file deletion forcing either keeping a dirty local configuration state or having to create dedicated branches for host configurations3.

One of the downsides of Stow is that it forces the directory structure in the source location to match how it’s supposed to end up in the destination location. This can put unwanted restrictions on the structure of a configuration repository. Additionally, since Stow only manages files and directory structures it does not provide much help in building and managing applications (this is a major selling-point for e.g. Home Manager, as we’ll get to).

In order to ensure that the applications (and plugins) that I use were available I resorted to a combination of git submodules:

 git submodule
-21063bcd924bd8efb65eb36b2fe12ffd6ed1b6a5 bash/.bash/bash-git-prompt
+c7753adbb301dcb647dc96d182c28b228551890e emacs/.emacs.d (v2.0-14235-gc7753adbb)
-f0fe79dd3bb4b782ad6040c970b4bfc818729f05 fzf/apps/fzf
-d049fdfeef422933912c66245a50904ee98f86d0 haskell/apps/haskell-ide-engine
-2f9947b7b966a0da31528f987bee3bf274c4ae82 i3/apps/i3-gnome
-909900a553443beb75ee47f7354da26b43a2c1b6 shell/apps/gogh
 26d9ace1b47f4591b2afdf333442a498311b6ace tmux/.tmux/plugins/tpm (v3.0.0-45-g26d9ace)

and a Makefile:

APT := sudo apt

 $(APT) install build-essential mu4e isync
 $(APT) build-dep emacs25
 (cd ~/apps/emacs && ./autogen.sh && ./configure && make -j)
 ./install emacs

# https://fontawesome.com/v4.7.0
 wget https://fontawesome.com/v4.7.0/assets/font-awesome-4.7.0.zip -P /tmp
 xdg-open /tmp/font-awesome-4.7.0.zip

 $(APT) install i3 i3blocks compton rofi gnome-flashback gnome-power-manager gnome-screensaver feh session-shortcuts
 sudo make -C i3/apps/i3-gnome install

 $(APT) install haskell-stack
 stack upgrade
 stack install hindent hlint

 $(APT) install virtualenv virtualenvwrapper

 wget -O gogh https://git.io/vQgMr && chmod +x gogh && ./gogh && rm gogh

.PHONY: all emacs fonts haskell i3 python term

I shudder looking back at this “crap”, but to be honest things could probably have been much worse. At least with a Makefile there is a place listing which packages and processes likely were run on a machine. I say “likely” because there’s no guarantee all commends were ever run.

Of course there are a number of obvious flaws here:

Building emacs from source this way requires system-wide installation of emacs’s build dependencies. There were a bunch of auxiliary applications to ensure i3 ran the way I wanted, kept “miles” away from the i3 configuration. Installing Haskell and Python tools system-wide with apt, while having a much more manually download process for fonts and theme manager applications. Perhaps most of all there seems to be very little cohesion between applications and their associated configurations, as well as no consistent tracking of installed content. Cleanup must have been a pain (or I never did).

The Age of Enlightenment: NixOS

Fate eventually lead me to install NixOS on my first couple of machines back in 2019. And for a while I stuck with my stow based dotfile setup.

There’s really not a whole lot of configuration necessary to have a fully functional NixOS installation. The defaults are often enough to get a machine running, with the exception of some hardware or network configuration. In fact, I found the NixOS text-based installation flow is so surprisingly simple I fear people run a risk of gaining unfounded4 confidence early on in their first NixOS encounter.

According to the NixOS options search NixOS has thousands of options. Not only has NixOS the appeal of reproducibility and declarative configuration, but every part of a system configuration can be tweaked and molded into whichever shape.

However, I suspect for the majority of people who venture into the world of NixOS and who do not have a pre-existing experience with nix start off by only managing system configurations declaratively using /etc/nixos/configuration.nix. There’s no obvious way for newcomers to include their user profiles and everything else under $HOME in the global system NixOS configuration.

Even when using NixOS it’s easy to miss out of the full advantage of using nix through and through. I assume many newbies (like myself at that point) start by managing $USER apps imperatively using nix-env. Then eventually thinking that this is weirdly inconsistent with the declarative nixos-rebuild workflow. I turned to the Declarative Package Management section of the nixpkgs manual:

# Put something like this into ~/.config/nixpkgs/config.nix
  packageOverrides = pkgs: with pkgs; {
    myPackages = pkgs.buildEnv {
      name = "my-packages";
      paths = [

This would allow installing everything using nix-env -iA nixpkgs.myPackages, which surely felt a whole lot better. It’s a nice complement to the stow based approach providing a means of installing applications. This means I couldn’t yet purge Stow from my setup as it was responsible for providing the configs of all the apps I might choose to install. Perhaps worse is the fact that there are scary impurities of using packageOverrides (and global overlays) that I won’t elaborate on now.

