stow - software package installation manager
stow [options] package...
This manual page describes GNU Stow 1.3.3, a program for managing the
installation of software packages. This is not the definitive
documentation for stow; for that, see the info manual.
Stow is a tool for managing the installation of multiple software
packages in the same run-time directory tree. One historical difficulty
of this task has been the need to administer, upgrade, install, and
remove files in independent packages without confusing them with other
files sharing the same filesystem space. For instance, it is common to
install Perl and Emacs in /usr/local. When one does so, one winds up
(as of Perl 4.036 and Emacs 19.22) with the following files in
/usr/local/man/man1: a2p.1; ctags.1; emacs.1; etags.1; h2ph.1; perl.1;
and s2p.1. Now suppose it’s time to uninstall Perl. Which man pages
get removed? Obviously perl.1 is one of them, but it should not be the
administrator’s responsibility to memorize the ownership of individual
files by separate packages.
The approach used by Stow is to install each package into its own tree,
then use symbolic links to make it appear as though the files are
installed in the common tree. Administration can be performed in the
package’s private tree in isolation from clutter from other packages.
Stow can then be used to update the symbolic links. The structure of
each private tree should reflect the desired structure in the common
tree; i.e. (in the typical case) there should be a bin directory
containing executables, a man/man1 directory containing section 1 man
pages, and so on.
Stow was inspired by Carnegie Mellon’s Depot program, but is
substantially simpler and safer. Whereas Depot required database files
to keep things in sync, Stow stores no extra state between runs, so
there’s no danger (as there was in Depot) of mangling directories when
file hierarchies don’t match the database. Also unlike Depot, Stow will
never delete any files, directories, or links that appear in a Stow
directory (e.g., /usr/local/stow/emacs), so it’s always possible to
rebuild the target tree (e.g., /usr/local).
A ‘‘package’’ is a related collection of files and directories that you
wish to administer as a unit--e.g., Perl or Emacs--and that needs to be
installed in a particular directory structure--e.g., with bin, lib, and
A ‘‘target directory’’ is the root of a tree in which one or more
packages wish to appear to be installed. A common, but by no means the
only such location is /usr/local. The examples in this manual page
will use /usr/local as the target directory.
A ‘‘stow directory’’ is the root of a tree containing separate packages
in private subtrees. When Stow runs, it uses the current directory as
the default stow directory. The examples in this manual page will use
/usr/local/stow as the stow directory, so that individual packages will
be, for example, /usr/local/stow/perl and /usr/local/stow/emacs.
An ‘‘installation image’’ is the layout of files and directories
required by a package, relative to the target directory. Thus, the
installation image for Perl includes: a bin directory containing perl
and a2p (among others); an info directory containing Texinfo
documentation; a lib/perl directory containing Perl libraries; and a
man/man1 directory containing man pages.
A ‘‘package directory’’ is the root of a tree containing the
installation image for a particular package. Each package directory
must reside in a stow directory--e.g., the package directory
/usr/local/stow/perl must reside in the stow directory /usr/local/stow.
The ‘‘name’’ of a package is the name of its directory within the stow
Thus, the Perl executable might reside in
/usr/local/stow/perl/bin/perl, where /usr/local is the target
directory, /usr/local/stow is the stow directory, /usr/local/stow/perl
is the package directory, and bin/perl within is part of the
A ‘‘symlink’’ is a symbolic link. A symlink can be ‘‘relative’’ or
‘‘absolute’’. An absolute symlink names a full path; that is, one
starting from /. A relative symlink names a relative path; that is,
one not starting from /. The target of a relative symlink is computed
starting from the symlink’s own directory. Stow only creates relative
The stow directory is assumed to be the current directory, and the
target directory is assumed to be the parent of the current directory
(so it is typical to execute stow from the directory /usr/local/stow).
Each package given on the command line is the name of a package in the
stow directory (e.g., perl). By default, they are installed into the
target directory (but they can be deleted instead using ‘-D’).
