Linux package managers: dnf vs apt

Package managers do the same general things—installing, managing, and uninstalling applications—but they don't do everything the same.
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There are many ways to get applications onto a Linux system. Some, like Flatpak and containers, are new. Others, like DEB and RPM, are classic formats that have withstood the test of time.

There isn't a universal installer for any operating system. Today, all major OSes use a mix of app stores (both first and third party), drag-and-drop installation, and installation wizards because there are innumerable developers delivering software. Different developers have different requirements for the code they deliver, and this informs the installation method they each choose.

Linux pioneered the concept of a package manager, a command to install, manage, and uninstall applications. Two common package manager commands are apt and dnf. The apt command manages DEB packages, while dnf manages RPM packages. The two are not strictly exclusive of one another in theory, although in practice, a Linux distribution generally uses one or the other. It's theoretically possible to run both on one system, but package installations would overlap, versioning would be difficult, and the commands would be redundant to one another. However, if you work in a mixed Linux environment, interacting with workstations running one distribution and servers running another, you may need to know both.

Searching for applications

Before you can install an application with a package manager, you need to know the package's name. Usually, the application name and the package name are the same. The process to verify the name of the package you want to install is exactly the same on dnf and apt:

$ sudo dnf search zsh
====== Name Exactly Matched: zsh ======
zsh.x86_64 : Powerful interactive shell
[...]

With apt:

$ sudo apt search zsh
Sorting... Done
Full Text Search... Done
csh/stable 20110502-4+deb10u1 amd64
  Shell with C-like syntax

ddgr/stable 1.6-1 all
  DuckDuckGo from the terminal

direnv/stable 2.18.2-2 amd64
  Utility to set directory specific environment variables

draai/stable 20180521-1 all
  Command-line music player for MPD
[...]

To get relevant results from apt earlier in the search, you can use regex:

apt search ^zsh
Sorting... Done
Full Text Search... Done
zsh/stable 5.7.1-1 amd64
  shell with lots of features
[...]

Finding an application's package

Some commands come bundled with other commands, all in one package. When that happens, you can use your package manager to learn which package provides what you need. The dnf and apt commands diverge on how they search for this kind of metadata.

On dnf:

$ sudo dnf provides pgrep
procps-ng-3.3.15-6.el8.x86_64 : System and process monitoring utilities
Repo        : baseos
Matched from:
Filename    : /usr/bin/pgrep

The apt command uses a subcommand, apt-file. To use apt-file, you must first install it and then prompt it to update its cache:

$ sudo apt install apt-file
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree      
Reading state information... Done
The following additional packages will be installed:
  libapt-pkg-perl libexporter-tiny-perl liblist-moreutils-perl libregexp-assemble-perl
The following NEW packages will be installed:
  apt-file libapt-pkg-perl libexporter-tiny-perl liblist-moreutils-perl libregexp-assemble-perl
0 upgraded, 5 newly installed, 0 to remove and 14 not upgraded.
Need to get 297 kB of archives.
After this operation, 825 kB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n] y

$ sudo apt-file update
[...]

You can use apt-file to search for a command. You can cast a very wide net by just searching for the command, but if you happen to know the command's expected path, it's more accurate:

$ sudo apt-file search /usr/bin/pgrep
pgreplay: /usr/bin/pgreplay              
procps: /usr/bin/pgrep

Installing applications

Installing applications is essentially identical with apt and dnf:

$ sudo apt install zsh

With dnf, you can install a single package using the same option:

$ sudo dnf install zsh

Many RPM-based distributions feature installation groups, which collect sometimes superficially related applications into one easily installable target. For instance, the Design Suite group in Fedora contains popular creative applications. Many artists who want one creative application are likely to want similar applications, and installing the whole group is an easy and quick way to get a sensible start on building a digital studio. You can view available groups with group list (use -v to see the group names without spaces):

$ sudo dnf group list -v
[...]
Available Groups:
   Container Management (container-management)
   RPM Development Tools (rpm-development-tools)
   Design Suite (design-suite)
   Development Tools (development)
[...]

Install an RPM group using the group install subcommands:

$ sudo dnf group install design-suite

You can use the @ notation to reduce typing:

$ sudo dnf install @design-suite

Upgrading applications

One advantage of using a package manager is that it is aware of all the applications it has ever installed. That means you don't have to go hunting for updated versions of applications. Instead, you can tell your package manager to scan for updates.

The subcommands used by dnf and apt are slightly different. Because apt keeps a cache of information that requires regular updating, it uses the upgrade subcommand for application updates:

$ sudo apt upgrade

By contrast, dnf updates metadata every time you use the command, so the update and upgrade subcommands are interchangeable:

$ sudo dnf upgrade

This is the same as:

$ sudo dnf update

Removing applications

If you've ever tried to remove an application manually on any platform, then you know there are inevitably leftover files, such as preference files or assets or icons, scattered all around your hard drive after you remove the application. Yet another advantage to using a package manager is that your package manager knows every single file installed with a package:

$ sudo dnf remove zsh

The remove subcommand is also used for apt:

$ sudo apt remove zsh

Removing a package with apt doesn't remove modified user configuration files, in case you removed the package by accident. If you want apt to remove an application and its configuration files, use purge on an application you've previously removed:

$ sudo apt purge zsh

Both apt and dnf (even with purge) don't remove data or configuration files in your home directory. To remove data from your home directory, you must do it manually (it's usually found in ~/.config and ~/.local).

Learning package management

Whether your Linux distribution of choice favors apt or dnf, the commands' purposes are broadly identical. They help you install, update, and remove packages. These two, being the most common package managers, largely mirror one another's most important syntactical elements, so switching between them is pretty easy.

Each has some advanced features, such as repository management, that diverge substantially, but those tend not to be run as frequently as the classic sequence of search and install.

Regardless of which package manager you use more often, you can download our apt cheat sheet and dnf cheat sheet so that you have the most important syntax close at hand when you need it the most.

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Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.

9 Comments

The article doesn't mention "apt update", only "apt upgrade". It looks like a paragraph on this was meant to be present, but it's not there.

You should also mention the distinction between "apt" and "apt-get". "apt" is a bit more user-friendly for interactive sessions, involving colored text and an animated status bar. These features look good, but they get in the way when the command is scripted or if you're running it from a simple terminal type.

The "apt-get" command pretty much does the same thing as apt, but with simpler user feedback, making it more appropriate for use in scripts and where the user may be using a terminal with minimal capabilities.

I thought it was a mistake when dnf made 'upgrade' the same as 'update'.
To me, an upgrade would mean, for example, going from Fedora 33 to 34, not just bringing 33 up-to-date.

I'm surprised that there's no mention of Gdebi in these discussions of package managers. OK so it only does install, but it has always worked well for me.

yattdst, Linux suffers mightily from YATTDST syndrome - yet another tool to do the same thing. Inventing NEW applications that do NEW things is hard. So folks who want to be coders write tools to do what others already (mostly) do. Largely a waste of time. And don't get me started on systemd .....

Viewed from a different angle, this is a strength of open source. If I choose to write my own front-end to package management, it doesn't affect anyone negatively, and the benefit is that I get to use a tool I enjoy for tasks I interact with on a daily basis.

There are advantages to focus and constraints, but it's possible for that to live alongside the alternatives. For instance, if you don't like systemd for whatever reason, you can use OpenRC or some other init -- even though those alternatives are "yattdst."

In reply to by The Cube

What about the other main Linux parent, Arch / pacman ?

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