Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why email is hard, part 4: Email addresses

This post is part 4 of an intermittent series exploring the difficulties of writing an email client. Part 1 describes a brief history of the infrastructure. Part 2 discusses internationalization. Part 3 discusses MIME. This post discusses the problems with email addresses.

You might be surprised that I find email addresses difficult enough to warrant a post discussing only this single topic. However, this is a surprisingly complex topic, and one which is made much harder by the presence of a very large number of people purporting to know the answer who then proceed to do the wrong thing [0]. To understand why email addresses are complicated, and why people do the wrong thing, I pose the following challenge: write a regular expression that matches all valid email addresses and only valid email addresses. Go ahead, stop reading, and play with it for a few minutes, and then you can compare your answer with the correct answer.




Done yet? So, if you came up with a regular expression, you got the wrong answer. But that's because it's a trick question: I never defined what I meant by a valid email address. Still, if you're hoping for partial credit, you may able to get some by correctly matching one of the purported definitions I give below.

The most obvious definition meant by "valid email address" is text that matches the addr-spec production of RFC 822. No regular expression can match this definition, though—and I am aware of the enormous regular expression that is often purported to solve this problem. This is because comments can be nested, which means you would need to solve the "balanced parentheses" language, which is easily provable to be non-regular [2].

Matching the addr-spec production, though, is the wrong thing to do: the production dictates the possible syntax forms an address may have, when you arguably want a more semantic interpretation. As a case in point, the two email addresses example@test.invalid and example @ test . invalid are both meant to refer to the same thing. When you ignore the actual full grammar of an email address and instead read the prose, particularly of RFC 5322 instead of RFC 822, you'll realize that matching comments and whitespace are entirely the wrong thing to do in the email address.

Here, though, we run into another problem. Email addresses are split into local-parts and the domain, the text before and after the @ character; the format of the local-part is basically either a quoted string (to escape otherwise illegal characters in a local-part), or an unquoted "dot-atom" production. The quoting is meant to be semantically invisible: "example"@test.invalid is the same email address as example@test.invalid. Normally, I would say that the use of quoted strings is an artifact of the encoding form, but given the strong appetite for aggressively "correct" email validators that attempt to blindly match the specification, it seems to me that it is better to keep the local-parts quoted if they need to be quoted. The dot-atom production matches a sequence of atoms (spans of text excluding several special characters like [ or .) separated by . characters, with no intervening spaces or comments allowed anywhere.

RFC 5322 only specifies how to unfold the syntax into a semantic value, and it does not explain how to semantically interpret the values of an email address. For that, we must turn to SMTP's definition in RFC 5321, whose semantic definition clearly imparts requirements on the format of an email address not found in RFC 5322. On domains, RFC 5321 explains that the domain is either a standard domain name [3], or it is a domain literal which is either an IPv4 or an IPv6 address. Examples of the latter two forms are test@[] and test@[IPv6:::1]. But when it comes to the local-parts, RFC 5321 decides to just give up and admit no interpretation except at the final host, advising only that servers should avoid local-parts that need to be quoted. In the context of email specification, this kind of recommendation is effectively a requirement to not use such email addresses, and (by implication) most client code can avoid supporting these email addresses [4].

The prospect of internationalized domain names and email addresses throws a massive wrench into the state affairs, however. I've talked at length in part 2 about the problems here; the lack of a definitive decision on Unicode normalization means that the future here is extremely uncertain, although RFC 6530 does implicitly advise that servers should accept that some (but not all) clients are going to do NFC or NFKC normalization on email addresses.

At this point, it should be clear that asking for a regular expression to validate email addresses is really asking the wrong question. I did it at the beginning of this post because that is how the question tends to be phrased. The real question that people should be asking is "what characters are valid in an email address?" (and more specifically, the left-hand side of the email address, since the right-hand side is obviously a domain name). The answer is simple: among the ASCII printable characters (Unicode is more difficult), all the characters but those in the following string: " \"\\<>[]();,@". Indeed, viewing an email address like this is exactly how HTML 5 specifies it in its definition of a format for <input type="email">

Another, much easier, more obvious, and simpler way to validate an email address relies on zero regular expressions and zero references to specifications. Just send an email to the purported address and ask the user to click on a unique link to complete registration. After all, the most common reason to request an email address is to be able to send messages to that email address, so if mail cannot be sent to it, the email address should be considered invalid, even if it is syntactically valid.

Unfortunately, people persist in trying to write buggy email validators. Some are too simple and ignore valid characters (or valid top-level domain names!). Others are too focused on trying to match the RFC addr-spec syntax that, while they will happily accept most or all addr-spec forms, they also result in email addresses which are very likely to weak havoc if you pass to another system to send email; cause various forms of SQL injection, XSS injection, or even shell injection attacks; and which are likely to confuse tools as to what the email address actually is. This can be ameliorated with complicated normalization functions for email addresses, but none of the email validators I've looked at actually do this (which, again, goes to show that they're missing the point).

Which brings me to a second quiz question: are email addresses case-insensitive? If you answered no, well, you're wrong. If you answered yes, you're also wrong. The local-part, as RFC 5321 emphasizes, is not to be interpreted by anyone but the final destination MTA server. A consequence is that it does not specify if they are case-sensitive or case-insensitive, which means that general code should not assume that it is case-insensitive. Domains, of course, are case-insensitive, unless you're talking about internationalized domain names [5]. In practice, though, RFC 5321 admits that servers should make the names case-insensitive. For everyone else who uses email addresses, the effective result of this admission is that email addresses should be stored in their original case but matched case-insensitively (effectively, code should be case-preserving).

Hopefully this gives you a sense of why email addresses are frustrating and much more complicated then they first appear. There are historical artifacts of email addresses I've decided not to address (the roles of ! and % in addresses), but since they only matter to some SMTP implementations, I'll discuss them when I pick up SMTP in a later part (if I ever discuss them). I've avoided discussing some major issues with the specification here, because they are much better handled as part of the issues with email headers in general.

