How to run Linux commands without installing

Maybe you want to try out a Linux command, or use it as a one-off. If you’re like me, it makes you vaguely uneasy to have your machine littered with software you forgot why you installed. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some way of running commands, from the Internet, without having them leaving residue on your machine? Sounds impossible, no?

(Github Copilt is sitting on my shoulder, and it suggested Docker. Nice try, but not quite. Besides for the trouble of getting it set up, what if I want easy access to my local files or hardware? Try again, wise guy.)

I’m going to show you a solution using Nix. Nix is a part package manager, part build system, that has tremendous power, but also suffers currently from tremendous usability issues. I want to show you how to use its power, while avoiding the frustrating bits.

To run a command without installing:

  • First you need to install Nix. Basically, you execute this:

    $ sh <(curl -L --daemon

It will call sudo to install, unfortunately, but it can mainly be used afterward without superuser privileges.

  • You will need to restart your shell for Nix to work properly.

  • Next, configure Nix for all the latest features:

    $ echo "experimental-features = nix-command flakes" | sudo tee -a /etc/nix/nix.conf
  • Now, find the name of the Nix package and command you want using the Nix package search. You may know the name of the command, or you can find a list of commands available by package in the package details section.

  • If the command is the same as the package name (or the package is configured with a default command), you can run it like this:

    $ nix run nixpkgs#<package> -- <args>

    If you need to run a different command from the package, the invocation is:

    $ nix shell nixpkgs#<package> -c <command> -- <args>

    Nix will download the package and all its dependencies to an isolated location on your system, then execute the command!

    If you’re going to invoke a command from a package more than once, you can start a bash shell with a package loaded:

    $ nix shell nixpkgs#<package> ...

    You can specify more than one package. The commands from the package then become avalable until you exit the Nix shell with Ctrl-D.

What happens to the downloaded packages afterward?

Nix downloads all it’s packages and all their dependencies right down to the Linux kernel API to an isolated location on your system - /nix/store. Nix will completely ignore any programs or libraries you have installed on your system. It then keeps them around in case you want to use them again. (This is not as useful as it sounds, because a second invocation of the same package is likely to redownload if there is a new version of the package or any of its dependencies.)

So a disadvantage of using Nix is that it can consume a lot of disk space. You can free up space by clearing cached packages with:

$ nix store gc

You should configure Nix to use less space by:

$ echo "auto-optimise-store = true" | sudo tee -a /etc/nix/nix.conf

Addendum: Installing packages without root (or building)

Often, you may want to give a Linux user without sudo privileges the ability to install packages. None of the popular package managers provide this.

There is a reason for this. Installing packages into the system default location needs root privileges, of course. So instead, you want to install to a directory within the user’s home directory. Trouble is, Linux programs typically have many paths, such as dynamic libraries, hardcoded into their binaries. Therefore, the package managers that distribute prebuilt binaries can only install into predetermined locations. Gentoo, which builds all packages from source, indeed allows restricted users to install packages with a custom ‘prefix.’

The next option is to build everything you need fro source, but this is time-consuming and error-prone.

With Nix, restricted users can install packages into their own user profiles. Nix installs all packages int its ‘store’, and considers it safe to allow restricted users to do so, as the store is read-only. You can install packages with:

$ nix profile install nixpkgs#<package>

This creates a garbage collection ‘root’, so this package won’t go away if you run nix store gc. You can remove it with:

$ nix profile remove packages.x86_64-linux.<package>

These are some of the powerful and cool things you can do with Nix. Nix has the ability to do much more, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

The author of this article is currently open to work at a dev role. Read my CV and be in touch at

Written on July 31, 2023