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Title:ROS_ETC_DIR, ROS_DISTRO environment variables and ROS_ROOT changes
Author:Ken Conley
Type:Standards Track


This REP introduces the ROS_ETC_DIR and ROS_DISTRO environment variables. It also deprecates the use of ROS_ROOT. The environment variables are related to the fileystem layout introduced in REP 122 [1].


The following two environment variables are introduced.


Override path to /etc/ros directory.


Override name of the currently active ROS distribution. By default, this value is read from $ROS_ETC_DIR/distro.

The ROS_ROOT environment is deprecated, though it is not marked for removal. The ROS_ROOT is also no longer required. The only valid use for ROS_ROOT moving forward is backwards-compatibility for rosbuild-based Makefile and CMakeLists.txt includes.

All programs are strongly discouraged from using the ROS_ROOT environment variable to infer locations of resources other than the use case noted above.

The complete set of ROS filesystem environment variables is enumerated in the rospkg documentation [2].

The removal of resources from ROS_ROOT-relative locations is further discussed in REP 122 [1].


The ROS Fuerte release migrates many of the low-level libraries to use a standard Filesystem Hierarchy Standard-like layout [3] contained in a distribution-specific install prefix (e.g. /opt/ros/fuerte/).

The implications of this new layout are several. First, there ROS Fuerte introduces a new /etc/ros directory that contains configuration files for ROS. There are currently very few files in this directory, but the contents are expected to increase over time.

Second, ROS binaries are now installed in a standard bin/ directory instead of $ROS_ROOT/bin, which removes one of the major motivations for this environment variable. Other uses of ROS_ROOT, such as finding locations for log files and test results, were migrated to use ROS_HOME instead.

Another major use of ROS_ROOT, adding ROS packages to the package search path, is easily migrated to use ROS_PACKAGE_PATH directly. The precedence of ROS_ROOT on the package search path has been problematic in the past as it prevents easily overriding packages that are part of the ros stack.

Finally, the active ROS distribution codename (e.g. fuerte) continues to be important information used for packaging and version detection, especially with the underlying changes to the filesystem layout.


We considered a more general environment variable to point to the install prefix instead of ROS_ETC_DIR. While such a setting is more general, it encodes additional assumptions about the filesystem layout, such as the etc/ros directory structure beneath this path. This is not desireable for cross-platform support. Furthermore, redirecting just this directory can be advantageous as it enables manipulation of just the configuration files.

The ROS_DISTRO environment variable provides easy integration with various tools that need to alter behavior based on this setting. The additional requirement to check ROS_ETC_DIR/distro seems an unnecessary inconvenience, but it motivated by the desire to enable future versions of ROS to operate without any special environment variables.

Backwards Compatibility

ROS_ROOT points to a directory location that retains the same structure and contents for paths to the mk and rosbuild packages. This preserves commonly used include behavior in CMakeLists.txt and Makefile files, such as:


This location also contains legacy rosdep.yaml and stack.xml files. Programs should not rely on these files as they are planned for removal.

Reference implementation

The rospkg [3] library has been updated to support these environment variables. The rosversion script has also been moved to rospkg.

The specific API additions include:

  • rospkg.get_etc_ros_dir()
  • rospkg.distro.current_distro_codename()


[1](1, 2) REP 122: FHS layout for ROS installation (https://ros.org/reps/rep-0122.html)
[2]ROS filesystem environment variables (https://docs.ros.org/en/independent/api/rospkg/html/rospkg_environment.html)
[3](1, 2) Wikipedia: Filesystem Hiearchy Standard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filesystem_Hierarchy_Standard)
[4]rospkg documentation (https://docs.ros.org/en/independent/api/rospkg/html/)