Debian package structure

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Installations on Debian are provided as files with .deb extension. This article discusses how to build them manually.

If you would like to bring your program to Debian distributions, see how to make a Debian upstream source.


Two types of packages

There are two types of packages, a source package and a binary package. This article is about the binary packages. They are a convenient way to bundle up pre-compiled binaries ready to be supplied directly to an end user. However, distributions like Debian and Ubuntu will not accept to add a binary package in their repositories, they require a source package that can be used to build the binary version on demand. The source package is somewhat more difficult to assemble and is subject to a number of technical and legal rules before being acceptable to the major Linux distributions.

Preparing the package

In a Debian binary package, the installation files are compressed using dpkg-deb command. You can view the content of the resulting .deb files as any other compressed archive by right-clicking them and opening them with the archive manager.

To make a .deb file, you need to prepare a directory structure with the appropriate files. This will be called the staging directory and expressed in this article with the variable ${STAGING_DIR}. You can replace it with the adequate folder or define this variable in a script.

You can for example create the staging directory as a subdirectory of the current folder. The simplest script would be:

mkdir ${STAGING_DIR}

Though if you write a script, it may be run from another location. So instead, you can ensure that the variable contains the subdirectory relative to the script with the following:

cd `dirname $0`
STAGING_DIR=$(readlink --canonicalize "${STAGING_RELATIVEDIR}")

Also you may need to remove the existing staging directory to make sure it is empty:

rm -rf "${STAGING_DIR}"
mkdir "${STAGING_DIR}"

The content of this directory is explained in the rest of this article.

Finalizing the staging directory

Read the section Directory structure to add all the necessary files. Then you can finalize the directory.

The directories and files are supposed to be read-only in the package. To ensure that's the case, you can before calling dpkg-deb do the following:

find "${STAGING_DIR}" -type d -exec chmod 0755 {} \;  #set directory attributes
find "${STAGING_DIR}" -type f -exec chmod 0644 {} \;  #set data file attributes
find "${STAGING_DIR}/usr/bin" -type f -exec chmod 0755 {} \;  #set executable attributes

When you have all file in the staging directory, you can determine the installed size and add it to the control file:

SIZE_IN_KB="$(du -s ${STAGING_DIR} | awk '{print $1;}')"
echo "Installed-Size: ${SIZE_IN_KB}" >> "${STAGING_DIR}/DEBIAN/control"

Creating the Deb archive

Once the directory structure is ready, you can create the archive with:

dpkg-deb --root-owner-group --build "${STAGING_DIR}" "${PACKAGE_NAME}.deb"

Or for older versions of dpkg-deb:

fakeroot dpkg-deb --build "${STAGING_DIR}" "${PACKAGE_NAME}.deb"

${STAGING_DIR} is the path to the directory structure to compress. ${PACKAGE_NAME} is the filename to use for the archive.

Generally you will create the package as a regular user, not with the root account. But installation files must not belong to a specific user. Using --root-owner-group option or fakeroot prefix will save in the archive that the files belong instead to root.

After that, you will probably not need the staging directory anymore, you can thus delete it:

rm -rf "${STAGING_DIR}"

Checking the archive

Once you've created the package, you can check it follows the guidelines with the command lintian:

lintian "${PACKAGE_NAME}.deb" --info

Here is the list of potential problems:

With Lazarus, you will get by default the hardening-no-pie (and hardening-no-bindnow warnings in mentors). To avoid such warnings, add the following compiler options in the project options:


Directory structure

Here is the structure of the staging directory that you need to prepare.

  └─ usr
      ├─ bin
      └─ share
          ├─ project1       #resources of your package
          ├─ applications   #shortcut
          ├─ pixmaps        #default icon
          ├─ icons
          │   └─ hicolor    #icons of various sizes
          ├─ doc
          │   └─ project1   #information about your package
          └─ man            #user manual
              └─ man1       #index

DEBIAN directory

The name of this directory is uppercase. It needs to contain one file called control. Here is an example for a package called project1 at version 2.0.

Section: graphics
Priority: optional
Maintainer: myname <>
Package: project1
Architecture: amd64
Version: 2.0
Depends: libatk1.0-0 (>= 1.12.4), libc6 (>= 2.2.5), libcairo2 (>= 1.2.4), libgdk-pixbuf2.0-0 (>= 2.22.0), libglib2.0-0 (>= 2.12.0), libgtk2.0-0 (>= 2.24.0), libpango-1.0-0 (>= 1.18.0), libx11-6
Description: This is a test project.
 Long description blah blah blah.

