Linux Packaging Systems
In order to allow their users to install software, Linux distributions need a software packaging system. If the distribution is a fork of another established distribution, it’ll usually stick with the packaging system of the older distribution.
That’s why Fedora uses RPM packages (which used to stand for RedHat Package Manager) and Ubuntu and its numerous children use DEB packages. DEB is simply short for “Debian.” Other distributions opt to write their own package management system. Installation files packaged for one package manager are not interchangeable with other package managers.
Traditionally, application developers had to either package their application in every format that they chose to support or to work with the maintainers of the different Linux distributions and pass the packaging steps over to them. The latter introduces delays in getting new releases into the hands of the users, the former gives the developers a lot of extra work.
The Snap and Flatpak projects try to deliver the Holy Grail of package distribution: package your application once, and install it on any Linux distribution. Of course, there may or may not be a Snap or Flatpak for the application you’re after.
You can remove packaging systems from the equation completely, just as long as you are comfortable with cloning a Git repository and building an application from the source code. But not everybody is. And not all applications—even on Linux—are open source, so you can’t build everything from source anyway.
The maintainers of some distributions are great at getting packages for other platforms and repackaging them for their own package management system, including closed-source applications. But there will always be cases where an application offers a DEB or an RPM—the big two formats—and everyone else needs to figure it out for themselves.
alien exist to solve the problem of converting a package file from another distribution to the version you need on your Linux computer. That’s fine in theory, but how successful are they?
The alien Experiment
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
We took three different RPMs and used
alien to convert them to DEBs. We then tried to install the freshly-created DEBs on Ubuntu.
In all of our test cases, there was a DEB available for download too, so what we were doing was actually redundant. But we thought the test applications—Microsoft Edge browser, the Atom editor, and Slack—would be a good test of
alien‘s capabilities so we ignored the off-the-shelf DEBs.
Installing alien was simple on Ubuntu, Fedora, and Manjaro.
On Ubuntu you can use this command:
sudo apt install alien
On Fedora, you need to type:
sudo dnf install alien
On Manjaro, the alien package is in the Arch User Repository. This means
pacman won’t be able to see it, so we need to use an AUR helper program like
yay. The package name is slightly different too.
yay -S alien_package_converter
alien you specify the file you want to convert, and the format you want to convert to. It creates a file with the same filename—usually—and with the extension of the format you asked for.
alien to create a package causes
alien to increment the version number of the package. If the package number is in the filename, the filename will be changed too.
These are the formats
alien can convert from and into.
- -d: Convert to a DEB file, for Debian, Ubuntu, and all the derivatives.
- -r: Convert to an RPM file, for RedHat, CentOS, and Fedora.
- -t: Convert to a TAR.GZ archive file, for Arch and Arch-based systems like EndeavourOS and Manjaro.
- -l: Convert to an LSB file, a Linux Standard Base file. This was another initiative to develop a cross-distribution package format.
- -p: Convert to a PKG file, a format used by Solaris amongst others.
- –to-slp: Convert to an SLP package, a format used by the discontinued Stampede Linux distribution.
The format option we’ll be using is
-d (DEB) as we’re converting to a DEB file. We’ll also use the
-c (scripts) option to convert any scripts contained in the package.
We downloaded an RPM for Microsoft’s Edge browser, and ran the following command on it:
sudo alien -d -c microsoft-edge-beta-97.0.1072.54-1.x86_64.rpm
-c (scripts) option it didn’t create the DEB file, it reported an error. With the
-c option, it did create the DEB.
Note the DEB filename contains 54-2, not 54-1.
Converting scripts is unlikely to end well. They may well be written for a particular situation or configuration unique to the genuine target platform of the original package file. Because of this, we didn’t have high hopes. Nevertheless, we tried to install the DEB with the
dpkg program and the
-i (install) option.
sudo dpkg -i microsoft-edge-beta_97.0.1072.54-2_amd64.deb
It didn’t work.
We also tried double-clicking the DEB file and using the Ubuntu Software application to install the DEB. Interestingly, the Software application knew that the DEB had been created by
That didn’t work either. Just to make sure the Edge browser would actually install on Ubuntu, we installed the official Microsoft Edge DEB file.
sudo dpkg -i microsoft-edge-beta_97.0.1072.54-1_amd64.deb
That worked without an issue. You can see below Microsoft Edge running on Ubuntu.
The Atom Editor
We downloaded the RPM install package for the popular Atom editor. We used the same
alien command to convert it to a DEB.
sudo alien -d -c atom.x86_64.rpm
That created a DEB file without any warnings or errors. We installed it using the
dpkg command with the
-i (install) option.
sudo dpkg -i atom_1.58.0-1.1_amd64.deb
That worked perfectly.
Slack Business Messaging App
Finally, we tried converting the Slack RPM to a DEB.
sudo alien -d -c slack-4.23.0-0.1.fc21.x86_64.rpm
Again, this created a DEB with no warnings and no errors. We used this installation command:
sudo dpkg -i slack_4.23.0-1.1_amd64.deb
The installation worked flawlessly. Slack was up and running with no issues.
A utility such as
alien is inevitably fighting an uphill battle. The odds are stacked against it being able to work in every case, and this was borne out by our small amount of testing. Having said that, when it worked it was great.
If you’re in a situation where there’s nothing else for it, give
alien a try. But if there is any other method available to you—Snap, Flatpak, or building from source—try those first. Even the authors of
alien know its limitations, and put this warning in the
alien should not be used to replace important system packages, like init, libc, or other things that are essential for the functioning of your system. Many of these packages are set up differently by the different distributions, and packages from the different distributions cannot be used interchangeably. In general, if you can’t remove a package without breaking your system, don’t try to replace it with an alien version.
While it might get you out of a hole, make sure you’ve exhausted all other possibilities before turning to
But, when there’s nothing else,
alien might just surprise you.
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