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Nickel

Continuous integration Website Discord

Nickel is the cheap configuration language.

Its purpose is to automate the generation of static configuration files - think JSON, YAML, XML, or your favorite data representation language - that are then fed to another system. It is designed to have a simple, well-understood core: it is in essence JSON with functions.

Nickel's salient traits are:

  • Lightweight: Nickel is easy to embed. An interpreter should be simple to implement. The reference interpreter can be called from many programming languages.
  • Composable code: the basic building blocks for computing are functions. They are first-class citizens, which can be passed around, called and composed.
  • Composable data: the basic building blocks for data are records (called objects in JSON). In Nickel, records can be merged at will, including associated metadata (documentation, default values, type contracts, etc).
  • Typed, but only when it helps: static types improve code quality, serve as documentation and eliminate bugs early. But application-specific self-contained code will always evaluate to the same value, so type errors will show up at runtime anyway. Some JSON is hard to type. There, types are only a burden. Whereas reusable code - that is, functions - is evaluated on potentially infinitely many different inputs, and is impossible to test exhaustively. There, types are precious. Nickel has types, but you get to choose when you want it or not, and it handles safely the interaction between the typed and the untyped world.
  • Design by contract: complementary to the type system, contracts are a principled approach to checking assertions. The interpreter automatically inserts assertions at the boundary between typed and untyped code. Nickel lets users add arbitrary assertions of their own and easily understand why when assertions fail.

The motto guiding Nickel's design is:

Great defaults, design for extensibility

There should be a standard, clear path for common things. There should be no arbitrary restrictions that limit what you can do you the one day you need to go beyond.

Use cases

Nickel is a good fit in any situation where you need to generate a complex configuration, be it for a single app, a machine, whole infrastructure, or a build system.

The motivating use cases are in particular:

  • The Nix package manager: Nix is a declarative package manager using its own language for specifying packages. Nickel is an evolution of the Nix language, while trying to overcome some of its limitations.
  • Infrastructure as code: infrastructure is becoming increasingly complex, requiring a rigorous approach to deployment, modification and configuration. This is where a declarative approach also shines, as adopted by Terraform, NixOps or Kubernetes, all requiring potentially complex generation of configuration.
  • Build systems: build systems (like Bazel) need a specification of the dependency graph.

Most aforementioned projects have their own bespoke configuration language. See Comparison. In general, application-specific languages might suffer from feature creep, lack of abstractions or just feel ad hoc. Nickel buys you more for less.

The Nickel ecosystem

Related projects that are part of the Nickel ecosystem:

  • Terraform-Nickel: write Terraform configuration with Nickel
  • Organist: batteries included environments with Nickel inside
  • json-schema-to-nickel: generate Nickel contracts from JSON schema specifications.
  • rules_nickel: generate configuration files using Nickel during a Bazel build
  • The nickel-lang organization hosts various smaller projects, including a tree-sitter grammar definition for Nickel and editor plugins.

Getting started

Please follow the getting started guide for Nickel users on the nickel-lang website. The instructions below are either reproduced for this document to be self-contained or because they are aimed toward hacking on the Nickel interpreter itself (e.g. building the nickel-lang-core crate documentation).

Run

  1. Get a Nickel binary:

    • With flake-enabled Nix, run Nickel directly with nix run github:tweag/nickel. You can use our binary cache to prevent rebuilding a lot of packages. Pass arguments to Nickel with an extra -- as in nix run github:tweag/nickel -- repl,
    • Again with flake-enabled Nix, you can install Nickel in your profile with nix profile add github:tweag/nickel. The nickel command is then in your $PATH and is available anywhere.
    • If you're running macOS you can use Homebrew to install the Nickel binary with brew install nickel.
    • Without Nix, you can use cargo run --bin nickel after building, passing arguments with an extra -- as in cargo run --bin nickel -- -f program.ncl.
  2. Run your first program:

    $ nickel eval <<< '["hello", "world"] |> std.string.join ", "'
    "hello, world"
    

    Or load it from a file:

    $ echo 'let s = "world" in "hello, %{s}"' > program.ncl
    $ nickel eval program.ncl
    "hello, world"
    
  3. Start a REPL:

    $ nickel repl
    nickel> {"hello" = true, "world" = true, "universe" = false}
      |> std.record.to_array
      |> std.array.filter (fun {field, value} => value)
      |> std.array.map (fun {field, value} => field)
      |> std.string.join ", "
    
    "hello, world"
    

    Use :help for a list of available commands.

