This manual assumes that you are familiar with debconf as a user, and are familiar with the basics of debian package construction.
This manual begins by explaining two new files that are added to debian packages that use debconf. Then it explains how the debconf protocol works, and points you at some libraries that will let your programs speak the protocol. It discusses other maintainer scripts that debconf is typically used in: the postinst and postrm scripts. Then moves on to more advanced topics like shared debconf templates, debugging, and some common techniques and pitfalls of programming with debconf. It closes with a discussion of debconf's current shortcomings.
Note: It is a little confusing that dpkg refers to running a package's postinst script as "configuring" the package, since a package that uses debconf is often fully pre-configured, by its config script, before the postinst ever runs. Oh well.
Like the postinst, the config script is passed two parameters when it is run. The first tells what action is being performed, and the second is the version of the package that is currently installed. So, like in a postinst, you can use dpkg --compare-versions on $2 to make some behavior happen only on upgrade from a particular version of a package, and things like that.
The config script can be run in one of three ways:
Note that since a typical package install or upgrade using apt runs steps 1 and 2, the config script will typically be run twice. It should do nothing the second time (to ask questions twice in a row is annoying), and it should definitely be idempotent. Luckily, debconf avoids repeating questions by default, so this is generally easy to accomplish.
Note that the config script is run before the package is unpacked. It should only use commands that are in essential packages. The only dependency of your package that is guaranteed to be met when its config script is run is a dependency (possibly versioned) on debconf itself.
The config script should not need to modify the filesystem at all. It just examines the state of the system, and asks questions, and debconf stores the answers to be acted on later by the postinst script. Conversely, the postinst script should almost never use debconf to ask questions, but should instead act on the answers to questions asked by the config script.
Like the config script, the templates file is put in the control.tar.gz section of a deb. Its format is similar to a debian control file; a set of stanzas separated by blank lines, with each stanza having a RFC822-like form:
Description: This is a sample string question.
This is its extended description.
- Like in a debian package description, a dot
on its own line sets off a new paragraph.
- Most text is word-wrapped, but doubly-indented
text is left alone, so you can use it for lists
of items, like this list. Be careful, since
it is not word-wrapped, if it's too wide
it will look bad. Using it for short items
is best (so this is a bad example).
Description: Clear enough, no?
This is another question, of boolean type.
For some real-life examples of templates files, see /var/lib/dpkg/info/debconf.templates, and other .templates files in that directory.
Let's look at each of the fields in turn..
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the default field contains the "value" of the question, or that it can be used to change the value of the question. It does not, and cannot, it just provides a default value for the first time the question is displayed. To provide a default that changes on the fly, you'd have to use the SET command to change the value of a question.
If you can't think up a long description, then first, think some more. Post to debian-devel. Ask for help. Take a writing class! That extended description is important. If after all that you still can't come up with anything, leave it blank. There is no point in duplicating the short description.
Text in the extended description will be word-wrapped, unless it is prefixed by additional whitespace (beyond the one required space). You can break it up into separate paragraphs by putting " ." on a line by itself between them.
Debconf's reply can be broken down into two parts: A numeric result code (the first word of the reply), and an optional extended result code (the remainder of the reply). The numeric code uses 0 to indicate success, and other numbers to indicate various kinds of failure. For full details, see the table in Debian policy's debconf specification document.
The extended return code is generally free form and unspecified, so you should generally ignore it, and should certainly not try to parse it in a program to work out what debconf is doing. The exception is commands like GET, that cause a value to be returned in the extended return code.
Generally you'll want to use a language-specific library that handles the nuts and bolts of setting up these connections to debconf and communicating with it.
For now, here are the commands in the protocol. This is not the definitive definition, see Debian policy's debconf specification document for that.
If 'escape' is found among your capabilities, debconf will expect commands you send it to have backslashes and newlines escaped (as \\ and \n respectively) and will in turn escape backslashes and newlines in its replies. This can be used, for example, to substitute multi-line strings into templates, or to get multi-line extended descriptions reliably using METAGET. In this mode, you must escape input text yourself (you can use debconf-escape(1) to help with this if you want), but the confmodule libraries will unescape replies for you.
Setting the title from a template means they are stored in the same place as the rest of the debconf questions, and allows them to be translated.
The priority field tells debconf how important it is that this question be shown to the user. The priority values are:
Debconf decides if the question is actually displayed, based on its priority, and whether the user has seen it before, and which frontend is being used. If the question will not be displayed, debconf replies with code 30.
