The great package format debate: why there’s no need for distributions to use the same package format

As I mentioned, I spent the weekend at LinuxFest Northwest, a great conference I’ve been to three times now.

Bryan Lunduke does a recurring talk there which is called “Why Linux Sucks” or something like it. It’s a great talk, where Bryan gives his tongue-in-cheek opinion on what’s holding back desktop (and, more recently, mobile) Linux adoption. There’s a video of this year’s talk.

Bryan’s awesome, and we get along great. I love his talks (in the last couple of years he’s started following the “Why Linux Sucks” talk with a “Why Linux Rocks” talk which uses almost the exact same slide deck, which is an awesome idea). But I think he’s wrong on one point he brings up. It’s hard to do a good job of explaining why concisely during the talk – you can watch me doing a bad job of it in the video! – because it’s a complex issue that’s hard to distil. So I thought I’d write it down instead.

The problem Bryan identifies affects third parties providing Linux applications directly to users: Bryan trying to provide his games to users of different distributions, or Google trying to provide Chrome, or Mozilla trying to provide Firefox, and so on and so forth.

If you’re one of those third parties, you can put your application in a package, or you can put it in a tarball.

If you put it in a package and provide a repository, your users can take advantage of the features of package management. Your app will show up in their package management applications, it will be updated when they do a system update, and a few other things. But there’s a problem: different distributions use different package formats. So if you just do one package (and repository), you won’t be covering all your potential users. If you do RPM and DEB you’ll cover 90+% of them, but there are still a few who’ll be left out.

If you put it in a tarball, you can just make one, and give it to users of all distributions. They’ll all be able to extract your app and run it. But it won’t show up in their package manager. You’ll have to tell them to download a new tarball, or write your own update mechanism.

Bryan wants for third parties to be able to get all the neat stuff that comes with using a packaging format, without the inconvenience of doing multiple builds.

If distributions all used the same packaging format, would Bryan’s goal be achieved? Absolutely. Is it a worthwhile goal? Sure. I don’t think it’d change the world, but we agree it’d be a benefit.

So Bryan’s right? I’m an idiot? Well…not so fast there!

Switching package formats for a distribution is a huge pile of work. I can explain why if anyone needs me to, but for now I’m going to assume you’re willing to take it on trust.

If all distributions used the same package format, that wouldn’t help them directly at all. A lot of people believe that if, say, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu all used the same package format, you could just mix and match packages between them, and each distro wouldn’t have to package everything separately.

This is not true, we can’t ever make it true, and we don’t want it to be true. I’ll try to explain why as quickly as I can: distributions are very different, and they all are strongly committed to using shared resources.

When you get Chrome from Google, you get a static build: it uses very little of the shared resources the distribution provides, stuff that’s present and compatible on virtually any distro.

When you download a package from your distro vendor, it’s not like that. Distros use dynamic builds: distro packages use all the shared resources they can. Just take it on trust that the benefits are huge and distributions will never start using static linking outside of the cases where it’s unavoidable (ask me for details if you want). Distros differ in terms of the shared resources they include, and this isn’t just being ornery, it’s a key part of what differentiates distributions from each other, and why we have them at all. Fedora 18 has openssl 1.0.1e. Ubuntu has 1.0.1c. RHEL 6 has 1.0.0. Debian stable has 0.9.8o. This is because Fedora is bleeding edge, Ubuntu is a bit more conservative, RHEL 6 is a lot more conservative, and Debian stable is even more so. We couldn’t all get together and ‘agree to compromise on 1.0.0’. Then none of those distributions except RHEL would be serving the needs of its users.

Multiply that by the thousands of packages in a distribution. You can’t take a Fedora 18 package and install it on RHEL 6, even though they are both RPM distributions, because the package expects stuff from Fedora 18 that just isn’t in RHEL 6.

So we’ve got a cost/benefit. The benefit? It’s there. The cost? It’s huge, and it falls on groups that don’t directly benefit at all. This sucks. But fortunately, we don’t need to pay that cost!

We don’t need all the distributions to agree on a common package format for their packages so third parties can provide applications with most of the benefits of package management. All we need is for there to be a package management framework that third parties can rely on to be present on all distributions. It doesn’t matter at all whether the distribution packages use it or not.

That’s a much easier problem to solve. All we’d need to do is agree to all provide support for one existing package format out of the box. (Sidebar: LSB already actually tries this. It requires RPM.) That’s one big bunfight at a conference and maybe like a week or so of work. No big deal. If Bryan pushed for this instead of saying ‘all distributions should use the same package format!’, I’d have no disagreement with him.

You can stop reading here if you like! But if you’re thinking ‘hey, waitaminute’…

To pre-emptively address one objection: what if a third party wants to provide a package that depends on something in the core distribution?