--no Do not perform any operations that modify the filesystem; merely
show what would happen. Since no actual operations are
performed, stow -n could report conflicts when none would
actually take place (see ‘‘Conflicts’’ in the info manual); but
it won’t fail to report conflicts that would take place.
Do not exit immediately when a conflict is encountered. This
option implies ‘-n’, and is used to search for all conflicts
that might arise from an actual Stow operation. As with ‘-n’,
however, false conflicts might be reported (see ‘‘Conflicts’’ in
the info manual).
Set the stow directory to DIR instead of the current directory.
This also has the effect of making the default target directory
be the parent of DIR.
Set the target directory to DIR instead of the parent of the
Send verbose output to standard error describing what Stow is
doing. Verbosity levels are 0, 1, 2, and 3; 0 is the default.
Using ‘-v’ or ‘--verbose’ increases the verbosity by one; using
‘--verbose=N’ sets it to N.
Delete packages from the target directory rather than installing
Restow packages (first unstow, then stow again). This is useful
for pruning obsolete symlinks from the target tree after
updating the software in a package.
Show Stow version number, and exit.
--help Show Stow command syntax, and exit.
The default action of Stow is to install a package. This means creating
symlinks in the target tree that point into the package tree. Stow
attempts to do this with as few symlinks as possible; in other words,
if Stow can create a single symlink that points to an entire subtree
within the package tree, it will choose to do that rather than create a
directory in the target tree and populate it with symlinks.
For example, suppose that no packages have yet been installed in
/usr/local; it’s completely empty (except for the stow subdirectory, of
course). Now suppose the Perl package is installed. Recall that it
includes the following directories in its installation image: bin;
info; lib/perl; man/man1. Rather than creating the directory
/usr/local/bin and populating it with symlinks to ../stow/perl/bin/perl
and ../stow/perl/bin/a2p (and so on), Stow will create a single
symlink, /usr/local/bin, which points to stow/perl/bin. In this way,
it still works to refer to /usr/local/bin/perl and /usr/local/bin/a2p,
and fewer symlinks have been created. This is called ‘‘tree folding’’,
since an entire subtree is ‘‘folded’’ into a single symlink.
To complete this example, Stow will also create the symlink
/usr/local/info pointing to stow/perl/info; the symlink /usr/local/lib
pointing to stow/perl/lib; and the symlink /usr/local/man pointing to
Now suppose that instead of installing the Perl package into an empty
target tree, the target tree is not empty to begin with. Instead, it
contains several files and directories installed under a different
system-administration philosophy. In particular, /usr/local/bin already
exists and is a directory, as are /usr/local/lib and
/usr/local/man/man1. In this case, Stow will descend into
/usr/local/bin and create symlinks to ../stow/perl/bin/perl and
../stow/perl/bin/a2p (etc.), and it will descend into /usr/local/lib
and create the tree-folding symlink perl pointing to
../stow/perl/lib/perl, and so on. As a rule, Stow only descends as far
as necessary into the target tree when it can create a tree-folding
The time often comes when a tree-folding symlink has to be undone
because another package uses one or more of the folded subdirectories
in its installation image. This operation is called ‘‘splitting open’’
a folded tree. It involves removing the original symlink from the
target tree, creating a true directory in its place, and then
populating the new directory with symlinks to the newly-installed
package and to the old package that used the old symlink. For example,
suppose that after installing Perl into an empty /usr/local, we wish to
install Emacs. Emacs’s installation image includes a bin directory
containing the emacs and etags executables, among others. Stow must
make these files appear to be installed in /usr/local/bin, but
presently /usr/local/bin is a symlink to stow/perl/bin. Stow therefore
takes the following steps: the symlink /usr/local/bin is deleted; the
directory /usr/local/bin is created; links are made from /usr/local/bin
to ../stow/emacs/bin/emacs and ../stow/emacs/bin/etags; and links are
made from /usr/local/bin to ../stow/perl/bin/perl and
When splitting open a folded tree, Stow makes sure that the symlink it
is about to remove points inside a valid package in the current stow
directory. Stow will never delete anything that it doesn’t own. Stow
‘‘owns’’ everything living in the target tree that points into a
package in the stow directory. Anything Stow owns, it can recompute if
lost. Note that by this definition, Stow doesn’t ‘‘own’’ anything in
the stow directory or in any of the packages.