Oh, and if you were expecting regular expression answers to the challenge I gave at the beginning of the post, here are the answers I threw together for my various definitions of "valid email address." I didn't test or even try to compile any of these regular expressions (as you should have gathered, regular expressions are not what you should be using), so caveat emptor.

RFC 822 addr-spec
Impossible. Don't even try.
RFC 5322 non-obsolete addr-spec production
RFC 5322, unquoted email address
HTML 5's interpretation
Effective EAI-aware version
[^\x00-\x20\x80-\x9f]()<>\[\]:;@\\,]+@[^\x00-\x20\x80-\x9f()<>\[\]:;@\\,]+, with the caveats that a dot does not begin or end the local-part, nor do two dots appear subsequent, the local part is in NFC or NFKC form, and the domain is a valid domain name.

[1] If you're trying to find guides on valid email addresses, a useful way to eliminate incorrect answers are the following litmus tests. First, if the guide mentions an RFC, but does not mention RFC 5321 (or RFC 2821, in a pinch), you can generally ignore it. If the email address test (not) @ would be valid, then the author has clearly not carefully read and understood the specifications. If the guide mentions RFC 5321, RFC 5322, RFC 6530, and IDN, then the author clearly has taken the time to actually understand the subject matter and their opinion can be trusted.
[2] I'm using "regular" here in the sense of theoretical regular languages. Perl-compatible regular expressions can match non-regular languages (because of backreferences), but even backreferences can't solve the problem here. It appears that newer versions support a construct which can match balanced parentheses, but I'm going to discount that because by the time you're going to start using that feature, you have at least two problems.
[3] Specifically, if you want to get really technical, the domain name is going to be routed via MX records in DNS.
[4] RFC 5321 is the specification for SMTP, and, therefore, it is only truly binding for things that talk SMTP; likewise, RFC 5322 is only binding on people who speak email headers. When I say that systems can pretend that email addresses with domain literals or quoted local-parts don't exist, I'm excluding mail clients and mail servers. If you're writing a website and you need an email address, there is no need to support email addresses which don't exist on the open, public Internet.
[5] My usual approach to seeing internationalization at this point (if you haven't gathered from the lengthy second post of this series) is to assume that the specifications assume magic where case insensitivity is desired.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why email is hard, part 3: MIME

This post is part 3 of an intermittent series exploring the difficulties of writing an email client. Part 1 describes a brief history of the infrastructure. Part 2 discuses internationalization. This post discusses MIME, the mechanism by which email evolves beyond plain text.

MIME, which stands for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, is primarily dictated by a set of 5 RFCs: RFC 2045, RFC 2046, RFC 2047, RFC 2048, and RFC 2049, although RFC 2048 (which governs registration procedures for new MIME types) was updated with newer versions. RFC 2045 covers the format of related headers, as well as the format of the encodings used to convert 8-bit data into 7-bit for transmission. RFC 2046 describes the basic set of MIME types, most importantly the format of multipart/ types. RFC 2047 was discussed in my part 2 of this series, as it discusses encoding internationalized data in headers. RFC 2049 describes a set of guidelines for how to be conformant when processing MIME; as you might imagine, these are woefully inadequate for modern processing anyways. In practice, it is only the first three documents that matter for building an email client.

There are two main contributions of MIME, which actually makes it a bit hard to know what is meant when people refer to MIME in the abstract. The first contribution, which is of interest mostly to email, is the development of a tree-based representation of email which allows for the inclusion of non-textual parts to messages. This tree is ultimately how attachments and other features are incorporated. The other contribution is the development of a registry of MIME types for different types of file contents. MIME types have promulgated far beyond just the email infrastructure: if you want to describe what kind of file binary blob is, you can refer to it by either a magic header sequence, a file extension, or a MIME type. Searching for terms like MIME libraries will sometimes refer to libraries that actually handle the so-called MIME sniffing process (guessing a MIME type from a file extension or the contents of a file).

MIME types are decomposable into two parts, a media type and a subtype. The type text/plain has a media type of text and a subtype of plain, for example. IANA maintains an official repository of MIME types. There are very few media types, and I would argue that there ought to be fewer. In practice, degradation of unknown MIME types means that there are essentially three "fundamental" types: text/plain (which represents plain, unformatted text and to which unknown text/* types degrade), multipart/mixed (the "default" version of multipart messages; more on this later), and application/octet-stream (which represents unknown, arbitrary binary data). I can understand the separation of the message media type for things which generally follow the basic format of headers+body akin to message/rfc822, although the presence of types like message/partial that don't follow the headers+body format and the requirement to downgrade to application/octet-stream mars usability here. The distinction between image, audio, video and application is petty when you consider that in practice, the distinction isn't going to be able to make clients give better recommendations for how to handle these kinds of content (which really means deciding if it can be displayed inline or if it needs to be handed off to an external client).

Is there a better way to label content types than MIME types? Probably not. X.400 (remember that from my first post?) uses OIDs, in line with the rest of the OSI model, and my limited workings with other systems that use these OIDs is that they are obtuse, effectively opaque identifiers with no inherent semantic meaning. People use file extensions in practice to distinguish between different file types, but not all content types are stored in files (such as multipart/mixed), and the MIME types is a finer granularity to distinguish when needing to guess the type from the start of a file. My only complaints about MIME types are petty and marginal, not about the idea itself.

No, the part of MIME that I have serious complaints with is the MIME tree structure. This allows you to represent emails in arbitrarily complex structures… and onto which the standard view of email as a body with associated attachments is poorly mapped. The heart of this structure is the multipart media type, for which the most important subtypes are mixed, alternative, related, signed, and encrypted. The last two types are meant for cryptographic security definitions [1], and I won't cover them further here. All multipart types have a format where the body consists of parts (each with their own headers) separated by a boundary string. There is space before and after the last parts which consists of semantically-meaningless text sometimes containing a message like "This is a MIME message." meant to be displayed to the now practically-non-existent crowd of people who use clients that don't support MIME.

