Section: dpkg utilities (8)
update-alternatives creates, removes, maintains and displays information about the symbolic links comprising the Debian alternatives system.
It is possible for several programs fulfilling the same or similar functions to be installed on a single system at the same time. For example, many systems have several text editors installed at once. This gives choice to the users of a system, allowing each to use a different editor, if desired, but makes it difficult for a program to make a good choice for an editor to invoke if the user has not specified a particular preference.
Debian's alternatives system aims to solve this problem. A generic name in the filesystem is shared by all files providing interchangeable functionality. The alternatives system and the system administrator together determine which actual file is referenced by this generic name. For example, if the text editors ed?(1) and nvi?(1) are both installed on the system, the alternatives system will cause the generic name /usr/bin/editor to refer to /usr/bin/nvi by default. The system administrator can override this and cause it to refer to /usr/bin/ed instead, and the alternatives system will not alter this setting until explicitly requested to do so.
The generic name is not a direct symbolic link to the selected alternative. Instead, it is a symbolic link to a name in the alternatives directory, which in turn is a symbolic link to the actual file referenced. This is done so that the system administrator's changes can be confined within the /etc directory: the FHS (q.v.) gives reasons why this is a Good Thing.
When each package providing a file with a particular functionality is installed, changed or removed, update-alternatives is called to update information about that file in the alternatives system. update-alternatives is usually called from the postinst (configure) or prerm (remove and deconfigure) scripts in Debian packages.
It is often useful for a number of alternatives to be synchronized, so that they are changed as a group; for example, when several versions of the vi?(1) editor are installed, the man page referenced by /usr/share/man/man1/vi.1 should correspond to the executable referenced by /usr/bin/vi. update-alternatives handles this by means of master and slave links; when the master is changed, any associated slaves are changed too. A master link and its associated slaves make up a link group.
Each link group is, at any given time, in one of two modes: automatic or manual. When a group is in automatic mode, the alternatives system will automatically decide, as packages are installed and removed, whether and how to update the links. In manual mode, the alternatives system will retain the choice of the administrator and avoid changing the links (except when something is broken).
Link groups are in automatic mode when they are first introduced to the system. If the system administrator makes changes to the system's automatic settings, this will be noticed the next time update-alternatives is run on the changed link's group, and the group will automatically be switched to manual mode.
Each alternative has a priority associated with it. When a link group is in automatic mode, the alternatives pointed to by members of the group will be those which have the highest priority.
When using the --config option, update-alternatives will list all of the choices for the link group of which given name is the master alternative name. The current choice is marked with a '*'. You will then be prompted for your choice regarding this link group. Depending on the choice made, the link group might no longer be in auto mode. You will need to use the --auto option in order to return to the automatic mode (or you can rerun --config and select the entry marked as automatic).
If you want to configure non-interactively you can use the --set option instead (see below).
Different packages providing the same file need to do so cooperatively. In other words, the usage of update-alternatives is mandatory for all involved packages in such case. It is not possible to override some file in a package that does not employ the update-alternatives mechanism.
Since the activities of update-alternatives are quite involved, some specific terms will help to explain its operation.
The update-alternatives --query format is using an RFC822-like flat format. It's made of n + 1 blocks where n is the number of alternatives available in the queried link group. The first block contains the following fields:
$ update-alternatives --query editor Name: editor Link: /usr/bin/editor Slaves: editor.1.gz /usr/share/man/man1/editor.1.gz editor.fr.1.gz /usr/share/man/fr/man1/editor.1.gz editor.it.1.gz /usr/share/man/it/man1/editor.1.gz editor.pl.1.gz /usr/share/man/pl/man1/editor.1.gz editor.ru.1.gz /usr/share/man/ru/man1/editor.1.gz Status: auto Best: /usr/bin/vim.basic Value: /usr/bin/vim.basic Alternative: /bin/ed Priority: -100 Slaves: editor.1.gz /usr/share/man/man1/ed.1.gz Alternative: /usr/bin/vim.basic Priority: 50 Slaves: editor.1.gz /usr/share/man/man1/vim.1.gz editor.fr.1.gz /usr/share/man/fr/man1/vim.1.gz editor.it.1.gz /usr/share/man/it/man1/vim.1.gz editor.pl.1.gz /usr/share/man/pl/man1/vim.1.gz editor.ru.1.gz /usr/share/man/ru/man1/vim.1.gz:
With --verbose update-alternatives chatters incessantly about its activities on its standard output channel. If problems occur, update-alternatives outputs error messages on its standard error channel and returns an exit status of 2. These diagnostics should be self-explanatory; if you do not find them so, please report this as a bug.
There are several packages which provide a text editor compatible with vi, for example nvi and vim. Which one is used is controlled by the link group vi, which includes links for the program itself and the associated manpage.
To display the available packages which provide vi and the current setting for it, use the --display action:
update-alternatives --display vi
To choose a particular vi implementation, use this command as root and then select a number from the list:
update-alternatives --config vi
To go back to having the vi implementation chosen automatically, do this as root:
update-alternatives --auto vi
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