Installing Software Packages Under Linux

This is the first in a series that is going to cover the installation of sofware packages under Linux. I'm going to jump right into this article by telling you that, for the most part, you won't need to be building packages from source. You can, but you generally don't need to.

The average Linux distribution CD comes with several gigabytes of software. SUSE, for one, delivers several CDs in a boxed set with enough software to keep you busy for weeks, maybe months. I'll tell you how to install that software, easily and without fuss. Despite all that your distribution has to offer, sooner or later you will find yourself visiting various Internet sites, looking for new and updated software. Where will you find this stuff, and will installing be the same as getting it from your CDs?

Before we get into finding, building (yes, I'll tell you how to do that too), and installing software, I'd like to address a little myth. You have no doubt heard that installing software on Linux is difficult and that it is inferior to what you are used to in the Windows world. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, software installation under Linux is actually superior to what you are leaving behind in your old OS.

When you install software and software packages, you must often do so as the root, or administrative user. As root, you are all powerful. Linux tends to be more secure and much safer than your old OS, but that doesn't mean disasters can't strike. Know where your software comes from and take the time to understand what it does. When you compile software (which I already told you isn't generally necessary), it might even be a good idea to get into the habit of building as a non-root user, then switching to root for the installation portion. Don't worry—I'll explain.

When it comes to installing software, security is something we should talk about. I've already said that you should know where your software is coming from, but that is only part of the consideration. That's why I'm going to clear up some bad press Linux gets when it comes to installing software.

In the Windows world, it is frighteningly easy to infect your PC with a virus or a worm. All you have to do is click on an email attachment, and you could be in trouble. With some email packages under Windows, it does the clicking for you and by being so helpful, once again, you could be in trouble. You won't find many Linux packages provided as simple executables (.EXE files and so on). Security is the reason. To install most packages, you also need root privileges. Again, for security reasons. Linux demands that you be conscious of the fact that you might be doing something that could hurt your system. If an email attachment wants to install itself into the system, it will have to consult the root user first.

Package managers, such as rpm (a recursive acronym that stands for "RPM Package Manager"), Fedora's yum, or Debian's apt-get, perform checks to make sure that certain dependencies are met or that software doesn't accidentally overwrite other software. Those dependency checks take many things into consideration, such as what software already exists and how the new package will coexist. Many of you are probably familiar with what has been called DLL hell, where one piece of software just goes ahead and overwrites some other piece of code. It may even have happened to you. Blindly installing without these checks can be disastrous. At best, the result can be an unstable machine—at worst, it can be unusable.

Installing software under Linux may take a step or two, but it is for your own good.

So how do you identify which package is right for your system?

The simplest way is to install software from the CDs that came with your particular distribution. Even the most modest Linux distributions out there have literally hundreds of packages and most have some friendly method to help you deal with the installation of those packages. What most major Linux distributions have in common is the concept of a package -- a pre-built bundle of software ready to be installed on your system. Despite the numerous distributions out there, most use the same package management systems. They will often have different ways of dealing with them, but the packaging system remains pretty consistent. With the exception of Slackware, pretty much all distributions use either the RPM format of packages or DEB. Before we get into installing packages, I'm going to show you how you can identify one type of package from another.

Assume that I am talking about a hypothetical package called ftl_transport, a package I'd love to download into my car when I'm stuck in traffic and already an hour late. If I were looking for this package to run my Debian or Debian-like system (such as Xandros or Libranet), I would find it in this type of format:

ftl-transport_2.1-1_i386.deb

The first part is the package name itself. The numbers just after the underscore (and just before the hyphen) indicate the software version number. The number following the hyphen is the package release number. Following that is the architecture for which the package was compiled, i386, in this case. By the way, that implies any machine from an old 386 on up to super-fast Pentium 4s. The final prefix, .deb, is a dead giveaway that this is a Debian package, sometimes referred to as a deb.

