Table of Contents


Integrate support for cross-architecture installation of binary packages (particularly i386<->amd64, but also other combinations) in dpkg and apt.

Release Note

Ubuntu 11.04 introduces support for installing packages from multiple architectures on a single system. This makes a wider array of 32-bit applications available to users of 64-bit Ubuntu.


The current handling of 32-bit software on the amd64 architecture is unwieldy in the extreme. A handful of libraries are packaged as "biarch" packages, building -386 variants using gcc -m32; most do not, and as a result are only available if they're included in ia32-libs, a monstrous source package that has to be updated to be kept in sync with each change to one of the component libraries, and now contains so many libraries that its "source" package (consisting primarily of copies of the i386 binary packages) weighs in as a 550MB tarball. Furthermore, many of these libraries have to be patched to specially handle running in a 64-bit environment because they load various plugins from a system path that is already occupied by the 32-bit library, resulting in added complexity in the code due to special-casing.

In all cases, the libraries (and some executables) have to be repackaged as amd64 packages, because dpkg and apt do not support sensible handling of cross-installation of i386 packages. This consumes archive space and developer time on an ongoing basis.

User stories



Filesystem layout

In order to seamlessly accommodate more than one ELF ABI on a system, the library for each (soname,ABI) pair must have a unique path on the filesystem. The FHS attempts to address this for the amd64 case by requiring that /usr/lib be reserved for 32-bit libraries, with 64-bit libraries located in /usr/lib64. This design has a number of shortcomings:

The current design used by Debian and Ubuntu also fails on a key point where the FHS layout does not:

Multiarch seeks to address all of these issues, at the expense of a one-time transition, by migrating libraries to subdirectories that include the architecture triplet as part of the path:


Further rationale for this layout can be found at

Binary package control fields

Although a simple change to a configuration option (dpkg --force-architecture) is sufficient to permit installation of packages built for another architecture, more information is needed if we want package managers intelligently to resolve the dependencies for these packages. Some dependencies on other packages, such as on ELF libraries, can only be satisfied by a package of the same architecture ("x on x" or "same" dependency); others, such as dependencies on an interpreter used by a maintainer script, can be satisfied by a package of any architecture as long as it's functional ("x on any" or "foreign" dependency).

Pre-multiarch, dependency resolution is restricted to packages with the same architecture (or Architecture: all packages) and a package of the same name but a different architecture is assumed not to be co-installable. Multiarch introduces a new binary package field Multi-Arch which has to be set on any package wanting a behaviour from pre-multiarch behavior.

If the field is present, the semantics are as follows. Here, "co-installable" means that the package can be installed on the same system as a package of the same name and different architecture.

Multi-Arch: no

Multi-Arch: same

Multi-Arch: foreign

Multi-Arch: allowed

Setting a value of Multi-Arch: same on a package which is Architecture: all is considered an error. dpkg-deb must refuse to generate a .deb with this combination of values. Behavior when trying to install such a package is undefined.

Because the handling of packages without a Multi-Arch field remains the same, it is possible to introduce multiarch support incrementally to packages, starting at the bottom of the dependency tree and working upwards, with no flag days or requirements for shlibs bumps affecting non-multiarch packages:

Extended semantics of per-architecture package relationships

Whether a dependency needs to be satisfied within a single arch or can be satisfied by a package of a foreign architecture is a property of the dependency relationship, not of the package fulfilling that dependency. In general dependencies on a given package will all be of one type or the other, so most packages will declare Multi-Arch: foreign, Multi-Arch: same, or not declare the Multi-Arch field at all.

However, there will be cases where a single package has reverse-dependencies of both sorts. An example of this is the python package: there are packages which depend on it to use it as an interpreter (a foreign-arch relationship), and there are packages which depend on it because they provide loadable, ELF DSO language extensions for the language (a same-arch relationship). A single field on the depended-on python package is insufficient to express both relationships.

