My Debian activities in May 2011

This is my monthly summary of my Debian related activities. If you’re among the people who made a donation to support my work, then you can learn how I spent your money. Otherwise it’s just an interesting status update on my various projects.

I have been…

Doing some work towards Debian Rolling

At the start of the month, the discussions about Debian rolling were still very active on debian-devel. Declaring that testing would be rolling did not make it (as I hoped), the argument that some RC bugs last for far too long in that distribution carried the discussion and thus the most consensual proposition ended up being the one of Josselin Mouette were rolling would be testing plus a few selected cherry-picked packages from unstable.

I believe it’s a workable solution if we only care about a subset of architectures. Otherwise the same reasons that keep the fixed packages out of testing would probably also apply for rolling.

Given this, I did setup britney (the software that controls testing) on my laptop to investigate how we can create rolling. It turns out britney is a very specialized software with very few configuration knobs.

At the same time Joachim Breitner made a proposition that immediately grabbed my attention. He suggests to use SAT solvers to find out the set of packages that should migrate from unstable to testing. I thought that rolling would be a good testbed for this new implementation of britney (which he calls SAT-britney) so I jumped right in this project.

I was not at all familiar with this science field, so I looked up quite some documentation: I learned that all SAT solvers expect the problem to be presented in CNF form, and that DIMACS was the file format of choice to represent those boolean constraints. Several SAT solvers are available in Debian and picosat appears to be one of the best.

Then I started some early coding/prototyping to play with the concept. You can find the result in this git repository, you can grab a copy with git clone git://

There’s not much yet, except some Python code to generate a SAT problem that can be fed to a SAT solver. But I really look forward to this project.

Representing Debian during Solutions Linux

During the second week, I spent 3 days in Paris to help manage the Debian booth at Solutions Linux.

We have responded to lots of queries but most visitors already knew Debian, and many of them use it at work and/or at home. We tried to recruit those people as new members for Debian France, the local association. We also sold all our remaining goodies.

The Ubuntu people were interviewed by France 3 (an important TV channel) and we took this opportunity (with the consent of the Ubuntu guys) to show our Debian t-shirts in the background: you can watch the video here (in French), you can see me with Carl Chenet at 1:21.

We have also been interviewed by Intelli’n TV: here and here (both in French). I’m not very good at this exercise. :-)

Improving dpkg triggers

The third week was a vacation week, in theory I should have stayed away from my computer but I really wanted to take this opportunity to improve the state of dpkg triggers in Debian.

I already covered my work in another article: Trying to make dpkg triggers more useful and less painful.

The result is not merged yet, I just asked a question to all package maintainers who are using triggers to be able to decide whether I’ll merge it as is, or if I can make the new behavior the default one.

Supporting users after Alioth’s migration

When I came back from my vacation, many services provided by were non-functional after a migration to a new setup that involves two machines instead of one. Given that I used to be an Alioth admin, I know that in those periods you tend to be get bogged down on many user support requests. So I re-joined #alioth on IRC and tried to help a bit.

I did investigate some of the reported problems and prepared fixes (updated scripts, configuration files, etc.) for some of the issues. I also created a list of remaining issues that should have lasted only a few days but that’s still active because there are still regressions left.

The most important things still missing are:

  • proper support for delegation of rights. We used ACL setup by the admins in the past. With the new FusionForge, each project admin should be able to delegate rights to external “roles”. There’s a Debian Developer role already but trying to grant him right fails…
  • access to the Ultimate Debian Database. Many tools rely on this database to work.
  • anonymous FTP access to download project files.
  • clear guidelines on how we’re supposed to deal with websites that are updated by VCS hooks.
  • clear guidelines on how we’re supposed to deal with personal git repositories

Improving the “3.0 (quilt)” source format

I have made some proposals to change the way the new source format would work. The goals are to be less painful for packagers who are using a VCS, and to avoid unexpected changes slipping through a new patch generated by dpkg-source.

It seems that the proposals are relatively consensual so I’ll implement them at some point.

Missing in action on my blog

I did a lots of stuff for Debian between travel and vacation, and in the remaining time, I did not manage to write many articles for my blog.

In fact, besides the article on my triggers work mentioned above I only published one interview: People behind Debian: Steve Langasek, release wizard.

I’ll try to do better this month!


Many thanks to the people who gave me 151.61 € in May.

See you next month for a new summary of my activities.

Trying to make dpkg triggers more useful and less painful

Lately I have been working on the triggers feature of dpkg. I would like to share my plan and what I have done so far. I’ll first explain what triggers are, the current problems, and the work I did to try to improve the situation.


Dpkg triggers are a neat feature of dpkg that package can use to send/receive notifications to/from other installed packages. Those notifications take the form a simple string.

