The Metapackage Problem and apt-get autoremove

Seems that this is a common problem among people using APT. During an apt-get run, it might tell you that there are a number of programs that can be removed using apt-get autoremove. Users that are too trusting may take these recommendations at face value and thus wind up removing too much – like all of GNOME and X for instance.

First, a little description about metapackages and package dependencies. A metapackage is one that only exists to provide dependencies: a metapackage requires a set of other packages, usually to provide a collective set of packages (such as a GNOME Desktop, a KDE Desktop, or other things). When you install a package like gnome-desktop-environment, it installs everything you need to have a complete set (in this case, a complete GNOME Desktop). This is expected behaviour.

The other thing to understand is the concept of an automatically installed package versus a manually installed package. When you manually install a package – that is, installed it explicitly by name – the package is considered a package that you, the user, wanted on the system. An automatically installed package is only there because a manually installed package required it. If you wanted one of the automatically installed packages, you would have installed it explicitly – right?

The problem comes when these two processes collide: when you install a metapackage, you are really saying that you want all of the dependencies installed, even though all of the dependencies are marked as automatically installed. A metapackage is an easy way of saying that you want all of these packages (listed as dependencies) installed without explicitly saying so. However, the system does not know this.

This problem then manifests itself when you remove one of the dependencies.

Let’s continue with this example: having installed the gnome-desktop-environment package, let’s say you wanted to remove GNOME Evolution – the evolution package. APT will warn you that the gnome-desktop-environment package will also be removed. It is at this point that you should pause and seriously consider the ramifications of what is about to happen – but we’ll continue onwards.

Once you have removed Evolution – and the “GNOME Desktop Environment” metapackage – there are a lot of automatically installed packages that are not required by any packages on the system. What does this mean exactly? Normally, an automatically installed package is not one that you wanted to have installed but it was required by something you did want. However, in this case, these automatically installed packages (such as vino, evince, and totem for example) are in actuality software that you want.

If you try to remove packages through the use of the apt-get autoremove command, you will see a list of packages that are marked as automatically installed and that are not needed by any package currently loaded. In our example, this is a long list of packages that you actually want to keep!

If you have already removed these packages…

There are a few ways to fix this problem once it has occurred. One is to mark all packages in the system as manually installed:

aptitude keep-all

This marks everything in the system as a manually installed package. This defeats the “autoremove” process entirely and may cause your system to contain unnecessary packages over time.

Another option is to use tools to mark packages as manually installed. There are a variety of ways to do this. One way is to actually try to install the package (again): APT recognizes this and just flags the already installed package as manually installed. Another way is to use the apt-mark utility or to use the aptitude unmarkauto command to change the marking on the package (such that the system labels it as manually installed).

However, the best way is to reinstall the metapackage: this will reinstall all of the bits that are needed for operation. If necessary, using the --reinstall option:

apt-get install --reinstall gnome-desktop-environment

This command can be done from the command line and can be done without X or other graphical environment. It can also be done from the rescue shell – and possibly without networking if you have never run apt-get clean.

If you are determined enough (and knowledgeable enough) you can get around this problem by building your own metapackages with the software you desire. Building a metapackage is simple enough and is made trivial through the use of the equivs package. However, if you want a package like gnome-desktop-environment but don’t want specific packages, a better idea might be to get the source to the package and rebuild it with just the software desired listed as dependencies.

You could also “fake it” by using the equivs tools to generate a metapackage that fulfils the role of the package or packages you wish to remove. This is not recommended, however.

An excellent article about using equivs was written in the Ubuntu Forums way back in March of 2008 by “epimeteo” from Portugal.

Even with the capabilities of the equivs package and other metapackages, the best thing to do is to keep the normal metapackage: this allows you to keep the system updated with current packages, prevents future surprises, and saves a lot of work.

4 thoughts on “The Metapackage Problem and apt-get autoremove”

  1. That explains quite a bit.

    If I’ve accidentally removed a metapackage, and I’m seeing that autoremove is offering to nuke a bunch of dependencies, how do I know which metapackage that I’ve removed?

    1. My first suggestion would be to examine the list of packages and see if anything stands out: metapackages tend to be for large collections.

      My second try – right on the heels of the first one – would be to examine /var/log/dpkg.log for removals.

      Lastly, I would investigate using the command apt-cache rdepends to find what packages depend on the ones that apt-get autoremove wants to remove.

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