Understand dpkg and don’t get stuck with a maintainer script failure

Continuing my series of articles on dpkg’s errors, this time I’ll cover a pretty common one which has several variations:

Setting up acpid (1:2.0.12-1) ...
rm: cannot remove `/etc/rc1.d/K20acpid': No such file or directory
dpkg: error processing acpid (--configure):
 subprocess installed post-installation script returned error exit status 1
Errors were encountered while processing:

Even if dpkg is failing and outputting the error message, the real problem is not in dpkg but in the installed package (acpid in the example above). As we already learned, a package contains not only files but also “maintainer scripts” that are executed at various points of the installation process (see some useful graphics to understand how they are called, thanks to Margarita Manterola).

Maintainer scripts in a package upgrade

In the introductory example it was acpid’s “post-installation script” that failed, and dpkg is only forwarding that failure back to the caller. The maintainer scripts are stored in /var/lib/dpkg/info/. You can thus inspect them and even modify them if you hit a bug and want to work around it (do this only if you understand what you do!).

One common modification is to add “set -x” at the start of the script and to retry the failing operation. That way you can see what’s executed exactly. Here’s what the output could look like after the addition of “set -x” to /var/lib/dpkg/info/acpid.postinst:

$ sudo dpkg --configure acpid
Setting up acpid (1:2.0.12-1) ...
+ dpkg --compare-versions 1:2.0.11-1 lt-nl 1.0.10-3
+ dpkg --compare-versions 1:2.0.11-1 lt-nl 1.0.6-16
+ dpkg --compare-versions 1:2.0.11-1 lt 1.0.6-6
+ rm /etc/rc1.d/K20acpid
rm: cannot remove `/etc/rc1.d/K20acpid': No such file or directory
dpkg: error processing acpid (--configure):
 subprocess installed post-installation script returned error exit status 1
Errors were encountered while processing:

This output helps you locate the command that is actually failing. Here’s it’s relatively easy since we have an error message from “rm”. And the fix is trivial too, we replace “rm” with “rm -f” so that it doesn’t fail when the file doesn’t exist (this is a fake bug I made up for this article—I just added a failing rm call—but it’s inspired by real bugs I experienced).

Maintainer scripts are supposed to be idempotent: we should be able to execute them several times in a row without bad consequences. It happens from time to time that the maintainer gets this wrong… on the first try it works, so he uploads his package and we discover the problem only later once someone ended up executing the same code twice for some reason.

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Debian Cleanup Tip #2: Get rid of obsolete packages

Last week, we learned to remove useless configuration files. This week, we’re going to take care of obsolete packages.

An obsolete package is a package who is no longer provided by any of the APT repositories listed in /etc/apt/source.lists (and /etc/apt/sources.list.d/). There can be multiple reasons why a package is no longer available in the repository (or at least not under the same name) :

  • the upstream author stopped maintaining the software a long time ago, nobody else took over and the Debian maintainer preferred to remove the package from Debian. Usually there are alternatives in the Debian archive.
  • the package was orphaned in Debian since a long time, nobody took over and it had very few users. The Debian QA team might have asked its removal.
  • the latest version of the software might have been packaged under a new package name. Either because the amount of changes was so important that it was preferred to not upgrade automatically to the latest version (it has been the case with request-tracker and nagios, they both embed a version number in their package names), or simply because the maintainer wants to let the user install several versions at the same time (that’s the case for example with the Linux kernel, the python interpreter and many libraries).
  • the software has been renamed, the maintainer renamed the packages and kept transitional packages under the old name for one release. Then the transitional packages have been removed.

In any case, it’s never a good idea to keep obsolete packages around: they do not benefit from security updates and they might cause problems during upgrades if they depend on other packages that should be removed to complete the upgrade.

You could blindly remove them with aptitude purge ~o (or aptitude purge ?obsolete) but you might want to first verify what those package are. There might be some packages that you have manually installed, that are not part of any current APT repository, and that you want to keep around nevertheless (I have skype, dropbox and a few personal packages for example). You can get the list with aptitude search ?obsolete

With the graphical package manager (Synaptic), you can find the list of obsolete packages by clicking on the “Status” button and selecting “Installed (local or obsolete)”. You can then go through the list and decide for each package whether you want to keep it or not.

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Debian Cleanup Tip #1: Get rid of useless configuration files

If you like to keep your place clean, you probably want to do the same with your computer. I’m going to show you a few tips over the next 4 weeks so that you can keep your Debian/Ubuntu system free of dust!

Over time the set of packages that is installed on your system changes, either because you install and remove stuff, or because the distribution evolved (and you upgraded your system to the latest version).

But the Debian packaging system is designed to keep configuration files when a package is removed. That way if you reinstall it, you won’t have to redo the configuration. That’s a nice feature but what if you will never reinstall those packages?

Then those configuration files become clutter that you would rather get rid of. In some cases, those files lying around might have unwanted side-effects (recent example: it can block the switch to a dependency-based boot sequence because obsolete init scripts without the required dependencies are still present).

The solution is to “purge” all packages which are in the “config-files” state. With aptitude you can do aptitude purge ~c (or aptitude purge ?config-files). Replace “purge” by “search” if you only want to see a list of the affected packages.

If you want a machine-friendly list of the packages in that state, you could use one of those commands (and then pass the result to apt-get if you don’t have aptitude available):

$ grep-status -n -sPackage -FStatus config-files
$ dpkg-query -f '${Package} ${Status}\n' -W | grep config-files$ | cut -d" " -f1

Note that grep-status is part of the dctrl-tools package.

Of course you can also use graphical package managers, like Synaptic. Click on the “Status” button on the bottom left, then on “Not installed (residual config)” and you have a list of packages that you can purge. You can select them all, right click and pick “Mark for Complete Removal”. See the screenshot below. The last step is to click on “Apply” to get the packages purged.

Synaptic purging residul config files

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Save disk space by excluding useless files with dpkg

Most packages contain files that you don’t need: for example translations in languages that you don’t understand, or documentation that you don’t read. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get rid of them and save a few megabytes? Good news: since dpkg 1.15.8 you can!

dpkg has two options --path-include=glob-pattern and --path-exclude=glob-pattern that control what files are installed or not. The pattern work the same than what you’re used to on the shell (see the glob(7) manual page).

Passing those options on the command-line would be impractical, so the best way to use them is to put them in a file in /etc/dpkg/dpkg.cfg.d/. Beware, the order of the options does matter: when a file matches several options, the last one makes the decision.

A typical usage is to first exclude a directory and then to re-include parts of that directory that you want to keep. For example if you want to drop gettext translations and translated manual pages except French, you could put this in /etc/dpkg/dpkg.cfg.d/excludes:

# Drop locales except French

# Drop translated manual pages except French

Note that the files will vanish progressively every time that a package is upgraded. If you want to save space immediately, you have to reinstall the packages present in your system. aptitude reinstall or apt-get --reinstall install might help. In theory with aptitude you can even do aptitude reinstall ~i but it tends to not work because one package is not available (either because it was installed manually or because the installed version has been superseded by a newer version on the mirror).

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