The Nickel User Manual

Nickel is a generic 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.

Getting started

To get a Nickel binary working and run you first program, please follow the Getting Started section of the website.

Current state and roadmap

Nickel has been released in version 0.1. This version should be functional, it is intended to gather feedback and real-life testing. Nickel 0.1 isn't intended to be used in production. The next steps we plan to work on are:

  • Nix integration: being able to seamlessly use Nickel to write shells, packages and NixOS modules.
  • Custom merge functions and priorities (second part of the overriding proposal)
  • Performance improvements

Content

This document is a detailed documentation on the main aspects of the language. It is composed of the following sections:

  1. Syntax
  2. Merging
  3. Correctness
  4. Contracts
  5. Typing