December 4, 2011

Day 4 - A Guide to Packaging Systems

This was written by Jordan Sissel (

Software packaging systems are a strange phenomenon. They all seem to aim at solving the general problem of shipping some named, versioned collection of files to the world. Yet, this common ground seems insufficient given the overwhelming number of incompatible packaging systems in the wild.

The "overwhelming" part of above is what we need to talk about. Specifically, despite having similar goals, one package system is rather unlikely to have anything in common with another. Different terminologies, different tools, different technologies, different distribution mechanisms, different policies. The side effect with this phenomenon of "similar goal, nothing meaningful in common" is that you get punished.

Know how to use Red Hat's package system? Knowledge of rpm and its world doesn't help you much with the Solaris packaging system. Each solves roughly the same problem but with fundamentally different tools, techniques, policies, and terminology. Even package tools with historical ties like Gentoo Portage and FreeBSD Ports have strong divergence in technology, policies, and distribution.

I've had enough frustration over the years in dealing with learning new packaging systems, so today's post aims to give you a general guide to this strange world of packaging. As a caveat, the information detailed here is to the best of my knowledge and assisted with some googling. For the sake of brevity, I'm going to leave out (for now) language or non-OS platform packaging systems like Ruby's rubygems, Python's eggs, etc.


Terminology first, because knowing the right terms will help you find answers in search engines faster.

  • Tool terms:
    • Red Hat: rpm, rpmbuild, spec file, yum
    • Debian: dpkg, debuild, control file, dh_make, apt-get
    • FreeBSD: ports, make, pkg_add
    • Solaris: pkg, pkgadd, pkgmk, pkgtrans
  • Versioning terms:
    • Red Hat: epoch, version, release
    • Debian: version
    • FreeBSD: epoch, version, revision
    • Solaris: version
  • Relationship terms:
    • Red Hat: requires, obsoletes, provides
    • Debian: depends, conflicts, provides, replaces
    • FreeBSD: depends, requires
    • Solaris: nothing as far as I can tell
  • Scripted action terms:
    • Red Hat: %pre, %post, %preun, %postun
    • Debian: preinst, postinst, prerm, postrm
    • FreeBSD: pkg-install, pkg-deinstall, pkg-req
    • Solaris: preinstall, postinstall, checkinstall
  • Support or repo tools
    • Red Hat: mrepo, createrepo
    • Debian: apt-ftparchive, reprepro, apt-file
    • FreeBSD: portmaster, portupgrade, portsnap,
    • Solaris: pkgbuild

As you can see, some things have very similar terms, some do not. FreeBSD calls 'pkg-req' what Solaris calls 'checkinstall' but Red Hat and Debian lack this specific feature (though it can be implemented in pre-installation scripts). Red Hat and FreeBSD agree on 'epoch' in meaning but use 'release' and 'revision' to refer to the same feature.

In Solaris, to do dependency checking, you are supposed to do this in a script named 'checkinstall' and bail out if the dependencies are not installed.

Distributing Packages

Many package systems support network installation and dependency resolution. It is these two features that makes 'yum install foo' fetch and install all dependencies of 'foo,' possibly aborting due to dependency conflicts, version mismatches, or other relationship problems.

A common practice here is to mirror packages locally in your infrastructure. This enables you to survive upstream failures (like package removal, outages, etc). Tools like mrepo (for rpm) and rsync will help you here as most package repositories support rsync.

Rolling your own package repository can be done with mrepo and creatrepo for rpm/yum. For Debian (dpkg/apt-get), apt-ftparchive or reprepro are useful.

Building Packages

Have you ever needed a piece of software (or specific version) not available in your upstream package repository? You don't want to be at the mercy and whims of upstream. Your own software policies and needs are likely to be different (and even in conflict), for example, with the packaging policies and cultures of Debian, Red Hat, FreeBSD, Ubuntu, or whoever is your package provider.

Given this likely mismatch in your needs and upstream's available software, it is worth your time learning how to build packages and how to host them internally in your own package repository.

