Packaging an out-of-tree module for Debian with DKMS

Vincent Bernat

DKMS is a framework designed to allow individual kernel modules to be upgraded without changing the whole kernel. It is also very easy to rebuild modules as you upgrade kernels.

On Debian-like systems,1 DKMS enables the installation of various drivers, from ZFS on Linux to VirtualBox kernel modules or NVIDIA drivers. These out-of-tree modules are not distributed as binaries: once installed, they need to be compiled for your current kernel. Everything is done automatically:

# apt install zfs-dkms
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree
Reading state information... Done
The following additional packages will be installed:
  binutils cpp cpp-6 dkms fakeroot gcc gcc-6 gcc-6-base libasan3 libatomic1 libc-dev-bin libc6-dev
  libcc1-0 libcilkrts5 libfakeroot libgcc-6-dev libgcc1 libgomp1 libisl15 libitm1 liblsan0 libmpc3
  libmpfr4 libmpx2 libnvpair1linux libquadmath0 libstdc++6 libtsan0 libubsan0 libuutil1linux libzfs2linux
  libzpool2linux linux-compiler-gcc-6-x86 linux-headers-4.9.0-6-amd64 linux-headers-4.9.0-6-common
  linux-headers-amd64 linux-kbuild-4.9 linux-libc-dev make manpages manpages-dev patch spl spl-dkms
  zfs-zed zfsutils-linux
3 upgraded, 44 newly installed, 0 to remove and 3 not upgraded.
Need to get 42.1 MB of archives.
After this operation, 187 MB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n]
# dkms status
spl,, 4.9.0-6-amd64, x86_64: installed
zfs,, 4.9.0-6-amd64, x86_64: installed
# modinfo zfs | head
filename:       /lib/modules/4.9.0-6-amd64/updates/dkms/zfs.ko
license:        CDDL
author:         OpenZFS on Linux
description:    ZFS
srcversion:     42C4AB70887EA26A9970936
depends:        spl,znvpair,zcommon,zunicode,zavl
retpoline:      Y
vermagic:       4.9.0-6-amd64 SMP mod_unload modversions
parm:           zvol_inhibit_dev:Do not create zvol device nodes (uint)

If you install a new kernel, a compilation of the module is automatically triggered.

Building your own DKMS-enabled package#

Suppose you’ve gotten your hands on an Intel XXV710-DA2 NIC. This card is handled by the i40e driver. Unfortunately, it only got support from Linux 4.10 and you are using a stock 4.9 Debian Stretch kernel. DKMS provides here an easy solution!

Download the driver from Intel, unpack it in some directory and add a debian/ subdirectory with the following files:

  • debian/changelog:

    i40e-dkms (2.4.6-0) stretch; urgency=medium
      * Initial package.
     -- Vincent Bernat <>  Tue, 27 Feb 2018 17:20:58 +0100
  • debian/control:

    Source: i40e-dkms
    Maintainer: Vincent Bernat <>
    Build-Depends: debhelper (>= 9), dkms
    Package: i40e-dkms
    Architecture: all
    Depends: ${misc:Depends}
    Description: DKMS source for the Intel i40e network driver
  • debian/rules:

    #!/usr/bin/make -f
    include /usr/share/dpkg/
            dh $@ --with dkms
            dh_install src/* usr/src/i40e-$(DEB_VERSION_UPSTREAM)/
            dh_dkms -V $(DEB_VERSION_UPSTREAM)
  • debian/i40e-dkms.dkms:

  • debian/compat:


In debian/changelog, pay attention to the version. The version of the driver is 2.4.6. Therefore, we use 2.4.6-0 for the package. In debian/rules, we install the source of the driver in /usr/src/i40e-2.4.6—the version is extracted from debian/changelog.

The content of debian/i40e-dkms.dkms is described in detail in the dkms(8) manual page. The i40e driver is fairly standard and dkms is able to figure out how to compile it. However, if your kernel module does not follow the usual conventions, it is the right place to override the build command.

Once all the files are in place, you can turn the directory into a Debian package with, for example, the dpkg-buildpackage command.2 At the end of this operation, you get your DKMS-enabled package, i40e-dkms_2.4.6-0_all.deb. Put it in your internal repository and install it on the target.

Avoiding compilation on target#

Update (2024-03)

DKMS upstream removed support for the dkms mkbmdeb command, making this part of the post irrelevant. This impacts versions starting from 2.8.8, including the ones shipped in Debian Bookworm and Ubuntu Noble. See Debian bug#1009179 for more information.

If you feel uncomfortable installing compilation tools on the target servers, there is a simple solution. Since version,3 thanks to Thijs Kinkhorst, dkms can build lean binary packages with only the built modules. For each kernel version, you build such a package in your CI system:

KERNEL_VERSION=4.9.0-6-amd64 # could be a Jenkins parameter
apt -qyy install \
      i40e-dkms \
      linux-image-${KERNEL_VERSION} \

DRIVER_VERSION=$(dkms status i40e | awk -F', ' '{print $2}')
dkms mkbmdeb i40e/${DRIVER_VERSION} -k ${KERNEL_VERSION}

cd /var/lib/dkms/i40e/${DRIVER_VERSION}/bmdeb/
dpkg -c i40e-modules-${KERNEL_VERSION}_*
dpkg -I i40e-modules-${KERNEL_VERSION}_*

Here is the shortened output of the two last commands:

# dpkg -c i40e-modules-${KERNEL_VERSION}_*
-rw-r--r-- root/root    551664 2018-03-01 19:16 ./lib/modules/4.9.0-6-amd64/updates/dkms/i40e.ko
# dpkg -I i40e-modules-${KERNEL_VERSION}_*
 new debian package, version 2.0.
 Package: i40e-modules-4.9.0-6-amd64
 Source: i40e-dkms-bin
 Version: 2.4.6
 Architecture: amd64
 Installed-Size: 555
 Depends: linux-image-4.9.0-6-amd64
 Provides: i40e-modules
 Section: misc
 Priority: optional
 Description: i40e binary drivers for linux-image-4.9.0-6-amd64
  This package contains i40e drivers for the 4.9.0-6-amd64 Linux kernel,
  built from i40e-dkms for the amd64 architecture.

The generated Debian package contains the pre-compiled driver and only depends on the associated kernel. You can safely install it without pulling dozens of packages.

  1. DKMS is also compatible with RPM-based distributions but the content of this article is not suitable for these. ↩︎

  2. You may need to install some additional packages: build-essential, fakeroot and debhelper↩︎

  3. Available in Debian Stretch and in the backports for Debian Jessie. However, for Ubuntu Xenial, you need to backport a more recent version of dkms↩︎