To address this case, the python package declares itself as Multi-Arch: allowed, and an extension to package relationship fields is introduced:

Depends: python:any

This value in the binary stanza of a debian/control file declares that a package's dependency on python may be satisfied by a package of any architecture, so long as the python package declares itself as Multi-Arch: allowed. This introduces a new dependency syntax using the colon (:) character, which is disallowed in package names, followed by the special value any. No other values following the colon, including values matching known architectures, are addressed by this implementation, and behavior when encountering such values in a binary package's control file is undefined. (It is recommended that dpkg and apt treat other such package relationships as unsatisfiable.) This means that declaring relationships on packages of a specific foreign architecture is currently unsupported.

It is worth noting that existing package management tools will be unable to interpret and satisfy package relationships of this format, even when the desired package is available. Consequently, it is recommended to defer use of such package relationships in the archive for a full release cycle following the package management implementation. This restriction is not expected to be a significant impediment to the deployment of multiarch packages, because most packages which are targets of interest for multiarch don't depend on interpreters outside of the Essential set.

For the cases of common language interpreters in the base system (perl, python), it is expected that the available package helpers will facilitate conversion of these dependencies, which are already generated at package build time.

Dependencies involving Architecture: all packages

Pre-multiarch, architecture-dependent packages may depend on Architecture: all packages and assume that the transitive dependencies will be resolved using packages of the same architecture or other packages that are Architecture: all. To avoid breaking this assumption, Architecture: all packages will, at least initially, be treated as equivalent to packages of the native architecture for all dependency resolution.1 This means that for an Architecture: all package to satisfy the dependencies of a foreign-architecture package, it must be marked Multi-Arch: foreign or Multi-Arch: allowed.

Architecture-independent files in multiarch packages

Today, there are a number of reasons for which library packages ship files that should be shared across ABIs (i.e., "architecture-independent" files):

Debian/Ubuntu policy already states that files whose names do not change with each soname change should not be included in the shared library package; so in general it is already wrong to ship config files and data files in a shared library package, though the practical impact of this varies. (For instance, the soname of glibc is not expected to change any time in the future, so the libc6 package currently unapologetically ships helper binaries, config files, and man pages in the shared library package.) However, /usr/share/doc/<package> is expected to be provided by every package installed on the system, so a general solution is needed for multiarch packages that must be co-installable while shipping architecture-independent files.

Implementing this involves an implicit Replaces: ${self}:other (<< ${binary:Version}) in all multiarch packages. In addition, multiarch packages are required to be kept in lockstep; i.e., an implicit Breaks: ${self}:other (!= ${binary:Version}). If more than one architecture of a package is present on the system, this will prevent either package from being configured unless they are all at the same version.

In addition, dpkg will implement an internal checksum database for files it installs, and reference counting for files shared by multiarch packages. Multiarch packages with differing versions of any file will also be treated as declaring reciprocal Breaks.

The future of bi-arch packages

A number of existing packages in the archive have an Architecture: field declaring one architecture, while containing code compiled for another architecture. This is most commonly the case for those architectures which have natural 32-bit/64-bit complements; e.g., 32-bit x86 code packaged as Architecture: amd64, or 64-bit x86 code packaged as Architecture: i386.

The vast majority of such packages will be obsoleted by multiarch. However, there are a very small number of cases, such as bootloaders, where these cross-architecture packages have legitimate reverse-dependencies; so in order to maintain dependency closure within the architecture, it is necessary to continue cross-building these packages.

This means, in particular, that the gcc-multilib package must continue to remain available on such architectures, along with biarch versions of any libraries it depends on. The set of libraries is limited to those built from gcc source, plus libc6-dev-i386 (or equivalent). The gcc-multilib package is also relevant to third-party developers who wish to be able to compile code using gcc -m32; while gcc -m32 could also be implemented using multiarch packages, the existing multilib solution already addresses this use case without the need for additional design.

