UPDATE-ALTERNATIVES(8) dpkg utilities UPDATE-ALTERNATIVES(8)
update-alternatives - maintain symbolic links determining default com-
update-alternatives [options] --install link name path priority
[--slave link name path]...
update-alternatives [options] --remove name path
update-alternatives [options] --remove-all name
update-alternatives [options] --all
update-alternatives [options] --auto name
update-alternatives [options] --display name
update-alternatives [options] --list name
update-alternatives [options] --config name
update-alternatives [options] --set name path
update-alternatives creates, removes, maintains and displays informa-
tion about the symbolic links comprising the Debian alternatives sys-
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 dif-
ferent editor, if desired, but makes it difficult for a program to make
a good choice of editor to invoke if the user has not specified a par-
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 alterna-
tive. Instead, it is a symbolic link to a name in the alternatives
directory, which in turn is a symbolic link to the actual file refer-
enced. 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-alter-
natives is usually called from the postinst or prerm scripts in Debian
It is often useful for a number of alternatives to be synchronised, 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
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 not change the links; it will leave all the decisions to
the system administrator.
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-alterna-
tives is run on the changed link's group, and the group will automati-
cally 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 link.
You will then be prompted for which of the choices to use for the link
group. Once you make a change, the link group will no longer be in auto
mode. You will need to use the --auto option in order to return to the
If you want to configure non-interactivily you can use the --set option
instead (see below).
Since the activities of update-alternatives are quite involved, some
specific terms will help to explain its operation.
A name, like /usr/bin/editor, which refers, via the alternatives
system, to one of a number of files of similar function.
Without any further qualification, this means a symbolic link in
the alternatives directory: one which the system administrator
is expected to adjust.
The name of a specific file in the filesystem, which may be made
accessible via a generic name using the alternatives system.
A directory, by default /etc/alternatives, containing the sym-
A directory, by default /var/lib/dpkg/alternatives, containing
update-alternatives' state information.
A set of related symlinks, intended to be updated as a group.
The link in a link group which determines how the other links in
the group are configured.
A link in a link group which is controlled by the setting of the
When a link group is in automatic mode, the alternatives system
ensures that the links in the group point to the highest prior-
ity alternatives appropriate for the group.
When a link group is in manual mode, the alternatives system
will not make any changes to the system administrator's set-
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
To display the available packages which provide vi and the current set-
ting 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
Exactly one action must be specified if update-alternatives is to per-
form any meaningful task. Any number of the common options may be
specified together with any action.
Generate more comments about what update-alternatives is doing.
Don't generate any comments unless errors occur. This option is
not yet implemented.
--test Don't actually do anything, just say what would be done. This
option is not yet implemented.
--help Give some usage information (and say which version of
update-alternatives this is).
Tell which version of update-alternatives this is (and give some
Specifies the alternatives directory, when this is to be differ-
ent from the default.
Specifies the administrative directory, when this is to be dif-
ferent from the default.
--install gen link alt pri [--slave sgen slink salt] ...
Add a group of alternatives to the system. gen is the generic
name for the master link, link is the name of its symlink in the
alternatives directory, and alt is the alternative being intro-
duced for the master link. sgen, slink and salt are the generic
name, symlink name in the alternatives directory and alternative
for a slave link. Zero or more --slave options, each followed
by three arguments, may be specified.
If the master symlink specified exists already in the alterna-
tives system's records, the information supplied will be added
as a new set of alternatives for the group. Otherwise, a new
group, set to automatic mode, will be added with this informa-
tion. If the group is in automatic mode, and the newly added
alternatives' priority is higher than any other installed alter-
natives for this group, the symlinks will be updated to point to
the newly added alternatives.
--set name path
Set the program path as alternative for name. This is equiva-
lent to --config but is non-interactive and thus scriptable.
--remove name path
Remove an alternative and all of its associated slave links.
name is a name in the alternatives directory, and path is an
absolute filename to which name could be linked. If name is
indeed linked to path, name will be updated to point to another
appropriate alternative, or removed if there is no such alterna-
tive left. Associated slave links will be updated or removed,
correspondingly. If the link is not currently pointing to path,
no links are changed; only the information about the alternative
Remove all alternatives and all of their associated slave links.
name is a name in the alternatives directory.
--all Call --config on all alternatives.
Switch the master symlink link to automatic mode. In the
process, this symlink and its slaves are updated to point to the
highest priority installed alternatives.
Display information about the link group of which link is the
master link. Information displayed includes the group's mode
(auto or manual), which alternative the symlink currently points
to, what other alternatives are available (and their correspond-
ing slave alternatives), and the highest priority alternative
Display all targets of the link group.
Show available alternatives for a link group and allow the user
to interactively select which one to use. The link group is
updated and taken out of auto mode.
The default alternatives directory. Can be overridden by the
The default administration directory. Can be overridden by the
0 The requested action was successfully performed.
2 Problems were encountered whilst parsing the command line or
performing the action.
update-alternatives chatters incessantly about its activities on its
standard output channel. If problems occur, update-alternatives out-
puts 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.
If you find a bug, please report it using the Debian bug-tracking sys-
tem, or, if that is not possible, email the author directly.
If you find any discrepancy between the operation of update-alterna-
tives and this manual page, it is a bug, either in the implementation
or the documentation; please report it.
Debian update-alternatives is copyright 1995 Ian Jackson. It is free
software; see the GNU General Public Licence version 2 or later for
copying conditions. There is NO warranty.
This manual page is copyright 1997/98 Charles Briscoe-Smith. This is
free documentation; see the GNU General Public Licence version 2 or
later for copying conditions. There is NO WARRANTY.
You can find the GNU GPL in /usr/share/common-licenses/GPL on any
ln(1), FHS, the Filesystem Hierarchy Standard.
Debian Project 19 January 1998 UPDATE-ALTERNATIVES(8)