Correctly renaming a conffile in Debian package maintainer scripts

After having dealt with the removal of obsolete conffiles, I’ll now explain what you should do when a configuration file managed by dpkg must be renamed.

The problem

Let’s suppose that version 1.2 of the software stopped providing /etc/foo.conf. Instead it provides /etc/bar.conf because the configuration file got renamed. If you do nothing special, the new conffile will be installed with the default configuration, and the old one will stay around. Any customization made by the administrator are lost in the process (in fact they are not lost, they are still in foo.conf but they are unused).

Of course, you could do mv /etc/foo.conf /etc/bar.conf in the pre-installation script. But that’s not satisfactory: it will generate a spurious conffile prompt that the end-user will not understand.

The solution

In the preinst script, you have to verify if the old conffile has been modified by the administrator. If yes, you want to keep the file around. Otherwise you know you will be able to ditch it once the upgrade is over, and you rename it to /etc/foo.conf.dpkg-remove to remember this fact.

In the postinst script, you remove /etc/foo.conf.dpkg-remove. If the old conffile (/etc/foo.conf) still exists, it’s because it was modified by the administrator. You make a backup of the new conffile in /etc/bar.conf.dpkg-dist and rename the old one into /etc/bar.conf.

In the postrm, when called to abort an upgrade, you move /etc/foo.conf.dpkg-remove back to its original name.

In practice, use dpkg-maintscript-helper

dpkg-maintscript-helper can automate all those tasks. You just have to put the following snippet in the maintainer scripts (postinst, postrm, preinst):

if dpkg-maintscript-helper supports mv_conffile 2>/dev/null; then
    dpkg-maintscript-helper mv_conffile /etc/foo.conf /etc/bar.conf 1.1-3 -- "$@"
fi

In this example, I assumed that version 1.1-3 was the last version of the package that contained /etc/foo.conf (i.e. the last version released before 1.2-1 was packaged).

You can avoid the preliminary test if you pre-depend on “dpkg (>= 1.15.7.2)” or if enough time has passed to assume that everybody has a newer version anyway. You can learn all the details in dpkg-maintscript-helper’s manual page.

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The right way to remove an obsolete conffile in a Debian package

A conffile is a configuration file managed by dpkg, I’m sure you remember the introductory article about conffiles. When your package stops providing a conffile, the file stays on disk and it’s recorded as obsolete by the package manager. It’s only removed during purge. If you want the file to go away, you have to remove it yourself within your package’s configuration scripts. You will now learn how to do this right.

When is that needed?

dpkg errs on the side of safety by not removing the file until purge but in most cases it’s best to remove it sooner so as to not confuse the user. In some cases, it’s even required because keeping the file could break the software (for example if the file is in a .d configuration directory, and if it contains directives that are either no longer supported by the new version or in conflict with other new configuration files).

What’s complicated in “rm”?

So you want to remove the conffile. Adding an “rm” command in debian/postinst sounds easy. Except it’s not the right thing to do. The conffile might contain customizations made by the administrator and you don’t want to wipe those. Instead you want to keep the file around so that he can get his changes back and do whatever is required with those.

The correct action is thus to move the file away in the prerm, to ensure it doesn’t disturb the new version. At the same time, you need to verify whether the conffile has been modified by the administrator and remember it for later. In the postinst, you need to remove the file if it’s unmodified, or keep it under a different name that doesn’t interfere with the software. In many cases adding a simple .dpkg-bak suffix is enough. For instance, run-parts ignore files that contain a dot, and many other software are configured to only include files with a certain extension—say *.conf. In the postrm, you have to remove the obsolete conffiles that were kept due to local changes and you should also restore the original conffile in case the upgrade obsoleting the conffile is aborted.

Automating everything with dpkg-maintscript-helper

Phewww… that’s a lot of things to do for a seemingly simple task. Fortunately everything can be automated with dpkg-maintscript-helper. Let’s assume you want to remove /etc/foo/conf.d/bar because it’s obsolete and you’re going to prepare a new version 1.2-1 with the appropriate code to remove the file on upgrade. You just have to put this snippet in the 3 relevant scripts (preinst, postinst, postrm):

if dpkg-maintscript-helper supports rm_conffile 2>/dev/null; then
    dpkg-maintscript-helper rm_conffile /etc/foo/conf.d/bar 1.2-1 -- "$@"
fi

You can avoid the preliminary test if you pre-depend on “dpkg (>= 1.15.7.2)” or if enough time has passed to assume that everybody has a newer version anyway. You can learn all the details in dpkg-maintscript-helper’s manual page.

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