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5.4. Manipulating Packages with dpkg

dpkg is the base command for handling Debian packages on the system. If you have .deb packages, it is dpkg that allows installation or analysis of their contents. But this program only has a partial view of the Debian universe: it knows what is installed on the system, and whatever it is given on the command line, but knows nothing of the other available packages. As such, it will fail if a dependency is not met. Tools such as apt, on the contrary, will create a list of dependencies to install everything as automatically as possible.

5.4.1. Installing Packages

dpkg is, above all, the tool for installing an already available Debian package (because it does not download anything). To do this, we use its -i or --install option.

Example 5.2. Installation of a package with dpkg

# dpkg -i man-db_2.7.0.2-5_amd64.deb
(Reading database ... 86425 files and directories currently installed.)
Preparing to unpack man-db_2.7.0.2-5_amd64.deb ...
Unpacking man-db ( over ( ...
Setting up man-db ( ...
Updating database of manual pages ...
Processing triggers for mime-support (3.58) ...
We can see the different steps performed by dpkg; we know, thus, at what point any error may have occurred. The installation can also be effected in two stages: first unpacking, then configuration. apt-get takes advantage of this, limiting the number of calls to dpkg (since each call is costly, due to loading of the database in memory, especially the list of already installed files).

Example 5.3. Separate unpacking and configuration

# dpkg --unpack man-db_2.7.0.2-5_amd64.deb
(Reading database ... 86425 files and directories currently installed.)
Preparing to unpack man-db_2.7.0.2-5_amd64.deb ...
Unpacking man-db ( over ( ...
Processing triggers for mime-support (3.58) ...
# dpkg --configure man-db
Setting up man-db ( ...
Updating database of manual pages ...
Sometimes dpkg will fail to install a package and return an error; if the user orders it to ignore this, it will only issue a warning; it is for this reason that we have the different --force-* options. The dpkg --force-help command, or documentation of this command, will give a complete list of these options. The most frequent error, which you are bound to encounter sooner or later, is a file collision. When a package contains a file that is already installed by another package, dpkg will refuse to install it. The following messages will then appear:
Unpacking libgdm (from .../libgdm_3.8.3-2_amd64.deb) ...
dpkg: error processing /var/cache/apt/archives/libgdm_3.8.3-2_amd64.deb (--unpack):
 trying to overwrite '/usr/bin/gdmflexiserver', which is also in package gdm3 3.4.1-9
In this case, if you think that replacing this file is not a significant risk to the stability of your system (which is usually the case), you can use the option --force-overwrite, which tells dpkg to ignore this error and overwrite the file.
While there are many available --force-* options, only --force-overwrite is likely to be used regularly. These options only exist for exceptional situations, and it is better to leave them alone as much as possible in order to respect the rules imposed by the packaging mechanism. Do not forget, these rules ensure the consistency and stability of your system.

5.4.2. Package Removal

Invoking dpkg with the -r or --remove option, followed by the name of a package, removes that package. This removal is, however, not complete: all of the configuration files, maintainer scripts, log files (system logs) and other user data handled by the package remain. That way disabling the program is easily done by uninstalling it, and it's still possible to quickly reinstall it with the same configuration. To completely remove everything associated with a package, use the -P or --purge option, followed by the package name.

Example 5.4. Removal and purge of the debian-cd package

# dpkg -r debian-cd
(Reading database ... 97747 files and directories currently installed.)
Removing debian-cd (3.1.17) ...
# dpkg -P debian-cd
(Reading database ... 97401 files and directories currently installed.)
Removing debian-cd (3.1.17) ...
Purging configuration files for debian-cd (3.1.17) ...

5.4.3. Querying dpkg's Database and Inspecting .deb Files

Before concluding this section, we will study dpkg options that query the internal database in order to obtain information. Giving first the long options and then corresponding short options (that will evidently take the same possible arguments) we cite --listfiles package (or -L), which lists the files installed by this package; --search file (or -S), which finds the package(s) containing the file; --status package (or -s), which displays the headers of an installed package; --list (or -l), which displays the list of packages known to the system and their installation status; --contents file.deb (or -c), which lists the files in the Debian package specified; --info file.deb (or -I), which displays the headers of this Debian package.

