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Source Package Files and How To Use Them

One day, you may run across a package file with a name similar to the following:
Notice the src. Is that a new kind of computer? If you use RPM on an Intel-based computer, you'd normally expect to find i386 there. Maybe someone messed up the name of the file. Well, we know that the file command can display information about a package file, even if the filename has been changed. We've used it before to figure out what package a file contains:
# file foo.bar
foo.bar: RPM v2 bin i386 eject-1.2-2

In this example, foo.bar is an RPM version 2 file, containing an executable package — hence, the "bin" — built for Intel processors — the "i386". The package is eject version 1.2, release 2.

Let's try the file command on this mystery file and see what we can find out about it:
# file etcskel-1.0-3.src.rpm
etcskel-1.0-3.src.rpm: RPM v2 src i386 etcskel-1.0-3

Well, it's a package file all right — for version 1.0, release 3 of the etcskel package. It's in RPM version 2 format, and built for Intel-based systems. But what does the "src" mean?

A gentle introduction to source code

This package file contains not the executable, or "binary", files that a normal package contains, but rather the "source" files required to create those binaries. When programmers create a new program, they write the instructions, often called "code", in one or more files. The source code is then compiled into a binary that can be executed by the computer.

As part of the process of building package files (a process we cover in great detail in the second half of this book), two types of package files are created:

  1. The binary, or executable, package file

  2. The source package file

The source package contains everything needed to recreate not only the programs and associated files that are contained in the binary package file, but the binary and source package files themselves.

Do you really need more information than this?

The following discussion is going to get rather technical. Unless you're the type of person who likes to take other people's code and modify it, chances are you won't need much more information than this. But if you're still interested, let's explore further.

So what can I do with it?

In the case of source package files, one of the things that can be done with them is that they can be installed. Let's try an install of a source package:
# rpm -i cdp-0.33-3.src.rpm
Well that doesn't tell us very much and, take our word for it, adding -v doesn't improve the situation appreciably. Let's haul out the big guns and try -vv:
# rpm -ivv cdp-0.33-3.src.rpm
D: installing cdp-0.33-3.src.rpm
Installing cdp-0.33-3.src.rpm
D: package is a source package major = 2
D: installing a source package
D: sources in: ///usr/src/redhat/SOURCES
D: spec file in: ///usr/src/redhat/SPECS
D: file "cdp-0.33-cdplay.patch" complete
D: file "cdp-0.33-fsstnd.patch" complete
D: file "cdp-0.33.spec" complete
D: file "cdp-0.33.tgz" complete
D: renaming ///usr/src/redhat/SOURCES/cdp-0.33.spec to ///usr/src/redhat/SPECS/cdp-0.33.spec
What does this output tell us? Well, RPM recognizes that the file is a source package. It mentions that sources (we know what they are) are in /usr/src/redhat/SOURCES. Let's take a look:
# ls -al /usr/src/redhat/SOURCES/
-rw-rw-r--   1 root     root          364 Apr 24 22:35 cdp-0.33-cdplay.patch
-rw-r--r--   1 root     root          916 Jan  8 12:07 cdp-0.33-fsstnd.patch
-rw-r--r--   1 root     root       148916 Nov 10  1995 cdp-0.33.tgz

There are some files that seem to be related to cdp there. The two files ending with ".patch" are patches to the source. RPM permits patches to be processed when building binary packages. The patches are bundled along with the original, unmodified sources in the source package.

The last file is a gzipped tar file. If you've gotten software off the Internet, you're probably familiar with tar files, gzipped or not. If we look inside the file, we should see all the usual kinds of things: README files, a Makefile or two, and some source code:
# tar ztf cdp-0.33.tgz
There's more, but you get the idea. OK, so there are the sources. But what is that "spec" file mentioned in the output? It mentions something about "/usr/src/redhat/SPECS", so let's see what we have in that directory:
# ls -al /usr/src/redhat/SPECS
-rw-r--r--   1 root     root          397 Apr 24 22:36 cdp-0.33.spec

Without making a long story too short, a spec file contains information used by RPM to create the binary and source packages. Using the spec file, RPM:

  • Unpacks the sources.

  • Applies patches (if any exist).

  • Builds the software.

  • Creates the binary package file.

  • Creates the source package file.

  • Cleans up after itself.

The neatest part of this is that RPM does this all automatically, under the control of the spec file. That's about all we're going to say about how RPM builds packages. For more information, please refer to the second half of this book.

Stick with us!

As we've noted several times, we'll be covering the entire subject of building packages with RPM, in the second half of the book. Be forewarned, however: Package building, while straightforward, is not a task for people new to programming. But if you've written a program or two, you'll probably find RPM's package building a piece of cake.