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Applies to SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 15 SP2

18 update-alternatives: Managing Multiple Versions of Commands and Files

Often, there are several versions of the same tool installed on a system. To give administrators a choice and to make it possible to install and use different versions side by side, the alternatives system allows managing such versions consistently.

18.1 Overview

On SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, some programs perform the same or similar tasks. For example, if Java 1.7 and Java 1.8 are both installed on the system, the alternatives system script (update-alternatives) is called from inside the RPM package. By default, the alternatives system will refer to version 1.8: Higher versions also have a higher priority. However, the administrator can change the default and can point the generic name to version 1.7.

The following terminology is used in this chapter:

Administrative directory

The default /var/lib/rpm/alternatives directory contains information about the current state of alternatives.


The name of a specific file in the file system, which can be made accessible via a generic name using the alternatives system.

Alternatives directory

The default /etc/alternatives directory containing symbolic links.

Generic name

A name (for example, /usr/bin/edit) that refers to one file out of several available using the alternatives system.

Link group

A set of related symbolic links that can be updated as a group.

Master link

The link in a link group that determines how the other links in the group are configured.

Slave link

A link in a link group controlled by the master link.

Symbolic link (Symlink)

A file that is a reference to another file in the same file system. The alternatives system uses symbolic links in the alternatives directory to switch between versions of a file.

Symbolic links in the alternatives directory can be modified by the administrator through the update-alternatives command.

The alternatives system provides the update-alternatives command to create, remove, maintain, and show information about symbolic links. While these symbolic links usually point to commands, they can also point to JAR archives, man pages, and other files. Examples in this chapter use commands and man pages, but they are also applicable to other file types.

The alternatives system uses the alternatives directory to collect links to possible alternatives. When a new package with an alternative is installed, the new alternative is added to the system. Whether the new package's alternative is selected as the default depends on its priority and on the mode that is set. Usually, packages with a higher version also have a higher priority. The alternatives system can operate in two modes:

  • Automatic Mode.  In this mode, the alternatives system ensures that the links in the group point to the highest priority alternatives appropriate for the group.

  • Manual Mode.  In this mode, the alternatives system does not make any changes to the system administrator's settings.

For example, the java command has the following link hierarchy in the alternatives system:

Example 18.1: Alternatives System of the java Command
/usr/bin/java 1
 -> /etc/alternatives/java 2
     -> /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-10-openjdk/bin/java 3


The generic name.


The symbolic link in the alternatives directory.


One of the alternatives.

18.2 Use Cases

By default, the update-alternatives script is called from inside an RPM package. When a package is installed or removed, the script takes care of all its symbolic links. But you can run it manually from the command line for:

  • displaying the current alternatives for a generic name.

  • changing the defaults of an alternative.

  • creating a set of related files for an alternative.

18.3 Getting an Overview of Alternatives

To retrieve the names of all configured alternatives, use:

> ls /var/lib/alternatives

To get an overview of all configured alternatives and their values, use

> sudo update-alternatives --get-selections
asadmin                        auto     /usr/bin/asadmin-2.7
awk                            auto     /usr/bin/gawk
chardetect                     auto     /usr/bin/chardetect-3.6
dbus-launch                    auto     /usr/bin/dbus-launch.x11
default-displaymanager         auto     /usr/lib/X11/displaymanagers/gdm

18.4 Viewing Details on Specific Alternatives

The easiest way to check the alternatives is to follow the symbolic links of your command. For example, if you want to know what the java command is referring to, use the following command:

> readlink --canonicalize /usr/bin/java

If you see the same path (in our example, it is /usr/bin/java), there are no alternatives available for this command.

To see the full alternatives (including slaves), use the --display option:

> sudo update-alternatives --display java
java - auto mode
  link best version is /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-1.8.0-openjdk/bin/java
  link currently points to /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-1.8.0-openjdk/bin/java
  link java is /usr/bin/java
  slave java.1.gz is /usr/share/man/man1/java.1.gz
  slave jre is /usr/lib64/jvm/jre
  slave jre_exports is /usr/lib64/jvm-exports/jre
  slave keytool is /usr/bin/keytool
  slave keytool.1.gz is /usr/share/man/man1/keytool.1.gz
  slave orbd is /usr/bin/orbd
  slave orbd.1.gz is /usr/share/man/man1/orbd.1.gz

18.5 Setting the Default Version of Alternatives

By default, commands in /usr/bin refer to the alternatives directory with the highest priority. For example, by default, the command java shows the following version number:

> java -version
openjdk version "10.0.1" 2018-04-17
OpenJDK Runtime Environment (build 10.0.1+10-suse-lp150.1.11-x8664)
OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (build 10.0.1+10-suse-lp150.1.11-x8664, mixed mode)

To change the default java command to refer to a previous version, run:

> sudo update-alternatives --config java
root's password:
There are 2 choices for the alternative java (providing /usr/bin/java).