The Industrial Age: Home manager

It’s inevitable for anybody who survive long enough in the NixOS world to encounter Home Manager. The README.md states:

This project provides a basic system for managing a user environment using the Nix package manager together with the Nix libraries found in Nixpkgs. It allows declarative configuration of user specific (non global) packages and dotfiles.

Home Manager reuses the same concepts and conventions found in the NixOS configurations to create a way to manage user profiles and dotfiles in pretty much the same declarative way. Not only does Home Manager provide a framework for building such configurations, but also curates and exposes modules for a multitude of options for many well-known applications and services.

One major shift of switching over to Home Manager is that not only does it generate configuration files, it also ensures all the required software for the given configuration is built. This is huge! With every approach I’ve used up to this point executables had to be installed separately from configurations. This could easily lead to inconsistencies between application versions and their respective configurations. Home Manager ensures that applications and configurations stay in sync through community effort.

I was skeptical at first to what I felt was handing over control of all configurations to pre-written “templates”, so I didn’t immediately jump on the band wagon. However, I eventually made the switch and quickly realized which superior solution to dotfile management it is. Furthermore, not only did it make my NixOS machines configuration better, it also works well on non-NixOS machines greatly simplifying the configuration management across all the machines I use.

commit 2ed03a3abd85fa35a2f9ab47ded79d1dce9b3826
Author: Martin Øinæs Myrseth <myrseth@gmail.com>
Date:   Fri Dec 6 15:32:20 2019 +0100

    nix: Add home.nix

    Initial commit of Home Manager

At this point I had a fairly automated and reproducible setup. My NixOS configuration was managing all system setup, then separately invoking Home Manager to generate my $USER configuration. Life was good, and has been good for a long time. In fact so good that I didn’t really see the flaw with this setup:

Hey yo! I know you like your config and all, but you know, it’s still not like managed as a single declarative unit.

Aw, poop… You’re right.

Re-provisioning a new or existing machine to match a certain configuration still requires a combination of commands for updates in addition to some first-time initial setup of e.g. Home Manager. Without up-to-date documentation this is bound to be non-reproducible and can easily lead to some pain.

The Next Ice Snowflake Age

What we want is a machine configuration where pretty much everything is declaratively defined in a single nix configuration hierarchy. Home Manager has a NixOS module, which allows it to be integrated into the build of NixOS generations. This removes the disconnect between system and user settings.

One remaining issue is that typically such a setup relies on nix channels to determine the specific version of nixpkgs being used to build the current NixOS generation. Channels are designed to be moving targets and which means that a configuration that built or ran successfully at some point can break in the future if the channel has been updated.

This non-determinism is one of the problems that flakes tries to address. For the last year or so I’ve increasingly adopted flakes into my workflow and have really begun to enjoy the benefits they bring. Locking down software project inputs is done by default and with less ceremony than earlier, which ensures I won’t forget to pin manually.


By combining the Home Manager module for NixOS and integrating everything into a flake I’ve eventually reached the point where pretty much everything required to get my machines up and running is handled through a single build step. Not only that, by using git to track configuration history and flakes pinning dependencies I can be much more certain that configurations that have worked in the past will continue to work in the future. This is great for rolling back experimental updates. Furthermore, with an automatically pinned configuration there’s much less hassle to follow the rolling release of NixOS unstable. Should stuff break, it’s just a matter of rolling back and sitting quietly for a little while.

I feel it’s a very exciting setup and would like to dive into the details, but those are saved for another post… Stay tuned!


  1. Fitness (biology)↩︎

  2. I seriously hope that I had some sort of tracking prior to this commit, because 2016 is really not that long ago. Let’s assume I filed some sort of configuration bankruptcy at that point and started a repo from scratch.↩︎

  3. I do manage my hosts and configurations using branches regardless. However, less differences between git branches makes porting configurations between hosts much easier.↩︎

  4. Using NixOS merely as a consumer of packages is actually very straight forward in many cases. The learning curve quickly steepens once you start looking into packaging and building your own software with nix.↩︎