Where packages that contain cross-built code of this nature do not have reverse dependencies in the archive, consideration should be given to dropping the package for the architecture in question and supporting its installation as a multiarch package instead. There should be no migration considerations for these packages, because with the exception of the runtime linker, biarch and multiarch packages should have disjoint paths for all of their files, and no conflicts or replaces should be needed.

apt sources

Users should have control over which packages files are downloaded from each apt source, to avoid unnecessary network traffic for Packages files that will not be used or are known not to exist. This implies that the syntax of /etc/apt/sources.list must be extended, to permit specifying which architectures to grab for each source.

It is proposed to implement this by using the unused Vendor field for extra options and using arch= followed by a list of comma-separated architectures ; e.g.:

deb [arch=i386,amd64] karmic main restricted

The Vendor field [Vendor] was added to apt a long time ago but never used for anything. Older apt will just ignore it completely.

sources.list entries not annotated with an architecture name will be interpreted as applying to all configured architectures by default.

An extension to the apt commandline syntax is also needed to permit explicit selection of an architecture for a package. Again, we use the architecture name separated from the package name by a colon, preceding any version (=pkg_version) or target release specifier (/release). This can be parsed unambiguously because the colon is a forbidden character in package names.


Code Changes

Support for the Multi-Arch field should be added to dpkg ASAP so that it will be propagated to the Packages files without the need for a time-consuming transition from XB-Multi-Arch to Multi-Arch. (Cf. the Vcs-* fields, for which there are still a number of packages declaring X-Vcs-* in the archive.)


Once multiarch is available in the archive, it is expected that biarch support for amd64 will begin to regress immediately, with ia32-libs ceasing to be useful in short order. Users will need to be pointed to the use of multiarch as an alternative.

Test/Demo Plan

It's important that we are able to test new features, and demonstrate them to users. Use this section to describe a short plan that anybody can follow that demonstrates the feature is working. This can then be used during testing, and to show off after release. Please add an entry to for tracking test coverage.

This need not be added or completed until the specification is nearing beta.

Unresolved issues

The following issues have been identified as out-of-scope for the present specification and may be considered targets for future spec work. Each of these are dependent on having a base implementation of multiarch, but do not impact the design or implementation of multiarch in the package manager and are therefore not considered blockers for the present spec.

Co-installable -dev packages

It would be useful for developers working in a cross-build environment to be able to use library packages for the target architecture on their build systems without modification, and to be able to install these packages without removing the corresponding native packages (e.g.: libc6-dev, which is a dependency of gcc itself). This requires an architecture-qualified filesystem layout specification for architecture-dependent headers, and support for said layout in the toolchain, but otherwise imposes no requirements on the package manager beyond those identified in the present spec. This is covered in MultiarchCross.

Co-installable packages for executables

Co-installation of executables would potentially make it possible to reuse a single disk image on systems of multiple architectures with no modification. This could be implemented on top of multiarch using architecture-qualified paths for executables, but would require an additional mechanism (such as kernel support, or boot-time symlinking) to implement PATH handling.

Autodetection of supported ABIs

This spec does not define a mechanism for indicating which foreign ABIs are supported on a given system. For the initial implementation, it is assumed that users will manually designate the architectures that they wish to opt in to. In the future, this may be extended to permit packages to indicate that they provide an implementation of a given ABI (e.g., Package: qemu-sparc, Implements: sparc) to support autoconfiguration of the package manager, but this is not required for the first implementation.

Architecture-independent packages that can only be generated on one architecture

A number of packages contain binary, architecture-specific data which must be generated using a toolchain for a particular architecture, but which are then used on other architectures (e.g., treated as opaque binary data for a bootloader or an emulator). Currently these packages are distributed as Architecture: all, but this doesn't tell us which architecture the package needs to be built on, and buildds will normally build packages using the equivalent of dpkg-buildpackage -B.

Since dependency closure within an architecture is an explicit goal of this spec, changing these packages away from Architecture: all to show which architecture they should be built on would conflict with this goal. It may also conflict with the goal of allowing packages to declare which ABIs are supported on the system, mentioned above, by creating logical dependency loops. Another proposal under discussion is to annotate these packages with a Build-Architecture field; it is recommended to use that instead.