Sample values for Section: comm, database, devel, editors, electronics, fonts, games, graphics, math, web, net, news, science, sound, utils, video.

The Architecture field is the one used to compile the program. To know the current architecture, use the following command:

dpkg --print-architecture

The Depends field contains the list of Linux libraries used. You can get this list with the following commands run in the directory of your binary file:

mkdir debian                 #need a debian directory
touch debian/control         #with one control file in it
dpkg-shlibdeps -O project1   #supposing your binary is called project1

You can then remove the almost empty debian folder if you don't use it.

This will output the dependencies (after the equal sign):

shlibs:Depends=libatk1.0-0 (>= 1.12.4), libc6 (>= 2.2.5), libcairo2 (>= 1.2.4), libgdk-pixbuf2.0-0 (>= 2.22.0), libglib2.0-0 (>= 2.12.0), libgtk2.0-0 (>= 2.24.0), libpango-1.0-0 (>= 1.18.0), libx11-6

To be complete, it should be noted that all these packages are not absolutely necessary, because several packages on this list may already be part of the dependencies - and therefore be part of the installation - of another package listed in this same list (see [1]to cross-check, and eliminate superfluous dependencies).

usr/bin directory

This directory contains the binary file and only this file (for information, avoid underscore in the name of your project - for example, dpkg-deb refuses it - because the package name should follow this regex: ${PackageName}_${Version}_${Arch}.deb, e.g. dpkg-dev_1.19.0.5ubuntu2_all.deb). All resources files need to go in usr/share/project1. To access resources, your program can use a relative path like ../share/project1.

The directory usr/local/bin is invalid in a package[2] because local is used for projects compiled locally and installed using their Makefile.

Resources directory

It will be called usr/share/project1 if the package name is "project1".
You can put here all the data files needed by your program. Note that they will be read-only.

Configuration directory

There are other places to store configuration files. Configuration files should be originally created by the application itself (with default values), if they do not exist when the application starts.

usr/share/applications directory

To add your application to the Linux menu, you need to add a file called project1.desktop containing:

[Desktop Entry]
Comment=Cool project
Keywords=feature1; feature2; feature3

This file is similar to a shortcut to your program.

The Categories field is similar to the one in the control file. It can be for example: Communication, Database, Development, Editors, Electronics, Fonts, Games, Graphics, Math, Internet, Networking, News, Science, Sound, Utility, Video.

The keywords help search through applications.

Note that you need to provide the icon as a PNG file, either in the directory usr/share/pixmaps or in usr/share/icons/hicolor.

usr/share/pixmaps directory

Will contain the single-size icon of your menu shortcut in PNG format called project1.png. A medium size like 48x48 will be fine.

usr/share/icons/hicolor directory

Will contain the multi-size icon. Here is the directory structure:

 └─ hicolor
     ├─ 8x8
     │   └─ apps
     ├─ 16x16
     │   └─ apps

There is a subdirectory for each possible size. You can display all the sizes currently defined on your system by writing:

ls /usr/share/icons/hicolor

In each apps folder, put an image with always the same name. If you project is called project1 then it will be called project1.png for most folders. In the scalable and symbolic folders you can put an SVG file.

Documentation directory

It will be called usr/share/doc/project1 if your the package name is "project1".

The folder contains the changelog.Debian.gz and copyright files and optionally the README file.

changelog file

The minimum changelog would be:

project1 (1.0) unstable; urgency=low

  * Initial release

 -- myname <>  Tue, 19 May 2020 11:06:00 +0100

You can add many lines starting with * to indicate the list of changes in the version. The spaces at the beginning of the line are necessary. Only the line indicating the version starts directly at the beginning of the line.

The latest version must be at the top of the file.

The changelog must be compressed with maximum compression. To do that, supposing you already have the uncompressed changelog file, compress it with the following command:

gzip -9 -n usr/share/doc/project1/changelog.Debian

The -9 -n options are necessary for the package to follow the guidelines.

copyright file

If you provide the Deb package yourself, it is not mandatory to use the machine-readable format, however it will prepare you for publishing the package in Debian distributions. See: copyright in Debian package structure.

usr/share/man directory

Contains the user manual that you can view with the man command. It must contain at least project1.1.gz in the man1 subdirectory, which will be the index page of your manual.

The syntax is a bit peculiar. There are some tools to help but you still need to know the syntax.

Here is a sample file:

.TH Project1 1 "19 May 2020" "" Project1
Project1 - My cool project
.B project1
What my program does.
More description.

The manual, like the changelog, must be compressed using the following command:

gzip -9 -n usr/share/man/man1/project1.1

The -9 -n options are necessary for the package to follow the guidelines.