"Cross-compilation" means compiling a program on one machine for another type of machine. For example, a typical use of cross-compilation is to compile programs for embedded devices. These devices often don't have the computing power and memory to compile their own programs. One might think that cross-compilation is a fairly niche concern. However, there are significant advantages to rigorously distinguishing between build-time and run-time environments! Significant, because the benefits apply even when one is developing and deploying on the same machine. Nixpkgs is increasingly adopting the opinion that packages should be written with cross-compilation in mind, and Nixpkgs should evaluate in a similar way (by minimizing cross-compilation-specific special cases) whether or not one is cross-compiling.

This chapter will be organized in three parts. First, it will describe the basics of how to package software in a way that supports cross-compilation. Second, it will describe how to use Nixpkgs when cross-compiling. Third, it will describe the internal infrastructure supporting cross-compilation.

Packaging in a cross-friendly manner

Platform parameters

Nixpkgs follows the conventions of GNU autoconf. We distinguish between 3 types of platforms when building a derivation: build, host, and target. In summary, build is the platform on which a package is being built, host is the platform on which it will run. The third attribute, target, is relevant only for certain specific compilers and build tools.

In Nixpkgs, these three platforms are defined as attribute sets under the names buildPlatform, hostPlatform, and targetPlatform. They are always defined as attributes in the standard environment. That means one can access them like:

{ stdenv, fooDep, barDep, ... }: ...stdenv.buildPlatform...


The "build platform" is the platform on which a package is built. Once someone has a built package, or pre-built binary package, the build platform should not matter and can be ignored.


The "host platform" is the platform on which a package will be run. This is the simplest platform to understand, but also the one with the worst name.


The "target platform" attribute is, unlike the other two attributes, not actually fundamental to the process of building software. Instead, it is only relevant for compatibility with building certain specific compilers and build tools. It can be safely ignored for all other packages.

The build process of certain compilers is written in such a way that the compiler resulting from a single build can itself only produce binaries for a single platform. The task of specifying this single "target platform" is thus pushed to build time of the compiler. The root cause of this is that the compiler (which will be run on the host) and the standard library/runtime (which will be run on the target) are built by a single build process.

There is no fundamental need to think about a single target ahead of time like this. If the tool supports modular or pluggable backends, both the need to specify the target at build time and the constraint of having only a single target disappear. An example of such a tool is LLVM.

Although the existence of a "target platform" is arguably a historical mistake, it is a common one: examples of tools that suffer from it are GCC, Binutils, GHC and Autoconf. Nixpkgs tries to avoid sharing in the mistake where possible. Still, because the concept of a target platform is so ingrained, it is best to support it as is.

The exact schema these fields follow is a bit ill-defined due to a long and convoluted evolution, but this is slowly being cleaned up. You can see examples of ones used in practice in; note how they are not all very consistent. For now, here are few fields can count on them containing:


This is a two-component shorthand for the platform. Examples of this would be "x86_64-darwin" and "i686-linux"; see for more. The first component corresponds to the CPU architecture of the platform and the second to the operating system of the platform ([cpu]-[os]). This format has built-in support in Nix, such as the builtins.currentSystem impure string.


This is a 3- or 4- component shorthand for the platform. Examples of this would be x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu and aarch64-apple-darwin14. This is a standard format called the "LLVM target triple", as they are pioneered by LLVM. In the 4-part form, this corresponds to [cpu]-[vendor]-[os]-[abi]. This format is strictly more informative than the "Nix host double", as the previous format could analogously be termed. This needs a better name than config!


This is a Nix representation of a parsed LLVM target triple with white-listed components. This can be specified directly, or actually parsed from the config. See for the exact representation.


This is a string identifying the standard C library used. Valid identifiers include "glibc" for GNU libc, "libSystem" for Darwin's Libsystem, and "uclibc" for µClibc. It should probably be refactored to use the module system, like parse.


