NetBSD's pkgsrc as a development environment


As you probabily know I’m in the process of writing my master thesis in CS on bigraphical reactive systems. To do this I’ll contribute to, and extend an existing library written in Java, so I needed to setup a development environment.

My goal was to have an isolated environment with its own set of packages and libraries that I could easily manage (add new packages, remove them and update them) without polluting my “local” environment. There are various ways to achieve this, for example:

  • by using a virtual machine with the proper packages installed. This solution provides an isolated environment, but it does so at the expense of system resources, be it RAM, disk space or CPU. Granted that for my needs it wouldn’t have been a big problem since I could have used a minimal Ubuntu or Debian image, but that’s still an OS worth of disk space on top of the tools and libraries I needed;

  • using a containerized environment (Docker, Kubernetes, …) provides all benefits of using a virtual machine and more, all while taking up less space and being more modular. I already use containers, for example I have one container for building sources. All in all this is a solid choice;

  • nix and nix-shell: the nix package manager (and NixOS as a whole) provides a way to define virtual environments using the nix-shell command. You can build different environments for different projects and with different version of packages all of them isolated from each other. You can read more about it here.

Out of these three ways I’d have chosen to use the nix package manager and nix-shell as it is the most flexible of the them. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about, instead I decided to use pkgsrc, NetBSD’s package manager. It offers more than 22.000 packages available for 23 different platforms.

Setup pkgsrc

Before using pksrc the wiki reccomends having the following packages installed: gcc (and libstdc++), libncurses-devel, zlib and zlib-devel. You can install pkgsrc using your distribution package manager, for example for Arch Linux you can find it in the AUR, which at the moment of writing this article is based on the version of packages of Q3 2019. If you want to get the latest version you can use my PKGBUILD. Otherwise you can install it by downloading it from git, for example:

git clone --depth 1 -b pkgsrc-2019Q3 ~/pkgsrc

or git clone --depth 1 ~/pkgsrc for the latest version.

Once you’ve installed and downloaded pksrc you have to bootstrap it. It can be bootstrapped in two modes: privileged and unprivileged. In unprivileged mode packages are installed for one single user. By default it’d be bootstrapped in privileged moded. Boostraping it is as simple as:

$ cd /path/to/pkgsrc/bootstrap
# ./bootstrap

To bootrstrap it in unprivileged mode you can pass it the --unprivileged option. By default, in privileged mode pksrc will use /usr/pkg for prefix where programs will be installed, while in unprivileged mode ~/pkg will be used. To manually change the prefix you can use the --prefix option. It is thus possibile to bootstrap multiple instances of pkgsrc in different directories and have different development environments.

After having bootstrapped pkgsrc we can set the PATH and MANPATH accordingly:

$ PATH=/usr/pkg/sbin:/usr/pkg/bin:$PATH
$ MANPATH=/usr/pkg/man:$MANPATH

If we have multiple instances of pkgsrc we have to be extra careful about setting the PATH variable. For example if we have two instances of pkgsrc, one for Java development and one for C development in folders ~/javaenv and ~/cenv, by using some bash magic we can define two functions to set the PATH variable whenever we want to use the binaries in the Java environment or in the C environment, or even change the path depending on the current working directory (see here).

Manage packages

Pkgsrc provides a series of utilities to help you manage your packages:

  • pkg_info lets you query information about installed packages. For example pkg_info -u lists all user-installed packages and not their dependencies, while pkg_info -a shows all isntalled packages, for more info read man pkg_info;

  • pkg_admin lets you perform various administration tasks on your packages, like check the MD5 checksum of installed packages, check vulnerabilities of installe packages and other tasks.

The other utilities will be discussed in the following sections.

Install packages

There are two ways to install packages: you can either build it from source or install a precompiled binary.

Build packages

To build a package from sources you first need to locate it under ${PREFIX}/pkgsrc, for example to search clang you could do

$ find /usr/pkgsrc -type d -name "clang"

Now to build it you would cd into /usr/pkgsrc/lang/clang and then you can compile and install it:

$ sudo bmake install

this would also build its dependencies. If you want to clean the object files generates during the build process you could append clean to the build command: sudo bmake install clean.

If you’re building a package for several systems you can create a package and install it afterwards:

$ sudo bmake package
=> Creating binary package in /usr/pkgsrc/packages/All/clang-X.Y.Z.tgz

$ sudo pkg_add /usr/pkgsrc/packages/All/clang-X.Y.Z.tgz

Install binaries

In order to install precompiled binaries we need to use pkgin, we can install it by building it from source by calling sudo bmake install clean from ${PREFIX}/usr/pkgsrc/pkgtools/pkgin.

Before using pkgin we need to setup a repository in the ${PREFIX}/etc/pkgin/repositories.conf file, we will use the binary packages provided by joyent:

$ echo > /usr/pkg/etc/pkgin/repositories.conf

After this you can use # pkgin update to build the initial database and to keep it synchronized. Now you’re ready to use pkgin, for example to install tmux run: # pkgin install tmux. To learn about the other commands you can refer its manual or to this page.

Remove packages

Removing a package, whether it was installed from source code or from a binary package is as simple as calling

$ sudo pkg_delete pkg_name

it can also accept wildcards, for example # pkg_delete "*emacs*" removes the set of emacs packages.

Update packages

There are various ways to update packages in pkgsrc. For updating binaries I use:

$ pkgin update
$ pkgin full-upgrade

For packages built from source I use pkg_rolling-replace a shell script available in pkgtools/pkg_rolling-replace. For more info check its man page or this page in pkgsrc’s wiki.

N.B.: before updating packages make sure to download an updated pkgsrc directory.

Pros and Cons

We’ve seen how to setup pkgsrc, how to install packages and how it could be used as a development environment and with some effort we can have multiple environments. But there are some disadvantages to consider: first of all, not every package is available as a binary (for Linux) so we might have to compile it from source, second is that as far as I am aware you cannot directly install a specific version of a package that is not in the repository. Moreover, as we’ve seen, setting up multiple development environments is a bit involved and requires to mess with environment variables, so it’s not really user friendly. All these disadvantages come from the fact that pkgsrc’s goal is to be a package management system and not to provide a development environment.


In conclusion it’s indeed possible to use pkgsrc as a development environments but it is a quite exotic setup and it has some shortcomings, therefore it might not be for everyone or even suitable especially in production.