apt-get, aptitude, … pick the right Debian package manager for you

This is a frequently asked question: “What package manager shall I use?”. And my answer is “the one that suits your needs”. In my case, I even use different package managers depending on what I’m trying to do.

APT vs dpkg, which one is the package manager?

In the Debian world, we’re usually thinking of APT-based software when we’re referring to a “package manager”. But in truth, the real package manager is dpkg. It’s the low-level tool that takes a .deb file and extracts its content on the disk, or that takes the name of a package to remove the associated files, etc.

APT is better known because it’s the part of the packaging infrastructure that matters to the user. APT makes collection of software available to the user and does the dirty work of downloading all the required packages and installing them by calling dpkg in the correct order to respect the dependencies.

But APT is not a simple program, it’s a library and several different APT frontends have been developed on top of that library. The most widely known is apt-get since it’s the oldest one, and it’s provided by APT itself.

Graphical APT front-ends

update-manager is a simple frontend useful to install security updates and other trivial daily upgrades (if you’re using testing or sid). It’s the one that you get when you click in the desktop notification that tells you that updates are available. In cases, where the upgrade is too complicated for update-manager, it will suggest to run synaptic which is full featured package manager. You can browse the list on installed/available packages in numerous ways, you can mark packages for installation/upgrade/removal/purge and then run in one go all the recorded actions.

software-center aims to be an easy to use application installer, it will hide most of the packaging details and will only present installed/available applications (as defined by a .desktop file). It’s very user friendly and has been developed by Ubuntu.

Of the graphical front-ends, I use mainly synaptic and only when I’m reviewing what I have installed to trim the system down.

Console-based GUI APT front-ends

In this category, I’ll cite only aptitude. Run without parameter, it will start a powerful console-based GUI. Much like synaptic, you can have multiple views of the installed/available packages and mark packages for installation/upgrade/removal/purge before executing everything at once.

Command-line based package managers and APT front-ends

This is where the well known apt-get fits, but there are several other alternatives: aptitude, cupt, wajig. Wajig and cupt are special cases as they don’t use libapt: the former wraps several tools including apt-get, and the latter is a (partial) APT reimplementation (versions 1.x were in Perl, 2.x are now is C++).

You’re welcome to try them out and find out which one you prefer, but I have never felt the need to use something else than apt-get and aptitude.

apt-get or aptitude?

First I want to make it clear that you can use both and mix them without problems. It used to be annoying when apt-get did not track which packages were automatically installed while aptitude did, but now that both packages share this list, there’s no reason to avoid switching back and forth.

I would recommend apt-get for the big upgrades (i.e. dist-upgrade from one stable to the next) because it will always find quickly a relatively good solution while aptitude can find several convoluted solutions (or none) and it’s difficult to decide which one should be used.

On the opposite for regular upgrades in unstable (or testing), I would recommend “aptitude safe-upgrade“. It does a better job than apt-get at keeping on hold packages which are temporarily broken due to some not yet finished changes while still installing new packages when required. With aptitude it’s also possible to tweak dynamically the suggested operations while apt-get doesn’t allow this. And aptitude’s command line is probably more consistent: with apt-get you have to switch between apt-get and apt-cache depending on the operation that you want to do, aptitude on the other hand does everything by itself.

Take some time to read their respective documentation and to try them.

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People behind Debian: Michael Vogt, synaptic and APT developer

Michael and his daughter Marie

Michael has been around for more than 10 years and has always contributed to the APT software family. He’s the author of the first real graphical interface to APT—synaptic. Since then he created “software-center” as part of his work for Ubuntu. Being the most experienced APT developer, he’s naturally the coordinator of the APT team. Check out what he has to say about APT’s possible evolutions.

My questions are in bold, the rest is by Michael.

Who are you?

My name is Michael Vogt, I’m married and have two little daughters. We live in Germany (near to Trier) and I work for Canonical as a software developer. I joined Debian as a developer in early 2000 and started to contribute to Ubuntu in 2004.

What’s your biggest achievement within Debian or Ubuntu?

I can not decide on a single one so I will just be a bit verbose.

From the very beginning I was interested in improving the package manager experience and the UI on top for our users. I’m proud of the work I did with synaptic. It was one of the earliest UIs on top of apt. Because of my work on synaptic I got into apt development as well and fixed bugs there and added new features. I still do most of the uploads here, but nowadays David Kalnischkies is the most active developer.

I also wrote a bunch of tools like gdebi, update-notifier, update-manager, unattended-upgrade and software-properties to make the update/install situation for the user easier to deal with. Most of the tools are written in python so I added a lot of improvements to python-apt along the way, including the initial high level “apt” interface and a bunch of missing low-level apt_pkg features. Julian Andres Klode made a big push in this area recently and thanks to his effort the bindings are fully complete now and have good documentation.

My most recent project is software-center. Its aim is to provide a UI strongly targeted for end-users. The goal of this project is to make finding and installing software easy and beautiful. We have a fantastic collection of software to offer and software-center tries to present it well (including screenshots, instant search results and soon ratings&reviews). This builds on great foundations like aptdaemon by Sebastian Heinlein, screenshots.debian.net by Christoph Haas, ddtp.debian.org by Michael Bramer, apt-xapian-index by Enrico Zini and many others (this is what I love about free software, it usually “adds”, rarely “takes away”).

What are your plans for Debian Wheezy?

