Painless Windows Module Installation with PPM

I have recently been working on an installation package for the Microsoft Windows series of operating systems (Windows 2000 and newer). One of the primary components of this installation package is the installation of ActiveState's distribution of Perl, known as ActivePerl 5.6, and supporting Perl modules.

I chose Perl for its versatility in the automation of system maintenance. This versatility is largely due to the continued development and support of the numerous modules available on the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network (CPAN). These modules help make Perl a very capable solution to many of the programming obstacles I faced. The choice of Perl had a nice complement in the nearly seamless installation of many of these modules by using a small program provided with ActivePerl called the Perl Package Manager (PPM). PPM is a command-line driven tool that allows programmers to search for and install Perl modules from a wide variety of locations. PPM is only available with the Windows distributions of ActivePerl; hence this article will focus on a Windows environment.

The ActivePerl distribution comes bundled with many popular Perl modules such as LWP, which is a module that provides an API to the World Wide Web, and DBI, which is an API for database interaction. A visit to search.cpan.org will give you an idea of the tremendous amount of modules available. Try executing a search on CPAN and you will typically receive a modest sized list of modules for whatever you are searching. Installing modules with PPM and Internet access is typically straight-forward; therefore I will not cover those details in-depth. However, this is the point during development where I began to run into problems.

About Repositories

My installation package relies heavily on modules not included with the standard ActivePerl distribution. Because I had to assume that the user would not have access to the Internet, my installation package needed to be self-sufficient. PPM's default configuration accesses repositories maintained by ActiveState. Therefore, I needed to develop a way to install Perl modules during an automated installation without access to the Internet.

A repository is essentially a collection of files that provides the necessary information for the PPM program to find, download, and install Perl modules. The use of the word repository tends to get a little confusing. Each PC that PPM runs on has to have a repository configured on it in order to search for modules. It's possible to create a local repository that accessible only on the local machine. It can provide the modules locally or reference another repository located on a server. A web server can host a repository that allows wider access to its modules. This type of repository does not even need the PPM program available to function as long as its' sole purpose is to simply serve modules. Other repositories can link to it to search for modules.

I eventually came up with a couple of viable solutions. The first solution I looked at involved downloading the source code of the modules. These modules typically come in a .tar.gz format. After unzipping and untaring them, I needed to use Nmake to build and install each one. The further I attempted to develop this solution, the more problems I encountered. Having approximately seven modules that I needed to install, this solution required building all of them individually. Because my installation package was completely automated, I needed to accomplish this from a Windows batch file. As I quickly found out, the less I needed to do in a batch file the better! This also raised another issue: the availability of programs outside of my installation package. In this case I would have needed Nmake, which is the Windows equivalent of the Unix Make program, to build and install modules. If the system that the installation package is running on did not have Nmake installed and available in the system path, then I became responsible for locating it on each individual system. The challenges began to compound; I knew there had to be an easier way.

I recalled reading in the ActiveState documentation that the PPM program supports the creation and use of local repositories. After doing some further research, I concluded that I could setup a local repository and bundle the modules in their .tar.gz format with the installation package. I could then use the PPM program, through the use of a batch file, to automate the installation of those modules. This solution would eliminate the need for Internet access, keeping my installation package completely autonomous. It would also provide a dependable solution for building and installing the modules during the installation that did not require any user interaction or outside programs.

Using PPM

Before I begin discussing my solution, it's worth covering some basics of the PPM program. To run the PPM program type at a command line:

C:\> ppm
PPM - Programmer's Package Manager version 3.2.
Copyright (c) 2001 ActiveState Corp. All Rights Reserved.
ppm>

This, of course, assumes that you have the ActivePerl distribution installed on your system and the PPM program registered in your system path. If typing PPM at the command line yields no results, find it in the bin\ directory of your ActivePerl installation. ActivePerl installs to C:\Perl\bin\ by default. Change to that directory and then type:

C:\Perl\bin> ppm

You know you are in the PPM program when the command prompt turns into a ppm> prompt. Once inside the program you can display all of the repositories available on that system by typing:

ppm> rep
Repositories:
[1] ActiveState Package Repository
[2] ActiveState PPM2 Repository

