Installing Programs on Linux Without root

Prefixed Portage

Most Linux distributions have great package managers like apt or portage. But installing programs when you don’t have root access can be a pain. You need to find, download and install all the dependencies and their dependencies, setup a prefix somewhere in your home folder and hope that everything works.

Prefixed portage¬†is perfect for those kinds of situations. It’s a modified version of portage, the package manager of the Gentoo distribution. I am using it on a computer running Linux, but you can also use it on OS X, FreeBSD and Solaris to install applications and libraries from the portage repository.

This promising tool is for experienced Linux users who have enough space to fit /usr into their /home and who don’t mind getting their hands dirty to iron out some of the rough spots themselves.


Prefixed portage is still in development, but there is a script you can use to automate the installation. This script uses bzip2, sed and wget or curl. You need to install these first manually if they are not already installed. The rest of the process requires python, but the script can install it for you, just follow the instructions.

First, set the EPREFIX environment variable to the folder you want to use as a prefix, and prepare your paths:

$ cat >> ~/.bashrc
export EPREFIX="$HOME/gentoo"
export PATH="$EPREFIX/usr/bin:$EPREFIX/bin:$PATH"
export LDFLAGS='-L$EPREFIX/usr/lib -Wl,-rpath=$EPREFIX/usr/lib -L$EPREFIX/lib -Wl,-rpath=$EPREFIX/lib'
$ source ~/.bashrc

Next, download the automated script and let it prepare the prefix:

$ wget <> -O
$ chmod +x
$ ./ $EPREFIX tree
$ ./ $EPREFIX portage


Because portage is not automatically aware of the applications installed on the host, one last step is required when you want to install something.

Packages that are already installed can be added to the $EPREFIX/etc/make.profile/package.provided file and portage will take them into consideration when calculating the dependencies. If you do not do that, portage will install every package it needs in your prefix. For example, with subversion:

atnnn@neverfear:~$ emerge -pv subversion
!!! Problem with sandbox binary. Disabling...
These are the packages that would be merged, in order:
Calculating dependencies... done!
[ebuild  N    ] sys-libs/ncurses-5.5-r03.2  USE="-bootstrap -build -debug -doc -gpm -minimal -nocxx -trace -unicode" 2,260 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-libs/zlib-1.2.3-r01.1  416 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/m4-1.4.9-r1  USE="-examples -nls" 596 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/gnuconfig-20070724  40 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/expat-2.0.1  436 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/autoconf-wrapper-4-r3  0 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/automake-wrapper-3-r1  0 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/sed-4.1.5  USE="-nls -static" 781 kB
[ebuild  N    ] app-misc/pax-utils-0.1.16  USE="-caps" 64 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/popt-1.10.7  USE="-nls" 712 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/texinfo-4.8-r5  USE="-build -nls -static" 1,487 kB
[ebuild  N    ] app-shells/bash-3.2_p17-r1  USE="-afs -bashlogger -nls -plugins -vanilla" 2,522 kB
[ebuild  N    ] net-misc/rsync-2.6.9-r4  USE="-acl -ipv6 -static -xinetd" 793 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-libs/readline-5.2_p7  2,008 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/libxml2-2.6.30  USE="readline -debug -doc -ipv6 -python -test" 4,616 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/libperl-5.8.8-r01.1  USE="-berkdb -debug -gdbm -ithreads" 9,887 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-lang/perl-5.8.8-r2  USE="-berkdb -build -debug -doc -gdbm -ithreads -perlsuid" 0 kB
[ebuild  N    ] app-admin/perl-cleaner-1.05  6 kB
[ebuild  N    ] perl-core/PodParser-1.35  96 kB
[ebuild  N    ] perl-core/Test-Harness-2.64  70 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/autoconf-2.61-r1  USE="-emacs" 1,365 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/help2man-1.36.4  USE="-nls" 84 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/automake-1.10  873 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-devel/libtool-1.5.24  USE="-vanilla" 2,852 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/apr-1.2.11  USE="-debug -doc -ipv6 -urandom" 1,088 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/groff-1.19.2-r1  USE="-X -cjk" 2,836 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/sandbox-1.2.17  228 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/coreutils-6.9-r1  USE="-acl -nls (-selinux) -static -xattr" 5,307 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/apr-util-1.2.10  USE="-berkdb -doc -gdbm -ldap -mysql -postgres -sqlite -sqlite3" 639 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/man-1.6e-r3  USE="-nls" 247 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/man-pages-2.66  USE="-nls" 1,809 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/diffutils-2.8.7-r2  USE="-nls -static" 1,038 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/openssl-0.9.8e-r4  USE="zlib -bindist -emacs -gmp -kerberos (-sse2) -test" 3,264 kB
[ebuild  N    ] net-misc/neon-0.26.3  USE="ssl zlib -expat -nls -socks5" 771 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-util/subversion-1.4.4-r4  USE="-apache2 -bash-completion -berkdb -doc -emacs -extras -java -nls -nowebdav -perl -python -ruby -vim-syntax" 4,613 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-lang/python-2.5.1-r02.1  USE="ncurses readline ssl -berkdb -bootstrap -build -doc -examples -gdbm -ipv6 -nothreads -sqlite -tk -ucs2" 9,170 kB
[ebuild  N    ] sys-apps/portage-  USE="-build -doc -epydoc (-selinux)" LINGUAS="-pl" 593 kB
*** Portage will stop merging at this point and reload itself,
then resume the merge.
[ebuild  N    ] app-misc/ca-certificates-20070303-r1  95 kB
[ebuild  N    ] app-admin/python-updater-0.2  3 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-python/python-fchksum-1.7.1  27 kB
Total: 40 packages (40 new), Size of downloads: 63,674 kB

As you can see, there are many unmet dependencies. Most of these might already be installed. On my host system, I added the following lines to $EPREFIX/etc/make.profile/package.provided


And now subversion is a lot easier to install:

$ emerge -pv subversion
These are the packages that would be merged, in order:
Calculating dependencies... done!
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/apr-1.2.11  USE="-debug -doc -ipv6 -urandom" 1,088 kB
[ebuild  N    ] net-misc/neon-0.26.3  USE="ssl zlib -expat -nls -socks5" 771 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-libs/apr-util-1.2.10  USE="-berkdb -doc -gdbm -ldap -mysql -postgres -sqlite -sqlite3" 639 kB
[ebuild  N    ] dev-util/subversion-1.4.4-r4  USE="-apache2 -bash-completion -berkdb -doc -emacs -extras -java -nls -nowebdav -perl -python -ruby -vim-syntax" 4,613 kB
Total: 4 packages (4 new), Size of downloads: 7,111 kB

To figure out the installed version of a package on Debian, you can use the dpkg command with the -l switch, the locate command or the –version option of most programs:

$ locate
$ dpkg -l | grep expat
ii  libexpat1              1.95.8-3.4                      XML parsing C library - runtime library
$ perl --version
This is perl, v5.8.8 built for i486-linux-gnu-thread-multi

To complete the installation, install the base layout, update portage to the latest version and update the local database of packages. This might not be an automatic process. Depending on your host system, you might need to tweak your configuration to get everything to work.

$ emerge -av baselayout-prefix portage subversion
$ emerge --sync

You can now easily install all of the packages from the Gentoo portage repository that were ported to the portage prefix repository. Tweaking and configuration of Prefixed Portage is exactly like in Gentoo, but using $EPREFIX/etc/make.conf.

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