Diving into NixOS: Scanning

I announced posting more about my journey getting familiar with Nix/NixOS and getting my printer/scanner combo device to work well with it. Setting myself a challenge to keep blogging weekly (#15WeeksToBlog) and seeing a lot of other peoples blog posts appearing has motivated me enough to actually get this post written down albeit a lot later than planned.

Like mentioned in the post about printing I’ve got a Canon PIXMA TR4551 printer/scanner combo device with USB and Wi-Fi connectivity. I’ve used it for scanning with linux before, using Canons proprietary scanning application scangearmp2. Using it is no fun, it doesn’t remember any preferences like the preferred paper format. The worst part: the save dialog window is unusable with the keyboard. It doesn’t preselect the file name input field and the save button is absolutely inaccessible by keyboard.

In most applications there’s underlined letters in every button, menu item etc. when pressing the ALT key, that allow selecting them via the keyboard. Alternatively they accept ENTER for the default action (OK/SAVE/CONFIRM) and ESC to abort. This application does neither.

The scanner has an automatic document feeder (ADF) that is supported by the application, so scanning a multi-page document is OK, as long as it’s single-sided and fits into the feeder.

Well, I guess the impression, why I’d rather use some “better” software got across, so let’s boil this down into a list of requirements for a driver or scanner-application:

  • works via network / Wi-Fi
  • allows selection of default values (paper format, source, color-mode) or remembers the last used options
  • doesn’t require manual input for the file name. A quick scan with a default filename should not involve any other button presses the OK, OK, NEXT, SAVE, OK, … (and not that many)
  • is usable without reaching for the mouse
  • supports the ADF
  • (optional) Scanning the next page of a multi-page document can be triggered by pressing a button on the scanner
  • (optional) Text recognition (OCR)


The usual setup for scanning on linux involves the SANE Project, with the acronym standing for ScannerAccessNowEasy. SANE has a huge selection of backends — the device-specific drivers — and provides a common API for their usage, so that the actual applications (the SANE frontends) are device independent. Regarding the frontends I’ve used gscan2pdf for documents and SimpleScan for quick scans of single pages or photos in the past and the combination of those tick all the frontend-related boxes of my requirements list from above. So all that’s missing is a network-enabled SANE backend for my printer which also supports the ADF and optionally can trigger the next scan via an on-device button.


Online-research led to quite a few options with a varying amount of information available:

Backend included with SANE
packaged for Nix
Wi-Fi USB ADF on-device button
eSCL :heavy_check_mark: (1.0.29) :x: :heavy_check_mark: :x: :heavy_check_mark: :x:
airscan :x: :heavy_check_mark: (unstable) :heavy_check_mark: :x: :heavy_check_mark: :x:
pixma :heavy_check_mark:(1.0.28) :heavy_check_mark: (20.03) :grey_question: :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark:
canon-pixma :x: :x: :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark: :grey_question: :grey_question:


Support for my scanner via the pixma backend might work. The list of features that are supported in general, but might or might not be supported for my device, is long, including niceties like button controlled scanning, adjusting image settings (gamma, brightness) or setting a wait time for when the automated document feeder runs empty, to allow reloading it and continue scanning the same document. The documentation mentioned networked scanning support via the proprietary Canon BJNP protocol, but I didn’t find any information, whether this was supported by my device.

In recent versions of the SANE list of supported hardware the device is listed as untested meaning its information has been added to the backend, to enable testing of the status of device-support without further modification to the source code. My switch to the nixos-20.03 channel containing the required SANE package was due anyhow, so I switched channels, waited for the system to update and installed SANE.

The scanner wasn’t found via the network even with temporarily disabled firewall, so the pixma backend won’t work for me. I did a quick check of all the other functions with the scanner connected via USB. Scanning from the flatbed worked, but I got an error when trying to use the ADF. This is now reported back to the SANE project.