If the backup capability is supported and the user indicates they want to back up a step, debconf replies with code 30.
One common flag is the "seen" flag. It is normally only set if a user has already seen a question. Debconf usually only displays questions to users if they have the seen flag set to "false" (or if it is reconfiguring a package). Sometimes you want the user to see a question again -- in these cases you can set the seen flag to false to force debconf to redisplay it.
Here is a simple example of the debconf protocol in action.
INPUT medium debconf/frontend
30 question skipped
FSET debconf/frontend seen false
INPUT high debconf/frontend
0 question will be asked
[ Here debconf displays a question to the user. ]
10 no/such/question doesn't exist
For shell programming, there is the /usr/share/debconf/confmodule library, which you can source at the top of a shell script, and talk to debconf in a fairly natural way, using lower-case versions of the debconf protocol commands, that are prefixed with "db_" (ie, "db_input" and "db_go"). For details, see confmodule(3).
Perl programmers can use the Debconf::Client::ConfModule(3) perl module, and python programmers can use the debconf python module.
The rest of this manual will use the /usr/share/debconf/confmodule library in example shell scripts. Here is an example config script using that library, that just asks a question:
db_set mypackage/reboot-now false
db_input high mypackage/reboot-now || true
db_go || true
Notice the uses of "|| true" to prevent the script from dying if debconf decides it can't display a question, or the user tries to back up. In those situations, debconf returns a non-zero exit code, and since this shell script is set -e, an untrapped exit code would make it abort.
And here is a corresponding postinst script, that uses the user's answer to the question to see if the system should be rebooted (a rather absurd example..):
if [ "$RET" = true ]; then
shutdown -r now
Notice the use of the $RET variable to get at the extended return code from the GET command, which holds the user's answer to the question.
A more involved use of debconf would be if you want to use it in the postrm when your package is purged, to ask a question about deleting something. Or maybe you find you need to use it in the preinst or prerm for some reason. All of these uses will work, though they'll probably involve asking questions and acting on the answers in the same program, rather than separating the two activities as is done in the config and postinst scripts.
Note that if your package's sole use of debconf is in the postrm, you should make your package's postinst source /usr/share/debconf/confmodule, to give debconf a chance to load up your templates file into its database. Then the templates will be available when your package is being purged.
You can also use debconf in other, standalone programs. The issue to watch out for here is that debconf is not intended to be, and must not be used as a registry. This is unix after all, and programs are configured by files in /etc, not by some nebulous debconf database (that is only a cache anyway and might get blown away). So think long and hard before using debconf in a standalone program.
There are times when it can make sense, as in the apt-setup program which uses debconf to prompt the user in a manner consistent with the rest of the debian install process, and immediately acts on their answers to set up apt's sources.list.
Besides the 'Description' field, you should translate the 'Choices' field of a select or multiselect template. Be sure to list the translated choices in the same order as they appear in the main 'Choices' field. You do not need to translate the 'Default' field of a select or multiselect question, and the value of the question will be automatically returned in English.
You will find it easier to manage translations if you keep them in separate files; one file per translation. In the past, the debconf-getlang(1) and debconf-mergetemplate(1) programs were used to manage debian/template.ll files. This has been superseded by the po-debconf(7) package, which lets you deal with debconf translations in .po files, just like any other translations. Your translators will thank you for using this new improved mechanism.
For the details on po-debconf, see its man page. If you're using debhelper, converting to po-debconf is as simple as running the debconf-gettextize(1) command once, and adding a Build-Dependency on po-debconf and on debhelper (>= 4.1.13).
Well, except for testing, debugging, and actually using debconf for more interesting things than asking a few basic questions. For that, read on..
debconf (developer): <-- input high debconf/frontand
debconf (developer): --> 10 "debconf/frontand" doesn't exist
debconf (developer): <-- go
debconf (developer): --> 0 ok
It's rather useful to use debconf's readline frontend when you're debugging (in the author's opinion), as the questions don't get in the way, and all the debugging output is easily preserved and logged.
It turns out that if you set up a ~/.debconfrc file for a normal user, pointing at a personal config.dat and template.dat for the user, you can load up templates and run config scripts all you like, without any root access. If you want to start over with a clean database, just blow away the *.dat files.
For details about setting this up, see debconf.conf(5), and note that /etc/debconf.conf makes a good template for a personal ~/.debconfrc file.
