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For instance, on Ubuntu Xenial, I need to install the mbstring PHP extension. I issue the command sudo apt-get install php-mbstring to do so.

With dpkg, I can see two packages related to the module: php-mbstring and php7.0-mbstring.

Did they get installed together? And if they're similar packages, how can I know which one is being used (or which one to use)?

  • Use apt show php-mbstring. The answer is in the package description. – user535733 Oct 18 '17 at 22:01
  • This package is a dependency package, which depends on Debian's default PHP version (currently 7.0). Does that mean php-mbstring is the module and php7.0-mbstring the parent implementation of MBSTRING on top of it? – David Oct 18 '17 at 22:42
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When Debian changes to another version of PHP (8.0), php-mbstring will pull in the correct package automatically.

php#.#-mbstring has the code.

php-mbstring has no code, and simply depends upon the correct package with code. This is called a transitional package or dummy package or metapackage.

The same method of a generically-named metapackge to manage automatic upgrades is used to upgrade your kernel.

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