Chapter 7. Beyond Packaging

Table of Contents

7.1. Bug reporting
7.1.1. Reporting lots of bugs at once (mass bug filing)
7.2. Quality Assurance effort
7.2.1. Daily work
7.2.2. Bug squashing parties
7.3. Contacting other maintainers
7.4. Dealing with inactive and/or unreachable maintainers
7.5. Interacting with prospective Debian developers
7.5.1. Sponsoring packages
7.5.2. Advocating new developers
7.5.3. Handling new maintainer applications

Debian is about a lot more than just packaging software and maintaining those packages. This chapter contains information about ways, often really critical ways, to contribute to Debian beyond simply creating and maintaining packages.

As a volunteer organization, Debian relies on the discretion of its members in choosing what they want to work on and in choosing the most critical thing to spend their time on.

7.1. Bug reporting

We encourage you to file bugs as you find them in Debian packages. In fact, Debian developers are often the first line testers. Finding and reporting bugs in other developers' packages improves the quality of Debian.

Read the instructions for reporting bugs in the Debian bug tracking system.

Try to submit the bug from a normal user account at which you are likely to receive mail, so that people can reach you if they need further information about the bug. Do not submit bugs as root.

You can use a tool like reportbug(1) to submit bugs. It can automate and generally ease the process.

Make sure the bug is not already filed against a package. Each package has a bug list easily reachable at http://bugs.debian.org/packagename. Utilities like querybts(1) can also provide you with this information (and reportbug will usually invoke querybts before sending, too).

Try to direct your bugs to the proper location. When for example your bug is about a package which overwrites files from another package, check the bug lists for both of those packages in order to avoid filing duplicate bug reports.

For extra credit, you can go through other packages, merging bugs which are reported more than once, or tagging bugs `fixed' when they have already been fixed. Note that when you are neither the bug submitter nor the package maintainer, you should not actually close the bug (unless you secure permission from the maintainer).

From time to time you may want to check what has been going on with the bug reports that you submitted. Take this opportunity to close those that you can't reproduce anymore. To find out all the bugs you submitted, you just have to visit http://bugs.debian.org/from:your-email-addr.

7.1.1. Reporting lots of bugs at once (mass bug filing)

Reporting a great number of bugs for the same problem on a great number of different packages — i.e., more than 10 — is a deprecated practice. Take all possible steps to avoid submitting bulk bugs at all. For instance, if checking for the problem can be automated, add a new check to lintian so that an error or warning is emitted.

If you report more than 10 bugs on the same topic at once, it is recommended that you send a message to describing your intention before submitting the report, and mentioning the fact in the subject of your mail. This will allow other developers to verify that the bug is a real problem. In addition, it will help prevent a situation in which several maintainers start filing the same bug report simultaneously.

Please use the programs dd-list and if appropriate whodepends (from the package devscripts) to generate a list of all affected packages, and include the output in your mail to .

Note that when sending lots of bugs on the same subject, you should send the bug report to so that the bug report is not forwarded to the bug distribution mailing list.

7.1.1.1. Usertags

You may wish to use BTS usertags when submitting bugs across a number of packages. Usertags are similar to normal tags such as 'patch' and 'wishlist' but differ in that they are user-defined and occupy a namespace that is unique to a particular user. This allows multiple sets of developers to 'usertag' the same bug in different ways without conflicting.

To add usertags when filing bugs, specify the User and Usertags pseudo-headers:

To: submit@bugs.debian.org
Subject: title-of-bug

Package: pkgname
[ ... ]
User: email-addr
Usertags: tag-name [ tag-name ... ]

description-of-bug ...

Note that tags are seperated by spaces and cannot contain underscores. If you are filing bugs for a particular group or team it is recommended that you set the User to an appropriate mailing list after describing your intention there.

To view bugs tagged with a specific usertag, visit http://bugs.debian.org/cgi-bin/pkgreport.cgi?users=email-addr&tag=tag-name.