These predicates are defined in, and slapped onto every platform. They are superior to the ones in stdenv as they force the user to be explicit about which platform they are inspecting. Please use these instead of those.


This is, quite frankly, a dumping ground of ad-hoc settings (it's an attribute set). See for examples—there's hopefully one in there that will work verbatim for each platform that is working. Please help us triage these flags and give them better homes!

Theory of dependency categorization


This is a rather philosophical description that isn't very Nixpkgs-specific. For an overview of all the relevant attributes given to mkDerivation, see The Standard Environment. For a description of how everything is implemented, see Cross-compilation.

In this section we explore the relationship between both runtime and build-time dependencies and the 3 Autoconf platforms.

A run time dependency between two packages requires that their host platforms match. This is directly implied by the meaning of "host platform" and "runtime dependency": The package dependency exists while both packages are running on a single host platform.

A build time dependency, however, has a shift in platforms between the depending package and the depended-on package. "build time dependency" means that to build the depending package we need to be able to run the depended-on's package. The depending package's build platform is therefore equal to the depended-on package's host platform.

If both the dependency and depending packages aren't compilers or other machine-code-producing tools, we're done. And indeed buildInputs and nativeBuildInputs have covered these simpler cases for many years. But if the dependency does produce machine code, we might need to worry about its target platform too. In principle, that target platform might be any of the depending package's build, host, or target platforms, but we prohibit dependencies from a "later" platform to an earlier platform to limit confusion because we've never seen a legitimate use for them.

Finally, if the depending package is a compiler or other machine-code-producing tool, it might need dependencies that run at "emit time". This is for compilers that (regrettably) insist on being built together with their source languages' standard libraries. Assuming build != host != target, a run-time dependency of the standard library cannot be run at the compiler's build time or run time, but only at the run time of code emitted by the compiler.

Putting this all together, that means that we have dependency types of the form "X→ E", which means that the dependency executes on X and emits code for E; each of X and E can be build, host, or target, and E can be * to indicate that the dependency is not a compiler-like package.

Dependency types describe the relationships that a package has with each of its transitive dependencies. You could think of attaching one or more dependency types to each of the formal parameters at the top of a package's .nix file, as well as to all of their formal parameters, and so on. Triples like (foo, bar, baz), on the other hand, are a property of an instantiated derivation -- you could would attach a triple (mips-linux, mips-linux, sparc-solaris) to a .drv file in /nix/store.

Only nine dependency types matter in practice:

Possible dependency types

Dependency type Dependency’s host platform Dependency’s target platform
build → * build (none)
build → build build build
build → host build host
build → target build target
host → * host (none)
host → host host host
host → target host target
target → * target (none)
target → target target target

Let's use g++ as an example to make this table clearer. g++ is a C++ compiler written in C. Suppose we are building g++ with a (build, host, target) platform triple of (foo, bar, baz). This means we are using a foo-machine to build a copy of g++ which will run on a bar-machine and emit binaries for the baz-machine.

  • g++ links against the host platform's glibc C library, which is a "host→ *" dependency with a triple of (bar, bar, *). Since it is a library, not a compiler, it has no "target".

  • Since g++ is written in C, the gcc compiler used to compile it is a "build→ host" dependency of g++ with a triple of (foo, foo, bar). This compiler runs on the build platform and emits code for the host platform.

  • gcc links against the build platform's glibc C library, which is a "build→ *" dependency with a triple of (foo, foo, *). Since it is a library, not a compiler, it has no "target".

  • This gcc is itself compiled by an earlier copy of gcc. This earlier copy of gcc is a "build→ build" dependency of g++ with a triple of (foo, foo, foo). This "early gcc" runs on the build platform and emits code for the build platform.

  • g++ is bundled with libgcc, which includes a collection of target-machine routines for exception handling and software floating point emulation. libgcc would be a "target→ *" dependency with triple (foo, baz, *), because it consists of machine code which gets linked against the output of the compiler that we are building. It is a library, not a compiler, so it has no target of its own.