With a default installation you will see a couple of repositories that begin with ActiveState. These are the ones I mentioned earlier. They are the default repositories that ActiveState maintains. If you are connected to the Internet you can execute a search by typing:

search <Module Name>

If your search produces results, the result will be a list referencing each match by a number, the package name, and a brief description. Here is a search for everything in one of my local repositories:

ppm> search *
Searching in Active Repositories
  1. Crypt::Blowfish    [2.10] Crypt::Blowfish
  2. Date-Formatter [0.04] A simple Date and Time formatting object
  3. DBD-Mysql [2.04.1] MySQL drivers for the Perl5 Database Interface ~
  4. DBI [1.14] Database independent interface for Perl
  5. libwww-perl [5.48] Library for WWW access in Perl
  6. Win32-Daemon    [0.2003.~ The Win32::Daemon extension for Win32 X86. Allo~

Installing a module is just as easy. However, before you can install a module, the PPM program needs to create a reference to it. Accomplish this by searching for the module. Upon completion of the search you can refer to the module by the number that corresponds to it. To install the module at position one, in this case Crypt::Blowfish, in the previous results list type:

ppm> install 1

The PPM program will let you know if the module installed successfully or failed. PPM offers other commands to make managing your modules easier. However, this is all I needed for my solution... except for creating a local repository.

Creating a Local Repository

There are a few basic elements to a local repository: the directory structure, the PPD files, and the modules. Initially, the PPM program gave me some difficulties locating the modules I needed to install. By trial and error, I discovered that the problem was the directory structure in which I had set up my repository. A repository needs two directories, one to house the PPD files and the other to contain the actual modules in their .tar.gz format. Because the most common architecture for these installations is the x86 architecture, I created a directory named packages with a subdirectory named x86. The important thing about the directory structure is that the actual modules go into a subdirectory. This is opposed to housing the PPD files in one location and then storing the actual modules in an entirely different location in the file system.

As I have mentioned earlier, this installation package was designed for Windows 2000 and later. I encountered numerous problems with the PPD files not being able to reference module locations based on an absolute path. I also encountered random errors when I used a relative path to a location other than a direct subdirectory. So where does the PPM program find this information?

A PPD file is nothing more than an XML document. This XML document contains all the information needed by the PPM program to install a module. Here is an example PPD file for the libwww module:

<SOFTPKG NAME="libwww-perl" VERSION="5,48,0,0">
 <TITLE>libwww-perl</TITLE>
 <ABSTRACT>Library for WWW access in Perl</ABSTRACT>
 <AUTHOR>Gisle Aas</AUTHOR>
 <IMPLEMENTATION>
  <DEPENDENCY NAME="Digest-MD5" VERSION="0,0,0,0" />
  <DEPENDENCY NAME="HTML-Parser" VERSION="0,0,0,0" />
  <DEPENDENCY NAME="MIME-Base64" VERSION="2,1,0,0" />
  <DEPENDENCY NAME="libnet" VERSION="0,0,0,0" />
  <DEPENDENCY NAME="URI" VERSION="1,03,0,0" />
  <OS NAME="MSWin32" />
  <ARCHITECTURE NAME="MSWin32-x86-object" />
  <CODEBASE HREF="x86/libwww-perl.tar.gz" />
 </IMPLEMENTATION>
</SOFTPKG>

Notice the name attribute in the <softpkg> element. The PPM program queries this attribute's value when you perform a search. The <implementation> element also includes some very important attributes. Inside this element you can declare dependencies inside <dependency> elements. This example PPD file includes several dependencies that must be met in order for this package to install successfully. The PPM program will check the system for the installation of these modules and, much like installing a Linux RPM, will fail if it can not find them on the system.

One of the most important elements in the PPD file is the <codebase> element. The HREF attribute directs the PPM program to the location of the module. Remember the packages directory? Fill the x86 directory with the .tar.gz download of the modules you want in your repository. Then supply the relative path to them in the HREF attribute so that the PPM program will be able to locate them. You may also use URL to refer to a location on the web or on a local network. It's entirely possible to create a local repository that only references modules located on other servers, instead of supplying all the modules locally. By supplying a URL, your repository could point the PPM program to another location on a network or over the Web.

I experimented with this tag quite extensively. The biggest problem that I encountered was trying to reference a module in the HREF tag by its absolute path. On certain versions of Windows, the PPM program would always fail, citing a variety of errors. Once I created the appropriate directory structure and supplied the PPM program with a relative path, it found the modules successfully. Visit ActiveState's website for a complete breakdown of the PPD file structure and all of the supported elements.