7.2. Quality Assurance effort

7.2.1. Daily work

Even though there is a dedicated group of people for Quality Assurance, QA duties are not reserved solely for them. You can participate in this effort by keeping your packages as bug-free as possible, and as lintian-clean (see Section A.2.1, “lintian) as possible. If you do not find that possible, then you should consider orphaning some of your packages (see Section 5.9.4, “Orphaning a package”). Alternatively, you may ask the help of other people in order to catch up with the backlog of bugs that you have (you can ask for help on or ). At the same time, you can look for co-maintainers (see Section 5.12, “Collaborative maintenance”).

7.2.2. Bug squashing parties

From time to time the QA group organizes bug squashing parties to get rid of as many problems as possible. They are announced on and the announcement explains which area will be the focus of the party: usually they focus on release critical bugs but it may happen that they decide to help finish a major upgrade (like a new perl version which requires recompilation of all the binary modules).

The rules for non-maintainer uploads differ during the parties because the announcement of the party is considered prior notice for NMU. If you have packages that may be affected by the party (because they have release critical bugs for example), you should send an update to each of the corresponding bug to explain their current status and what you expect from the party. If you don't want an NMU, or if you're only interested in a patch, or if you will deal yourself with the bug, please explain that in the BTS.

People participating in the party have special rules for NMU, they can NMU without prior notice if they upload their NMU to DELAYED/3-day at least. All other NMU rules apply as usually; they should send the patch of the NMU to the BTS (to one of the open bugs fixed by the NMU, or to a new bug, tagged fixed). They should also respect any particular wishes of the maintainer.

If you don't feel confident about doing an NMU, just send a patch to the BTS. It's far better than a broken NMU.

7.3. Contacting other maintainers

During your lifetime within Debian, you will have to contact other maintainers for various reasons. You may want to discuss a new way of cooperating between a set of related packages, or you may simply remind someone that a new upstream version is available and that you need it.

Looking up the email address of the maintainer for the package can be distracting. Fortunately, there is a simple email alias, package@packages.debian.org, which provides a way to email the maintainer, whatever their individual email address (or addresses) may be. Replace package with the name of a source or a binary package.

You may also be interested in contacting the persons who are subscribed to a given source package via Section 4.10, “The Package Tracking System”. You can do so by using the package@packages.qa.debian.org email address.

7.4. Dealing with inactive and/or unreachable maintainers

If you notice that a package is lacking maintenance, you should make sure that the maintainer is active and will continue to work on their packages. It is possible that they are not active any more, but haven't registered out of the system, so to speak. On the other hand, it is also possible that they just need a reminder.

There is a simple system (the MIA database) in which information about maintainers who are deemed Missing In Action is recorded. When a member of the QA group contacts an inactive maintainer or finds more information about one, this is recorded in the MIA database. This system is available in /org/qa.debian.org/mia on the host qa.debian.org, and can be queried with the mia-query tool. Use mia-query --help to see how to query the database. If you find that no information has been recorded about an inactive maintainer yet, or that you can add more information, you should generally proceed as follows.

The first step is to politely contact the maintainer, and wait a reasonable time for a response. It is quite hard to define reasonable time, but it is important to take into account that real life is sometimes very hectic. One way to handle this would be to send a reminder after two weeks.

If the maintainer doesn't reply within four weeks (a month), one can assume that a response will probably not happen. If that happens, you should investigate further, and try to gather as much useful information about the maintainer in question as possible. This includes:

  • The echelon information available through the developers' LDAP database, which indicates when the developer last posted to a Debian mailing list. (This includes mails about uploads distributed via the list.) Also, remember to check whether the maintainer is marked as on vacation in the database.

  • The number of packages this maintainer is responsible for, and the condition of those packages. In particular, are there any RC bugs that have been open for ages? Furthermore, how many bugs are there in general? Another important piece of information is whether the packages have been NMUed, and if so, by whom.

  • Is there any activity of the maintainer outside of Debian? For example, they might have posted something recently to non-Debian mailing lists or news groups.

A bit of a problem are packages which were sponsored — the maintainer is not an official Debian developer. The echelon information is not available for sponsored people, for example, so you need to find and contact the Debian developer who has actually uploaded the package. Given that they signed the package, they're responsible for the upload anyhow, and are likely to know what happened to the person they sponsored.