There are a lot of ways to do this, and most of them are wrong, and will often earn you annoyed bug reports. Here is one right way to do it. It assumes that your config file is really just a series of shell variables being set, with comments in between, and so you can just source the file to "load" it. If you have a more complicated format, reading (and writing) it becomes a bit trickier.
Your config script will look something like this:
# Load config file, if it exists.
if [ -e $CONFIGFILE ]; then
. $CONFIGFILE || true
# Store values from config file into
# debconf db.
db_set mypackage/foo "$FOO"
db_set mypackage/bar "$BAR"
# Ask questions.
db_input medium mypackage/foo || true
db_input medium mypackage/bar || true
db_go || true
And the postinst will look something like this:
# Generate config file, if it doesn't exist.
# An alternative is to copy in a template
# file from elsewhere.
if [ ! -e $CONFIGFILE ]; then
echo "# Config file for my package" > $CONFIGFILE
echo "FOO=" >> $CONFIGFILE
echo "BAR=" >> $CONFIGFILE
# Substitute in the values from the debconf db.
# There are obvious optimizations possible here.
# The cp before the sed ensures we do not mess up
# the config file's ownership and permissions.
cp -a -f $CONFIGFILE $CONFIGFILE.tmp
# If the admin deleted or commented some variables but then set
# them via debconf, (re-)add them to the conffile.
test -z "$FOO" || grep -Eq '^ *FOO=' $CONFIGFILE || \
echo "FOO=" >> $CONFIGFILE
test -z "$BAR" || grep -Eq '^ *BAR=' $CONFIGFILE || \
echo "BAR=" >> $CONFIGFILE
sed -e "s/^ *FOO=.*/FOO=\"$FOO\"/" \
-e "s/^ *BAR=.*/BAR=\"$BAR\"/" \
< $CONFIGFILE > $CONFIGFILE.tmp
mv -f $CONFIGFILE.tmp $CONFIGFILE
Consider how these two scripts handle all the cases. On fresh installs the questions are asked by the config script, and a new config file generated by the postinst. On upgrades and reconfigures, the config file is read in, and the values in it are used to change the values in the debconf database, so the admin's manual changes are not lost. The questions are asked again (and may or may not be displayed). Then the postinst substitutes the values back into the config file, leaving the rest of it unchanged.
Since debconf is driven by your config script, it can't jump back to a previous question on its own but with a little help from you, it can accomplish this feat. The first step is to make your config script let debconf know it is capable of handling the user pressing a back button. You use the CAPB command to do this, passing backup as a parameter.
Then after each GO command, you must test to see if the user asked to back up (debconf returns a code of 30), and if so jump back to the previous question.
There are several ways to write the control structures of your program so it can jump back to previous questions when necessary. You can write goto-laden spaghetti code. Or you can create several functions and use recursion. But perhaps the cleanest and easiest way is to construct a state machine. Here is a skeleton of a state machine that you can fill out and expand.
while true; do
case "$STATE" in
# Two unrelated questions.
db_input medium my/question || true
db_input medium my/other_question || true
# Only ask this question if the
# first question was answered in
# the affirmative.
if [ "$RET" = "true" ]; then
db_input medium my/dep_question || true
# The default case catches when $STATE is greater than the
# last implemented state, and breaks out of the loop. This
# requires that states be numbered consecutively from 1
# with no gaps, as the default case will also be entered
# if there is a break in the numbering
break # exits the enclosing "while" loop
if db_go; then
STATE=$(($STATE + 1))
STATE=$(($STATE - 1))
if [ $STATE -eq 0 ]; then
# The user has asked to back up from the first
# question. This case is problematical. Regular
# dpkg and apt package installation isn't capable
# of backing up questions between packages as this
# is written, so this will exit leaving the package
# unconfigured - probably the best way to handle
# the situation.
Note that if all your config script does is ask a few unrelated questions, then there is no need for the state machine. Just ask them all, and GO; debconf will do its best to present them all in one screen, and the user won't need to back up.
do while [ ! "$ok" ];
db_input low foo/bar || true
db_go || true
if [ "$RET" ]; then
This looks ok at first glance. But consider what happens if the value of foo/bar is "" when this loop is entered, and the user has their priority set high, or is using a non-interactive frontend, and so they are not really asked for input. The value of foo/bar is not changed by the db_input, and so it fails the test and loops. And loops ...
