Deploy SOPS Secrets with Nix

Published on 11 December 2023
6 min read
google cloud
Deploy SOPS Secrets with Nix

How to manage secrets like private ssh keys or database access in a cloud environment via nix and sops.

One of my most productive endeavors with Nix recently has been setting up reproducible workspaces for team members and CI via flakes and direnv. Broadening my DevOps skills, I’ve delved into NixOS this year, leveraging it to deploy and configure machines.

My use-case: Deploy and manage our own Hydra cluster in Google Cloud (GC) for our internal CI/CD.

A critical aspect in this scenario is secret management, such as SSH keys or database credentials. Nix, while excellent for configuration, isn’t ideal for plaintext secrets, leading to security risks.

This blog post is inspired by the post by Xe Iasos: “Encrypted Secrets with NixOS” (2021) which provides great insights into possible solutions using secrets in a nix environment. One method is unmentioned in Xe’s article: using sops with sops-nix. I want to spread the word and describe my approach.

Cute snow truck plowing a lot of padlocks

Secrets OPerationS (sops) and sops-nix

Secret management is a challenge of its own. One strategy is storing encrypted secrets in your version control system, like git. git-crypt is one tool offering encryption of secrets in git. It’s based on GPG, which can be challenging, and not everyone might actively using GPG/PGP.

sops offers greater flexibility by supporting GPG/PGP + SSH via age, along with various cloud key management backends including AWS, GCE, Azure and Hashicorp Vault. It evolves around structured text data like JSON, YAML. While not reliant on git it, also supports cleartext diffs.

My goal has been to incorporate sops support into a NixOS instance using sops-nix. The management of the encryption key is centralized with Google Cloud Key Management System (GC KMS), offering granular access control, key rotation & auditing.

Encode & Deploy secrets with sops-nix & GC KMS

☝ Prerequisite: A GCE instance with NixOS and SSH access

Our goal: Use sops in combination with GC KMS to provision secrets to a NixOS instance. This secret should be accessible by a service running on the instance.å

We will follow these steps:

  1. Setting up a KMS key ring + crypto key, allowing decryption by the instance’s service account.
  2. Configuring sops with GC KMS.
  3. Creating and encrypting a secret.
  4. Referencing the secret in NixOS configuration
  5. Deploying NixOS configuration via NixOps

Step-By-Step Guide

Step 1: Google Cloud KMS Setup

Using terraform to create a key ring and a crypto key

resource "google_kms_key_ring" "infrastructure" {
  name     = "infrastructure"
  location = "europe"

resource "google_kms_crypto_key" "example_crypto_key" {
  name     = "example-crypto-key"
  key_ring =

  lifecycle {
    prevent_destroy = true

data "google_service_account" "my_instance_sa" {
  account_id = "my-instance"

resource "google_kms_crypto_key_iam_member" "my_instance_example_crypto_key" {
  crypto_key_id =
  role          = "roles/cloudkms.cryptoKeyDecrypter"
  member        = data.google_service_account.my_instance_sa.member

output "example_crypto_key_id" {
    value =

This assumes that the instance is configured with a service account named my-instance, for example in an instance templates:

resource "google_compute_instance_template" "my_instance" {

  service_account {
    email  =
    scopes = ["cloud-platform"]

Step 2: sops configuration

Define creation rules in .sops.yaml

  - path_regex: ^(.*.yaml)$
    encrypted_regex: ^(private_key)$
    gcp_kms: 'projects/<projectid>/locations/europe/keyRings/infrastructure/cryptoKeys/example-crypto-key'

path_regex: to match files to be managed encoded/decoded by sops.

encrypted_regex: to match keys in yaml to be encoded, others will left untouched.

gcp_kms: Google Cloud resource path for crypto key to use for encryption and decryption.

Step 3: Creating secret

Encrypt a secret using sops

☝ Assumption: You are allowed to access the GCE crypto key via [Application Default Credentials](
$ sops example-keypair.enc.yaml
# will open $EDITOR
  private_key: |
  public_key: |
    ssh-ed25519 AAAAC3NzaC1lZDI1NTE5AAAAICZm8fsDj+8nNhmf4zqIe4zDRIpXqW+wfKKzEuw6Fi+j

with encrypted_regex provided in .sops.yaml this will ensure only the secret value of key private_key in the yaml file will be encrypted. This file is now safe to commit.

Step 4: Consume secret in NixOS configuration.nix

{ config, ... }: {
  # Setting up test user for service
  users.users.secret-test.isSystemUser = true; = "secret-test";
  users.groups.secret-test = { };

  # Declare secret
  sops.secrets."ssh_keys/private_key" = { # 1
    restartUnits = [ "secret-test.service" ]; # 2
    # Reference test user
    owner =;
    sopsFile = ./example-keypair.enc.yaml; # 3
  }; = {
    wantedBy = [ "" ];
    after = [ "sops-nix.service" ]; # 4

    serviceConfig.Type = "oneshot";
    # Reference test user
    serviceConfig.User =;

    script = ''
      # Reference secret by path convention
      stat /run/secrets/ssh_keys/private_key
  1. sops-nix will place nested yaml keys in nested directories in /run/secrets/ . This way you are able to organize your secrets by service. But you are also free to define multiple secret files.
  2. Reference services to restart if secret changes
  3. Our encoded secret as a nix path. This is used as default but can also be overridden o
  4. Ensure service starts after sops-nix service. The sops-nix service is responsible in decoding secrets and organizing them in /run/secrets/

Step 5: Deploy NixOS configuration

Finally we deploy our new NixOS configuration to the machine in question, if locally via nixos-rebuild otherwise you can use any nix deployment framework like deploy-rs or NixOps. In this case I will use NixOps:

$ nixops deploy --deployment <machine-name>

This will build and activates the new NixOS configuration on the instance. During the activation/boot phase secrets will be decrypted by the systemd nix-sops.service to the /run/secrets folder.

$ journalctl -u secret-test.service
systemd[1]: Starting secret-test.service...
secret-test-start[184449]:   File: /run/secrets/ssh_keys/private_key
secret-test-start[184449]:   Size: 387               Blocks: 8          IO Block: 4096   regular file
secret-test-start[184449]: Device: 0,42        Inode: 1139030     Links: 1
secret-test-start[184449]: Access: (0400/-r--------)  Uid: (  994/secret-test)   Gid: (  992/secret-test)
secret-test-start[184449]: Access: 2023-12-04 17:41:48.657466504 +0000
secret-test-start[184449]: Modify: 2023-12-04 17:41:48.657466504 +0000
secret-test-start[184449]: Change: 2023-12-04 17:41:48.657466504 +0000
secret-test-start[184449]:  Birth: -
systemd[1]: secret-test.service: Deactivated successfully.
systemd[1]: Finished secret-test.service.


A humorous scene depicting computer scientists engaged in a controversial discussion.

Using sops-nix with NixOS allows us to directly encode and store our secrets where the rest of our configuration is stored. While it is debatable if secrets are configuration or state, storing secrets this way brings us several benefits:

Additional References