Existing package and system configuration management tools suffer from an imperative model, where system administration actions such as upgrading packages or changes to system configuration files are stateful: they destructively update the state of the system. This leads to many problems, such as the inability to roll back changes easily, to run multiple versions of a package side-by-side, to reproduce a configuration deterministically on another machine, or to reliably upgrade a system.
In this paper we show that we can overcome these problems by moving to a purely functional system configuration model. This means that all static parts of a system (such as software packages, configuration files and system startup scripts) are built by pure functions and are immutable, stored in a way analogously to a heap in a purely function language.
We have implemented this model in NixOS, a non-trivial Linux distribution that uses the Nix package manager to build the entire system configuration from a purely functional specification.
Andres Löh, 2009-06-03