Packaging Python projects for Debian/Ubuntu

Deployment of software using built-in software management tools is very convenient and provides a nice user experience (UX) for the users. For debian-based linux distributions like Ubuntu packaging software in .deb-packages is the way to go. So how can we prepare our python projects for packaging as a deb-package? The good news is that python is supported out-of-the-box in the debian package build system.

Alternatively, you can use the distutils-extension stdeb if you do not need complete flexibility in creating the packages.

Basic python deb-package

If you are using setuptools/distutils for your python project debian packaging consists of editing the package metadata and adding --with python to the rules file. For a nice headstart we can generate templates of the debian metadata files using two simple commands (the debhelper package is needed for dh_make:

# create a tarball with the current project sources
python sdist
# generate the debian package metadata files 
dh_make -p ${project_name}_${version} -f dist/${project_name}-${version}.tar.gz 

You have to edit at least the control-file, the changelog and the rules-file to build the python package. In the rules-file the make-target % is the crucial point and should include the flag to build a python project:

# main packaging script based on dh7 syntax
	dh $@ --with python

After that you can build the package issueing dpkg-buildpackage.

The caveats

The debian packaging system is great in complaining about non-conformant aspects of your package. It demands digital signatures, correct file and directory names including version strings etc. Unfortunately it is not very helpful when you make packaging  mistakes resulting in empty, incomplete or broken packages.

Issues with

The build script has to reside on the same level as the debian-directory containing the package metadata. The packaging tools will not tell you if they could not find the setup script. In addition it will always run using python 2, even if you specified --with python3 in the rules-file.

Packaging for specific python versions

If you want better control over the target python versions for the package you should use Pybuild. You can do this by a little change to the rules-file, e.g. a python3-only build using Pybuild:

# main packaging script based on dh7 syntax
	dh $@ --with python3 --buildsystem=pybuild

For pybuild to work it is crucial to add the needed python interpreter(s) besides the mandatory build dependency dh-python to the Build-Depends of the control-file, for python3-only it could look like this:

Build-Depends: debhelper (>=9), dh-python, python3-all
Depends: ${python3:Depends}

Without the dh-python build dependency pybuild will silently do nothing. Getting the build dependencies wrong will create incomplete or broken packages. Take extra care of getting this right!


Debian packaging looks quite intimidating at first because there are so many ways to build a package. Many different tools can ease package creation but also add confusion. Packaging python software is done easily if you know the quirks. The python examples from the Guide for Debian Maintainers are certainly worth a look!

Introduction to Debian packaging

In former posts I wrote about packaging your software as RPM packages for a variety of use cases. The other big binary packaging system on Linux systems is DEB for Debian, Ubuntu and friends. Both serve the purpose of convenient distribution, installation and update of binary software artifacts. They define their dependencies and describe what the package provides.

How do you provide your software as DEB packages?

The master guide to debian packaging can be found at It is a very comprehensive guide spanning many pages and providing loads of information. Building a usable package of your software for your clients can be a matter of minutes if you know what to do. So I want to show you the basic steps, for refinement you will need to consult the guide or other resources specific to the software you want to package. For example there are several guides specific to packaging of software written in Python. I find it hard to determine what the current and recommended way to debian packages for python is because there are differing guides over the last 10 years or so. You may of course say “Just use pip for python” 🙂

Basic tools

The basic tools for building debian packages are debhelper and dh-make. To check the resulting package you will need lintian in addition. You can install them and basic software build tools using:

  sudo apt-get install build-essential dh-make debhelper lintian

The python packaging system uses make and several scripts under the hood to help building the binary packages out of source tarballs.

Your first package

First you need a tar-archive of the software you want to package. With python setuptools you could use python sdist to generate the tarball. Then you run dh_make on it to generate metadata and the package build environment for your package. Now you have to edit the metadata files, namely control, copyright, changelog. Finally you run dpkg-buildpackage to generate the package itself.  Here is an example of the necessary commands:

mkdir hello-deb-1.0
cd hello-deb-1.0
dh_make -f ../hello-deb-1.0.tar.gz
# edit deb metadata files
vi debian/control
vi debian/copyright
vi debian/changelog
dpkg-buildpackage -us -uc
lintian -i -I --show-overrides hello-deb_1.0-1_amd64.changes

The control file roughly resembles RPMs SPEC file. Package name, description, version and dependency information belong there. Note that debian is very strict when it comes to naming of packages, so make sure you use the pattern ${name}-${version}.tar.gz for the archive and that it extracts into a corresponding directory without the extension, e.g. ${name}-${version}.

If everything went ok several files were generated in your base directory:

  • The package itself as .deb file
  • A file containing the changelog and checksums between package versions and revisions ending with .changes
  • A file with the package description ending with .dsc
  • A tarball with the original sources renamed according to debian convention hello-deb_1.0.orig.tar.gz (note the underscore!)

Going from here

Of course there is a lot more to the tooling and workflow when maintaining debian packages. In future posts I will explore additional means for improving and updating your packages like the quilt patch management tool, signing the package, symlinking, scripts for pre- and post-installation and so forth.