  • libgcc is written in C and compiled with gcc. The gcc that compiles it will be a "build→ target" dependency with triple (foo, foo, baz). It gets compiled and run at g++-build-time (on platform foo), but must emit code for the baz-platform.

  • g++ allows inline assembler code, so it depends on access to a copy of the gas assembler. This would be a "host→ target" dependency with triple (foo, bar, baz).

  • g++ (and gcc) include a library, which wrap the compiler in a library to create a just-in-time compiler. In nixpkgs, this library is in the libgccjit package; if C++ required that programs have access to a JIT, g++ would need to add a "target→ target" dependency for libgccjit with triple (foo, baz, baz). This would ensure that the compiler ships with a copy of libgccjit which both executes on and generates code for the baz-platform.

  • If g++ itself linked against (for example, to allow compile-time-evaluated C++ expressions), then the libgccjit package used to provide this functionality would be a "host→ host" dependency of g++: it is code which runs on the host and emits code for execution on the host.

Cross packaging cookbook

Some frequently encountered problems when packaging for cross-compilation should be answered here. Ideally, the information above is exhaustive, so this section cannot provide any new information, but it is ludicrous and cruel to expect everyone to spend effort working through the interaction of many features just to figure out the same answer to the same common problem. Feel free to add to this list!

My package fails to find a binutils command (cc/ar/ld etc.)

Many packages assume that an unprefixed binutils (cc/ar/ld etc.) is available, but Nix doesn't provide one. It only provides a prefixed one, just as it only does for all the other binutils programs. It may be necessary to patch the package to fix the build system to use a prefix. For instance, instead of cc, use ${}cc.

makeFlags = [ "CC=${}cc" ];

How do I avoid compiling a GCC cross-compiler from source?

On less powerful machines, it can be inconvenient to cross-compile a package only to find out that GCC has to be compiled from source, which could take up to several hours. Nixpkgs maintains a limited cross-related jobset on Hydra, which tests cross-compilation to various platforms from build platforms "x86_64-darwin", "x86_64-linux", and "aarch64-linux". See pkgs/top-level/release-cross.nix for the full list of target platforms and packages. For instance, the following invocation fetches the pre-built cross-compiled GCC for armv6l-unknown-linux-gnueabihf and builds GNU Hello from source.

$ nix-build '<nixpkgs>' -A pkgsCross.raspberryPi.hello

What if my package’s build system needs to build a C program to be run under the build environment?

Add the following to your mkDerivation invocation.

depsBuildBuild = [ ];

My package’s testsuite needs to run host platform code.

Add the following to your mkDerivation invocation.

doCheck = stdenv.buildPlatform.canExecute stdenv.hostPlatform;

Package using Meson needs to run binaries for the host platform during build.

Add mesonEmulatorHook to nativeBuildInputs conditionally on if the target binaries can be executed.


nativeBuildInputs = [
] ++ lib.optionals (!stdenv.buildPlatform.canExecute stdenv.hostPlatform) [

Example of an error which this fixes.

[Errno 8] Exec format error: './gdk3-scan'

Cross-building packages

Nixpkgs can be instantiated with localSystem alone, in which case there is no cross-compiling and everything is built by and for that system, or also with crossSystem, in which case packages run on the latter, but all building happens on the former. Both parameters take the same schema as the 3 (build, host, and target) platforms defined in the previous section. As mentioned above, has some platforms which are used as arguments for these parameters in practice. You can use them programmatically, or on the command line:

$ nix-build '<nixpkgs>' --arg crossSystem '(import <nixpkgs/lib>).systems.examples.fooBarBaz' -A whatever


Eventually we would like to make these platform examples an unnecessary convenience so that

$ nix-build '<nixpkgs>' --arg crossSystem '{ config = "<arch>-<os>-<vendor>-<abi>"; }' -A whatever

works in the vast majority of cases. The problem today is dependencies on other sorts of configuration which aren't given proper defaults. We rely on the examples to crudely to set those configuration parameters in some vaguely sane manner on the users behalf. Issue #34274 tracks this inconvenience along with its root cause in crufty configuration options.