It is also allowed to post a query to , asking if anyone is aware of the whereabouts of the missing maintainer. Please Cc: the person in question.

Once you have gathered all of this, you can contact . People on this alias will use the information you provide in order to decide how to proceed. For example, they might orphan one or all of the packages of the maintainer. If a package has been NMUed, they might prefer to contact the NMUer before orphaning the package — perhaps the person who has done the NMU is interested in the package.

One last word: please remember to be polite. We are all volunteers and cannot dedicate all of our time to Debian. Also, you are not aware of the circumstances of the person who is involved. Perhaps they might be seriously ill or might even have died — you do not know who may be on the receiving side. Imagine how a relative will feel if they read the e-mail of the deceased and find a very impolite, angry and accusing message!

On the other hand, although we are volunteers, we do have a responsibility. So you can stress the importance of the greater good — if a maintainer does not have the time or interest anymore, they should let go and give the package to someone with more time.

If you are interested in working in the MIA team, please have a look at the README file in /org/qa.debian.org/mia on qa.debian.org where the technical details and the MIA procedures are documented and contact .

7.5. Interacting with prospective Debian developers

Debian's success depends on its ability to attract and retain new and talented volunteers. If you are an experienced developer, we recommend that you get involved with the process of bringing in new developers. This section describes how to help new prospective developers.

7.5.1. Sponsoring packages

Sponsoring a package means uploading a package for a maintainer who is not able to do it on their own. It's not a trivial matter, the sponsor must verify the packaging and ensure that it is of the high level of quality that Debian strives to have.

Debian Developers can sponsor packages. Debian Maintainers can't.

The process of sponsoring a package is:

  1. The maintainer prepares a source package (.dsc) and puts it online somewhere (like on mentors.debian.net) or even better, provides a link to a public VCS repository (see Section 4.4.5, “The VCS servers”) where the package is maintained.

  2. The sponsor downloads (or checkouts) the source package.

  3. The sponsor reviews the source package. If they find issues, they inform the maintainer and ask them to provide a fixed version (the process starts over at step 1).

  4. The sponsor could not find any remaining problem. They build the package, sign it, and upload it to Debian.

Before delving in the details of how to sponsor a package, you should ask yourself whether adding the proposed package is beneficial to Debian.

There's no simple rule to answer this question, it can depend on many factors: is the upstream codebase mature and not full of security holes? Are there pre-existing packages that can do the same task and how do they compare to this new package? Has the new package been requested by users and how large is the user base? How active are the upstream developers?

You should also ensure that the prospective maintainer is going to be a good maintainer. Do they already have some experience with other packages? If yes, are they doing a good job with them (check out some bugs)? Are they familiar with the package and its programming language? Do they have the skills needed for this package? If not, are they able to learn them?

It's also a good idea to know where they stand with respect to Debian: do they agree with Debian's philosophy and do they intend to join Debian? Given how easy it is to become a Debian Maintainer, you might want to only sponsor people who plan to join. That way you know from the start that you won't have to act as a sponsor indefinitely.

7.5.1.1. Sponsoring a new package

New maintainers usually have certain difficulties creating Debian packages — this is quite understandable. They will do mistakes. That's why sponsoring a brand new package into Debian requires a thorough review of the Debian packaging. Sometimes several iterations will be needed until the package is good enough to be uploaded to Debian. Thus being a sponsor implies being a mentor.

Don't ever sponsor a new package without reviewing it. The review of new packages done by ftpmasters mainly ensures that the software is really free. Of course, it happens that they stumble on packaging problems but they really should not. It's your task to ensure that the uploaded package complies with the Debian Free Software Guidelines and is of good quality.

Building the package and testing the software is part of the review, but it's also not enough. The rest of this section contains a non-exhaustive list of points to check in your review. [7]

  • Verify that the upstream tarball provided is the same that has been distributed by the upstream author (when the sources are repackaged for Debian, generate the modified tarball yourself).

  • Run lintian (see Section A.2.1, “lintian). It will catch many common problems. Be sure to verify that any lintian overrides setup by the maintainer is fully justified.

  • Run licensecheck (part of Section A.6.1, “devscripts) and verify that debian/copyright seems correct and complete. Look for license problems (like files with “All rights reserved” headers, or with a non-DFSG compliant license). grep -ri is your friend for this task.

  • Build the package with pbuilder (or any similar tool, see Section A.4.3, “pbuilder) to ensure that the build-dependencies are complete.

  • Proofread debian/control: does it follow the best practices (see Section 6.2, “Best practices for debian/control)? Are the dependencies complete?

  • Proofread debian/rules: does it follow the best practices (see Section 6.1, “Best practices for debian/rules)? Do you see some possible improvements?

  • Proofread the maintainer scripts (preinst, postinst, prerm, postrm, config): will the preinst/postrm work when the dependencies are not installed? Are all the scripts idempotent (i.e. can you run them multiple times without consequences)?

  • Review any change to upstream files (either in .diff.gz, or in debian/patches/ or directly embedded in the debian tarball for binary files). Are they justified? Are they properly documented (with DEP-3 for patches)?

  • For every file, ask yourself why the file is there and whether it's the right way to achieve the desired result. Is the maintainer following the best packaging practices (see Chapter 6, Best Packaging Practices)?

  • Build the packages, install them and try the software. Ensure you can remove and purge the packages. Maybe test them with piuparts.

If the audit did not reveal any problem, you can build the package and upload it to Debian. Remember that even if you're not the maintainer, as a sponsor you are still responsible for what you upload to Debian. That's why you're encouraged to keep up with the package through the Section 4.10, “The Package Tracking System”.

Note that you should not need to modify the source package to put your name in the changelog or in the control file. The Maintainer field of the control file and the changelog should list the person who did the packaging, i.e. the sponsoree. That way they will get all the BTS mail.

Instead you should instruct dpkg-buildpackage to use your key for the signature. You do that with the -k option:

dpkg-buildpackage -kKEY-ID

If you use debuild and debsign, you can even configure it permanently in ~/.devscripts:

DEBSIGN_KEYID=KEY-ID

7.5.1.2. Sponsoring an update of an existing package

You will usually assume that the package has already gone through a full review. So instead of doing it again, you will carefully analyze the difference between the current version and the new version prepared by the maintainer. If you have not done the initial review yourself, you might still want to have a more deeper look just in case the initial reviewer was sloppy.

To be able to analyze the difference you need both versions. Download the current version of the source package (with apt-get source) and rebuild it (or download the current binary packages with aptitude download). Download the source package to sponsor (usually with dget).

Read the new changelog entry, it should tell you what to expect during the review. The main tool you will use is debdiff (provide by the devscripts package), you can run it with two source packages (.dsc files), or two binary packages, or two .changes files (it will then compare all the binary packages listed in the .changes).

If you compare the source packages (excluding upstream files in the case of a new upstream version, for example by filtering the output of debdiff with filterdiff -i '*/debian/*'), you must understand all the changes you see and they should be properly documented in the Debian changelog.

If everything is fine, build the package and compare the binary packages to verify that the changes on the source package have no unexpected consequences (like some files dropped by mistake, missing dependencies, etc.).

You might want to check out the Package Tracking System (see Section 4.10, “The Package Tracking System”) to verify if the maintainer has not missed something important. Maybe there are translations updates sitting in the BTS that could have been integrated. Maybe the package has been NMUed and the maintainer forgot to integrate the changes from the NMU into their package. Maybe there's a release critical bug that they have left unhandled and that's blocking migration to testing. If you find something that they could have done (better), it's time to tell them so that they can improve for next time, and so that they have a better understanding of their responsibilities.

If you have found no major problem, upload the new version. Otherwise ask the maintainer to provide you a fixed version.

7.5.2. Advocating new developers

See the page about advocating a prospective developer at the Debian web site.

7.5.3. Handling new maintainer applications

Please see Checklist for Application Managers at the Debian web site.



[7] You can find more checks in the wiki where several developers share their own sponsorship checklists.