The simplest type is multipart/mixed, which means that there is no inherent structure to the parts. Attachments to a message use this type: the type of the message is set to multipart/mixed, a body is added as (typically) the first part, and attachments are added as parts with types like image/png (for PNG images). It is also not uncommon to see multipart/mixed types that have a multipart/mixed part within them: some mailing list software attaches footers to messages by wrapping the original message inside a single part of a multipart/mixed message and then appending a text/plain footer.

multipart/related is intended to refer to an HTML page [2] where all of its external resources are included as additional parts. Linking all of these parts together is done by use of a cid: URL scheme. Generating and displaying these messages requires tracking down all URL references in an HTML page, which of course means that email clients that want full support for this feature also need robust HTML (and CSS!) knowledge, and future-proofing is hard. Since the primary body of this type appears first in the tree, it also makes handling this datatype in a streaming manner difficult, since the values to which URLs will be rewritten are not known until after the entire body is parsed.

In contrast, multipart/alternative is used to satisfy the plain-text-or-HTML debate by allowing one to provide a message that is either plain text or HTML [3]. It is also the third-biggest failure of the entire email infrastructure, in my opinion. The natural expectation would be that the parts should be listed in decreasing order of preference, so that streaming clients can reject all the data after it finds the part it will display. Instead, the parts are listed in increasing order of preference, which was done in order to make the plain text part be first in the list, which helps increase readability of MIME messages for those reading email without MIME-aware clients. As a result, streaming clients are unable to progressively display the contents of multipart/alternative until the entire message has been read.

Although multipart/alternative states that all parts must contain the same contents (to varying degrees of degradation), you shouldn't be surprised to learn that this is not exactly the case. There was a period in time when spam filterers looked at only the text/plain side of things, so spammers took to putting "innocuous" messages in the text/plain half and displaying the real spam in the text/html half [4] (this technique appears to have died off a long time ago, though). In another interesting case, I received a bug report with a message containing an image/jpeg and a text/html part within a multipart/alternative [5].

To be fair, the current concept of emails as a body with a set of attachments did not exist when MIME was originally specified. The definition of multipart/parallel plays into this a lot (it means what you think it does: show all of the parts in parallel… somehow). Reading between the lines of the specification also indicates a desire to create interactive emails (via application/postscript, of course). Given that email clients have trouble even displaying HTML properly [6], and the fact that interactivity has the potential to be a walking security hole, it is not hard to see why this functionality fell by the wayside.

The final major challenge that MIME solved was how to fit arbitrary data into a 7-bit format safe for transit. The two encoding schemes they came up with were quoted-printable (which retains most printable characters, but emits non-printable characters in a =XX format, where the Xs are hex characters), and base64 which reencodes every 3 bytes into 4 ASCII characters. Non-encoded data is separated into three categories: 7-bit (which uses only ASCII characters except NUL and bare CR or LF characters), 8-bit (which uses any character but NUL, bare CR, and bare LF), and binary (where everything is possible). A further limitation is placed on all encodings but binary: every line is at most 998 bytes long, not including the terminating CRLF.

A side-effect of these requirements is that all attachments must be considered binary data, even if they are textual formats (like source code), as end-of-line autoconversion is now considered a major misfeature. To make matters even worse, body text for formats with text written in scripts that don't use spaces (such as Japanese or Chinese) can sometimes be prohibited from using 8-bit transfer format due to overly long lines: you can reach the end of a line in as few as 249 characters (UTF-8, non-BMP characters, although Chinese and Japanese typically take three bytes per character). So a single long paragraph can force a message to be entirely encoded in a format with 33% overhead. There have been suggestions for a binary-to-8-bit encoding in the past, but no standardization effort has been made for one [7].

The binary encoding has none of these problems, but no one claims to support it. However, I suspect that violating maximum line length, or adding 8-bit characters to a quoted-printable part, are likely to make it through the mail system, in part because not doing so either increases your security vulnerabilities or requires more implementation effort. Sending lone CR or LF characters is probably fine so long as one is careful to assume that they may be treated as line breaks. Sending a NUL character I suspect could cause some issues due to lack of testing (but it also leaves room for security vulnerabilities to ignore it). In other words, binary-encoded messages probably already work to a large degree in the mail system. Which makes it extremely tempting (even for me) to ignore the specification requirements when composing messages; small wonder then that blatant violations of specifications are common.

This concludes my discussion of MIME. There are certainly many more complaints I have, but this should be sufficient to lay out why building a generic MIME-aware library by itself is hard, and why you do not want to write such a parser yourself. Too bad Thunderbird has at least two different ad-hoc parsers (not libmime or JSMime) that I can think of off the top of my head, both of which are wrong.

[1] I will be covering this in a later post, but the way that signed and encrypted data is represented in MIME actually makes it really easy to introduce flaws in cryptographic code (which, the last time I surveyed major email clients with support for cryptographic code, was done by all of them).
[2] Other types are of course possible in theory, but HTML is all anyone cares about in practice.
[3] There is also text/enriched, which was developed as a stopgap while HTML 3.2 was being developed. Its use in practice is exceedingly slim.
[4] This is one of the reasons I'm minded to make "prefer plain text" do degradation of natural HTML display instead of showing the plain text parts. Not that cleanly degrading HTML is easy.
[5] In the interests of full disclosure, the image/jpeg was actually a PNG image and the HTML claimed to be 7-bit UTF-8 but was actually 8-bit, and it contained a Unicode homograph attack.
[6] Of the major clients, Outlook uses Word's HTML rendering engine, which I recall once reading as being roughly equivalent to IE 5.5 in capability. Webmail is forced to do their own sanitization and sandboxing, and the output leaves something to desire; Gmail is the worst offender here, stripping out all but inline style. Thunderbird and SeaMonkey are nearly alone in using a high-quality layout engine: you can even send a <video> in an email to Thunderbird and have it work properly. :-)
[7] There is yEnc. Its mere existence does contradict several claims (for example, that adding new transfer encodings is infeasible due to install base of software), but it was developed for a slightly different purpose. Some implementation details are hostile to MIME, and although it has been discussed to death on the relevant mailing list several times, no draft was ever made that would integrate it into MIME properly.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why email is hard, part 2: internationalization

This post is part 2 of an intermittent series exploring the difficulties of writing an email client. Part 1 describes a brief history of the infrastructure, as well as the issues I have with it. This post is discussing internationalization, specifically supporting non-ASCII characters in email.

