#package-manager #linux #declarative #cli

app pacdef

multi-backend declarative package manager for Linux

19 releases (11 stable)

1.4.1 Feb 15, 2024
1.4.0 Jan 28, 2024
1.3.2 Dec 26, 2023
1.3.1 Oct 16, 2023
1.0.0-beta9 Feb 18, 2023

#50 in Command line utilities

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multi-backend declarative package manager for Linux


Arch Linux

pacdef is available in the AUR as stable release or development version. The AUR package will also provide completions for zsh.


Install it from crates.io using this command.

$ cargo install [-F <backend>[,...]] pacdef

See below ("supported backends") for the feature flags you will need for your distribution.

To get zsh completion to work you must copy the _completion.zsh file to the right folder manually and rename it to _pacdef.


pacdef allows the user to have consistent packages among multiple Linux machines and different backends by managing packages in group files. The idea is that (1) any package in the group files ("managed packages") will be installed explicitly, and (2) explicitly installed packages not found in any of the group files ("unmanaged packages") will be removed. The group files are maintained outside of pacdef by any VCS, like git.

If you work with multiple Linux machines and have asked yourself "Why do I have the program that I use every day on my other machine not installed here?", then pacdef is the tool for you.

Of groups, sections, and packages

pacdef manages multiple package groups (group files) that, e.g., may be tied to a specific use-case. Each group has one or more section(s) which correspond to a specific backend, like your system's package manager (pacman, apt, ...), or your programming languages package manger (cargo, pip, ...). Each section contains one or more packages that can be installed respective package manager.

This image illustrates the relationship.

       1   n       1   n         1   n      
pacdef ----> group ----> section ----> package 


Let's assume you have the following group files.







Pacdef will make sure you have the following packages installed for each package manager:

  • Arch (pacman, AUR helpers): paru, zsh, rustup, rust-analyzer
  • Rust (cargo): pacdef, topgrade, cargo-tree, flamegraph

Note that the name of the section corresponds to the ecosystem it relates to, rather than the package manager it uses.

Supported backends

At the moment, supported backends are the following. Pull requests for additional backends are welcome!

Application Package Manager Section feature flag Notes
Arch Linux pacman [arch] arch includes pacman-wrapping AUR helpers (configurable)
Debian apt [debian] debian minimum supported apt-version unknown (upstream issue)
Flatpak flatpak [flatpak] built-in can manage either system-wide or per-user installation (configurable)
Python pip [python] built-in
Rust cargo [rust] built-in

Backends that have a feature flag require setting the respective flag for the build process. The appropriate system libraries and their header files must be present on the machine and be detectable by pkg-config. For backends that state "built-in", they are always supported during compile time. Any backend can be disabled during runtime (see below, "Configuration").

For example, to build pacdef with support for Debian Linux, you can run one of the two commands.

  • (recommended) cargo install -F debian pacdef, this downloads and builds it from https://crates.io
  • in a clone of this repository, cargo install --path . -F debian


This tree shows my pacdef repository (not the pacdef config dir).

├── generic
│   ├── audio
│   ├── base
│   ├── desktop
│   ├── private
│   ├── rust
│   ├── wayland
│   ├── wireless
│   ├── work
│   └── xorg
├── hosts
│   ├── hostname_a
│   ├── hostname_b
│   └── hostname_c
└── pacdef.yaml
  • The base group holds all packages I need unconditionally, and includes things like zfs, paru and neovim.
  • In xorg and wayland I have stored the respective graphic servers and DEs.
  • wireless contains tools like iwd and bluez-utils for machines with wireless interfaces.
  • Under hosts I have one file for each machine I use. The filenames match the corresponding hostname. The packages are specific to one machine only, like device drivers, or any programs I use exclusively on that machine.

Usage on different machines:

  • home server: base private hostname_a
  • private PC: audio base desktop private rust wayland hostname_b
  • work PC: base desktop rust work xorg hostname_c


Subcommand Description
group import [<path>...] create a symlink to the specified group file(s) in your groups folder
group export [args] <group> ... export (move) a non-symlink group and re-import it as symlink
group list list names of all groups
group new [-e] [<group>...] create new groups, use -e to edit them immediately after creation
group remove [<group>...] remove a previously imported group
group show [<group>...] show contents of a group
package clean [--noconfirm] remove all unmanaged packages
package review for each unmanaged package interactively decide what to do
package search <regex> search for managed packages that match the search string
package sync [--noconfirm] install managed packages
package unmanaged show all unmanaged packages
version show version information, supported backends


Most subcommands have aliases. For example, instead of pacdef package sync you can write pacdef p sy, and pacdef group show would become pacdef g s.

Use --help or the zsh completion to find the right aliases.


On first execution, it will create an empty config file under $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/pacdef/pacdef.yaml. The following key-value pairs can be set. The listed values are the defaults.

aur_helper: paru  # AUR helper to use on Arch Linux (paru, yay, ...)
aur_rm_args: []  # additional args to pass to AUR helper when removing packages (optional)
disabled_backends: []  # backends that pacdef should not manage, e.g. ["python"], this can reduce runtime if the package manager is notoriously slow (like pip)

warn_not_symlinks: true  # warn if a group file is not a symlink
flatpak_systemwide: true  # whether flatpak packages should be installed system-wide or per user
pip_binary: pip # choose whether to use pipx instead of pip for python package management [See [Pitfalls while using pipx](#pitfalls-while-using-pipx)]

Group file syntax

Group files loosely follow the syntax for ini-files.

  1. Sections begin by their name in brackets.
  2. One package per line.
  3. Anything after a # is ignored.
  4. Empty lines are ignored.
  5. If a package exists in multiple repositories, the repo can be specified as prefix followed by a forward slash. The package manager must understand this notation.


firefox  # this comment is ignored




Pacdef is supported by topgrade.


pacdef combines the words "package" and "define".

minimum supported rust version (MSRV)

MSRV is 1.70.0 due to dependencies that require this specific version. Development is conducted against the latest stable version.

Pitfalls while using pipx

Some packages like mdformat-myst do not provide an executable themselves but rather act as a plugin to their dependency, which is mdformat in this case. Please install such packages explicitly by running pipx install <package-name> --include-deps.


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