One fix for this is to make sure that before the loop is entered, the value of foo/bar is set to something that will pass the test in the loop. So for example if the default value of foo/bar is "1", then you could RESET foo/bar just before entering the loop.
Another fix is to check the return code of the INPUT command. If it is 30 then the user is not being shown the question you asked them, and you should break out of the loop.
While it would be possible for each package in the set to simply prompt, "Should this package be default?", this leads to a lot of repetitive questions if several of the packages are installed. It's possible with debconf to present a list of all the packages in the set and allow the user to choose between them. Here's how.
Make all the packages in the set use a shared template. Something like this:
Description: Select the default window manager.
Select the window manager that will be started by
default when X starts.
Each package should include a copy of the template. Then it should include some code like this in its config script:
db_metaget shared/window-manager owners
db_metaget shared/window-manager choices
if [ "$OWNERS" != "$CHOICES" ]; then
db_subst shared/window-manager choices $OWNERS
db_fset shared/window-manager seen false
db_input medium shared/window-manager || true
db_go || true
A bit of an explanation is called for. By the time your config script runs, debconf has already read in all the templates for the packages that are being installed. Since the set of packages share a question, debconf records that fact in the owners field. By a strange coincidence, the format of the owners field is the same as that of the choices field (a comma and space delimited list of values).
The METAGET command can be used to get the list of owners and the list of choices. If they are different, then a new package has been installed. So use the SUBST command to change the list of choices to be the same as the list of owners, and ask the question.
When a package is removed, you probably want to see if that package is the currently selected choice, and if so, prompt the user to select a different package to replace it.
This can be accomplished by adding something like this to the prerm scripts of all related packages (replacing <package> with the package name):
if [ -e /usr/share/debconf/confmodule ]; then
# I no longer claim this question.
# See if the shared question still exists.
if db_get shared/window-manager; then
db_metaget shared/window-manager owners
db_subst shared/window-manager choices $RET
db_metaget shared/window-manager value
if [ "<package>" = "$RET" ] ; then
db_fset shared/window-manage seen false
db_input high shared/window-manager || true
db_go || true
# Now do whatever the postinst script did
# to update the window manager symlink.
The worst of these involves getting the config script to run. The way that works now is the config script will be run when the package is pre-configured. Then, when the postinst script runs, it starts up debconf again. Debconf notices it is being used by the postinst script, and so it goes off and runs the config script. This can only work if your postinst loads up one of the debconf libraries though, so postinsts always have to take care to do that. We hope to address this later by adding explicit support to dpkg for debconf. The debconf(1) program is a step in this direction.
A related hack is getting debconf running when a config script, postinst, or other program that uses it starts up. After all, they expect to be able to talk to debconf right away. The way this is accomplished for now is that when such a script loads a debconf library (like /usr/share/debconf/confmodule), and debconf is not already running, it is started up, and a new copy of the script is re-execed. The only noticeable result is that you need to put the line that loads a debconf library at the very top of the script, or weird things will happen. We hope to address this later by changing how debconf is invoked, and turning it into something more like a transient daemon.
It's rather hackish how debconf figures out what templates files to load, and when it loads them. When the config, preinst, and postinst scripts invoke debconf, it will automatically figure out where the templates file is, and load it. Standalone programs that use debconf will cause debconf to look for templates files in /usr/share/debconf/templates/progname.templates. And if a postrm wants to use debconf at purge time, the templates won't be available unless debconf had a chance to load them in its postinst. This is messy, but rather unavoidable. In the future some of these programs may be able to use debconf-loadtemplate by hand though.
/usr/share/debconf/confmodule's historic behavior of playing with file descriptors and setting up a fd #3 that talks to debconf, can cause all sorts of trouble when a postinst runs a daemon, since the daemon ends up talking to debconf, and debconf can't figure out when the script terminates. The STOP command can work around this. In the future, we are considering making debconf communication happen over a socket or some other mechanism than stdio.
Debconf sets DEBCONF_RECONFIGURE=1 before running postinst scripts, so a postinst script that needs to avoid some expensive operation when reconfigured can look at that variable. This is a hack because the right thing would be to pass $1 = "reconfigure", but doing so without breaking all the postinsts that use debconf is difficult. The migration plan away from this hack is to encourage people to write postinsts that accept "reconfigure", and once they all do, begin passing that variable.
The debconf specification in debian policy is the canonical definition of the debconf protocol. /usr/share/doc/debian-policy/debconf_specification.txt.gz
debconf.conf(5) has much useful information, including some info about the backend database.