Those of you running Fedora, Mandrake, SUSE, or one of the other RPM-based distributions will find a similar format.

ftl_transport-2.1-1.i386.rpm

As you can see, the format is similar to that of the deb package, but with a couple of fairly important differences. For instance, hyphens denote both versions and release numbers. As you might have guessed, .rpm denotes an RPM package and while that is an important distinction, the following is somewhat more interesting. The i386 portion of the package name tells us that it was compiled for a generic x86 processor family. You might also see an “i586

Marcel Gagné - Thu, 2004-12-16 08:52.
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Yeah, Linux packages can be

Yeah, Linux packages can be a pain to install. I've been using linux for about a year now and I have yet to succeed on installing a package without apt-get or synaptic. I think linux is more a sort of elitist geek-for OS, kind of the alternative for the nonconforming. I sort of differ from the general view, I don't hate complications, rather, I enjoy the challenge they pose and the learning experience one gets from slolving them.

I see it like this: if you want to learn new and fascinating things about how your computer works and are willing to take the challenge use linux, if you just wanna have a good time stick to windows. Not that I'm some sort of souless robot or anything, I too enjoy the (somewhat insecure) ease of use in windows, but it's not as intellectually appealing as linux.

I guess It would be a little sad for me and those who share my view for linux to become as simplistic as windows... no challenge or learning experience involved. But then, it IS true that that's what it would take for the average user to take linux seriously as an alternative, besides the fact that technology constantly becomes easier to use, afte all the whole point of it is to simplify life, not to complicate it. But like that garbage song goes: "I only like it when it's complicated..." or whatever...

Oscar M. (not verified) - Tue, 2006-04-04 15:55.

installing software with linux

Regarding this article, that's all fine and dandy
if the software you want is in the distro package.
But what about installing software that you
download from the internet ? I still to this day have
not been able to install java from the internet. The
file downloads to my desktop, but I can't get it
to install. There are also some other programs I
would like to download and install, but how's
a newbie supposed to do this ? By the way, my final
Linux OS distro is Kubuntu ( Ubuntu with KDE
desktop ) is what I use on my Compaq laptop.
So I am stuck in this world where I can't install
downloaded software.
stuck in the

txm0523 (not verified) - Thu, 2005-09-22 12:01.

Installing software into linux

I have been playing with linux for several years now and my frustration is growing, although it is more stable, the main problem i have is that i like software that is not the norm (eg electronics software) therefore generally these aplications are seldom included with distro CDs, i have downloaded thousands of tar balls and RPMs and i would have to say that 99% of the stuff i have downloaded has never installed or worked.
There are always complaints that this and that dependancies are not installed and when you do seek them and install them, then you get this and that error, I consider myself to be of higher than average understanding of computers, having done some education in writing software C++ Basic, but to me Linux is just a miserable thing because you waste such vast aamounts of time just to intsall one thing that never ends up working.
I Know no one really cares what i say, and the nerds who are into linux will say (login as root user) or somthing simplistic as that to answer my question, but i can assure you i have put in the time and research and still have got nowhere, i believe the average joe will never convert to linux until this problem is addressed.
I feel windows still wins as much as i hate to admit it, because the fact is most people leed busy lives and cant afford to waste several days just to install somthing a simple program that they might use twice a month.
So if any important linux people read this MAKE IT EASIER TO INSTALL STUFF.
Or you will never win th OS war, I have found thousands of similar complaints on on the net, linux developers just listen for sht sakes. yours sincerly Disapointed Linux user.

andre (not verified) - Wed, 2005-06-29 21:44.

AMEN!

I agree! programers please unite, make it easier for normal people to install! i've had very little luck. This IS the major problem that must be overcome in order to compete with Winblows.

An - ymous (not verified) - Sun, 2006-03-05 17:34.

Packages are hard to install

With 20 years in computers, mostly DOS then Windows and now spending most of my time in linux (for the last 2 years) using a number of distributions I find that installing programs under linux is still EXTREMELY difficult and virtually impossible for a new user.

Let's get off the apt and synaptic kick. These rely on high speed internet. Take a package give it to a newbie with no prior experience who is not connected to the internet and have them install it. How about a video player or a music player for starters.

They are going to run into confusing questions, dependencies, and alot of issues with how to actually start the install.