Example 5.5. Various queries with dpkg

$ dpkg -L base-passwd
$ dpkg -S /bin/date
coreutils: /bin/date
$ dpkg -s coreutils
Package: coreutils
Essential: yes
Status: install ok installed
Priority: required
Section: utils
Installed-Size: 13855
Maintainer: Michael Stone <>
Architecture: amd64
Multi-Arch: foreign
Version: 8.23-3
Replaces: mktemp, realpath, timeout
Pre-Depends: libacl1 (>= 2.2.51-8), libattr1 (>= 1:2.4.46-8), libc6 (>= 2.17), libselinux1 (>= 2.1.13)
Conflicts: timeout
Description: GNU core utilities
 This package contains the basic file, shell and text manipulation
 utilities which are expected to exist on every operating system.
 Specifically, this package includes:
 arch base64 basename cat chcon chgrp chmod chown chroot cksum comm cp
 csplit cut date dd df dir dircolors dirname du echo env expand expr
 factor false flock fmt fold groups head hostid id install join link ln
 logname ls md5sum mkdir mkfifo mknod mktemp mv nice nl nohup nproc numfmt
 od paste pathchk pinky pr printenv printf ptx pwd readlink realpath rm
 rmdir runcon sha*sum seq shred sleep sort split stat stty sum sync tac
 tail tee test timeout touch tr true truncate tsort tty uname unexpand
 uniq unlink users vdir wc who whoami yes
$ dpkg -l 'b*'
| Status=Not/Inst/Conf-files/Unpacked/halF-conf/Half-inst/trig-aWait/Trig-pend
|/ Err?=(none)/Reinst-required (Status,Err: uppercase=bad)
||/ Name                    Version          Architecture     Description
un  backupninja             <none>           <none>           (no description available)
ii  backuppc                3.3.0-2          amd64            high-performance, enterprise-grade system for backin
un  base                    <none>           <none>           (no description available)
un  base-config             <none>           <none>           (no description available)
ii  base-files              8                amd64            Debian base system miscellaneous files
ii  base-passwd             3.5.37           amd64            Debian base system master password and group files
$ dpkg -c /var/cache/apt/archives/gnupg_1.4.18-6_amd64.deb
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./lib/
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./lib/udev/
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./lib/udev/rules.d/
-rw-r--r-- root/root      2711 2014-12-04 23:03 ./lib/udev/rules.d/60-gnupg.rules
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/gnupg/
-rwxr-xr-x root/root     39328 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/gnupg/gpgkeys_ldap
-rwxr-xr-x root/root     92872 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/gnupg/gpgkeys_hkp
-rwxr-xr-x root/root     47576 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/gnupg/gpgkeys_finger
-rwxr-xr-x root/root     84648 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/gnupg/gpgkeys_curl
-rwxr-xr-x root/root      3499 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/lib/gnupg/gpgkeys_mailto
drwxr-xr-x root/root         0 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/bin/
-rwxr-xr-x root/root     60128 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/bin/gpgsplit
-rwxr-xr-x root/root   1012688 2014-12-04 23:03 ./usr/bin/gpg
$ dpkg -I /var/cache/apt/archives/gnupg_1.4.18-6_amd64.deb
 new debian package, version 2.0.
 size 1148362 bytes: control archive=3422 bytes.
    1264 bytes,    26 lines      control              
    4521 bytes,    65 lines      md5sums              
     479 bytes,    13 lines   *  postinst             #!/bin/sh
     473 bytes,    13 lines   *  preinst              #!/bin/sh
 Package: gnupg
 Version: 1.4.18-6
 Architecture: amd64
 Maintainer: Debian GnuPG-Maintainers <>
 Installed-Size: 4888
 Depends: gpgv, libbz2-1.0, libc6 (>= 2.15), libreadline6 (>= 6.0), libusb-0.1-4 (>= 2:0.1.12), zlib1g (>= 1:1.1.4)
 Recommends: gnupg-curl, libldap-2.4-2 (>= 2.4.7)
 Suggests: gnupg-doc, libpcsclite1, parcimonie, xloadimage | imagemagick | eog
 Section: utils
 Priority: important
 Multi-Arch: foreign
 Description: GNU privacy guard - a free PGP replacement
  GnuPG is GNU's tool for secure communication and data storage.
  It can be used to encrypt data and to create digital signatures.
  It includes an advanced key management facility and is compliant
  with the proposed OpenPGP Internet standard as described in RFC 4880.