If you encounter bugs or other annoyances in openly developed software, please do file a bug, provide fixes or suggest improvements to the documentation (some projects pay a lot of attention to keeping their barrier of entry low and their communication tone very welcoming, to make it easy for people with and without coding skills to contribute).

eSCL and airscan

The eSCL and airscan backends both use the HTTP-based eSCL1 protocol and don’t need device-specific drivers. The protocol seems to be well known through Apples use of it and is supported by a quite broad palette of network connected scanners, but it seems to not be publicly documented. Work on reverse-engineering and reimplementing (parts of) it in free software drivers is has just started recently, with most documentation notes and work on the SANE backends dating to 2019.

Details on how to get those backends working in Nix will be part of a separate blog post, but I sure was surprised about the amount of work that can be associated with bumping up a packages version number.

Using the airscan backend scanner discovery, scanning from flatbed and ADF all work2, so the remaining parts of my requirements list are covered and I guess I could stop at this point. But I’m trying to get an overview of the available options here and experiment with Nix packaging, so I can just as well go on and evaluate the remaining backends.

The eSCL backend has been a moving target while preparing this blog post. The version contained in release 1.0.29 of the SANE backends was unpolished, selecting the correct paper-size was buggy and it didn’t support the ADF yet. This changed as development went on and the most recent commit fixing some remaining ADF errors happened just a few days ago. Scanning from flatbed and ADF work when using the SimpleScan GUI application, but I get messed up image files when scanning via the commandline with the scanimage tool. I did open another bug report for this.


This backend is written as a wrapper around the proprietary driver libraries, that are part of scangearmp2. The main contributor to this wrapper is also heavily involved in the SANE project, but the backend is not integrated into the SANE backends repository, I guess that’s due to licencing issues. As it isn’t packaged for NixOS yet, I had a little work to do here and write my first package definition in Nix. I’m still working on polishing it for a pull request_ to the nixpkgs repository, but for local testing it works already. I also packaged the scangearmp2 application, to have a first check, if the libraries and the printer work together. scangearmp2 didn’t find the scanner via Wi-Fi at first, but disabling the firewall made it work and there’s no difference between the scanner connected via USB and via Wi-Fi then. For further testing I used the USB connection and reenabled the firewall, but finding the correct ports to open in the firewall is still on my ToDo list. All functions provided by scangearmp2 seem to work, including scanning from the ADF.

SANE with the canon-pixma backend finds the scanner via USB and — with disabled firewall — via Wi-Fi as well. Scanning works fine from the flatbed, but the ADF doesn’t do anything. I haven’t yet found the cause for that and given that most of the functionality is hidden in proprietary, binary-only libraries, the debuggability is not so good. I’ll see, if I find the time and motivation to dig deeper into that phenomenen, but since my needs are covered by other backends and there’s no additional features to be expected to be usable via this backend, I probably won’t waste a lot more time on this.


To sum up, here’s the list of supported features again, based on what I actually encountered:

Backend included with SANE
packaged for Nix
Wi-Fi USB ADF on-device button
eSCL :beetle: (1.0.29)
:heavy_check_mark: (master)
:x: :heavy_check_mark: :x: :heavy_check_mark: :x:
airscan :x: :heavy_check_mark: (unstable) :heavy_check_mark: :x: :heavy_check_mark: :x:
pixma :heavy_check_mark:(1.0.28) :heavy_check_mark: (20.03) :x: or :beetle: :heavy_check_mark: :beetle: :beetle:
canon-pixma :x: :x: :heavy_check_mark: :heavy_check_mark: :beetle: :x:

I’ll be using the airscan backend for now, since it is packed for Nix and can easily be integrated into my system without me having to keep local package definitions around.

This post is part of the #15WeeksToBlog challenge.
Week 2/15. Technically I failed the challenge already, skipping more than a. I’ve been steadily working on the post though, ensuring my notes from the experiments a little while ago where still correct. The backends getting updated in the meantime led to me reevaluating some aspects. I’ll interpret this experience as a push toward smaller, more focused posts and publishing them faster.

Feel free to contact me via mail or mastodon if you’ve got any notes on this post or start a public discussion via this blogs github issue tracker. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed to stay tuned!

  1. eSCL actually contains both, Apple AirScan and Apple AirPrint 

  2. It reports an error when the ADF runs empty. The scanned documents are successfully retrieved though. 

Written on May 20, 2020