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Michael Stapelberg

Survey answers part 2: the transition (2013)

published 2013-07-01, last modified 2019-02-04
in tag debian
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This blog post is the second of a series of posts dealing with the results of the Debian systemd survey. I intend to give a presentation at DebConf 2013, too, so you could either read my posts, or watch the talk, or both :-).

It seems that it is unclear how Debian’s transition to systemd is intended to work. By “transition”, we mean going from the current state (sysvinit is the default and fully supported) to systemd is fully supported. Then by merely installing systemd by default and letting it provide /sbin/init, we can make it the default init system. If and when that happens is a different matter and it’s not necessary for all packages to have systemd support.

sysvinit compatibility

systemd natively supports sysvinit scripts, meaning your existing package will work as-is — but you cannot utilize all the features that systemd provides. The sysvinit support works very well, as you can try in a fresh Debian wheezy VM. In the output of “systemctl list-units”, every entry which has an “LSB: ” prefix is actually a sysvinit script.

The mechanism with which systemd decides whether to use an init script or a service file is by looking whether a service file with a corresponding name exists. That is, if e.g. apache2.service exists, systemd will prefer it over /etc/init.d/apache2.

To make this crystal clear: it is not necessary to ship service files for all services in some kind of flag day. systemd supports a “mixed” installation where some services use init scripts and some services use service files.

Adding systemd support to your package

In a nutshell, it usually works like this:

  1. Install a service file to /lib/systemd/system/foo.service.
    Often, upstream already provides and installs a .service file.
    If not, you can place your file at debian/package.service
    Make sure that your service file name corresponds to the sysvinit script name
    (e.g. apache2.service for /etc/init.d/apache2)
  2. Ensure your service file(s) are enabled and started.
    We strongly recommend you to use our package dh-systemd.
    If you use dh(1), add --with=systemd in debian/rules and Build-Dep on dh-systemd
  3. Test your package, see the next section.

For details see

Testing systemd

We carefully made sure that you can install the systemd Debian package on your machine alongside sysvinit without breaking anything. The systemd package does not conflict with any other packages, it will not replace /sbin/init and systemd will not be enabled right away. It is only after you specify the kernel parameter init=/bin/systemd in /etc/default/grub that you switch to systemd. In case you want to go back, simply boot without this kernel parameter.


In conclusion, the transition is straight-forward and the necessary infrastructure is in place. systemd is available in Debian and can be used today. Packages can add systemd support whenever their maintainer(s) feel like it. There is no need for a flag day. We can switch the default whenever we think we are ready.

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