Bryan’s idea would go a bit further to addressing that than mine would. But it’s not so important, Bryan’s idea still doesn’t totally solve it, and you can modify mine to solve it quite easily.

It’s not so important because most significant third party providers just want to make their package as independent as possible. They don’t want to worry about making sure their app works with all the possible versions of the shared resources they want to use that are shipped by the various distributions. They usually just link almost everything statically. Here are the requirements of Google’s Chrome RPM, for instance:

Honestly, you really don’t need to specify any of those. If someone’s running a Linux distribution with a desktop (which they are if they want to install Chrome), it’s about 99 to 1 they have all of that installed.

Bryan’s idea doesn’t fully address this requirement because distributions don’t all agree on what different packages should be called, or how library dependencies should be written, etc etc etc. It’s slightly more likely that we could all agree on that than that we could all switch to one package format, but it’s still a hell of a long shot. Even if we all used the same package format, you couldn’t just write “Requires: foo” and be done. One of the distros probably calls it “libfoo”. You’d still have problems.

And you could pretty easily achieve this with my idea, too. Better, we don’t have to do it all at once. We could just get the format in place first. If that was a success, then ‘I want to be able to specify some dependencies!’ is an obvious enhancement request, and now we’re building on an existing idea, not just throwing impractical proposals around.

Maybe we can’t get all the distros to agree on the names of absolutely all their packages, but we could get them all to agree to have their GTK+ 3.0 package provide gtk+-3.0 under the shared packaging system. The names could still differ under the native packaging systems – it wouldn’t matter. But it’s plausible to see us agreeing on a set of commonly-required core components, and doing the work to have the distro packages express those provides in the shared package manager as well as their native package manager, using an agreed nomenclature. And it could be incremental – we could just start by doing 50 packages, or 10, or just one; however many we could agree on. And then build it out as we went along. And none of this would in any way disturb the functioning of the distro’s native package system and repositories.

15 Responses

  1. Sepero
    Sepero April 30, 2013 at 1:36 am | | Reply

    A point I think matters which was not addressed is- administration. If I have a package problem with a deb box, then I know all the tools apt*, dpkg*. I know all the locations to look /var/cache/apt/ /var/lib/dpkg etc. I know how to freeze packages and pinning works. I know how ppa’s work. I know how to create my own deb packages from source if needed.

    It’s for these reasons that I won’t touch another system (rpm, pacman, whatever). I’ve changed distros once in the past 10 years- from Debian to Ubuntu. I know it inside and out. Could I learn how everything works in another system? Sure, but why? All I really care about is that deb is the most popular format. If rpm was the most popular, then I would support that instead. My time is valuable, and I don’t need to be accidentally mixing up different package info in my mind when a problem needs to be solved right now. Most people are like me in this- we don’t have “fun” learning how all the innards of a packaging system work, we just want the shit to work.

    You’re right that having the same package manager doesn’t mean Debian packages will install on Ubuntu without problems. But having the same package manager does mean that with little difficulty, I can often fix those problems.

    So I tell clients it doesn’t matter much what distro they use, as long as it is _deb_ package format. Like I said, if Redhat was using the most popular package format, then I would be supporting them instead. So in this way, yes, it does _directly_ harm them. (Most of the distros on distro watch are deb and rpm based and they have no commercial backing. They are _directly_ benefitting from the package management system they choose.)

    Additionally, working with these package intricacies is much more difficult for 3rd party vendors. Unlike the distro makers, 3rd party vendors aren’t dedicated to packaging tools everyday. Instead they are just dedicated to improving their product. I don’t think the distro makers appreciate the costs of 3rd party vendors to produce even 1 good package (especially when these vendors are already catering to other OS’s).

    Aside from all that, I think you make a lot of good points in your blog. I agree that something like LSB is good, and I do not know why Debian is not in complete alignment. My wild guess would be that it has something to do with politics or money (who is funding LSB???). Also, agreed with points on “commonly-required core components” and “agreed nomenclature”. Very good points, totally realistic, and I would love to see happen. This would make the package manager much less relevant.

    I’m sure there are things that I haven’t covered, and I think this whole topic could be expanded on a lot more. From what I’ve said here alone, I think there is more direct and indirect harm to the distribution than you initially account for, but still not enough for Redhat to switch all their rpm’s to deb. It would probably be easier for them to entirely switch their distro to debian based, and change only necessary extra packages. Either way, we both know none of this deb/rpm union is going to happen. I enjoy the theoretical discussion. 😉

  2. Charles Banas
    Charles Banas April 30, 2013 at 11:28 am | | Reply

    I sat across the aisle from you, and I could tell you wanted to make your case, but I have to say I disagree with your premise.