For apt I would love to see a more plugable architecture for the acquire system. It would be nice to be able to make apt-get update (and the frontends that use this from libapt) be able to download additional data (like debtags or additional index file that contains more end-user targeted information). I also want to add some scripts so that apt (optionally) creates btrfs snapshots on upgrade and provide some easy way to rollback in case of problems.

There is also some interesting work going on around making the apt problem resolver a more plugable part. This way we should be able to do much faster development.

software-center will get ratings&reviews in the upstream branch, I really hope we can get that into Wheezy.

If you could spend all your time on Debian, what would you work on?

In that case I would start with a refactor of apt to make it more robust about ABI breaks. It would be possible to move much faster once this problem is solved (its not even hard, it just need to be done). Then I would add a more complete testsuite.

Another important problem to tackle is to make maintainer scripts more declarative. I triaged a lot of upgrade bug reports (mostly in ubuntu though) and a lot of them are caused by maintainer script failures. Worse is that depending on the error its really hard for the user to solve the problem. There is also a lot of code duplication. Having a central place that contains well tested code to do these jobs would be more robust. Triggers help us a lot here already, but I think there is still more room for improvement.

What’s the biggest problem of Debian?

That’s a hard question :) I mostly like Debian the way it is. What frustrated me in the past were flamewars that could have been avoided. To me being respectful to each other is important, I don’t like flames and insults because I like solving problems and fighting like this rarely helps that. The other attitude I don’t like is to blame people and complain instead of trying to help and be positive (the difference between “it sucks because it does not support $foo” instead of “it would be so helpful if we had $foo because it enables me to let me do $bar”).

For a long time, I had the feeling you were mostly alone working on APT and were just ensuring that it keeps working. Did you also had this feeling and are things better nowadays ?

I felt a bit alone sometimes :) That being said, there were great people like Eugene V. Lyubimkin and Otavio Salvador during my time who did do a lot of good work (especially at release crunch times) and helped me with the maintenance (but got interested in other area than apt later). And now we have the unstoppable David Kalnischkies and Julian Andres Klode.

Apt is too big for a single person, so I’m very happy that especially David is doing superb work on the day-to-day tasks and fixes (plus big project like multiarch and the important but not very thankful testsuite work). We talk about apt stuff almost daily, doing code reviews and discuss bugs. This makes the development process much more fun and healthy. Julian Andres Klode is doing interesting work around making the resolver more plugable and Christian Perrier is as tireless as always when it comes to the translations merging.

I did a quick grep over the bzr log output (including all branch merges) and count around ~4300 total commits (including all revisions of branches merged). Of that there ~950 commits from me plus an additional ~500 merges. It was more than just ensuring that it keeps working but I can see where this feeling comes from as I was never very verbose. Apt also was never my “only” project, I am involved in other upstream work like synaptic or update-manager or python-apt etc). This naturally reduced the time available to hack on apt and spend time doing the important day-to-day bug triage, response to mailing list messages etc.

One the python-apt side Julian Andres Klode did great work to improve the code and the documentation. It’s a really nice interface and if you need to do anything related to packages and love python I encourage you to try it. Its as simple as:

import apt
cache = apt.Cache()
cache["update-manager"].mark_install()
cache.commit()

Of course you can do much more with it (update-manager, software-center and lots of more tools use it). With “pydoc apt” you can get a good overview.

The apt team always welcomes contributors. We have a mailing list and a irc channel and it’s a great opportunity to solve real world problems. It does not matter if you want to help triage bugs or write documentation or write code, we welcome all contributors.

You’re also an Ubuntu developer employed by Canonical. Are you satisfied with the level of cooperation between both projects? What can we do to get Ubuntu to package new applications developed by Canonical directly in Debian?

Again a tricky question :) When it comes to cooperation there is always room for improvement. I think (with my Canonical hat on) we do a lot better than we did in the past. And it’s great to see the current DPL coming to Ubuntu events and talking about ways to improve the collaboration. One area that I feel that Debian would benefit is to be more positive about NMUs and shared source repositories (collab-maint and LowThresholdNmu are good steps here). The lower the cost is to push a patch/fix (e.g. via direct commit or upload) the more there will be.

When it comes to getting packages into Debian I think the best solution is to have a person in Debian as a point of contact to help with that. Usually the amount of work is pretty small as the software will have a debian/* dir already with useful stuff in it. But it helps me a lot to have someone doing the Debian uploads, responding to the bugmail etc (even if the bugmail is just forwarded as upstream bugreports :) IMO it is a great opportunity especially for new packagers as they will not have to do a lot of packaging work to get those apps into Debian. This model works very well for me for e.g. gdebi (where Luca Falavigna is really helpful on the Debian side).

Is there someone in Debian that you admire for his contributions?

There are many people I admire. Probably too many to mention them all. I always find it hard to single out individual people because the project as a whole can be so proud of their achievements.

The first name that comes to my mind is Jason Gunthorpe (the original apt author) who I’ve never met. The next is Daniel Burrows who I met and was inspired by. David Kalnischkies is doing great work on apt. From contributing his first (small) patch to being able to virtually fix any problem and adding big features like multiarch support in about a year. Sebastian Heinlein for aptdaemon.

Christian Perrier has always be one of my heroes because he cares so much about i18n. Christoph Haas for screenshots.debian.net, Michael Bramer for his work on debian translated package descriptions.


Thank you to Michael for the time spent answering my questions. I hope you enjoyed reading his answers as I did. Subscribe to my newsletter to get my monthly summary of the Debian/Ubuntu news and to not miss further interviews. You can also follow along on Identi.ca, Twitter and Facebook.