While one is free to pass both parameters in full, there's a lot of logic to fill in missing fields. As discussed in the previous section, only one of system, config, and parsed is needed to infer the other two. Additionally, libc will be inferred from parse. Finally, localSystem.system is also impurely inferred based on the platform evaluation occurs. This means it is often not necessary to pass localSystem at all, as in the command-line example in the previous paragraph.


Many sources (manual, wiki, etc) probably mention passing system, platform, along with the optional crossSystem to Nixpkgs: import <nixpkgs> { system = ..; platform = ..; crossSystem = ..; }. Passing those two instead of localSystem is still supported for compatibility, but is discouraged. Indeed, much of the inference we do for these parameters is motivated by compatibility as much as convenience.

One would think that localSystem and crossSystem overlap horribly with the three *Platforms (buildPlatform, hostPlatform, and targetPlatform; see stage.nix or the manual). Actually, those identifiers are purposefully not used here to draw a subtle but important distinction: While the granularity of having 3 platforms is necessary to properly build packages, it is overkill for specifying the user's intent when making a build plan or package set. A simple "build vs deploy" dichotomy is adequate: the sliding window principle described in the previous section shows how to interpolate between the these two "end points" to get the 3 platform triple for each bootstrapping stage. That means for any package a given package set, even those not bound on the top level but only reachable via dependencies or buildPackages, the three platforms will be defined as one of localSystem or crossSystem, with the former replacing the latter as one traverses build-time dependencies. A last simple difference is that crossSystem should be null when one doesn't want to cross-compile, while the *Platforms are always non-null. localSystem is always non-null.

Cross-compilation infrastructure

Implementation of dependencies

The categories of dependencies developed in Cross-compilation are specified as lists of derivations given to mkDerivation, as documented in The Standard Environment. In short, each list of dependencies for "host → target" is called deps<host><target> (where host, and target values are either build, host, or target), with exceptions for backwards compatibility that depsBuildHost is instead called nativeBuildInputs and depsHostTarget is instead called buildInputs. Nixpkgs is now structured so that each deps<host><target> is automatically taken from pkgs<host><target>. (These pkgs<host><target>s are quite new, so there is no special case for nativeBuildInputs and buildInputs.) For example, pkgsBuildHost.gcc should be used at build-time, while pkgsHostTarget.gcc should be used at run-time.

Now, for most of Nixpkgs's history, there were no pkgs<host><target> attributes, and most packages have not been refactored to use it explicitly. Prior to those, there were just buildPackages, pkgs, and targetPackages. Those are now redefined as aliases to pkgsBuildHost, pkgsHostTarget, and pkgsTargetTarget. It is acceptable, even recommended, to use them for libraries to show that the host platform is irrelevant.

But before that, there was just pkgs, even though both buildInputs and nativeBuildInputs existed. [Cross barely worked, and those were implemented with some hacks on mkDerivation to override dependencies.] What this means is the vast majority of packages do not use any explicit package set to populate their dependencies, just using whatever callPackage gives them even if they do correctly sort their dependencies into the multiple lists described above. And indeed, asking that users both sort their dependencies, and take them from the right attribute set, is both too onerous and redundant, so the recommended approach (for now) is to continue just categorizing by list and not using an explicit package set.

To make this work, we "splice" together the six pkgsFooBar package sets and have callPackage actually take its arguments from that. This is currently implemented in pkgs/top-level/splice.nix. mkDerivation then, for each dependency attribute, pulls the right derivation out from the splice. This splicing can be skipped when not cross-compiling as the package sets are the same, but still is a bit slow for cross-compiling. We'd like to do something better, but haven't come up with anything yet.


