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Understanding Debian main, contrib, non-free in sources.list
written August 17, 2020 by Time Traveler
Category: BlogEntry Tags: Debian; sources.list; apt-get; apt; /etc/apt;    #27
 

We were recently asked by a customer if we had DVDs with non-free packages so they could install an Nvidia driver on a system without internet. Because we only provide the actual release files provided by Debian (and these non-free components come from many different sources), the reality is there are no ISO files that Debian releases that has this software, and hence, these aren't part of the Debian release. For options dealing with this situation, please refer to the notes after the explanation of how Debian manages different software sources.

When looking at sources.list (the /etc/apt file that lists where to look for packages), there are 3 typical categories (components) used by the Debian distribution. These are main, contrib, and non-free. When installing from disc or our USB collection, Debian will only use main and contrib. This is because these are the only ones that adhere to the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG). Below are the details as indicated by Debian at SourcesList.

  • main consists of DFSG-compliant packages, which do not rely on software outside this area to operate. These are the only packages considered part of the Debian distribution.
  • contrib packages contain DFSG-compliant software, but have dependencies not in main (possibly packaged for Debian in non-free).
  • non-free contains software that does not comply with the DFSG.

So if using proprietary drivers, or other non-free software in Debian, you may need to update your sources.list to reflect different repositories and adding the non-free component. Here are some examples:

This is a typical entry (for the buster distribution):

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian buster main
deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian buster main

This is how the lines are broken out:
Archive type - deb (Debian packages) and deb-src (source files)
Repository URL or location - actual URL/location
Distribution - buster (which distribution we want)
component - main, i.e the DFSG software packaged by Debian

Here are typical entries to get updates and security updates:

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian-security/ buster/updates main
deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian-security/ buster/updates main

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian buster-updates main
deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian buster-updates main

If you also need the contrib and non-free components, add contrib non-free after main, e.g.

deb http://deb.debian.org/debian buster main contrib non-free
deb-src http://deb.debian.org/debian buster main contrib non-free

So if you are trying to install a package that can't be found, you will want to determine more details on the package. Some vendors may have a separate repository, and so that line will need to be added to your sources.list, and then you will need to run apt-get update to refresh/update the package lists before performing the install. For other proprietary and non-free packages, the non-free component (category) will need to be added. If you only want to use software that complies with DFSG then you will NOT want to add these options.

So how can you install a third-party or non-free package if you can't access these via the internet on the system itself? Typically you will need to download a .deb file that has the packaged software, and the use dpkg utility to install, purge, etc. This can get involved if there are other dependencies and/or it is an older or newer release than your current Debian version, so this is a more advanced topic. The bare bones approach (that does carry risk if you do an install this way) would be to download the .deb file, copy it to the system, and then run dpkg -i somepackage.deb. You will want to explore details from the actual provider of the .deb. Other options could be downloading the source and compiling it on the system, or testing on non-production system before installing onto a production system.

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