Internationalization is not a simple task, even if the consideration is limited to "merely" the textual aspect [1]. Languages turn out to be incredibly diverse in their writing systems, so software that tries to support all writing systems equally well ends up running into several problems that admit no general solution. Unfortunately, I am ill-placed to be able to offer personal experience with internationalization concerns [2], so some of the information I give may well be wrong.

A word of caution: this post is rather long, even by my standards, since the problems of internationalization are legion. To help keep this post from being even longer, I'm going to assume passing familiarity with terms like ASCII, Unicode, and UTF-8.

The first issue I'll talk about is Unicode normalization, and it's an issue caused largely by Unicode itself. Unicode has two ways of making accented characters: precomposed characters (such as U+00F1, ñ) or a character followed by a combining character (U+006E, n, followed by U+0303, ◌̃). The display of both is the same: ñ versus ñ (read the HTML), and no one would disagree that the share the meaning. To let software detect that they are the same, Unicode prescribes four algorithms to normalize them. These four algorithms are defined on two axes: whether to prefer composed characters (like U+00F1) or prefer decomposed characters (U+006E U+0303), and whether to normalize by canonical equivalence (noting that, for example, U+212A Kelvin sign is equivalent to the Latin majuscule K) or by compatibility (e.g., superscript 2 to a regular 2).

Another issue is one that mostly affects display. Western European languages all use a left-to-right, top-to-bottom writing order. This isn't universal: Semitic languages like Hebrew or Arabic use right-to-left, top-to-bottom; Japanese and Chinese prefer a top-to-bottom, right-to-left order (although it is sometimes written left-to-right, top-to-bottom). It thus becomes an issue as to the proper order to store these languages using different writing orders in the actual text, although I believe the practice of always storing text in "start-to-finish" order, and reversing it for display, is nearly universal.

Now, both of those issues mentioned so far are minor in the grand scheme of things, in that you can ignore them and they will still probably work properly almost all of the time. Most text that is exposed to the web is already normalized to the same format, and web browsers have gotten away with not normalizing CSS or HTML identifiers with only theoretical objections raised. All of the other issues I'm going to discuss are things that cause problems and illustrate why properly internationalizing email is hard.

Another historical mistake of Unicode is one that we will likely be stuck with for decades, and I need to go into some history first. The first Unicode standard dates from 1991, and its original goal then was to collect all of the characters needed for modern transmission, which was judged to need only a 16-bit set of characters. Unfortunately, the needs of ideographic-centric Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing systems, particularly rare family names, turns out to rather fill up that space. Thus, in 1996, Unicode was changed to permit more characters: 17 planes of 65,536 characters each, of which the original set was termed the "Basic Multilingual Plane" or BMP for short. Systems that chose to adopt Unicode in those intervening 5 years often adopted a 16-bit character model as their standard internal format, so as to keep the benefits of fixed-width character encodings. However, with the change to a larger format, their fixed-width character encoding is no longer fixed-width.

This issue plagues anybody who works with systems that considered internationalization in that unfortunate window, which notably includes prominent programming languages like C#, Java, and JavaScript. Many cross-platform C and C++ programs implicitly require UTF-16 due to its pervasive inclusion into the Windows operating system and common internationalization libraries [3]. Unsurprisingly, non-BMP characters tend to quickly run into all sorts of hangups by unaware code. For example, right now, it is possible to coax Thunderbird to render these characters unusable in, say, your subject string if the subject is just right, and I suspect similar bugs exist in a majority of email applications [4].

For all of the flaws of Unicode [5], there is a tacit agreement that UTF-8 should be the character set to use for anyone not burdened by legacy concerns. Unfortunately, email is burdened by legacy concerns, and the use of 8-bit characters in headers that are not UTF-8 is more prevalent than it ought to be, RFC 6532 notwithstanding. In any case, email explicitly provides for handling a wide variety of alternative character sets without saying which ones should be supported. The official list [6] contains about 200 of them (including the UNKNOWN-8BIT character set), but not all of them see widespread use. In practice, the ones that definitely need to be supported are the ISO 8859-* and ISO 2022-* charsets, the EUC-* charsets, Windows-* charsets, GB18030, GBK, Shift-JIS, KOI8-{R,U}, Big5, and of course UTF-8. There are two other major charsets that don't come up directly in email but are important for implementing the entire suite of protocols: UTF-7, used in IMAP (more on that later), and Punycode (more on that later, too).

The suite of character sets falls into three main categories. First is the set of fixed-width character sets, most notably ASCII and the ISO 8859 suite of charsets, as well as UCS-2 (2 bytes per character) and UTF-32 (4 bytes per character). Since the major East Asian languages are all ideographic, which require a rather large number of characters to be encoded, fixed-width character sets are infeasible. Instead, many choose to do a variable-width encoding: Shift-JIS lets some characters (notably ASCII characters and half-width katakana) remain a single byte and uses two bytes to encode all of its other characters. UTF-8 can use between 1 byte (for ASCII characters) and 4 bytes (for non-BMP characters) for a single character. The final set of character sets, such as the ISO 2022 ones, use escape sequences to change the interpretation of subsequent characters. As a result, taking the substring of an encoding string can change its interpretation while remaining valid. This will be important later.

