Setting Up NixOS: Dell XPS 9370 4K and EXWM

I’ve long been tired of the dependency management of Linux and wanted to try a new system: NixOS. It’s an operating system centered around system configuration – a DevOps tool and a way to manage configuration files as well as a proper Linux-based operating system.

I did have a bit of trouble installing it so I wanted to catalogue the process here.

To help with the installation, I referenced Domen Kozar’s instructions, Jethro’s configuration and Kyle’s configuration. I also made substantial use of the NixOS manual and its instructions. I’ll be summarizing steps taken by each of these articles; refer to the NixOS manual or the instructions if you’d like more information about the abbreviated steps.

As the title says, I installed NixOS 20.03 on the Dell XPS 9370 i7 UHD. I can’t guarantee that these instructions will work for your system. My current configuration, including some of the code mentioned in this article, can be found here.

Make sure that you have a flash drive handy with a capacity greater than 2 gigabytes. My first go used installation media that didn’t have the entire ISO written to it and I had issues booting.

Setup

Recovery Disk

First remember to create a recovery disk for Windows. I didn’t do this, but it’s probably a good idea! (I’m still looking for my Windows partition…)

Reboot to the BIOS

Press F2 repeatedly when the Dell logo appears on boot (don’t hold it, as this may be interpreted as a stuck key) and reboot into the BIOS settings.

BIOS Settings

Disable secure boot and RAID mode. It’s unclear why RAID mode is on by default, but this isn’t somethign that should be used by the XPS.

Make an Installation Disk

Download an ISO from the website. I wouldn’t recommend the graphical installation CD, as it’ll take substantially longer to boot and at the time of this writing offers no real advantage over the minimal installation disk. You’ll be using tools with command-line interfaces anyways.

Install ISO

For Linux, I recommend using dd to write the media to your USB. For Windows 10, I’d recommend using Rufus.

I used Rufus and had trouble with the installation media when writing the ISO, but using DD mode worked well. I’d recommend using that to start.

Provisioning the Installation

Booting the Installation Media

Plug the flash drive into any port on your laptop and reboot.

On boot, press F10 repeatedly to enter the boot selection mode. Use the up and down arrow keys to navigate to the name of your flash drive loaded with the installation media. Press enter when the proper media is highlighted.

Initial System Configuration

The computer should now be booted to the NixOS installer. It’ll show you several images to chose from.

Select NixOS Live CD if you’re ready to install. The other options provided may be used if you’d like to try out the operating system without a full installation.

Connecting to The Internet

Now that you’ve successfully booted the system, it’s time to connect to the internet. Ethernet would be easy but we still have some networking tools.

We’ll want to do everything as root for the installation, so:

sudo -i

To connect to the internet, run

wpa_supplicant -i {WiFi card} <(wpa_passphrase "{SSID}" "{password}")

where {WiFi card} is the name found with ifconfig beginning with wlp or wlan (typically wlan0 or wlp2s0), {SSID} is the name of your WiFi network and {password} is the password for the network. Make sure that the latter two are both strings.

To confirm your connection, use ping google.com or ping {stable site of choice}. If you receive frequent responses at the terminal, you have a connection.

Partitioning the Drive

I’ll yield to the Arch Wiki here; they’ll maintain documentation more accurate and thorough than what I can cover here. Here’s the gist of it:

Mounting and Installing

This system’s a UEFI system, so we’ll have to mount two partitions. Mount your main partition to /mnt: #begin_src sh mount nixos /mnt #+end_src

Mount your boot partition to /mnt/boot: #begin_src sh mkdir -p /mnt/boot mount boot /mnt/boot #+end_src

This assumes that you’ve named your main and boot partitions ‘nixos’ and ‘boot’ respectively.

Initial Configuration

Now that everything is mounted, you’ll want to generate an initial configuration for your system.

This can be accomplished with

nixos-generate-config -d

Editing the Configuration

You should now have two files visible in the /etc/nixos directory:

Make sure that hardware-configuration.nix contains three partitions – one for each partition you created earlier – with the same file systems and configurations. If not, update the files with the correct values.

Initial Configuration

You’ll now need to edit properly configure configuration.nix. Most of the defaults are fine, but you’ll want to install a sane editor to make it immediately usable. I’d suggest vim or nvim. You’ll probably also want git and wget for saving your configuration or cloning that of another. Add these to environment.systemPackages:

environment.systemPackages = [
  nvim wget git
];

You might also want a better program for configuring networking. If you’re accustomed to Network Manager, add

~services.networkmanager.enable = true;

to the configuration.

You should probably add a user as well. There’s a template for user configuration in the file, but try amending it:

users.users.{username} = {
  isNormalUser = true;
  home = "/home/{username}";
  extraGroups = [ "wheel" "networkmanager" ];
};

You’ll want to add yourself to the "networkmanager" group if you’re using Network Manager in lieu of wpa_supplicant. ‘Wheel’ will allow this user to use sudo.

First Boot

You’re ready to install and boot the system! Run:

nixos-install

Make sure to set the password for the root user to something you remember when prompted.

Final Touches

Reboot first: reboot. Now, log in as the root user when prompted for login and password.

Set an initial password for the user you created:

passwd {username}

and provide the password when prompted.

You’re now ready to go!