The other week I was trying to produce an invoice for my contracting services, which meant using the venerable GnuCash. Unfortunately for everyone involved, some combination of dates on the invoice resulted in a segfault when trying to print it. This led me to a rabbit hole of trying to produce debugging symbols. @ilkecan on the Nix matrix was most helpful in putting the pieces together. This post details what worked and what I expected to work but didn’t.

enableDebugging - pack debug info in the binary

This is probably the easiest way to get going, and it has two properties:

  • it disables optimisations
  • it packs debug information in the resulting binary.

This means that it is not particularly useful for shipping a derivation, but it is more than good enough for local debugging. For example,

nix show-derivation (env NIX_PATH=nixpkgs=$HOME/Code/nix/nixpkgs nix-instantiate  --expr "with import <nixpkgs> {}; enableDebugging gnucash")

dumps information about the new derivation. The interesting parts are under env, NIX_CFLAGS_COMPILE and dontStrip:

rski@neonauticus ~/C/n/nixpkgs ((21.05))> nix show-derivation (env NIX_PATH=nixpkgs=$HOME/Code/nix/nixpkgs nix-instantiate  --expr "with import <nixpkgs> {}; enableDebugging gnucash") | jq -r '.[].env.NIX_CFLAGS_COMPILE'
nix show-derivation (env NIX_PATH=nixpkgs=$HOME/Code/nix/nixpkgs nix-instantiate  --expr "with import <nixpkgs> {}; gnucash") | jq -r '.[].env.NIX_CFLAGS_COMPILE'

Compared to the original derivation, Nix has added a couple of extra flags to be passed to the compiler. Similarly, dontStrip is set to 1, so that the build stage that strips debug info from the binary does not do so.

To compile the binary:

env NIX_PATH=nixpkgs=$HOME/Code/nix/nixpkgs nix-build  --expr "with import <nixpkgs> {}; enableDebugging gnucash"

This produces a ./result/bin/gnucash symlink that points to the Nix store, which can be debugged with

gdb --args bash ./result/bin/gnucash

The Nix code of interest is under enableDebugging and keepDebugInfo.


One caveat worth mentioning at this point, is that at the time of writing it’s broken on the latest nixpkgs. This is the reason for using the 21.05 branch in the examples above.

Another problem that I encountered and have not figured out yet is that even on 21.05 nix-building gnucash works, but nix-building enableDebugging gnucash does not, as a warning kills the build. Currently, I am not sure what causes the compiler to emit the warning and/or consider it fatal.

On the plus side, the warning was fixed in GnuCash 4.6, so merely updating it in nixpkgs fixes that. I also had to submit a patch to fix another warning, which will be in the next version of GnuCash. As luck would have it, GnuCash 4.6 seems to have fixed my original problem too.

separateDebugInfo - keep debug info elsewhere in the store

separateDebugInfo is similar enough to enableDebugging, but has different properties:

  • the debug information is kept in a different path in the store
  • the binary does not have optimisations turned off.

This makes it safe to enable in a shipping derivation. In fact, various packages in nixpkgs do have it enabled by default,e.g.

rg -l "separateDebugInfo = true" pkgs/development/libraries/glibc/default.nix

The great advantage of this is that for slower to compile packages or low level packages where debug info is quite frequently useful, there is no need to recompile them locally. If the nixpkgs derivation has separateDebugInfo set, the debug info can be fetched from the cache.


I believe the biggest caveat at this point is figuring out what needs to be configured so that nix creates a symlink in a well known location pointing to the debug info in the store. Here is a case by case breakdown of what neeeds to be done and where the symlink ends up.

  • installing the package via nix-env

If you are installing the package via nix-env, the package needs to be overriden. The override will look something like:

gnucash.overrideAttrs (old: rec {
      name = "mygnucash";
      separateDebugInfo = true;
      meta = old.meta // { outputsToInstall = old.meta.outputsToInstall or [ "out" ] ++ [ "debug" ]; };

This is because nix-env only installs out. meta.outputsToInstall needs to explicitly contain the debug output. The Nix manual says that separateDebugInfo will automatically add debug to the derivation’s outputs, which is right. However, it might not be installed by default.

For a NixOS system, on top of this, environment.enableDebugInfo = true needs to be set. The code for environment.enableDebugInfo is here.

I am not sure whether other settings are needed to make this work on a non-NixOS system, as I have not experimented on one. I would expect none.

  • installing via environment.systemPackages on NixOS

This only requires setting separateDebugInfo = true in the override and environment.enableDebugInfo = true in the NixOS config. The debug info in this case will be available under /run/current-system/sw/lib/debug instead of ~/.nix-profile.

  • installing via home-manager

home-manager provides home.enableDebugInfo. This will add debug to extraOutputsToInstall and will also set $NIX_DEBUG_INFO_DIRS to include the lib/debug directory with the resulting symlinks. This is similar to the equivalent NixOS setting. This allows gdb to find the debug symbols, according to the original PR that introduced it

I would expect home-manager to not require overriding meta.outputsToInstall either, only separateDebugInfo if the original derivation does not set it.


All being said and done, enableDebugging and separateDebugInfo allow getting debug symbols for a package with their own tradeoffs. They can be used together or separately, depending on what properties you want to keep in the binary you are looking to debug.

There are different ways to get the result of separateDebugInfo depending on how the derivation is installed. I hope I’ve illuminated a bit of each, because figuring out what I had to do and where symlinks ended up was what lead me to asking on matrix in the first place.

And, as a tip from me to past me that you might also find useful: to debug something installed with nix, gdb --args bash gnucash is probably the right invocation.

Useful links