Packaging a Rust project for Ubuntu PPA

Zhiming Wang


The impatient may jump a few paragraphs of motivations and introduction.

Rust compilation is known to be extremely slow, and on top of that cargo isn’t really meant to be a general purpose binary package manager, at least not for non-Rust developers,This is of course debatable and potentially divisive, and it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. I’ll just point to the official POV laid out in The Rust Programming Language, § 14.4 (Wayback Machine): “The cargo install command allows you to install and use binary crates locally. This isn’t intended to replace system packages; it’s meant to be a convenient way for Rust developers to install tools that others have shared on” One clarification on my stance: I don’t consider pip, npm, etc. to fit the bill of a binary package manager either, although they’re often used that way. so as the developer of a non-library Rust project, one should strive to ship compiled binaries to users (including oneself) unless users specifically want to compile from source. Not only that, it’s preferable that users be able to upgrade to the latest version during routine system administration without having to manually check for and download new releases.

Of course, it’s most convenient if one could convince system packagers to do the work, but new and/or obscure projects may not have that luxury. This post dives into taking matters into your own hands, specifically on Ubuntu, where a PPA is the most streamlined way to ship third party packages to users.

Unfortunately Debian packaging is complex (and IMO archaic), with myriad files and various competing build systems and workflows; on top of that, docs are scattered and workflow-related docs seem scarce. You’ll be in for kind of a shock if you’re only familiar with more streamlined systems like Homebrew, MacPorts, or even AUR.I’ll admit I didn’t look into the Ubuntu workflow, partly because I have no interest in learning bzr. I do know packaging docs are’t much better, and if you’re building a new package you better stick to Debian’s docs. For Rust specifically, there’s a reasonably fleshed-out Debian Rust Packaging Policy and a helper tool debcargo to assist navigation of Debian’s complex packaging process. It requires packaging one crate at a time though (check debcargo-confThere appears to be a multi-package expert mode, but I believe it’s only for updates.), so you most likely don’t want to do that in your PPA when you have dozens of dependencies, which is terribly inconvient while carrying the risk of conflicting with distro packages. I also found third party binary packaging helpers like cargo-deb, but Ubuntu PPA requires source packages (that is, .dsc instead of .deb), so binary packaging tools are out of the question.

I won’t expand on how to prepare a Debian-specific source tree here. Please check Debian New Maintainers’ Guide. If in doubt you can check a finished example in my debian-metadata repository. The rest of this post assumes the basic skeleton of the debian directory has been set up, probably with dh_make(8).

The most convenient way (that I know of) to construct a self-contained, workable source package is through a combination of the cargo vendor and cargo build --frozen commands. cargo vendor downloads all dependencies into a vendor directory, and cargo build --frozen avoids touching the network for dependencies. We also need to instruct cargo to look into the vendor directory with a .cargo/config:

replace-with = "vendored-sources"

directory = "vendor"

The vendor directory can be either fully checked into the debian directory, or packed up and only expanded during the build process. The former results in a huge number of files; the latter leads to a cleaner source tree but every update causes a new tarball to be committed, which bloats the repo size when tracked in VCS.

Assuming we pack vendor into vendor.tar.xz, and store the aforementioned .cargo/config in debian/cargo.config, here’s a basic, working debian/rules:

    dh [email protected]

    mkdir -p .cargo
    cp debian/cargo.config .cargo/config
    tar xJf debian/vendor.tar.xz
    cargo build --release --frozen

    cargo clean
    rm -rf .cargo vendor

That’s the main differentiator of our Rust package. The rest is filling out other files under debian following the Debian guide, specifically required files and other files.

One important tip which I overlooked and caused a fair bit of grief: remember to create debian/source/format with content

3.0 (quilt)

to mark the package as non-native.

Workflow tips for targeting multiple distributions

This part is a general discussion of Debian packaging branching strategy, hence not specific to Rust.

The Debian guide basically stops at packaging for a single unstable distribution. Of course, when you’re packaging for a Ubuntu PPA, you’re likely targeting at least the two recent LTS distributions, which are bionic and focal at the moment. To update to a new upstream version, it also asks you to copy the debian directory into a new unpacked upstream source tree, which is plain barbaric in 2020; apparently we want to use a VCS instead. Unfortunately, tracking debian in VCS for multiple distributions is not easy: the distribution is hardcoded into the distribution field of debian/changelog (see dch(1)), so different distributions cannot possibly share the same source tree without a complex git-flow-esque branching model, complete overkill for merging in upstream changes and adding a changelog entry once in a while. To add insult to injury, different distributions can’t even share the same package version as far as I can tell: for instance, there can be only one foo_1.0.0-ubuntu1.dsc, which can only point to one foo_1.0.0-ubuntu1.debian.tar.xz, which can only be for one distribution. Ubuntu seems to mostly sidestep this problem since they largely don’t ship new versions on older distributions, and when they have to they seem to just YOLO it (as an example see git_2.20.1-2ubuntu1.19.10.3).This is just my impression from inspecting the versioning schemes of a number of popular packages. I’m totally open to corrections. You probably want to keep your package up-to-date on multiple distributions, though.

Debian does have a terse introduction to packaging with git and a suite of tools gbp-import-dsc, gbp-import-orig, gbp-buildpackage, etc. (manual here) to support the git workflow. I recommend reading these docs, but again they barely touch on the aforementioned multi-distribution problems.

After fighting with the tools for a while, I’ll briefly document my recommended workflow, using a package foo with versions 1.0.0 and 1.1.0 as my example:

For a well-known PPA following a similar branching model (but forgoes the master branch for Debian unstable), see deadsnakes/python3.8 (using the one-commit-per-upstream-release model recommended here) and deadsnakes/python3.9-nightly (using the full upstream history model, due to the nightly nature).