Merging records

In Nickel, the basic building blocks for data are records (objects in JSON or attribute sets in Nix). Merging is a fundamental built-in operation whose role is to combine records together. Fields common to several records will be themselves recursively merged if possible, following the semantics described in this document.

Merging is useful to compose small and logical blocks into a potentially complex final configuration, making it more manageable. A merge is performed by the & operator.

Merge is a symmetric operation (or, pedantically, commutative). In practice, this means that order doesn't matter, and left & right is the same thing as right & left. When the operands need to be distinguished, as we will see for default values for example, the idea is to use metadata to do so (annotations), rather than relying on the left or right position.

Warning: At the time of writing, Nickel's version is 0.1. Important additions to merging are planned for coming versions, including priorities and custom merge functions. They are not detailed here yet. For more details, see the associated technical document RFC001.

The section describes the behavior and use-cases of merge, by considering the following situations:

Simple merge (no common fields)

Merging two records with no common fields results in a record with the fields from both operands. That is, {foo = 1, bar = "bar"} & {baz =false} evaluates to {foo = 1, bar = "bar", baz = false}.

Specification

Technically, if we write the left operand as:

left = {
  field_left_1 = value_left_1,
  ..,
  field_left_n = value_left_n,
}

And the right operand as:

right {
  field_right_1 = value_right_1,
  ..,
  field_right_k = value_right_k
}

Then the merge left & right evaluates to the record:

{
  field_left_1 = value_left_1,
  ..,
  field_left_n = value_left_n,
  field_right_1 = value_right_1,
  ..,
  field_right_k = value_right_k
}

In other terms, left & right is the union of left and right.

Examples

Split

You can split a configuration into subdomains:

# file: server.ncl
{
    host_name = "example",
    host = "example.org",
    ip_addr = "0.0.0.0",
}

# file: firewall.ncl
{
    enable_firewall = true,
    open_ports = [23, 80, 443],
}

# file: network.ncl
let server = import "server.ncl" in
let firewall = import "firewall.ncl" in
server & firewall

This gives:

{
    host_name = "example",
    host = "example.org",
    ip_addr = "0.0.0.0",
    enable_firewall = true,
    open_ports = [23, 80, 443],
}

Extension

Given a configuration, you can use merge to add new fields:

# file: safe-network.ncl
let base = import "network.ncl" in
base & {use_iptables = true}

Recursive merge (with common fields)

When the two operands have fields in common, those fields are recursively merged. For example:

{
  top_left = 1,
  common = {left = "left"}}
& {
  top_right = 2,
  common = {right = "right"}
}

Evaluates to the record:

{
  top_left = 1,
  top_right = 2,
  common = {left = "left", right = "right"}
}

When one or both of the common fields are not records, the merge will fail unless one of the following condition hold:

  • They are both of a primitive data type Num, Bool, Enum, String and they are equal
  • They are both null

Specification

left = {
  field_left_1 = value_left_1,
  ..,
  field_left_n = value_left_n,
  common_1 = common_vleft_1,
  ..,
  common_m = common_vleft_m,
}

And the right operand as:

right {
  field_right_1 = value_right_1,
  ..,
  field_right_k = value_right_k
  common_1 = common_vright_1,
  ..,
  common_m = common_vright_m,
}

Where the field_left_i and field_right_j are distinct for all i and j. Then the merge left & right evaluates to the record:

{
  field_left_1 = value_left_1,
  ..,
  field_left_n = value_left_n,
  field_right_1 = value_right_1,
  ..,
  field_right_k = value_right_k
  common_1 = common_vleft_1 & common_vright_1,
  ..,
  common_m = common_vleft_m & common_vright_m,
}

For two values v1 and v2, if at least one value is not a record, then

v1 & v2 = v1    if (type_of(v1) is Num, Bool, Str, Enum or v1 == null)
                   AND v1 == v2
          _|_   otherwise (indicates failure)

Example

# file: udp.ncl
{
    # same as firewall = {open_ports = {udp = [...]}},
    firewall.open_ports.udp = [12345,12346],
}

# file: tcp.ncl
{
    # same as firewall = {open_ports = {tcp = [...]}},
    firewall.open_ports.tcp = [23, 80, 443],
}

# firewall.ncl
let udp = import "udp.ncl" in
let tcp = import "tcp.ncl" in
udp & tcp

In the above example, we merge two records, both with a field firewall. On both sides, the value is a record, which is therefore merged. The same process happens one layer below, on the common field open_ports, to result in the final record:

{
    firewall = {
      open_ports = {
        udp = [12345, 12346],
        tcp = [23, 80, 443],
      }
    }
}

Merging record with metadata

Metadata can be attached to values thanks to the | operator. Metadata currently includes contract annotations, default value, and documentation. We describe in this section how metadata interacts with merging.

Default values

A default annotation can be used to provide a base value, but let it be overridable through merging. For example, {foo | default = 1} & {foo = 2} evaluates to {foo = 2}. Without the default value, this merge would have failed with a non mergeable fields error, because merging being symmetric, it doesn't know how to combine 1 and 2 in a generic and meaningful way.

Specification

We can consider the merging system to feature priorities. To each field definition foo = val is associated a priority p(val). When merging two common fields value_left and value_right, then the results is either the one with the highest priority (that overrides the other), or the two are tentatively recursively merged, if the priorities are the same. Without loss of generality, we consider the simple case of two records with only one field, which is the same on both side:

{common = left} & {common = right}
= {
  common = left          if p(left) > p(right)
           right         if p(left) < p(right)
           left & right  if p(left) = p(right)
}

Currently, there are only two priorities, normal (by default, when nothing is specified) and the default one, with default < normal. We plan to add more in the future (see RFC001).