If Stow needs to create a directory or a symlink in the target tree and
it cannot because that name is already in use and is not owned by Stow,
then a conflict has arisen. See ‘‘Conflicts’’ in the info manual.
When the ‘-D’ option is given, the action of Stow is to delete a
package from the target tree. Note that Stow will not delete anything
it doesn’t ‘‘own’’. Deleting a package does not mean removing it from
the stow directory or discarding the package tree.
To delete a package, Stow recursively scans the target tree, skipping
over the stow directory (since that is usually a subdirectory of the
target tree) and any other stow directories it encounters (see
‘‘Multiple stow directories’’ in the info manual). Any symlink it finds
that points into the package being deleted is removed. Any directory
that contained only symlinks to the package being deleted is removed.
Any directory that, after removing symlinks and empty subdirectories,
contains only symlinks to a single other package, is considered to be a
previously ‘‘folded’’ tree that was ‘‘split open.’’ Stow will re-fold
the tree by removing the symlinks to the surviving package, removing
the directory, then linking the directory back to the surviving
The info manual ‘‘Stow 1.3.3: Managing the installation of software
packages’’ by Bob Glickstein, Zanshin Software, Inc.
Please report bugs in Stow using the Debian bug tracking system.
Currently known bugs include:
* The empty-directory problem. If package FOO includes an empty
1. if no other package has a BAR subdirectory, everything’s
2. if another stowed package, QUUX, has a BAR subdirectory,
then when stowing, TARGETDIR/BAR will be ‘‘split open’’ and the
contents of QUUX/BAR will be individually stowed. So far, so
good. But when unstowing QUUX, TARGETDIR/BAR will be removed,
even though FOO/BAR needs it to remain. A workaround for this
problem is to create a file in FOO/BAR as a placeholder. If you
name that file .placeholder, it will be easy to find and remove
such files when this bug is fixed.
* When using multiple stow directories (see ‘‘Multiple stow
directories’’ in the info manual), Stow fails to ‘‘split open’’
tree-folding symlinks (see ‘‘Installing packages’’ in the info
manual) that point into a stow directory which is not the one in
use by the current Stow command. Before failing, it should
search the target of the link to see whether any element of the
path contains a .stow file. If it finds one, it can ‘‘learn’’
about the cooperating stow directory to short-circuit the .stow
search the next time it encounters a tree-folding symlink.
This man page was constructed by Charles Briscoe-Smith from parts of
Stow’s info manual. That manual contained the following notice, which,
as it says, applied to this manual page, too. The text of the section
entitled ‘‘GNU General Public License’’ can be found in the file
/usr/share/common-licenses/GPL-2 on any Debian GNU/Linux system. If you
don’t have access to a Debian system, or the GPL is not there, write to
the Free Software Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place, Suite 330, Boston,
MA, 02111-1307, USA.
Software and documentation Copyright (C) 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996
by Bob Glickstein <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of
this manual provided the copyright notice and this permission
notice are preserved on all copies.
Permission is granted to copy and distribute modified versions
of this manual under the conditions for verbatim copying,
provided also that the section entitled ‘‘GNU General Public
License’’ is included with the modified manual, and provided
that the entire resulting derived work is distributed under the
terms of a permission notice identical to this one.
Permission is granted to copy and distribute translations of
this manual into another language, under the above conditions
for modified versions, except that this permission notice may be
stated in a translation approved by the Free Software
28 March 1998