Partial architectures

Some biarch complements, such as powerpc64 and s390x, are not relevant as native architectures because they are special-purpose ABIs that always exist in combination with another ABI that is more appropriate for general-purpose computing (powerpc, s390). It is useful to implement these as architectures in order to be able to build needed library packages for them without requiring package changes, but these architectures probably should not be closed under dependencies.

Defining the correct handling of such partial architectures is out of scope for this spec, but should be an area of specification work in the near future because there are library packages in the archive which must already support these ABIs via biarch packaging.

Architecture-specific Conflicts/Replaces

We assume that Conflicts: relationships apply to a package of any architecture with the specified name, but in some cases, one package may have overlapping files with another package only when the two packages are of the same architecture; e.g., in the case of a library ABI change without an soname change. It may be useful for the first package to declare a Conflicts: only with the second package of the same architecture. However, the cases where this is relevant are expected to be very few, so consideration of a syntax extension for Conflicts (and Replaces) is deferred until after the initial implementation.

Binary NMUs

As versions must match exactly across architectures, packages declaring Multi-Arch: same can no longer be binNMUed for single architectures, because this would render them uninstallable on some systems. Possible solutions include always scheduling binNMUs on all architectures, or creating an exception for versions differing only in parts following "+b" (however, appropriate handling for the different changelogs would then be required). Progress on this is covered in DebianBug:758616

BoF agenda and discussion

A number of other designs were considered at various points, during UDS and elsewhere. They are documented here for reference, including the rationale for discarding them (if known).

Allow official packages to have cross-architecture deps

In some cases, it would reduce package duplication in the archive if packages were allowed to explicitly depend on packages from another architecture. This option was rejected in favor of maintaining a small number of biarch packages in the archive, because:

Permit packages without Multi-Arch set to satisfy foreign dependencies

An earlier draft suggested that packages without the Multi-Arch field set should be interpreted as satisfying dependencies in a cross-architecture manner. This was unsatisfactory because it would require a flag day to ensure that, when a package's dependency did need to be satisfied by a package of the same architecture, it was not incorrectly satisfied by an older, pre-multiarch version of the package.

Require separate -common packages for all multiarch packages

Other options for handling of architecture-independent data associated with library packages have been proposed in the past, which require minimal changes to dpkg in order to deal with file conflicts. One of these options which has gained some traction previously is to require each multiarch lib package to have a separate Architecture: all "-common" package to contain the shared files. This would require no support at the dpkg level for coping with file conflicts since there would be none, but it has significant disadvantages:

Since dpkg must be modified in any case in order to support the Multi-Arch field, it is considered preferable to also special-case the handling of file conflicts in dpkg instead of requiring intrusive per-package changes.

Reuse bracket notation for multiarch dependency declarations

Earlier revisions of this document specified that packages would depend on python [same] instead of python:same. Future work in this area for building cross-toolchains will require the ability to specify build dependencies on packages of a specific, foreign architecture, in which case it will not be possible to reuse the bracket notation ([]) due to a collision with the current syntax for specifying architecture-specific build dependencies. Therefore this spec has been updated to use an entirely new syntax, for consistency with this future work.

Permit flag days for interpreters, reducing the number of packages to touch

Earlier revisions of this document proposed optimizing for the common case regarding interpreters, letting interpreters declare themselves as Multi-Arch: foreign and requiring those packages that need the interpreter to have a matching architecture for DSO loading declare this is their dependencies. This has been removed in the latest revisions because it implies a flag day for these related packages, which was considered undesirable.


  1. Treating Architecture: all packages as installed for all architectures for which their dependencies are satisfied was also considered, but there is currently no practical way to enforce such a rule. While higher-level package managers like apt and aptitude have enough information to enforce it, there are no provisions in dpkg for recursive analysis at dependency resolution time. (1)

MultiarchSpec (last edited 2014-12-22 16:29:21 by wookey)