Example

Let us stick to our firewall example. Thanks to default values, we set the most restrictive configuration by default, which can still be overridden if needed.

Let us first try without default values:

let base = {
  firewall.enabled = true,
  firewall.type = "iptables",
  firewall.open_ports = [21, 80, 443],
} in
let patch = {
  firewall.enabled = false,
  server.host.options = "TLS",
} in
base & patch

Because merging is meant to be symmetric, Nickel is unable to know which value to pick between enabled = true and enabled = false for the firewall, and thus fail:

error: non mergeable terms
  ┌─ repl-input-0:2:22
  │
2 │   firewall.enabled = true,
  │                      ^^^^ cannot merge this expression
  ·
7 │   firewall.enabled = false,
  │                      ^^^^^ with this expression

We can use default values to give the priority to the right side:

let base = {
  firewall.enabled | default = true,
  firewall.type | default = "iptables",
  firewall.open_ports | default = [21, 80, 443],
} in
let patch = {
  firewall.enabled = false,
  server.host.options = "TLS",
} in
base & patch

This evaluates to:

{
  firewall = {
    enabled = false,
    open_ports = [21, 80, 443],
    type = "iptables",
  },
  server = {
    host = {
      "options": "TLS"
    }
  }
}

Contracts

Note: see the correctness section and the contracts section for a thorough introduction to contracts in Nickel.

Fields may have contracts attached, either directly, as in {foo | Num = 1}, or propagated from an annotation higher up, as in {foo = 1} | {foo | Num}. In both cases, foo must satisfy the contract Num. What happens if the value of foo is altered in a subsequent merge? For example:

  • Should {foo | default | Num = 1} & {foo = "bar"} succeed, although foo would be a string in the final result?
  • Should {foo.subfield | Str = "a"} & {foo.other_subfield = 1} succeed, although a closed contract {subfield | Str} is attached to foo, and the final result would have an additional field other_subfield ?

Nickel chooses to answer no to both. In general, when a contract is attached to a field foo, merging ensures that whatever is this field merged with, including being dropped in favor of another value, the final value for foo has to respect the contract as well or the evaluation will fail accordingly.

Specification

For two operands with one field each, which is the same on both side, with respective contracts Left1, .., Leftn and Right1, .., Rightk attached:

left = {
  common | Left1
         | ..
         | Leftn
}

And

right = {
  common | Right1
         | ..
         | Rightk
}

Then the common field of left & right will be checked against Left1, .., Leftn, Right1, .., Rightk. Here, we ignore the case of type annotations such as common: LeftType that can just be considered as an additional contract Left0.

Example

let Port
  | doc "A valid port number"
  = contract.from_predicate (fun value =>
    builtin.is_num value &&
    value % 1 == 0 &&
    value >= 0 &&
    value <= 65535) in
let GreaterThan
  | doc "A number greater than the parameter"
  = fun x => contract.from_predicate (fun value => value > x) in

{
    port | GreaterThan 1024
         | default = 8080,
} & {
    port | Port = 80,
}

This fails at evaluation:

error: contract broken by a value.
[..]
   ┌─ repl-input-1:16:19
   │
16 │     port | Port = 80,
   │                   ^^ applied to this expression

note:
   ┌─ repl-input-1:13:12
   │
13 │     port | GreaterThan 1024
   │            ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ bound here

Documentation

Documentation is attached via the doc keyword. Documentation is propagated during merging. For example, querying foo by using the command nickel -f config.ncl query foo on:

# config.ncl
{
  foo | doc "Some documentation"
      | = {}
} & {
  foo.field = null,
}

Will print "Some documentation" as expected. If both sides have documentation, the behavior is unspecified, as merging two distinct blobs of text doesn't make sense in general. Currently, Nickel will randomly keeps one of the two in practice.

Recursive overriding

We've seen in the section on default values that they are useful to override (update) a single field with a different value. The combo of merging and default values can do more. In Nickel, records are recursive by default, in order to express easily dependencies between the different fields of the configuration. Concretely, you can refer to other fields of a record from within this record:

let base_config = {
  version | default = "20.09",
  input.url | default = "nixpkgs/nixos-%{version}",
} in
base_config

Here, we referred to version from the input field transparently. This configuration evaluates to:

{
  version = "20.09",
  input = {url = "nixpkgs/nixos-20.09"},
}

Merging handles overriding on recursive record too. More precisely, when we override the default value of version, the fields that depend on version -- here, input -- will also be updated automatically. For example, base_config & {version = "unstable"} will evaluate to:

{
  version = "unstable",
  input = {url = "nixpkgs/nixos-unstable"},
}

Currently, one can only override a field that has been marked as default beforehand. A more ergonomic way of overriding is planned, and described in RFC001.

Example

Here is another variation of recursive overriding on our firewall example:

let security = {
    firewall.open_proto.http | default = true,
    firewall.open_proto.https | default = true,
    firewall.open_proto.ftp | default = true,
    firewall.open_ports = []
        @ (if firewall.open_proto.ftp then [21] else [])
        @ (if firewall.open_proto.http then [80] else [])
        @ (if firewall.open_proto.https then [443] else []),
} in # => security.firewall.open_ports = [21, 80, 443]
security & {firewall.open_proto.ftp = false} # => firewall.open_ports = [80, 443]

Here, security.firewall.open_ports is [21, 80, 443]. But in the returned configuration (let's call it result), result.firewall.open_ports = [80, 443].