Wrath of Linux Package Managers


We all love to characterise things as "More than the sum of it's parts". We'd like to say the same about our linux operating system. My ARCH is more than the sum of it's parts! Well.. no.

A linux system is exactly the sum of it's parts. And most of those parts are connected to the base package manager, the beast that acts like a framework, holding everything together.

Have you ever wondered what makes Ubuntu Ubuntu? Or what is the difference between ARCH and GENTOO? If you guessed a package manager, you'd be right.

You probably don't believe me? I mean, doesn't Ubuntu look completely different from Linux Mint or Fedora? Sure it does, but that's only the defaults. I have a Linux Mint and an Arch system which look identical, but have very different package managers, and hence very different folder structures. And before I shifted to i3wm (Window Manager), my ARCH used to look identical to the environment you'd get on Fedora.

So, what makes these Package Managers so different from one another? To answer that, let's look at some common package managers.

  1. DPKG: If you have used any debian based OS, you should be familiar with dpkg. Dpkg is known to create and install .deb packages. These packages contain cross compiled binaries, with a predetermined folder structure. Files are merely copied to the correct location during installation. All packages present upstream are stable, and usually a little old.

  2. PORTAGE: You probably haven't heard of this, unless you have used GENTOO. The reason I mention this is because of the contrast between PORTAGE and DPKG. While dpkg installs everything from binaries, portage usually downloads the source code, and compiles everything. This has the obvious benefit that binaries compiled can be machine tuned, making the system noticably faster. Unfortunately, build errors can be a headache. Installation of binaries is supported, but rarely used.

  3. PACMAN: This is the package manager that ships with ARCH and tries to combine the best of both worlds. Pacman itself installs binaries, while AUR allows the users to use pacman to install packages from source too. The packages present upstream, in this case, are usually rolling stone releases (As latest as possible) and can sometimes have bugs.

NOTE: Above information is an over simplification of the working of package managers. What happens under the hood is a lot more complicated.


Why do I think this is important?

Those who know me, (Or have read ABOUT ME) would know that lately, I've been trying to build my own operating system using the LFS project. I was struck with the choice of a package manager, as by default, LFS has none. I went with Portage, since it compiles the packages, just like everything else in LFS. As I continued with the build, my OS started to be more and more Gentoo-ey. It started pointing out that I should read Gentoo forums before installing specific packages and so on. I could as well have choosed Pacman or DPKG or Snappy to make it into ARCH, Debian or Ubuntu.


Why did I call this the wrath of package managers?

As the package managers are the backbone of the operating systems, it is a good idea to leave them alone to their musings. They do not like competition and if you try to install Pacman on Debian or Portage on Arch, you will (more likely than not) end up with a broken, unusable system as the different package managers will step on each other's files and overwrite each other's essential files.