debhelper - the debhelper tool suite


dh_* [__-v__? [__-a__? [__-i__? [__-s__? [__--no-act__? [__-ppackage__? [__-Npackage? [-Ptmpdir__?


Debhelper is used to help you build a debian package. The philosophy behind debhelper is to provide a collection of small, simple, and easily understood tools that are used in debian/rules to automate various common aspects of building a package. This means less work for you, the packager. It also, to some degree means that these tools can be changed if debian policy changes, and packages that use them will require only a rebuild to comply with the new policy.

A typical debian/rules file that uses debhelper will call several debhelper commands in sequence. Debhelper commands are all named with a ``dh_ prefix. Examples of rules files that use debhelper are in /usr/share/doc/debhelper/examples/''

To create a new debian package using debhelper, you can just copy one of the sample rules files and edit it by hand. Or you can try the dh-make package, which contains a dh_make command that partially automates the process. For a more gentle introduction, the maint-guide debian package contains a tutorial about making your first package using debhelper.


Here is the complete list of available debhelper commands. See their man pages for additional documentation.


build debian packages


clean up package build directories


compress files and fix symlinks in package build directories


fix permissions of files in package build directories


generate and install control file


install files into package build directories


install changelogs into package build directories


install cron scripts into etc/cron.*


install files into the DEBIAN directory


install files used by debconf in package build directories


create subdirectories in package build directories


install documentation into package build directories


register an emacs add on package


install example files into package build directories


install and register info files


install init scripts into package build directories


install logrotate config files


install man pages into package build directories


old-style man page installer


install debian menu files into package build directories


install mime files into package build directories


register modules with modutils


install pam support files


register a window manager


install xaw wrappers config files into package build directories


register X fonts


create symlinks in package build directories


list binary packages debhelper will act on


automatically create shlibs file


generate DEBIAN/md5sums file


move files out of debian/tmp into subpackages


calculates perl scripts


calculate shared library dependancies


strip executables, shared libraries, and some static libraries


obsolete suid registration program


test directory before building debian package


ensure that a package is built as root


ensure that the correct version of debhelper is installed


make symlinks to undocumented.7.gz man page


Many debhelper commands make use of files in debian/ to control what they do. Besides the common debian/changelog and debian/control, which are in all packages, not just those using debhelper, some additional files can be used to configure the behavior of specific debhelper commands. These files are typically named debian/ (where ``package'' of course, is replaced with the package that is being acted on).

For example, dh_installdocs uses files named debian/ to list the documentation files it will install. See the man pages of individual commands for details about the names and formats of the files they use.

Note that if a package is the first (or only) binary package listed in debian/control, debhelper will use debian/foo if no debian/ file can be found.

In some rare cases, you may want to have different versions of these files for different architectures. If files named debian/ exist, where ``arch is the same as the output of ``dpkg --print-architecture, then they will be used in preference to other, more general files.

In many cases, these config files are used to specify various types of files. Documentation or example files to install, files to move, and so on. When appropriate, in cases like these, you can use standard shell wildcard characters ('?' and '*') in the files.


The following command line options are supported by all debhelper programs.

-v, --verbose

Verbose mode: show all commands that modify the package build directory.


Do not really do anything. If used with -v, the result is that the command will output what it would have done.

-a, --arch

Act on all architecture dependent packages.

-i, --indep

Act on all architecture independent packages.

-ppackage, --package=package

Act on the package named ``package''. This option may be specified multiple times to make debhelper operate on a given set of packages.

-s, --same-arch

This is a smarter version of the -a flag, that is used in some rare circumstances. It understands that if the control file lists ``Architecture: i386 for the package, the package should not be acted on on other architectures. So this flag makes the command act on all ``Architecture: any packages, as well as on any packages that have the current architecture explicitly specified. Contrast to the -a flag, which makes the command work on all packages that are not architecture independant.

-Npackage, --no-package=package

Do not act on the specified package even if an -a, -i, or -p option lists the package as one that should be acted on.

-Ptmpdir, --tmpdir=tmpdir

Use ``tmpdir'' for package build directory. The default is debian/


The following command line options are supported by some debhelper programs. See the man page of each program for a complete explanation of what each option does.


Do not modify postinst/postrm/etc scripts.

-Xitem, --exclude=item

Exclude an item from processing. This option may be used multiple times, to exclude more than one thing.

-A, -all

Makes files or other items that are specified on the command line take effect in ALL packages acted on, not just the first.


Multiple binary package support

If your source package generates more than one binary package, debhelper programs will default to acting on all binary packages when run. If your source package happens to generate one architecture dependent package, and another architecture independent package, this is not the correct behavior, because you need to generate the architecture dependent packages in the binary-arch debian/rules target, and the architecture independent packages in the binary-indep debian/rules target.

To facilitate this, as well as give you more control over which packages are acted on by debhelper programs, all debhelper programs accept the -a, -i, -p, and -s parameters. These parameters are cumulative. If none are given, debhelper programs default to acting on all packages listed in the control file.