Learning to build packages can be a frustrating experience and, at least for me, has resulted in many shaved yaks and lost hours, but there are resources available to help you out:

Converting Packages

Using multiple package systems on the same platform can make for a confusing array of moving parts. For example, using both rpms and rubygems. The confusion stems largely from the huge differences already described - it's yet another learning curve you must ascend. What if you converted those rubygems packages you needed to rpms? Your team and your tools could then manage ruby libraries the same way as the rest of your software, and that sounds promising.

This idea of converting package types is not new. The common ground between package systems is common enough that there's often a tool available to help translating one package type to another.

What package translating tools are there?

  • FreeBSD has 'BSDPAN' for automatically registering perl modules installed with CPAN in the FreeBSD package system. This allows you to uninstall them later with standard FreeBSD tools.
  • Python setuptools (the '' stuff) usually responds nicely to 'python bdist_rpm'
  • Ruby has gem2rpm will help you build rpms from gems
  • Perl has cpan2rpm

Build Packages Easier

It's pretty lame needing one tool for every conversion method you want to use. While one tool doing one task well is deeply rooted in Unix philosophy, there's still lots of overhead in requiring many tools to do similar jobs.

Further, the conversion tools don't often help you build the packages; for example, gem2rpm emits an 'rpm spec' which requires you know how to turn that into an rpm. All of this sums up to a burden of knowledge I think is silly.

Luckily, there are projects addressing this problem. Two tools, in particular, aim to solve exactly the 'how to I build a package of this thing?' question.

First, there is CheckInstall (which bears no relation to the Solaris packaging term). This project tries to make package creation a side effect of the normal "make install" task, certainly a nice touch if you are looking to keep you software building workflow the same. Using the same basic workflow that ends with 'make install,' CheckInstall will produce an rpm or deb for you.

Second, there is fpm. The goal of fpm (caveat: I am the author) is to make a common tool for building packages from any source to any target. For example, you can turn a directory into an rpm, or a rubygem into a deb - both tasks can be done with very little knowledge of how each source (rubygem, directory) or target (deb, rpm) work.

At this time, fpm can create Solaris, rpm, and deb packages. To show you the simplicity, the following command lines will create a package of the 'boto' AWS library for Python:

% fpm -s python -t rpm boto
% fpm -s python -t solaris boto

# Example with 'deb' target:
% fpm -s python -t deb boto
Trying to download boto (using: easy_install)
Created /tmp/z/python-boto_2.1.1_all.deb

Now you have a native deb, rpm, and solaris package of the python boto library and you never had to learn how to build packages on each of those platforms.


For any given platform I am operating, I've always had to learn the native packaging system, build my own custom packages, and host my own package repo. That's why I wrote fpm, after all, to codify my knowledge and skills into a tool that I and others can reuse.

Hopefully this guide has shed some light on a confusing and frustrating area of systems administration and given you the tools and terms to wield whatever packaging systems you are using.

Further Reading

  • rpmforge - A 3rd party rpm repository that might save you from having to roll your own packages on Red Hat and related platforms.
  • EPEL - A similar project to rpmforge but helps bridge packages from Fedora into distributions like CentOS and Scientific Linux.
  • pkgsrc - The NetBSD pkgsrc system is supported on many different platforms including Solaris and Linux.
  • Gentoo Prefix - The Gentoo Portage system but supported on other platforms (similar in idea to pkgsrc).
  • Homebrew - A popular package manager for OS X.


Anonymous said...

Do you plan to support Solaris 11 IPS?

Anonymous said...


Jordan Sissel said...

Re: solaris 11 IPS support in fpm, yes it's on my todo list and I have access to solaris servers that use it, but I haven't had energy to implement it yet :)

Unknown said...

There's also macports which has a pretty extensive library of ports for OSX.

And for rolling native OS X pkg packages, I wrote The Luggage, which lets you create pkg files using nice sane diffable Makefiles.

Boris Epstein said...

Thanks for a helpful post.

How do I list package content of an installed package on OpenIndiana?


timf said...

Boris: 'pkg contents ' or if you want more than just the filesystem paths delivered by the package, 'pkg contents -m ' shows all of the 'actions' it delivers.