Backporting packages in Debian

Are you anxious for a new version of a particular package, and don’t want to wait for someone else to submit it to backports?
After a few hours of reading docs and testing this out myself I feel like I’ve gotten a good grasp on this, so I’d like to share what’s been working for me.

Debian doesn’t have the source for packages automatically available on new installs, so to download the sources for packages, you want at least one or more of the following lines in /etc/apt/sources.list:

deb-src stable main
deb-src testing main
deb-src unstable main
deb-src experimental main

I think it’s best to add all of them. If you have xclip installed you can copy those to your clipboard and run xclip -o | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list. After adding those, you have to tell apt to update it’s cache with apt-get update.

Now that Debian has the source available, you can tell it to download the dependencies for the program you want to build with apt-get build-dep <package>

If you don’t have a build directory, I’d suggest making one and changing to it: mkdir ~/build && cd ~/build

Now, to download the source with apt you first have to know the Debian version number, which you can do with apt-cache showsrc <package> | less. You can type /Version to find the lines with the version numbers, or if you’re feeling particularly fancy you can use awk to extract just the version numbers: apt-cache showsrc <package> | awk '/^Version/ {print $2}'

Now that you have a specific version number, you can download the source and automatically begin compiling with with apt-get source -b <package>=<version>. This will download the tarballs of the source for the particular version with any patches the Debian maintainers have added in the current working directory, extract the archives and then begin compiling. When it’s done there should be a .deb file for you to install with sudo dpkg -i <filename>

If you want to ./configure the package with your own flags, the process is a bit trickier. To not automatically start compiling, omit the -b flag from apt-get source. Once you have the source files, cd into the folder, and then look for a file in the debian directory called rules, this file should have the ./configure switches in there. Once you’re happy with the changes use dpkg-buildpackage -uc -us to build it. When it’s done the .deb file will be in the parent directory.

And there you have it!

The tl;dr version of this (once your have source packages added to your repos) is to:

apt-cache showsrc <package>
sudo apt-get build-dep <package>
apt-get source -b <package>=<version>
sudo dpkg -i <package>.deb

It should be noted that this is not fool-proof, some packages will fail to build for various reasons, most often the build dependencies might require newer versions than are available from the repos, in which case you have to start down another path of backporting the dependencies, which can sometimes lead to backporting dependencies of dependencies..

I wrote a script to try and automate this process: