August 15, 2019

APT Patterns

If you have ever used aptitude a bit more extensively on the command-line, you’ll probably have come across its patterns. This week I spent some time implementing (some) patterns for apt, so you do not need aptitude for that, and I want to let you in on the details of this merge request !74.

so, what are patterns?

Patterns allow you to specify complex search queries to select the packages you want to install/show. For example, the pattern ?garbage can be used to find all packages that have been automatically installed but are no longer depended upon by manually installed packages. Or the pattern ?automatic allows you find all automatically installed packages.

You can combine patterns into more complex ones; for example, ?and(?automatic,?obsolete) matches all automatically installed packages that do not exist any longer in a repository.

There are also explicit targets, so you can perform queries like ?for x: ?depends(?recommends(x)): Find all packages x that depend on another package that recommends x. I do not fully comprehend those yet - I did not manage to create a pattern that matches all manually installed packages that a meta-package depends upon. I am not sure it is possible.

reducing pattern syntax

aptitude’s syntax for patterns is quite context-sensitive. If you have a pattern ?foo(?bar) it can have two possible meanings:

  1. If ?foo takes arguments (like ?depends did), then ?bar is the argument.
  2. Otherwise, ?foo(?bar) is equivalent to ?foo?bar which is short for ?and(?foo,?bar)

I find that very confusing. So, when looking at implementing patterns in APT, I went for a different approach. I first parse the pattern into a generic parse tree, without knowing anything about the semantics, and then I convert the parse tree into a APT::CacheFilter::Matcher, an object that can match against packages.

This is useful, because the syntactic structure of the pattern can be seen, without having to know which patterns have arguments and which do not - basically, for the parser ?foo and ?foo() are the same thing. That said, the second pass knows whether a pattern accepts arguments or not and insists on you adding them if required and not having them if it does not accept any, to prevent you from confusing yourself.

aptitude also supports shortcuts. For example, you could write ~c instead of config-files, or ~m for automatic; then combine them like ~m~c instead of using ?and. I have not implemented these short patterns for now, focusing instead on getting the basic functionality working.

So in our example ?foo(?bar) above, we can immediately dismiss parsing that as ?foo?bar:

  1. we do not support concatenation instead of ?and.
  2. we automatically parse ( as the argument list, no matter whether ?foo supports arguments or not
apt not understanding invalid patterns

apt not understanding invalid patterns

Supported syntax

At the moment, APT supports two kinds of patterns: Basic logic ones like ?and, and patterns that apply to an entire package as opposed to a specific version. This was done as a starting point for the merge, patterns for versions will come in the next round.

We also do not have any support for explicit search targets such as ?for x: ... yet - as explained, I do not yet fully understand them, and hence do not want to commit on them.

The full list of the first round of patterns is below, helpfully converted from the apt-patterns(7) docbook to markdown by pandoc.

logic patterns

These patterns provide the basic means to combine other patterns into more complex expressions, as well as ?true and ?false patterns.

?and(PATTERN, PATTERN, ...)

Selects objects where all specified patterns match.

?false

Selects nothing.

?not(PATTERN)

Selects objects where PATTERN does not match.

?or(PATTERN, PATTERN, ...)

Selects objects where at least one of the specified patterns match.

?true

Selects all objects.

package patterns

These patterns select specific packages.

?architecture(WILDCARD)

Selects packages matching the specified architecture, which may contain wildcards using any.

?automatic

Selects packages that were installed automatically.

?broken

Selects packages that have broken dependencies.

?config-files

Selects packages that are not fully installed, but have solely residual configuration files left.

?essential

Selects packages that have Essential: yes set in their control file.

?exact-name(NAME)

Selects packages with the exact specified name.

?garbage

Selects packages that can be removed automatically.

?installed

Selects packages that are currently installed.

?name(REGEX)

Selects packages where the name matches the given regular expression.

?obsolete

Selects packages that no longer exist in repositories.

?upgradable

Selects packages that can be upgraded (have a newer candidate).

?virtual

Selects all virtual packages; that is packages without a version. These exist when they are referenced somewhere in the archive, for example because something depends on that name.

examples

apt remove ?garbage

Remove all packages that are automatically installed and no longer needed - same as apt autoremove

apt purge ?config-files

Purge all packages that only have configuration files left

oddities

Some things are not yet where I want them:

  • ?architecture does not support all, native, or same
  • ?installed should match only the installed version of the package, not the entire package (that is what aptitude does, and it’s a bit surprising that ?installed implies a version and ?upgradable does not)

the future

Of course, I do want to add support for the missing version patterns and explicit search patterns. I might even add support for some of the short patterns, but no promises. Some of those explicit search patterns might have slightly different syntax, e.g. ?for(x, y) instead of ?for x: y in order to make the language more uniform and easier to parse.

Another thing I want to do ASAP is to disable fallback to regular expressions when specifying package names on the command-line: apt install g++ should always look for a package called g++, and not for any package containing g (g++ being a valid regex) when there is no g++ package. I think continuing to allow regular expressions if they start with ^ or end with $ is fine - that prevents any overlap with package names, and would avoid breaking most stuff.

There also is the fallback to fnmatch(): Currently, if apt cannot find a package with the specified name using the exact name or the regex, it would fall back to interpreting the argument as a glob(7) pattern. For example, apt install apt* would fallback to installing every package starting with apt if there is no package matching that as a regular expression. We can actually keep those in place, as the glob(7) syntax does not overlap with valid package names.

Maybe I should allow using [] instead of () so larger patterns become more readable, and/or some support for comments.

There are also plans for AppStream based patterns. This would allow you to use apt install ?provides-mimetype(text/xml) or apt install ?provides-lib(libfoo.so.2). It’s not entirely clear how to package this though, we probably don’t want to have libapt-pkg depend directly on libappstream.

feedback

Talk to me on IRC, comment on the Mastodon thread, or send me an email if there’s anything you think I’m missing or should be looking at.

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