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Ubuntu Linux--Would You Like Some Community With That? - page 4

Looking at Ubuntu

  • February 3, 2005
  • By Bill von Hagen

Being Debian-based, Ubuntu uses the DEB package format and associated applications such as apt-get, aptitude, and Synaptic. The Debian package management system and apt are unquestionably fantastic. DEB packages and apt-get are what RPM packages and RPM itself want to be when they grow up.

To my mind, updating your system using apt-get is quaint and so 1990s (outside a shell script), but Ubuntu includes a tremendous graphical front end to the apt package management system known as Synaptic, shown in Figure 7 in its Ubuntu incarnation. Synaptic was originally developed by the folks who bring you the Connectiva Linux distribution (http://www.conectiva.com.br/ for the Portuguese speakers in the audience), but is now widely used in many RPM and Debian-based systems because it is a clear example of "the right thing."

Explaining the internals of Debian package management is outside the scope of a review, but an overview is important in order to appreciate some of the enhancements that Ubuntu has added. In a nutshell, Debian-style updates are typically done over the net, and involve comparing the versions of packages installed on your system with the versions of packages available from repositories that are organized first into various distributions or branches (in this case, "warty," "hoary," etc.), and into various sections within those releases. Traditional Debian section are "main," for packages compliant with the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG, Debian's definition of "free software"), "contrib," for packages that comply with the DFSG but may do things like depending on non-free packages), and "non-free," the gulag for packages that don't comply with the DFSG.

To this clever hierarchy, Ubuntu uses sections such as "universe," which are packages that are not officially supported by Ubuntu but have been submitted by members of the community, and "multiverse," which are packages that are not supported by Ubuntu and have not been determined to be free software. Synaptic provides easy access to the list of repositories that it knows about and the distributions and sections that are available from each through its Settings > Repositories dialog.

To look for and install any favorite packages that may not have been installed on Warty or Hoary (xine and qemacs come to mind), simply add the new sections to existing repositories and reload Synaptic's list of available packages. You can then search package name and descriptions for program names or related keywords, and click on the packages to select them for installation. Thanks to the intelligence built into DEB packages, selecting a package also selects any other required packages. You can then update or enhance your system by clicking Apply, and sit back while Synaptic retrieves and installs the right packages in the right order for you. This makes it easy to resolve problems such as that shown in Figure 8, in which I've tried to enable Windows networking but didn't realize that Samba and SMB support weren't installed by default.

Once Synaptic has retrieved all requested or required packages, it displays an Applying Changes dialog that provides a glimpse into what's actually going on under the hood and prompts you for any information that any of the packages that you are installing may require.

For the truly gutsy, you can even use this mechanism to upgrade an existing Warty installation to the current Hoary release, by replacing the distribution entries in all your repositories from "warty" to "hoary", reloading, and updating everything that you've installed. You should also make sure to use Synaptic's Smart Update feature when doing this, to minimize the number of bullet holes in your feet. Like updating to any pre-release, this should not be done lightly. You may break things, you'll have to make sure that fundamental changes such as a new kernel and X Window System implementation still start and run correctly. Until the official Hoary release comes out, this is a loaded pistol--useful if you really know what you're doing and are willing to live on the bleeding edge, but dangerous otherwise.

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