  Selection    Path                                       Priority   Status
* 0            /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-10-openjdk/bin/java      2005      auto mode
  1            /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-1.8.0-openjdk/bin/java   1805      manual mode
  2            /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-10-openjdk/bin/java      2005      manual mode
  3            /usr/lib64/jvm/jre-11-openjdk/bin/java      0         manual mode

Press <enter> to keep the current choice[*], or type selection number:

Depending on your system and installed versions, the exact Java version number will be different. After you have selected 1, java shows the following version number:

> java -version
java version "1.8.0_171"
OpenJDK Runtime Environment (IcedTea 3.8.0) (build 1.8.0_171-b11 suse-lp150.2.3.1-x86_64)
OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (build 25.171-b11, mixed mode)

Also, keep in mind the following points:

  • When working in manual mode and installing another Java version, the alternatives system neither touches the links nor changes the generic name.

  • When working in automatic mode and installing another Java version, the alternatives system changes the Java master link and all slave links (as you can see in Section 18.4, “Viewing Details on Specific Alternatives”). To check the master-slave relationships, use:

    > sudo update-alternatives --display java

18.6 Installing Custom Alternatives

This section describes how to set up custom alternatives on a system. The example makes the following assumptions:

  • There are two scripts, foo-2 and foo-3, with similar functionality.

  • The scripts are stored in the /usr/local/bin directory to avoid any conflicts with the system tools in /usr/bin.

  • There is a master link foo that points to either foo-2 or foo-3.

To provide alternatives on your system, follow these steps:

  1. Copy your scripts into the /usr/local/bin directory.

  2. Make the scripts executable:

    > sudo chmod +x /usr/local/bin/foo-{2,3}
  3. Run update-alternatives for both scripts:

    > sudo update-alternatives --install \
       /usr/local/bin/foo 1\
       foo 2\
       /usr/local/bin/foo-2 3\
       200 4
    > sudo update-alternatives --install \
       /usr/local/bin/foo 1\
       foo 2\
       /usr/local/bin/foo-3 3\
       300 4

    The options after --install have the following meanings:


    The generic name. To avoid confusion, this is usually the script name without any version numbers.


    The name of the master link. Must be the same.


    The path to the original script(s) located in /usr/local/bin.


    The priority. We give foo-2 a lower priority than foo-3. It is good practice to use a significant number increase to separate priorities. For example, a priority of 200 for foo-2 and 300 for foo-3.

  4. Check the master link:

    > sudo update-alternatives --display foo
    foo - auto mode
      link best version is /usr/local/bin/foo-3
      link currently points to /usr/local/bin/foo-3
      link foo is /usr/local/bin/foo
    /usr/local/bin/foo-2 - priority 200
    /usr/local/bin/foo-3 - priority 300

After you completed the described steps, you can use the master link /usr/local/bin/foo.

If needed, you can install additional alternatives. To remove an alternative, use the following command:

> sudo update-alternatives --remove foo /usr/local/bin/foo-2

After this script has been removed, the alternatives system for the foo group looks like this:

> sudo update-alternatives --display foo
foo - auto mode
  link best version is /usr/local/bin/foo-3
  link currently points to /usr/local/bin/foo-3
  link foo is /usr/local/bin/foo
/usr/local/bin/foo-3 - priority 300

18.7 Defining Dependent Alternatives

If you have alternatives, the script itself is not enough. Most commands are not completely stand-alone: They usually ship with additional files, such as extensions, configurations, or man pages. To create alternatives which are dependent on a master link, use slave alternatives.

Let us assume we want to extend our example in Section 18.6, “Installing Custom Alternatives” and provide man pages and configuration files:

  • Two man pages, foo-2.1.gz and foo-3.1.gz stored in the /usr/local/man/man1 directory.

  • Two configuration files, foo-2.conf and foo-3.conf, stored in /etc.

Follow these steps to add the additional files to your alternatives:

  1. Copy the configuration files into /etc:

    > sudo cp foo-{2,3}.conf /etc
  2. Copy the man pages into the /usr/local/man/man1 directory:

    > sudo cp foo-{2,3}.1.gz /usr/local/man/man1/
  3. Add the slave links to the main scripts with the --slave option:

    > sudo update-alternatives --install \
       /usr/local/bin/foo foo /usr/local/bin/foo-2 200 \
       --slave /usr/local/man/man1/foo.1.gz \
       foo.1.gz \
       /usr/local/man/man1/foo-2.1.gz \
       --slave /etc/foo.conf \
       foo.conf \
    > sudo update-alternatives --install \
       /usr/local/bin/foo foo /usr/local/bin/foo-3 300 \
       --slave /usr/local/man/man1/foo.1.gz \
       foo.1.gz \
       /usr/local/man/man1/foo-3.1.gz \
       --slave /etc/foo.conf \
       foo.conf \
  4. Check the master link:

    foo - auto mode
      link best version is /usr/local/bin/foo-3
      link currently points to /usr/local/bin/foo-3
      link foo is /usr/local/bin/foo
      slave foo.1.gz is /usr/local/man/man1/foo.1.gz
      slave foo.conf is /etc/foo.conf
    /usr/local/bin/foo-2 - priority 200
      slave foo.1.gz: /usr/local/man/man1/foo-2.1.gz
      slave foo.conf: /etc/foo-2.conf
    /usr/local/bin/foo-3 - priority 300
      slave foo.1.gz: /usr/local/man/man1/foo-3.1.gz
      slave foo.conf: /etc/foo-3.conf

If you change the links with update-alternatives --config foo to foo-2, then all slave links will change as well.