See /usr/share/doc/debhelper/examples/rules.multi for an example of how to use this in a package that generates multiple binary packages.

Automatic generation of debian install scripts

Some debhelper commands will automatically generate parts of debian install scripts. If you want these automatically generated things included in your debian install scripts, then you need to add ``#DEBHELPER# to your scripts, in the place the code should be added. ``#DEBHELPER# will be replaced by any auto-generated code when you run dh_installdeb.

All scripts that automatically generate code in this way let it be disabled by the -n parameter (see above).

Note that the inserted code will be shell code, so you cannot directly use it in a perl script. If you would like to embed it into a perl script, here is one way to do that (note that I made sure that $1, $2, etc

are set with the set command)
my $temp=

Automatic generation of miscellaneous dependencies.

Some debhelper commands may make the generated package need to depend on some other packages. For example, if you use dh_installdebconf(1), your package will generally need to depend on debconf. Or if you use dh_installxfonts(1), your package will generally need to depend on a particular version of xutils. Keeping track of these miscellaneous dependencies can be annoying since they are dependant on how debhelper does things, so debhelper offers a way to automate it.

All commands of this type, besides documenting what dependencies may be needed on their man pages, will automatically generate a substvar called ${misc:Depends}. If you put that token into your debian/control file, it will be expanded to the dependencies debhelper figures you need.

This is entirely independent of the standard ${shlibs:Depends} generated by dh_makeshlibs(1), and the ${perl:Depends} generated by dh_perl(1). You can choose not to use any of these, if debhelper's guesses don't match reality.

Package build directories

By default, all debhelper programs assume that the temporary directory used for assembling the tree of files in a package is debian/

Sometimes, you might want to use some other temporary directory. This is supported by the -P flag. For example, ``dh_installdocs -Pdebian/tmp'', will use debian/tmp as the temporary directory. Note that if you use -P, the debhelper programs can only be acting on a single package at a time. So if you have a package that builds many binary packages, you will need to also use the -p flag to specify which binary package the debhelper program will act on.

Debhelper compatibility levels

From time to time, major non-backwards-compatible changes need to be made to debhelper, to keep it clean and well-designed as needs change and its author gains more experience. To prevent such major changes from breaking existing packages, the concept of debhelper compatability levels was introduced. You tell debhelper which compatability level it should use, and it modifies its behavior in various ways.

You tell debhelper what compatability level to use by writing a number to debian/compat. For example, to turn on

V4 mode
% echo 4

These are the available compatablity levels:


This is the original debhelper compatability level, and so it is the default one. In this mode, debhelper will use debian/tmp as the package tree directory for the first binary package listed in the control file, while using debian/


In this mode, debhelper will consistently use debian/


This mode works like V2, with the following additions:


Debhelper config files support globbing via * and ?, when appropriate. To turn this off and use those characters raw, just prefix with a backslash.


dh_makeshlibs makes the postinst and postrm scripts call ldconfig.


Every file in etc/ is automatically flagged as a conffile by dh_installdeb.


This is the reccommended mode of operation. It does everything V3 does, plus:


dh_makeshlibs -V will not include the debian part of the version number in the generated dependancy line in the shlibs file.


dh_installinit uses the new invoke-rc.d program in its generated maintainer scripts. (This may later be rolled back into V3).


dh_fixperms will make all files in bin/ directories and in etc/init.d executable.


dh_link will correct existing links to conform with policy.

Doc directory symlinks

Sometimes it is useful to make a package not contain a /usr/share/doc/package directory at all, instead placing just a dangling symlink in the binary package, that points to some other doc directory. Policy says this is ok if your package depends on the package whose doc directory it uses. To accomplish this, just don't tell debhelper to install any documentation files into the package, and use dh_link to set up the symlink (or do it by hand), and debhelper should do the right thing: notice it is a dangling symlink and not try to install a copyright file or changelog.

Other notes

In general, if any debhelper program needs a directory to exist under debian/, it will create it. I haven't bothered to document this in all the man pages, but for example, dh_installdeb knows to make debian/

If you are generating a debian package that has arch-indep and arch-dependent portions, and you are using dh_movefiles to move the arch-indep files out of debian/tmp, you need to make sure that dh_movefiles does this even if only the arch-dependent package is being built (for ports to other architectures). I handle this in the example rules file ``rules.multi'' by calling dh_movefiles in the install target.

Once your package uses debhelper to build, be sure to add debhelper to your Build-Depends line in debian/control.



Set to 1 to enable verbose mode. Debhelper will output every command it runs that modifies files on the build system.


Temporarily specifies what compatibility level debhelper should run at, overriding any value in debian/compat.


Set to 1 to enable no-act mode.


Anything in this variable will be prepended to the command line arguments of all debhelper commands. This is useful in some situations, for example, if you need to pass -p to all debhelper commands that will be run. If you use DH_OPTIONS , be sure to build depend on ``debhelper DH_OPTIONS is by using ``Target-specific Variable Values'' in your debian/rules file. See the make documentation for details on doing this.



A set of example debian/rules files that use debhelper.

Debhelper web site.


Joey Hess

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