    We know that every package system has a few key concepts:

    1. Every package has a name and a version number.

    2. Every package has a set of dependencies, which are typically a name and a version number.

    3. Every package manager has a way of deducing the package ownership of a file, and the files owned by a package. A few can do this even without having the package on hand.

    4. Every package format has a common set of features: Pre-install, post-install, pre-remove script, post-remove, and a few other scripts; a manifest which describes the package and its dependencies; and a tarball that can be unpacked (usually directly) to /. RPM hides this inside cpio archives, and Debian inside ar archives.

    We could, in the spirit of the Alien script, devise a common package format or a package manifest format to which all package managers could subscribe.

    This new package format would have a standardized manifest format, which would describe the library/package dependencies and the version number *range* that is known to be supported, and a Makefile-like language could describe the pre/post install/remove tasks that would normally be performed by package scripts.

    In this way, the common format could provide enough information for the package manager to determine which packages are needed for its installation and install the foreign package appropriately.

    0install is one such effort for a foreign package system, but it’s currently incapable of updating the host package manager’s database. What’s keeping us from making that possible?

  3. helsinkiharbour
    helsinkiharbour April 30, 2013 at 1:09 pm | | Reply

    Well, I think the solution to all mentioned problems was already found as the advantages of “dynamical packaging” are nowadays neglectable for the desctop use-case: Distro-independent installation formats like, or (or even the “infamous” Autopackage).

    To call it in another way, strong separation between system and apps, a platform (like steam is now building up), is a killer feature for ISVs and users alike (if you don’t have it, you suffer this:

  4. helsinkiharbour
    helsinkiharbour April 30, 2013 at 1:31 pm | | Reply

    @adamw: I stay my point, the memory efficency argumentation was maybe valid in the nineties, nowadays with 100 times more RAM it’s not a problem anymore so that someone should spend a second of work to save some kBs on libraries in memory (should be fixed automaticaly on system level by reusing memory pages of same libraries). If the security argument is in real-world critical enough to outweight the disadvantages is debatable, for my taste it is not. It’s a to seldom and theoretical scenario and the application provider themself care enough (or even more) than distros in being up-to-date so that this could be a practical problem outweighting the disadvantages of tight binding all apps with the complete operating system together.

  5. Thomas Leonard
    Thomas Leonard May 1, 2013 at 2:54 am | | Reply

    “I think 0install doesn’t have a lot of buy-in because it makes some choices that distros aren’t happy with in terms of its overall design.”

    Could you be more specific on what these problems are? Almost all distributions include 0install in their repositories (Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Debian, Mint, etc), so I guess they aren’t that unhappy…

  6. helsinkiharbour
    helsinkiharbour May 1, 2013 at 4:18 am | | Reply

    OK, it could be argued way around that an unsecure lib which is system wide updated in parallel makes all apps unsecure at once therefore multiplying the damage potential. Could be called a Zero sum game approach, trading frequency of security breaches against severity.

    But let’s talk about known disadavantages of having the apps tight integrated into the system (by package management): Ubuntu’s Matthew Paul Thomas identified this approach as not scaling well enough to fullfil the app needs of the users.

    What about the significant chance that an application breaks by subtile changes in an system wide updated library? Regularly something slips throught the tests (more often than potential security breaches).

    What about the missing of portable apps “stickware/usb-ware” in the linux ecosystem as apps are relying on sepcific systemwide libaries? Works great under mac and windows.

    What about the limited freedom of user in selection of App versions? Like most recent, older one, several versions in parallel, which are not (or net yet, or not anymore) in the repository? (Described in this ubuntu report:

    In the end, I think it’s about choice and freedom for the users as crucial argument for a distro-agnostic bundle approach (or how you called it “statically linked”). The freedom aspect outweighting all security concerns brought in for distro centralized package management approaches which enforces strict system integration of apps and limits choice. Or how Ingo Molnar called it recently: “Users want to be free to install and run untrusted code.” (

    (Years ago also Ian Murdock called it similar: “And, no, moving everything into the distribution is not a very good option. Remember that one of the key tenets of open source is decentralization, so if the only solution is to centralize everything, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this picture.)”

  7. kparal
    kparal May 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm | | Reply

    adamw: nice hat! 🙂

  8. LinuxLover
    LinuxLover May 3, 2013 at 7:31 am | | Reply

    I don’t think the package format is as important as distros getting together on a standard package manager. It would be so nice to jump from Fedora to Mageia to Ubuntu to Arch and all use the same package manager. It doesn’t matter what type of package it is, as long as installing it is trivial without learning a new GUI or new commands. I know there was an attempt at everyone getting around PackageKit for a front end, but that seems to have died off.

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