5.4.4. dpkg's Log File

dpkg keeps a log of all of its actions in /var/log/dpkg.log. This log is extremely verbose, since it details every one of the stages through which packages handled by dpkg go. In addition to offering a way to track dpkg's behavior, it helps, above all, to keep a history of the development of the system: one can find the exact moment when each package has been installed or updated, and this information can be extremely useful in understanding a recent change in behavior. Additionally, all versions being recorded, it is easy to cross-check the information with the changelog.Debian.gz for packages in question, or even with online bug reports.

5.4.5. Multi-Arch Support

All Debian packages have an Architecture field in their control information. This field can contain either “all” (for packages that are architecture independent) or the name of the architecture that it targets (like “amd64”, “armhf”, …). In the latter case, by default, dpkg will only accept to install the package if its architecture matches the host's architecture as returned by dpkg --print-architecture.
This restriction ensures that users do not end up with binaries compiled for an incorrect architecture. Everything would be perfect except that (some) computers can run binaries for multiple architectures, either natively (an “amd64“ system can run “i386” binaries) or through emulators. Enabling Multi-Arch

dpkg's multi-arch support allows users to define “foreign architectures” that can be installed on the current system. This is simply done with dpkg --add-architecture like in the example below. There is a corresponding dpkg --remove-architecture to drop support of a foreign architecture, but it can only be used when no packages of this architecture remain.
# dpkg --print-architecture
# dpkg --print-foreign-architectures
# dpkg -i gcc-4.9-base_4.9.1-19_armhf.deb
dpkg: error processing archive gcc-4.9-base_4.9.1-19_armhf.deb (--install):
 package architecture (armhf) does not match system (amd64)
Errors were encountered while processing:
# dpkg --add-architecture armhf
# dpkg --add-architecture armel
# dpkg --print-foreign-architectures
# dpkg -i gcc-4.9-base_4.9.1-19_armhf.deb
Selecting previously unselected package gcc-4.9-base:armhf.
(Reading database ... 86425 files and directories currently installed.)
Preparing to unpack gcc-4.9-base_4.9.1-19_armhf.deb ...
Unpacking gcc-4.9-base:armhf (4.9.1-19) ...
Setting up gcc-4.9-base:armhf (4.9.1-19) ...
# dpkg --remove-architecture armhf
dpkg: error: cannot remove architecture 'armhf' currently in use by the database
# dpkg --remove-architecture armel
# dpkg --print-foreign-architectures
armhf Multi-Arch Related Changes

To make multi-arch actually useful and usable, libraries had to be repackaged and moved to an architecture-specific directory so that multiple copies (targeting different architectures) can be installed alongside. Such updated packages contain the “Multi-Arch: same” header field to tell the packaging system that the various architectures of the package can be safely co-installed (and that those packages can only satisfy dependencies of packages of the same architecture). Since multi-arch made its debut in Debian Wheezy, not all libraries have been converted yet.
$ dpkg -s gcc-4.9-base
dpkg-query: error: --status needs a valid package name but 'gcc-4.9-base' is not: ambiguous package name 'gcc-4.9-base' with more than one installed instance

Use --help for help about querying packages.
$ dpkg -s gcc-4.9-base:amd64 gcc-4.9-base:armhf | grep ^Multi
Multi-Arch: same
Multi-Arch: same
$ dpkg -L libgcc1:amd64 |grep .so
$ dpkg -S /usr/share/doc/gcc-4.9-base/copyright
gcc-4.9-base:amd64, gcc-4.9-base:armhf: /usr/share/doc/gcc-4.9-base/copyright
It is worth noting that Multi-Arch: same packages must have their names qualified with their architecture to be unambiguously identifiable. They also have the possibility to share files with other instances of the same package; dpkg ensures that all packages have bit-for-bit identical files when they are shared. Last but not least, all instances of a package must have the same version. They must thus be upgraded together.
Multi-Arch support also brings some interesting challenges in the way dependencies are handled. Satisfying a dependency requires either a package marked “Multi-Arch: foreign” or a package whose architecture matches the one of the package declaring the dependency (in this dependency resolution process, architecture-independent packages are assumed to be of the same architecture than the host). A dependency can also be weakened to allow any architecture to fulfill it, with the package:any syntax, but foreign packages can only satisfy such a dependency if they are marked “Multi-Arch: allowed”.