Each of the package sets described above come from a single bootstrapping stage. While pkgs/top-level/default.nix, coordinates the composition of stages at a high level, pkgs/top-level/stage.nix "ties the knot" (creates the fixed point) of each stage. The package sets are defined per-stage however, so they can be thought of as edges between stages (the nodes) in a graph. Compositions like pkgsBuildTarget.targetPackages can be thought of as paths to this graph.

While there are many package sets, and thus many edges, the stages can also be arranged in a linear chain. In other words, many of the edges are redundant as far as connectivity is concerned. This hinges on the type of bootstrapping we do. Currently for cross it is:

  1. (native, native, native)

  2. (native, native, foreign)

  3. (native, foreign, foreign)

In each stage, pkgsBuildHost refers to the previous stage, pkgsBuildBuild refers to the one before that, and pkgsHostTarget refers to the current one, and pkgsTargetTarget refers to the next one. When there is no previous or next stage, they instead refer to the current stage. Note how all the invariants regarding the mapping between dependency and depending packages' build host and target platforms are preserved. pkgsBuildTarget and pkgsHostHost are more complex in that the stage fitting the requirements isn't always a fixed chain of "prevs" and "nexts" away (modulo the "saturating" self-references at the ends). We just special case each instead. All the primary edges are implemented is in pkgs/stdenv/booter.nix, and secondarily aliases in pkgs/top-level/stage.nix.


The native stages are bootstrapped in legacy ways that predate the current cross implementation. This is why the bootstrapping stages leading up to the final stages are ignored in the previous paragraph.

If one looks at the 3 platform triples, one can see that they overlap such that one could put them together into a chain like:

(native, native, native, foreign, foreign)

If one imagines the saturating self references at the end being replaced with infinite stages, and then overlays those platform triples, one ends up with the infinite tuple:

(native..., native, native, native, foreign, foreign, foreign...)

One can then imagine any sequence of platforms such that there are bootstrap stages with their 3 platforms determined by "sliding a window" that is the 3 tuple through the sequence. This was the original model for bootstrapping. Without a target platform (assume a better world where all compilers are multi-target and all standard libraries are built in their own derivation), this is sufficient. Conversely if one wishes to cross compile "faster", with a "Canadian Cross" bootstrapping stage where build != host != target, more bootstrapping stages are needed since no sliding window provides the pesky pkgsBuildTarget package set since it skips the Canadian cross stage's "host".


It is much better to refer to buildPackages than targetPackages, or more broadly package sets that do not mention “target”. There are three reasons for this.

First, it is because bootstrapping stages do not have a unique targetPackages. For example a (x86-linux, x86-linux, arm-linux) and (x86-linux, x86-linux, x86-windows) package set both have a (x86-linux, x86-linux, x86-linux) package set. Because there is no canonical targetPackages for such a native (build == host == target) package set, we set their targetPackages

Second, it is because this is a frequent source of hard-to-follow "infinite recursions" / cycles. When only package sets that don't mention target are used, the package set forms a directed acyclic graph. This means that all cycles that exist are confined to one stage. This means they are a lot smaller, and easier to follow in the code or a backtrace. It also means they are present in native and cross builds alike, and so more likely to be caught by CI and other users.

Thirdly, it is because everything target-mentioning only exists to accommodate compilers with lousy build systems that insist on the compiler itself and standard library being built together. Of course that is bad because bigger derivations means longer rebuilds. It is also problematic because it tends to make the standard libraries less like other libraries than they could be, complicating code and build systems alike. Because of the other problems, and because of these innate disadvantages, compilers ought to be packaged another way where possible.


If one explores Nixpkgs, they will see derivations with names like gccCross. Such *Cross derivations is a holdover from before we properly distinguished between the host and target platforms—the derivation with “Cross” in the name covered the build = host != target case, while the other covered the host = target, with build platform the same or not based on whether one was using its .__spliced.buildHost or .__spliced.hostTarget.