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I'm looking for a program that does X and runs on unix (or at least on my particular unix system). Where can I look? Is there a more efficient way than a generic web search?

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Now my answer is missing. Great Job™ –  hop Oct 5 '10 at 20:17
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@hop I merged your answer into this post and deleted the old main site version of this question to try and avoid confusion (the meta version still exists). Hopefully that helps –  Michael Mrozek Oct 5 '10 at 21:45
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10 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The first place to look is your distribution's package list. That's where you'll find the easiest-to-install programs. Some package management tools provide advanced ways of searching it.

  • On Debian and Debian-based distributions (e.g. Ubuntu), you can search package descriptions with apt-cache search or aptitude search (on the command line), or through the search facility in interactive package managers such as Aptitude and Synaptic. There's also more structured information in the form of tags: install the debtags package, and make basic queries with the debtags command or browse the tag database in Aptitude. Tags are a good way to find packages to work with a particular file format, for example.

  • On Red Hat and other distributions using yum (e.g. CentOS, Fedora), you can search package descriptions with yum search (on the command line).

If the package is not in your distribution, it might be available from an unofficial source. Try the Linux packages search, which indexes several official and unofficial sources of Linux packages. For Ubuntu, search for the package in a PPA.

If your distribution doesn't have anything, you can also look in the package database of another distribution. Example distributions with a large package database are Debian, Fedora, FreeBSD, Ubuntu.

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On rpm/yum-based systems (CentOS and Fedora), use yum search just like you would use apt-cache search. –  mattdm Dec 13 '10 at 2:54
    
@mattdm and everyone else: This post is community wiki, please add package searching commands for your favorite system if they're not already listed. –  Gilles Dec 13 '10 at 21:19
    
On Debian/Ubuntu, apt-file search can also be occasionally useful, if the command you want is embedded in some package you've never heard of. –  Faheem Mitha Jul 28 '11 at 13:49
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A good place to find software, especially for Unix and Linux, is freshmeat. It is a well established site that lists software projects together with a short description, license information, popularity and vitality stats, information about which programming language is used and much more, searchable by subject.

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In addition to the other suggestions forwarded, there is a good site out there called Alternative To that is great for looking up software for other platforms based on some piece of software you know on another platform.

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The Free Software Foundation maintains an online catalog of free software applications at http://directory.fsf.org/ From the website:

We catalog useful free software that runs under free operating systems — particularly the GNU operating system and its GNU/Linux variants.

Licenses are verified for each and every program listed in this directory.

For each listed piece of software, a short description is provided, together with links to the homepage and user support resources are provided, as well as checkout commands and/or links to where the program sources can be downloaded.

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In line with Caleb's answer there is the Linux App Finder. I generally find it easier to start with a Windows app and search for "linux alternative " as Windows apps are usually easier to find information on because they are more heavily promoted and more people know about them.

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If we mention freshmeat, we should also mention Sourceforge.net with the slogan:

"SourceForge is your location to download and develop free open source software".

Also sometimes Google Code may be a great source.

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BerliOS also hosts a good number of UNIX/Linux applications.

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A minor addition: For already installed stuff, you might not be aware off:

apropos wireless

It can lead to interesting results, as well as noise:

apropos writing letter
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In gentoo and derived systems, there are several neat programs to search the portage (which, in short, is gentoo's software database). The one I like most is eix.

The best online search for gentoo is gpo.zugaina.org. It searches not only the default gentoo portage, but also all popular overlays (unofficial/3rd party databases).

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A somewhat naive site, but very useful for those coming from Windows, is:

http://linuxappfinder.com/

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