Take that same category of software and have some newbie do it under OSX. It is virtually as easy as dragginging the icon from the program to the hard drive and BOOOOOOOOM it is installed. Or even windows where they put the CD in or even double click on the installer and answer some questions with the click of the mouse.

Under linux you could spend a week trying to resolve all the dependency issues and finally get the package installed only to find out that you can't play such as such video files, that you can't play dvd, or even mp3, etc. Yes there are codecs and libraries out there but the user then has to resolve those issues as well.

That's just one example. But anyone with a lick of common sense will tell you that it is extremely difficult to install programs and they are absolutely correct. The author in this article is assuming greatly and that makes an ass out of you and me.

Linux is horrific when it comes to installing software and in the end you have no idea what you are going to get. You could spend a week or more getting that video package installed and then another week figuring out how to install and where to place those codecs (if they even exist or even work with that video player) only to find the video player crashes, or there's no sound, or the system reports that the sound device is already in use.

On top of that the interfaces tend to look amateurish and often are buggy.

I've been through all that as a linux user. One of the first things I tried to do was install a video player and ran into each of these problems. Friends of mine tried the same thing and only after great difficulty did they get it installed.

Let's also get on the issue of cryptic program (package names). These names are often non-recognizable. This means that the users can't possibly know what to do with them even if they did try to install. For instance, just go through the program selection using FC3's initial install. The names are so cryptic and the explanations (often simple one liners) do a horrible job saying what they do. On top of that a user attempting to install often will not recognize that they have 3-4 packages that they have selected that do the same thing and they couldn't possibly know which is best.

Linux software installation problems are vastly understated in this article and to play mind games with users by claiming something isn't difficult while it absolutely is will only turn off new users when they encounter these issues.

What needs to be done is that there needs to be a universal installer that operates the same on EVERY distro and every release of the distro, period. Nothing precludes the power user from doing it manually or even the old way even with a universal installer. The power user and the average joe are two completely different animals. The user understands life, the universe and everything while the power user understands their digital world. The life of the average Joe does not make them stupid and being a digital knight doesn't make the power user a genius.

So, get that universal distro application installer written, fire the jerks that won't accept it (drop their software) and move on to a world where linux is readily available at the click of a button to the end-user (the average Joe and Jane). And most of all, forget the idea that linux programs are easy to install today, that's one of the biggest myths in the world of computing and within the linux community today.

Jimb (not verified) - Wed, 2005-05-11 07:15.

Packages are hard to install

Finally, someone having the guts to say exactly
what I feel. Don't get me wrong. I am a newbie
to Linux and believe whole-heartedly in open
source and I really love Linux. I find it fascinating
to learn again. But ( Install Hell ) is real folks. I
totally agree with Jimb. There needs to be a
universal installer for Linux or Linux should go bye
bye. I don't like to envision BG at MS ruling the
world. I do envision free open source computing.

txm0523 (not verified) - Thu, 2005-09-22 12:12.

Linux software installing

I have just installd Mandrake and the instaltion was very easy.
Then I tried to install Kino. What a workup! I read the instructions RUBISH! it asumes you know how, I don't! First time user.
I have no done it yet and so far cannot find clear instructions on how to.
The operating system is I am sure very good but why does it have to be so difficult to isntall software. Is ther anyone out there to help?

Brian Russel (not verified) - Sat, 2005-06-04 12:39.

A good introduction and...

... and you identify the distribution for the
first example to be Mandrake. A Kitchen-tested
recipe.

But what is to be done about all the half-baked
but helpful folk in the Linux community who only
provide fragments of what is necessary to do the
job?

Or conversely, you follow all the instructions
exactly only to encounter some obscure error and
the response is along the lines of, "Oh, you have
_that one. You can't do that with _that_ one."

So kitchen-tested recipes are constantly an
issue.

How about a kitchen-tested recipes column for
Tux? It would be a place to go where the user had
some reasonable assurance that whatever the procedure
under discussion might be, there is a reasonable
expection of success. Let's say a _guaranteed_
expectation of success.

The way I feel most days with Linux is like the
old Star Trek episode called Spock's Brain, where the
good doctor in the midst of the operation starts to
lose his artificially enhanced ability to do the
operation. He gets it done, but only with the patient's
help. :-)

l - inapplet - (not verified) - Fri, 2004-12-17 02:49.