Two more problems related to character sets are worth mentioning. The first is the byte-order mark, or BOM, which is used to distinguish whether UTF-16 is written on a little-endian or big-endian machine. It is also sometimes used in UTF-8 to indicate that the text is UTF-8 versus some unknown legacy encoding. It is also not supposed to appear in email, but I have done some experiments which suggest that people use software that adds it without realizing that this is happening. The second issue, unsurprisingly [7], is that for some character sets (Big5 in particular, I believe), not everyone agrees on how to interpret some of the characters.

The largest problem of internationalization that applies in a general sense is the problem of case insensitivity. The 26 basic Latin letters all map nicely to case, having a single uppercase and a single lowercase variant for each letter. This practice doesn't hold in general—languages like Japanese lack even the notion of case, although it does have two kana variants that hold semantic differences. Rather, there are three basic issues with case insensitivity which showcase enough of its problems to make you want to run away from it altogether [8].

The simplest issue is the Greek sigma. Greek has two lowercase variants of the sigma character: σ and ς (the "final sigma"), but a single uppercase variant, Σ. Thus mapping a string s to uppercase and back to lowercase is not equivalent to mapping s directly to lower-case in some cases. Related to this issue is the story of German ß character. This character evolved as a ligature of a long and short 's', and its uppercase form is generally held to be SS. The existence of a capital form is in some dispute, and Unicode only recently added it (ẞ, if your software supports it). As a result, merely interconverting between uppercase and lowercase versions of a string does not necessarily lead to a simple fixed point. The third issue is the Turkish dotless i (ı), which is the lowercase variant of the ASCII uppercase I character to those who speak Turkish. So it turns out that case insensitivity isn't quite the same across all locales.

Again unsurprisingly in light of the issues, the general tendency towards case-folding or case-insensitive matching in internationalized-aware specifications is to ignore the issues entirely. For example, asking for clarity on the process of case-insensitive matching for IMAP folder names, the response I got was "don't do it." HTML and CSS moved to the cumbersomely-named variant known as "ASCII-subset case-insensitivity", where only the 26 basic Latin letters are mapped to their (English) variants in case. The solution for email is also a verbose variant of "unspecified," but that is only tradition for email (more on this later).

Now that you have a good idea of the general issues, it is time to delve into how the developers of email rose to the challenge of handling internationalization. It turns out that the developers of email have managed to craft one of the most perfect and exquisite examples I have seen of how to completely and utterly fail. The challenges of internationalized emails are so difficult that buggier implementations are probably more common than fully correct implementations, and any attempt to ignore the issue is completely and totally impossible. In fact, the faults of RFC 2047 are my personal least favorite part of email, and implementing it made me change the design of JSMime more than any other feature. It is probably the single hardest thing to implement correctly in an email client, and it is so broken that another specification was needed to be able to apply internationalization more widely (RFC 2231).

The basic problem RFC 2047 sets out to solve is how to reliably send non-ASCII characters across a medium where only 7-bit characters can be reliably sent. The solution that was set out in the original version, RFC 1342, is to encode specific strings in an "encoded-word" format: =?charset?encoding?encoded text?=. The encoding can either be a 'B' (for Base64) or a 'Q' (for quoted-printable). Except the quoted-printable encoding in this format isn't quite the same quoted-printable encoding used in bodies: the space character is encoded via a '_' character instead, as spaces aren't allowed in encoded-words. Naturally, the use of spaces in encoded-words is common enough to get at least one or two bugs filed a year about Thunderbird not supporting it, and I wonder if this subtle difference between two quoted-printable variants is what causes the prevalence of such emails.

One of my great hates with regard to email is the strict header line length limit. Since the encoded-word form can get naturally verbose, particularly when you consider languages like Chinese that are going to have little whitespace amenable for breaking lines, the ingenious solution is to have adjacent encoded-word tokens separated only by whitespace be treated as the same word. As RFC 6857 kindly summarizes, "whitespace behavior is somewhat unpredictable, in practice, when multiple encoded words are used." RFC 6857 also suggests that the requirement to limit encoded words to only 74 characters in length is also rather meaningless in practice.

A more serious problem arises when you consider the necessity of treating adjacent encoded-word tokens as a single unit. This one is so serious that it reaches the point where all of your options would break somebody. When implementing an RFC 2047 encoding algorithm, how do you write the code to break up a long span of text into multiple encoded words without ever violating the specification? The naive way of doing so is to encode the text once in one long string, and then break it into checks which are then converted into the encoded-word form as necessary. This is, of course, wrong, as it breaks two strictures of RFC 2047. The first is that you cannot split the middle of multibyte characters. The second is that mode-switching character sets must return to ASCII by the end of a single encoded-word [9]. The smarter way of building encoded-words is to encode words by trying to figure out how much text can be encoded before needing to switch, and breaking the encoded-words when length quotas are exceeded. This is also wrong, since you could end up violating the return-to-ASCII rule if your don't double-check your converters. Also, if UTF-16 is used as the basis for the string before charset conversion, the encoder stands a good chance of splitting up creating unpaired surrogates and a giant mess as a result.

For JSMime, the algorithm I chose to implement is specific to UTF-8, because I can use a property of the UTF-8 implementation to make encoding fast (every octet is looked at exactly three times: once to convert to UTF-8, once to count to know when to break, and once to encode into base64 or quoted-printable). The property of UTF-8 is that the second, third, and fourth octets of a multibyte character all start with the same two bits, and those bits never start the first octet of a character. Essentially, I convert the entire string to a binary buffer using UTF-8. I then pass through the buffer, keeping counters of the length that the buffer would be in base64 form and in quoted-printable form. When both counters are exceeded, I back up to the beginning of the character, and encode that entire buffer in a word and then move on. I made sure to test that I don't break surrogate characters by making liberal use of the non-BMP character U+1F4A9 [10] in my encoding tests.

The sheer ease of writing a broken encoder for RFC 2047 means that broken encodings exist in the wild, so an RFC 2047 decoder needs to support some level of broken RFC 2047 encoding. Unfortunately, to "fix" different kinds of broken encodings requires different support for decoders. Treating adjacent encoded-words as part of the same buffer when decoding makes split multibyte characters work properly but breaks non-return-to-ASCII issues; if they are decoded separately the reverse is true. Recovering issues with isolated surrogates is at best time-consuming and difficult and at worst impossible.

