A package manager or package-management system is a collection of software tools that automates the process of installing, upgrading, configuring, and removing computer programs for a computer's operating system in a consistent manner.
Early package managers, like pms from 1994, had no automatic dependency resolution but could already drastically simplify the process of adding and removing software from a running system. By around 1998, beginning with APT, package managers began doing the work of downloading packages from a repository, automatically resolving its dependencies and installing them as needed, making it much easier to install, uninstall and update software from a system.
A package manager deals with packages, distributions of software and data in archive files. Packages contain metadata, such as the software's name, description of its purpose, version number, vendor, checksum (preferably a cryptographic hash function), and a list of dependencies necessary for the software to run properly. Upon installation, metadata is stored in a local package database. Package managers typically maintain a database of software dependencies and version information to prevent software mismatches and missing prerequisites. They work closely with software repositories, binary repository managers, and app stores.
Package managers are designed to eliminate the need for manual installs and updates. This can be particularly useful for large enterprises whose operating systems are typically consisting of hundreds or even tens of thousands of distinct software packages.
A software package is an archive file containing a computer program as well as necessary metadata for its deployment. The computer program can be in source code that has to be compiled and built first. Package metadata include package description, package version, and dependencies (other packages that need to be installed beforehand).
Package managers are charged with the task of finding, installing, maintaining or uninstalling software packages upon the user's command. Typical functions of a package management system include:
- Working with file archivers to extract package archives
- Ensuring the integrity and authenticity of the package by verifying their checksums and digital certificates, respectively
- Looking up, downloading, installing, or updating existing software from a software repository or app store
- Grouping packages by function to reduce user confusion
- Managing dependencies to ensure a package is installed with all packages it requires, thus avoiding "dependency hell"
Computer systems that rely on dynamic library linking, instead of static library linking, share executable libraries of machine instructions across packages and applications. In these systems, complex relationships between different packages requiring different versions of libraries results in a challenge colloquially known as "dependency hell". On Microsoft Windows systems, this is also called "DLL hell" when working with dynamically linked libraries. Good package management is vital on these systems. The Framework system from OPENSTEP was an attempt at solving this issue, by allowing multiple versions of libraries to be installed simultaneously, and for software packages to specify which version they were linked against.
Front-ends for locally compiled packages
System administrators may install and maintain software using tools other than package management software. For example, a local administrator may download unpackaged source code, compile it, and install it. This may cause the state of the local system to fall out of synchronization with the state of the package manager's database. The local administrator will be required to take additional measures, such as manually managing some dependencies or integrating the changes into the package manager.
There are tools available to ensure that locally compiled packages are integrated with the package management. For distributions based on .deb and .rpm files as well as Slackware Linux, there is CheckInstall, and for recipe-based systems such as Gentoo Linux and hybrid systems such as Arch Linux, it is possible to write a recipe first, which then ensures that the package fits into the local package database.
Maintenance of configuration
Particularly troublesome with software upgrades are upgrades of configuration files. Since package managers, at least on Unix systems, originated as extensions of file archiving utilities, they can usually only either overwrite or retain configuration files, rather than applying rules to them. There are exceptions to this that usually apply to kernel configuration (which, if broken, will render the computer unusable after a restart). Problems can be caused if the format of configuration files changes; for instance, if the old configuration file does not explicitly disable new options that should be disabled. Some package managers, such as Debian's dpkg, allow configuration during installation. In other situations, it is desirable to install packages with the default configuration and then overwrite this configuration, for instance, in headless installations to a large number of computers. This kind of pre-configured installation is also supported by dpkg.
To give users more control over the kinds of software that they are allowing to be installed on their system (and sometimes due to legal or convenience reasons on the distributors' side), software is often downloaded from a number of software repositories.
When a user interacts with the package management software to bring about an upgrade, it is customary to present the user with the list of actions to be executed (usually the list of packages to be upgraded, and possibly giving the old and new version numbers), and allow the user to either accept the upgrade in bulk, or select individual packages for upgrades. Many package managers can be configured to never upgrade certain packages, or to upgrade them only when critical vulnerabilities or instabilities are found in the previous version, as defined by the packager of the software. This process is sometimes called version pinning.
- yum supports this with the syntax exclude=openoffice*
- pacman with IgnorePkg= openoffice (to suppress upgrading openoffice in both cases)
- dpkg and dselect support this partially through the hold flag in package selections
- APT extends the hold flag through the complex "pinning" mechanism (Users can also blacklist a package)
- aptitude has "hold" and "forbid" flags
- portage supports this through the package.mask configuration file
Cascading package removal
Some of the more advanced package management features offer "cascading package removal", in which all packages that depend on the target package and all packages that only the target package depends on, are also removed.