I have been using Windows bas

I have been using Windows based systems (and Novell for a while) for more than 10 years.
I recently installed knoppix on the HD of a PC to try Linux out.
The dual boot partitioning etc worked like a dream.
I was very impressed with what I saw.
But THEN, I tried to install Firefox....
I like to think that I am reasonably intelligent and would be able to work out how to install a simple web browser.... (Wrong). I (embarassingly) have to admit that I gave up in the end.
For a beginners magazine - I think this would be a good tutorial to start with as an example e.g. "here is is exactly how to install the latest version of Firefox in 12 easy steps for every distro"...
Also, I heartily agree about the absolute need for a standard installer program for all distros if it is to be taken seriously as a consumer product.

An - ymous (not verified) - Tue, 2005-05-31 09:35.

Agree

I just installed a Linux based system for the second time (Xandros) straight from an installation CD and the install was brilliant work like a charm and setting up on the network not a problem. I’m currently on the net looking for ways to install software and well… running into the same problems. Perhaps I’m not that smart, but at the end of the day it’s people like me that purchase computers systems and install software. I’ve been working with computers now for many years more then I care to remember but ran into the same problems as soon as I wanted to install any additional software I came undone. I whole heartedly agree that for Linux to become a viable alternative it will need to have an installer of some kind and as far as securities goes at this point my Xandros installation is so secure because I can’t install anything even if I wanted to. Please combine your talents out there in the Linux world and make a standard installer. Would love to run a different OS besides Micro$oft.

An - ymous (not verified) - Thu, 2005-06-16 01:08.

True

Please stop being ellite jerks and do somethig for us - simple users!
It's embarrassing to know that there are things that BILL does better then Linux "geeks", doesn't it?

An - ymous (not verified) - Thu, 2005-08-04 12:49.

You guys take things for gran

You guys take things for granted. M$ has enabled people to just a computer without knowing how to use a computer.

I have been Linux for 7 years and it is way easier now than it ever has been. You will have to learn whether you like it or not.

Griznik (not verified) - Fri, 2005-08-19 09:17.

Unfortunatley it is the attit

Unfortunatley it is the attitude of people like Griznik above that is holding Linux back.

While there are some people who want to learn everything about the computer they are using there are an awful lot more people who just want to use it as a tool. They want to read email and surf the web and so on. It is like a car, they just want to jump in and drive it. The reason Microsoft are so successful is that they make computers easy for everyone to use. As Linux matures it will get that way but before that happens the software install problem will need to be addressed.

I tried to install the Tomboy application that was recommended buy Tux mag and it took me half a day. I was pleased that I had managed to get over all the issues but it was quite frustrating at the time. BTW, Tomboy is excellent and I would recommend it to anyone who uses Post-its or the Notes portion of Outlook.

I agree with all the other comments. There needs to be a simple way of installing software. I also agree with the OP in that it needs to be secure way of doing it so we don't get the script kiddies killing Linux boxes like they did years ago with Windows.

There has to be a common ground that both sides can be happy with.

Corm (not verified) - Tue, 2005-08-30 10:52.

universal linux installer - ready

Just check what the guys at autopackage`ve made:
http://www.autopackage.org/index.html

I appreciate that and hope it to be adopted by all linux distributions.

Angello (not verified) - Sun, 2005-12-11 17:57.

don't be so hard on the linux guys...

they are in denial. the first step is to recognize the problem you're in, then you can start to make progress. "Hello, my name is penguin, and I've been trying to convince myself that linux is easy for ten years." "Welcome, penguin." :) Linux is highly cool, though. If someone really got it together it would be way better than paying through the nose for Windows, which by the way has passed Apple (I used to use a Mac 20 years ago, now I still use both but only intend to use Macs when my boss provides it...). Sorry, but Linux is the wild-west and Windows is Versailles--a little pricey but a softer ride. Apple is Disneyland--the hype and cotton candy are the best parts, the Apple OS (like the lines for rides) is just way too slow. :)

An - ymous (not verified) - Thu, 2005-12-22 23:02.