Yet another problem with the way encoded-words are defined is that they are defined as specific tokens in the grammar of structured address fields. This means that you can't hide RFC 2047 encoding or decoding as a final processing step when reading or writing messages. Instead you have to do it during or after parsing (or during or before emission). So the parser as a result becomes fully intertwined with support for encoded-words. Converting a fully UTF-8 message into a 7-bit form is thus a non-trivial operation: there is a specification solely designed to discuss how to do such downgrading, RFC 6857. It requires deducing what structure a header has, parsing that harder, and then reencoding the parsed header. This sort of complicated structure makes it much harder to write general-purpose email libraries: the process of emitting a message basically requires doing a generic UTF-8-to-7-bit conversion. Thus, what is supposed to be a more implementation detail of how to send out a message ends up permeating the entire stack.

Unfortunately, the developers of RFC 2047 were a bit too clever for their own good. The specification limits the encoded-words to occurring only inside of phrases (basically, display names for addresses), unstructured text (like the subject), or comments (…). I presume this was done to avoid requiring parsers to handle internationalization in email addresses themselves or possibly even things like MIME boundary delimiters. However, this list leaves out one common source of internationalized text: filenames of attachments. This was ultimately patched by RFC 2231.

RFC 2231 is by no means a simple specification, since it attempts to solve three problems simultaneously. The first is the use of non-ASCII characters in parameter values. Like RFC 2047, the excessively low header line length limit causes the second problem, the need to wrap parameter values across multiple line lengths. As a result, the encoding is complicated (it takes more lines of code to parse RFC 2231's new features alone than it does to parse the basic format [11]), but it's not particularly difficult.

The third problem RFC 2231 attempts to solve is a rather different issue altogether: it tries to conclusively assign a language tag to the encoded text and also provides a "fix" for this to RFC 2047's encoded-words. The stated rationale is to be able to have screen readers read the text aloud properly, but the other (much more tangible) benefit is to ameliorate the issues of Unicode's Han unification by clearly identifying if the text is Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. While it sounds like a nice idea, it suffers from a major flaw: there is no way to use this data without converting internal data structures from using flat strings to richer representations. Another issue is that actually setting this value correctly (especially if your goal is supporting screen readers' pronunciations) is difficult if not impossible. Fortunately, this is an entirely optional feature; though I do see very little email that needs to be concerned about internationalization, I have yet to find an example of someone using this in the wild.

If you're the sort of person who finds properly writing internationalized text via RFC 2231 or RFC 2047 too hard (or you don't realize that you need to actually worry about this sort of stuff), and you don't want to use any of the several dozen MIME libraries to do the hard stuff for you, then you will become the bane of everyone who writes email clients, because you've just handed us email messages that have 8-bit text in the headers. At which point everything goes mad, because we have no clue what charset you just used. Well, RFC 6532 says that headers are supposed to be UTF-8, but with the specification being only 19 months old and part of a system which is still (to my knowledge) not supported by any major clients, this should be taken with a grain of salt. UTF-8 has the very nice property that text that is valid UTF-8 is highly unlikely to be any other charset, even if you start considering the various East Asian multibyte charsets. Thus you can try decoding under the assumption that is UTF-8 and switch to a designated fallback charset if decoding fails. Of course, knowing which designated fallback to use is a different matter entirely.

Stepping outside email messages themselves, internationalization is still a concern. IMAP folder names are another well-known example. RFC 3501 specified that mailbox names should be in a modified version of UTF-7 in an awkward compromise. To my knowledge, this is the only remaining significant use of UTF-7, as many web browsers disabled support due to its use in security attacks. RFC 6855, another recent specification (6 months old as of this writing), finally allows UTF-8 mailbox names here, although it too is not yet in widespread usage.

You will note missing from the list so far is email addresses. The topic of email addresses is itself worthy of lengthy discussion, but for the purposes of a discussion on internationalization, all you need to know is that, according to RFCs 821 and 822 and their cleaned-up successors, everything to the right of the '@' is a domain name and everything to the left is basically an opaque ASCII string [12]. It is here that internationalization really runs headlong into an immovable obstacle, for the email address has become the de facto unique identifier of the web, and everyone has their own funky ideas of what an email address looks like. As a result, the motto of "be liberal in what you accept" really breaks down with email addresses, and the amount of software that needs to change to accept internationalization extends far beyond the small segment interested only in the handling of email itself. Unfortunately, the relative newness of the latest specifications and corresponding lack of implementations means that I am less intimately familiar with this aspect of internationalization. Indeed, the impetus for this entire blogpost was a day-long struggle with trying to ascertain when two email addresses are the same if internationalized email address are involved.

The email address is split nicely by the '@' symbol, and internationalization of the two sides happens at two different times. Domains were internationalized first, by RFC 3490, a specification with the mouthful of a name "Internationalizing Domain Names in Applications" [13], or IDNA2003 for short. I mention the proper name of the specification here to make a point: the underlying protocol is completely unchanged, and all the work is intended to happen at roughly the level of getaddrinfo—the internal DNS resolver is supposed to be involved, but the underlying DNS protocol and tools are expected to remain blissfully unaware of the issues involved. That I mention the year of the specification should tell you that this is going to be a bumpy ride.

An internationalized domain name (IDN for short) is a domain name that has some non-ASCII characters in it. Domain names, according to DNS, are labels terminated by '.' characters, where each label may consist of up to 63 characters. The repertoire of characters are the ASCII alphanumerics and the '-' character, and labels are of course case-insensitive like almost everything else on the Internet. Encoding non-ASCII characters into this small subset while meeting these requirements is difficult for other contemporary schemes: UTF-7 uses Base64, which means 'A' and 'a' are not equivalent; percent-encoding eats up characters extremely quickly. So IDN use a different specification for this purpose, called Punycode, which allows for a dense but utterly unreadable encoding. The basic algorithm of encoding an IDN is to take the input string, apply case-folding, normalize using NFKC, and then encode with Punycode.

