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6.8. Automatic Upgrades

Since Falcot Corp has many computers but only limited manpower, its administrators try to make upgrades as automatic as possible. The programs in charge of these processes must therefore run with no human intervention.

6.8.1. Configuring dpkg

As we have already mentioned (see sidebar GOING FURTHER Avoiding the configuration file questions), dpkg can be instructed not to ask for confirmation when replacing a configuration file (with the --force-confdef --force-confold options). Interactions can, however, have three other sources: some come from APT itself, some are handled by debconf, and some happen on the command line due to package configuration scripts.

6.8.2. Configuring APT

The case of APT is simple: the -y option (or --assume-yes) tells APT to consider the answer to all its questions to be “yes”.

6.8.3. Configuring debconf

The case of debconf deserves more details. This program was, from its inception, designed to control the relevance and volume of questions displayed to the user, as well as the way they are shown. That is why its configuration requests a minimal priority for questions; only questions above the minimal priority are displayed. debconf assumes the default answer (defined by the package maintainer) for questions which it decided to skip.
The other relevant configuration element is the interface used by the front-end. If you choose noninteractive out of the choices, all user interaction is disabled. If a package tries to display an informative note, it will be sent to the administrator by email.
To reconfigure debconf, use the dpkg-reconfigure tool from the debconf package; the relevant command is dpkg-reconfigure debconf. Note that the configured values can be temporarily overridden with environment variables when needed (for instance, DEBIAN_FRONTEND controls the interface, as documented in the debconf(7) manual page).

6.8.4. Handling Command Line Interactions

The last source of interactions, and the hardest to get rid of, is the configuration scripts run by dpkg. There is unfortunately no standard solution, and no answer is overwhelmingly better than another.
The common approach is to suppress the standard input by redirecting the empty content of /dev/null into it with command </dev/null, or to feed it with an endless stream of newlines. None of these methods is 100 % reliable, but they generally lead to the default answers being used, since most scripts consider a lack of reply as an acceptance of the default value.

6.8.5. The Miracle Combination

By combining the previous elements, it is possible to design a small but rather reliable script which can handle automatic upgrades.

Example 6.4. Non-interactive upgrade script

export DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive
yes '' | apt-get -y -o DPkg::options::="--force-confdef" -o DPkg::options::="--force-confold" dist-upgrade