You should now be able to create your own PPD files. Just keep in mind that if you can not build the module on your system by the standard:

perl Makefile.PL
nmake
nmake test
nmake install

... approach, then PPM will probably not be able to install them successfully either. PPMs exist to ease the installation of modules successfully built and tested in a Windows environment.

For each module that you want in your repository, create a PPD. The example provides a good starting template for a PPD file. From a blank text document, insert the corresponding data in XML format. Once you've inserted the relevant information, save the file with a logical name and the .ppd extension. I typically use a name that closely mimics the one used in the <title> element. The PPD files must go in your repository's packages directory. Once you have created all of the PPD files and downloaded the modules into the x86 directory, you're ready to set up the repository in PPM.

Registering a Repository

Creating a local repository requires just a few commands. From within the PPM program type:

rep add <name> <location>

Suppose that you have created the packages directory at C:\Perl\bin\packages. You have also created the x86 directory inside the packages directory: C:\Perl\bin\packages\x86. When you perform a search with PPM, it queries the PPD files. More specifically, it queries the metadata inside the XML of the PPD file, matching the title tag against your search. Executing:

ppm> rep add MyRep C:\Perl\bin\packages

... creates a repository named MyRep that uses PPD files in the packages directory. After this command completes, check to see that it's now in the repository list:

ppm> rep
Repositories:
[1] ActiveState Package Repository
[2] ActiveState PPM2 Repository
[3] MyRep

This will return a list of all the available repositories. You should now see the repository that you just created, which will be set to active by default. The numbers in the list serves two purposes: the first is to define the order in which the search executes. PPM searches first the repository at position one, followed by two, and so forth. Second, it eases the management of the repositories much in the same way it eases installing modules. Instead of referring to a repository by name, you can refer to it by its number.

A More Public Repository

The new local repository is only accessible by the machine where it resides. If desired, you can modify the PPD files and the steps involved in creating a repository to use an HTTP-based repository over a local network. You could use this repository outside of an installation package to manage and provide module access over a large network. For a straight-forward HTTP-based repository, all you need is a web-server accessible to a local Intranet or over the Internet.

Even though I did not implement an HTTP-based repository, is well worth covering a simple setup. This essentially involves creating two repositories: one on the server and the other on any PC. I chose the Windows version of the Apache 2 web server. After a default installation of Apache 2, I configured it as a repository. There are only a couple of steps involved to accomplish this.

By default, Apache serves its pages from C:\Program Files\Apache2\htdocs.. I created the repository directories as previously discussed: C:\Program Files\Apache2\htdocs\packages\x86. As long as the packages directory is web-accessible, it will allow the server to act as a simple web-based repository. If you don't plan to run PPM on the server then the ActivePerl installation is not even necessary. Now when you create a repository, if you supply the url to the server instead of a directory path it will access the repository over the network or Internet. To create a web-based repository in PPM, type:

ppm> rep add <name> <url>

Now the PPM program on that machine will be able to search the modules available on the repository located at the specified URL.

In order to test the installation of the repository, I usually disable the other repositories. There are multiple ways to do this, but I find it easiest to turn off the repositories. This keeps the repository available on the system; however, PPM will not use them when you perform a search. To disable searching of the repository at position two, type:

ppm> rep off 2
Repositories:
[1] ActiveState Package Repository
[2] MyRep
[ ] ActiveState PPM2 Repository

You can also remove a repository from your system:

ppm> rep delete <name or num>

This will completely remove that repository from the system. Removing a repository is safe if you are confident that you will not use that repository again.

Maybe you are not sure if a repository is active. Listing the repositories on your system will provide the information you need to know if a repository is active:

ppm> rep
[1] ActiveState Package Repository
[2] MyRep
[ ] ActiveState PPM2 Repository

If there is not a number assigned to a repository, then it is not active. In this example, the ActiveState PPM2 Repository is still configured on the system but it is not active, so PPM will not search through it. To begin searching it again, all you need to do is to reactivate it:

ppm> rep on ActiveState PPM2 Repository

Conclusion

PPM is a small but useful program for managing Perl modules needed on your systems. It provides a simple command line interface and the capability to customize the way it searches for modules. PPM allowed me to install the modules I needed without relying on Internet access. This led to the creation of an installation package that was truly Internet independent. It also enabled me to create an installation package that was completely automated, requiring no user interaction.

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