Comparison of commands
Although the commands are specific for every particular package manager, they are to a large extent translatable, as most package managers offer similar functions.
nix-env -i PACKAGE
nix-env -e PACKAGE
nix-env -e PACKAGE && nix-env -u
|update software database||
|show updatable packages||
nix-channel --upgrade && nix-env -u && nix-collect-garbage
nix-env -u && nix-collect-garbage
Linux distributions oriented to binary packages rely heavily on package management systems as their primary means of managing and maintaining software. Mobile operating systems such as Android (Linux-based), iOS (Unix-based), and Windows Phone rely almost exclusively on their respective vendors' app stores and thus use their own dedicated package management systems.
Synaptic, a GUI for many Linux package managers
Octopi, a Qt GUI for Pacman package manager
Pamac, a GTK+ GUI for Pacman package manager
Comparison with installers
A package manager is often called an "install manager", which can lead to a confusion between package managers and installers. The differences include:
|Shipped with||Usually, the operating system||Each computer program|
|Location of installation information||One central installation database||It is entirely at the discretion of the installer. It could be a file within the app's folder, or among the operating system's files and folders. At best, they may register themselves with an uninstallers list without exposing installation information.|
|Scope of maintenance||Potentially all packages on the system||Only the product with which it was bundled|
|Developed by||One package manager vendor||Multiple installer vendors|
|Package format||A handful of well-known formats||There could be as many formats as the number of apps|
|Package format compatibility||Can be consumed as long as the package manager supports it. Either newer versions of the package manager keep supporting it or the user does not upgrade the package manager.||The installer is always compatible with its archive format, if it uses any. However, installers, like all computer programs, may be affected by software rot.|
Comparison with build automation utility
Most software configuration management systems treat building software and deploying software as separate, independent steps. A build automation utility typically takes human-readable source code files already on a computer, and automates the process of converting them into a binary executable package on the same computer. Later a package manager typically running on some other computer downloads those pre-built binary executable packages over the internet and installs them.
However, both kinds of tools have many commonalities:
- For example, the dependency graph topological sorting used in a package manager to handle dependencies between binary components is also used in a build manager to handle the dependency between source components.
- For example, many makefiles support not only building executables, but also installing them with
- For example, every package manager for a source-based distribution – Portage, Sorcery, Homebrew, etc. – supports converting human-readable source code to binary executables and installing it.
Common package managers and formats
Universal package manager
Also known as binary repository manager, it is a software tool designed to optimize the download and storage of binary files, artifacts and packages used and produced in the software development process. These package managers aim to standardize the way enterprises treat all package types. They give users the ability to apply security and compliance metrics across all artifact types. Universal package managers have been referred to as being at the center of a DevOps toolchain.
Each package manager relies on the format and metadata of the packages it can manage. That is, package managers need groups of files to be bundled for the specific package manager along with appropriate metadata, such as dependencies. Often, a core set of utilities manages the basic installation from these packages and multiple package managers use these utilities to provide additional functionality.
For example, yum relies on rpm as a backend. Yum extends the functionality of the backend by adding features such as simple configuration for maintaining a network of systems. As another example, the Synaptic Package Manager provides a graphical user interface by using the Advanced Packaging Tool (apt) library, which, in turn, relies on dpkg for core functionality.
Alien is a program that converts between different Linux package formats, supporting conversion between Linux Standard Base (LSB) compliant .rpm packages, .deb, Stampede (.slp), Solaris (.pkg) and Slackware (.tgz, .txz, .tbz, .tlz) packages.
In mobile operating systems, Google Play consumes Android application package (APK) package format while Microsoft Store uses APPX and XAP formats. (Both Google Play and Microsoft Store have eponymous package managers.)
Free and open source software systems
By the nature of free and open source software, packages under similar and compatible licenses are available for use on a number of operating systems. These packages can be combined and distributed using configurable and internally complex packaging systems to handle many permutations of software and manage version-specific dependencies and conflicts. Some packaging systems of free and open source software are also themselves released as free and open source software. One typical difference between package management in proprietary operating systems, such as Mac OS X and Windows, and those in free and open source software, such as Linux, is that free and open source software systems permit third-party packages to also be installed and upgraded through the same mechanism, whereas the package managers of Mac OS X and Windows will only upgrade software provided by Apple and Microsoft, respectively (with the exception of some third party drivers in Windows). The ability to continuously upgrade third party software is typically added by adding the URL of the corresponding repository to the package management's configuration file.
Application-level package managers
Beside the system-level application managers, there are some add-on package managers for operating systems with limited capabilities and for programming languages in which developers need the latest libraries.
In contrast to system-level package managers, application-level package managers focus on a small part of the software system. They typically reside within a directory tree that is not maintained by the system-level package manager, such as c:\cygwin or /opt/sw. However, this might not be the case for the package managers that deal with programming libraries, leading to a possible conflict as both package managers may claim to "own" a file and might break upgrades.
Ian Murdock had commented that package management is "the single biggest advancement Linux has brought to the industry", that it blurs the boundaries between operating system and applications, and that it makes it "easier to push new innovations [...] into the marketplace and [...] evolve the OS".
There is also a conference for package manager developers known as PackagingCon. It was established in 2021 with the aim to understand different approaches to package management.
- Installation (computer programs)
- List of software package management systems
- Package format
- Snap (package manager)
- Windows Installer
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