  4. Export your configuration to JSON, YAML or TOML:

$ nickel export --format json <<< '{content = "hello, world"}'
{
  "content": "hello, world"
}

Use nickel help for a list of subcommands, and nickel help <subcommand> for help about a specific subcommand.

To get in touch, you can join our Discord server.

Editor Setup

Nickel has syntax highlighting plugins for Vim/Neovim, and VSCode. In-editor diagnostics, type hints, and auto-completion are provided by the Nickel Language Server. Please follow the LSP guide to set up syntax highlighting and NLS.

Formatting

Warning: because the cargo registry (crates.io) requires that all dependencies of Nickel are published there as well, the format feature isn't enabled when installing nickel with cargo install as of Nickel version 1.3.0. In this case, please use Topiary separately to format Nickel source code.

To format one or several Nickel source files, use nickel format:

nickel format network.ncl container.ncl api.ncl

Nickel uses Topiary to format Nickel code under the hood.

Please follow the Formatting Capabilities section of the LSP documentation to know how to hook up the Nickel LSP and Topiary in order to enable formatting inside your code editor.

Build

  1. Download build dependencies:

    • With Nix: If you have Nix installed:

      nix-shell # if you don't use Nix flakes
      nix develop # if you use Nix flakes
      

      You will be dropped in a shell, ready to build. You can use our binary cache to prevent rebuilding a lot of packages.

    • Without Nix: otherwise, follow this guide to install Rust and Cargo first.

  2. Build Nickel:

    cargo build -p nickel-lang-cli --release
    

    And voilà! Generated files are placed in target/release.

    You can directly build and run the Nickel binary and pass argument after -- by using cargo run:

    cargo run --bin nickel -- eval foo.ncl
    

Test

Run tests with

cargo test

Documentation

The user manual is available on the nickel-lang.org website, and in this repository as a collection of Markdown files in doc/manual.

To get the documentation of the nickel-lang codebase itself:

  1. Build the doc:

    cargo doc --no-deps
    
  2. Open the file target/doc/nickel/index.html in your browser.

Examples

You can find examples in the ./examples directory.

Current state and roadmap

Nickel is currently released in version 1.3. We expect the core design of the language to be stable and the language to be useful for real-world applications.

The next steps we plan to work on are:

  • Nix integration: being able to seamlessly use Nickel to write packages and shells (Organist)
  • Custom merge functions (second part of the overriding proposal)
  • Incremental evaluation: design an incremental evaluation model and a caching mechanism in order to perform fast re-evaluation upon small changes to a configuration.
  • Performance improvements

Comparison

  • CUE is a configuration language with a focus on data validation. It introduces a new constraint system backed by a solid theory which ensures strong guarantees about your code. It allows for very elegant schema specifications. In return, the cost to pay is to abandon functions and Turing-completeness. Nickel's merge system is inspired by the one of CUE, even if since Nickel does have general functions and is Turing-complete, they are necessarily different.
  • Nix: The Nix language, or Nix expressions, is one of the main inspirations for Nickel. It is a very simple yet powerful lazy functional language. We strive to retain this simplicity, while adding typing capabilities, modularity, and detaching the language from the Nix package manager.
  • Dhall is a statically typed configuration language. It is also inspired by Nix, to which it adds a powerful static type system. However, this forces the programmer to annotate all of their code with types.
  • Jsonnet is another language which could be dubbed as "JSON with functions" (and others things as well). It is a lazy functional language with object-oriented features, among which inheritance is similar to Nickel's merge system. One big difference with Nickel is the absence of typing.
  • KCL is a gradually typed configuration language whose validation is based on object-oriented schemas that can be extended through inheritance. Unlike the languages above, its evaluation is strict.
  • Pulumi is not a language in itself, but a cloud tool (like Terraform) where you can use your preferred language for describing your infrastructure. This is a different approach to the problem, with different trade-offs.
  • Starlark is the language of Bazel, which is a dialect of Python. It does not have types and recursion is forbidden, making it not Turing-complete.

See RATIONALE.md for the design rationale and a more detailed comparison with these languages.

Comparison with other configuration languages

Language Typing Recursion Evaluation Side-effects
Nickel Gradual (dynamic + static) Yes Lazy Yes (constrained, planned)
Starlark Dynamic No Strict No
Nix Dynamic Yes Lazy Predefined and specialized to package management
Dhall Static (requires annotations) Restricted Lazy No
CUE Static (everything is a type) No Lazy No, but allowed in the separated scripting layer
Jsonnet Dynamic Yes Lazy No
KCL Gradual (dynamic + static) Yes Strict No
JSON None No Strict No
YAML None No N/A No
TOML None No N/A No

Dependencies

~23–37MB
~573K SLoC