This feature is heavily used to track changes of packaged files in a list of predefined directories, and to update other files based on this. For instance, man-db is watching the directories containing manual pages so that it can update its cache (in /var/cache/man/). install-info is updating the index of info pages when there have been changes in /usr/share/info. gnome-menus is updating its own copy of the menu hierarchy (with entries from /etc/gnome/menus.blacklist blacklisted) every time that a .desktop file is installed/updated/removed.

From a user’s perspective

You see triggers in action very often during upgrades (in fact too often as we’ll see it later):

Preparing to replace zim 0.52-1 (using .../archives/zim_0.52-1_all.deb) ...
Unpacking replacement zim ...
Processing triggers for shared-mime-info ...
Processing triggers for menu ...
Processing triggers for desktop-file-utils ...
Processing triggers for man-db ...
Processing triggers for hicolor-icon-theme ...
Processing triggers for python-support ...
Processing triggers for gnome-menus ...
Setting up zim (0.52-1) ...
Processing triggers for python-support ...
Processing triggers for menu ...

As you guessed it, those “Processing triggers” lines correspond to the packages which received (one or more) trigger notifications and which are doing the corresponding task.

By default the triggers are processed at the end of the dpkg --unpack invocation which is often too soon because APT will often call dpkg --unpack repeatedly during important upgrades. There are some options to ask APT to use dpkg’s --no-triggers option in order to defer the trigger processing at the end of the APT run. You can put this in /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/triggers:

// Trigger deferred
DPkg::NoTriggers "true";
PackageManager::Configure "smart";
DPkg::ConfigurePending "true";
DPkg::TriggersPending "true";

I have now asked APT maintainers to use those options by default, I filed bug #626599 to track this. At the same time I fixed bug #526774 reported by APT maintainers. This bug forced them to put a work-around in APT which resulted in running triggers sooner than expected.

(And while writing this article I filed bug #628564 and #628574 because it was clearly not normal that the menu triggers was executed twice for the installation of a single package)

From a packager’s perspective

The implementation of triggers has several consequences on the status that packages can have.

Let’s assume that the package A installs a file in a directory that is watched by package B (and that B is currently in the “installed” state). When A is unpacked, dpkg adds B to its “Triggers-Awaited” field and lists the activated trigger in B’s “Triggers-Pending” field. Package A is in “unpacked” state, but B has been changed to “triggers-pending”.

When A is configured, instead of going to the “installed” state, it will go to the “triggers-awaited” state. In that state the package is assumed to NOT fulfill dependencies. However, B—which is still in “triggers-pending” state—does fulfill dependencies.

A and B will switch to “installed” at the same time when the trigger has been processed.

The fact that the triggers-awaited status does not fulfill dependencies means that some common triggers like man-db have to be processed regularly just to be able to ensure dependencies are satisfied before running the postinst of other installed packages.

But a package which ships a manual page can certainly be considered as configured when its postinst has been run even if man-db has not yet updated its cache to know about the new/updated manual page.

When you activate a trigger with the dpkg-trigger command you have an option --no-await to avoid awaiting the trigger processing (and thus to go directly to installed state after the postinst has been run). But with file triggers or activate trigger directives, you do not have this option.

My proposal to improve the situation

This is the problem that I tried to solve during my last vacation. But before changing the inner working of triggers, I wrote a non-regression test suite for that feature (commit here) so I could hack with some confidence that I did not break everything.

The result has been presented on the debian-dpkg mailling list: see the discussion here. I added new directives that can be used in triggers files that work exactly like the current triggers except that they do not put triggering packages in trigger-awaited status.

I believe the code to be mostly ready, but in its current form the patch brings zero benefits until all packages have been converted to use the trigger variants that do not require awaiting trigger processing (and the change requires a pre-dependency on dpkg to ensure we have the required dpkg that understands the new kind of trigger directives).

Remaining question

Thus I wonder if I should not change the default semantic of triggers. The packages which really provide crucial functionality to awaiting packages through triggers would then have to be updated to switch to the new directives.

If you’re a packager using triggers, you can thus help me by answering this question: do you know some triggers where it’s important that the awaiting packages are not considered as configured before the trigger processing? In most of the cases I checked, it’s important for the triggered package rather than for the triggering package.

In truth, a package in triggers-awaited status is usually in a good enough shape to be able to satisfy dependencies (i.e. requirements that other packages can have), but it would still be worth to record the fact that it’s not entirely configured yet because it might be true from the user’s point of view: for example if the menu trigger has not yet been processed, the software might not yet be visible in the application menu.

If you appreciate this kind of groundwork that benefits to the whole Debian ecosystem, please consider supporting my work. Click here and give it a look, there are many ways to contribute and to make a difference for me.