Case folding, as I mentioned several paragraphs ago, turns out to have some issues. The ß and ς characters were the ones that caused the most complaints. You see, if you were to register, say, www.weiß.de, you would actually be registering As there is no indication of Punycode involved in the name, browsers would show the domain in the ASCII variant. One way of fixing this problem would be to work with browser vendors to institute a "preferred name" specification for websites (much like there exists one for the little icons next to page titles), so that the world could know that the proper capitalization is of course instead of Instead, the German and Greek registrars pushed for a change to IDNA, which they achieved in 2010 with IDNA2008.

IDNA2008 is defined principally in RFCs 5890-5895 and UTS #46. The principal change is that the normalization step no longer exists in the protocol and is instead supposed to be done by applications, in a possibly locale-specific manner, before looking up the domain name. One reason for doing this was to eliminate the hard dependency on a specific, outdated version of Unicode [14]. It also helps fix things like the Turkish dotless I issue, in theory at least. However, this different algorithm causes some domains to be processed differently from IDNA2003. UTS #46 specifies a "compatibility mode" which changes the algorithm to match IDNA2003 better in the important cases (specifically, ß, ς, and ZWJ/ZWNJ), with a note expressing the hope that this will eventually become unnecessary. To handle the lack of normalization in the protocol, registrars are asked to automatically register all classes of equivalent domain names at the same time. I should note that most major browsers (and email clients, if they implement IDN at all) are still using IDNA2003: an easy test of this fact is to attempt to go to ☃.net, which is valid under IDNA2003 but not IDNA2008.

Unicode text processing is often vulnerable to an attack known as the "homograph attack." In most fonts, the Greek omicron and the Latin miniscule o will be displayed in exactly the same way, so an attacker could pretend to be from, say, Google while instead sending you to Gοogle—I used Latin in the first word and Greek in the second. The standard solution is to only display the Unicode form (and not the Punycode form) where this is not an issue; Firefox and Opera display Unicode only for a whitelist of registrars with acceptable polices, Chrome and Internet Explorer only permits scripts that the user claims to read, and Safari only permits scripts that don't permit the homograph attack (i.e., not Cyrillic or Greek). (Note: this information I've summarized from Chromium's documentation; forward any complaints of out-of-date information to them).

IDN satisfies the needs of internationalizing the second half of an email address, so a working group was commissioned to internationalize the first one. The result is EAI, which was first experimentally specified in RFCs 5335-5337, and the standards themselves are found in RFCs 6530-6533 and 6855-6858. The primary difference between the first, experimental version and the second, to-be-implemented version is the removal of attempts to downgrade emails in the middle of transit. In the experimental version, provisions were made to specify with every internalized address an alternate, fully ASCII address to which a downgraded message could be sent if SMTP servers couldn't support the new specifications. These were removed after the experiment found that such automatic downgrading didn't work as well as hoped.

With automatic downgrading removed from the underlying protocol, the onus is on people who generate the emails—mailing lists and email clients—to figure out who can and who can't receive messages and then downgrade messages as appropriate for the recipients of the message. However, the design of SMTP is such that it is impossible to automatically determine if the client can receive these new kinds of messages. Thus, the options are to send them and hope that it works or to rely on the (usually clueless) user to inform you if it works. Clearly an unpalatable set of options, but it is one that can't be avoided due to protocol design.

The largest change of EAI is that the local parts of addresses are specified as a sequence of UTF-8 characters, omitting only the control characters [15]. The working group responsible for the specification adamantly refused to define a Unicode-to-ASCII conversion process, and thus a mechanism to make downgrading work smoothly, for several reasons. First, they didn't want to specify a prefix which could change the meaning of existing local-parts (the structure of local-parts is much less discoverable than the structure of all domain names). Second, they felt that the lack of support for displaying the Unicode variants of Punycode meant that users would have a much worse experience. Finally, the transition period would be hopefully short (although messy), so designing a protocol that supports that short period would worsen it in the long term. Considering that, at the moment of writing, only one of the major SMTP implementations has even a bug filed to support it, I think the working group underestimates just how long transition periods can take.

As far as changes to the message format go, that change is the only real change, considering how much effort is needed to opt-in. Yes, headers are now supposed to be UTF-8, but, in practice, every production MIME parser needs to handle 8-bit characters in headers anyways. Yes, message/global can have MIME encoding applied to it (unlike message/rfc822), but, in practice, you already need to assume that people are going to MIME-encode message/rfc822 in violation of the specification. So, in practice, the changes needed to a parser are to add message/global as an alias to message/rfc822 [16] and possibly tweaking some charset detection heuristics to prefer UTF-8. I would very much have liked the restriction on header line length removed, but, alas, the working group did not feel moved to make those changes. Still, I look forward to the day when I never have to worry about encoding text into RFC 2047 encoded-words.

IMAP, POP, and SMTP are also all slightly modified to take account of the new specifications. Specifically, internationalized headers are supposed to be opt-in only—SMTP are supposed to reject sending to these messages if it doesn't support them in the first place, and IMAP and POP are supposed to downgrade messages when requested unless the client asks for them to not be. As there are no major server implementations yet, I don't know how well these requirements will be followed, especially given that most of the changes already need to be tolerated by clients in practice. The experimental version of internationalization specified a format which would have wreaked havoc to many current parsers, so I suspect some of the strict requirements may be a holdover from that version.

And thus ends my foray into email internationalization, a collection of bad solutions to hard problems. I have probably done a poor job of covering the complete set of inanities involved, but what I have covered are the ones that annoy me the most. This certainly isn't the last I'll talk about the impossibility of message parsing either, but it should be enough at least to convince you that you really don't want to write your own message parser.

[1] Date/time, numbers, and currency are the other major aspects of internalization.
[2] I am a native English speaker who converses with other people almost completely in English. That said, I can comprehend French, although I am not familiar with the finer points that come with fluency, such as collation concerns.
[3] C and C++ have a built-in internationalization and localization API, derived from POSIX. However, this API is generally unsuited to the full needs of people who actually care about these topics, so it's not really worth mentioning.
[4] The basic algorithm to encode RFC 2047 strings for any charset are to try to shift characters into the output string until you hit the maximum word length. If the internal character set for Unicode conversion is UTF-16 instead of UTF-32 and the code is ignorant of surrogate concerns, then this algorithm could break surrogates apart. This is exactly how the bug is triggered in Thunderbird.
[5] I'm not discussing Han unification, which is arguably the single most controversial aspect of Unicode.
[6] Official list here means the official set curated by IANA as valid for use in the charset="" parameter. The actual set of values likely to be acceptable to a majority of clients is rather different.
[7] If you've read this far and find internationalization inoperability surprising, you are either incredibly ignorant or incurably optimistic.
[8] I'm not discussing collation (sorting) or word-breaking issues as this post is long enough already. Nevertheless, these also help very much in making you want to run away from internationalization.
[9] I actually, when writing this post, went to double-check to see if Thunderbird correctly implements return-to-ASCII in its encoder, which I can only do by running tests, since I myself find its current encoder impenetrable. It turns out that it does, but it also looks like if we switched conversion to ICU (as many bugs suggest), we may break this part of the specification, since I don't see the ICU converters switching to ASCII at the end of conversion.
[10] Chosen as a very adequate description of what I think of RFC 2047. Look it up if you can't guess it from context.
[11] As measured by implementation in JSMime, comments and whitespace included. This is biased by the fact that I created a unified lexer for the header parser, which rather simplifies the implementation of the actual parsers themselves.
[12] This is, of course a gross oversimplification, so don't complain that I'm ignoring domain literals or the like. Email addresses will be covered later.
[13] A point of trivia: the 'I' in IDNA2003 is expanded as "Internationalizing" while the 'I' in IDNA2008 is for "Internationalized."
[14] For the technically-minded: IDNA2003 relied on a hard-coded list of banned codepoints in processing, while IDNA2008 derives its lists directly from Unicode codepoint categories, with a small set of hard-coded exceptions.
[15] Certain ASCII characters may require the local-part to be quoted, of course.
[16] Strictly speaking, message/rfc822 remains all-ASCII, and non-ASCII headers need message/global. Given the track record of message/news, I suspect that this distinction will, in practice, not remain for long.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why email is hard, part 1: architecture

Which is harder, writing an email client or writing a web browser? Several years ago, I would have guessed the latter. Having worked on an email client for several years, I am now more inclined to guess that email is harder, although I never really worked on a web browser, so perhaps it's just bias. Nevertheless, HTML comes with a specification that tells you how to parse crap that pretends to be HTML; email messages come with no such specification, which forces people working with email to guess based on other implementations and bug reports. To vent some of my frustration with working with email, I've decided to post some of my thoughts on what email did wrong and why it is so hard to work with. Since there is so much to talk about, instead of devoting one post to it, I'll make it an ongoing series with occasional updates (i.e., updates will come out when I feel like it, so don't bother asking).

First off, what do I mean by an email client? The capabilities of, say, Outlook versus Gaia Email versus Thunderbird are all wildly different, and history has afforded many changes in support. I'll consider anything that someone might want to put in an email client as fodder for discussion in this series (so NNTP, RSS, LDAP, CalDAV, and maybe even IM stuff might find discussions later). What I won't consider are things likely to be found in a third-party library, so SSL, HTML, low-level networking, etc., are all out of scope, although I may mention them where relevant in later posts. If one is trying to build a client from scratch, the bare minimum one needs to understand first is the basic message formatting, MIME (which governs attachments), SMTP (email delivery), and either POP or IMAP (email receipt). Unfortunately, each of these requires cross-referencing a dozen RFCs individually when you start considering optional or not-really-optional features.

The current email architecture we work with today doesn't have a unique name, although "Internet email" [1] or "SMTP-based email" are probably the most appropriate appellations. Since there is only one in use in modern times, there is no real need to refer to it by anything other than "email." The reason for the use of SMTP in lieu of any other major protocol to describe the architecture is because the heart of the system is motivated by the need to support SMTP, and because SMTP is how email is delivered across organizational boundaries, even if other protocols (such as LMTP) are used internally.

Some history of email, at least that lead up to SMTP, is in order. In the days of mainframes, mail generally only meant communicating between different users on the same machine, and so a bevy of incompatible systems started to arise. These incompatible systems grew to support connections with other computers as networking computers became possible. The ARPANET project brought with it an attempt to standardize mail transfer on ARPANET, separated into two types of documents: those that standardized message formats, and those that standardized the message transfer. These would eventually culminate in RFC 822 and RFC 821, respectively. SMTP was designed in the context of ARPANET, and it was originally intended primarily to standardize the messages transferred only on this network. As a result, it was never intended to become the standard for modern email.

The main competitor to SMTP-based email that is worth discussing is X.400. X.400 was at one time expected to be the eventual global email interconnect protocol, and interoperability between SMTP and X.400 was a major focus in the 1980s and 1990s. SMTP has a glaring flaw, to those who work with it, in that it is not so much designed as evolved to meet new needs as they came up. In contrast, X.400 was designed to account for a lot of issues that SMTP hadn't dealt with yet, and included arguably better functionality than SMTP. However, it turned out to be a colossal failure, although theories differ as to why. The most convincing to me boils down to X.400 being developed at a time of great flux in computing (the shift from mainframes to networked PCs) combined with a development process that was ill-suited to reacting quickly to these changes.

I mentioned earlier that SMTP eventually culminates in RFC 821. This is a slight lie, for one of the key pieces of the Internet, and a core of the modern email architecture, didn't exist. That is DNS, which is the closest thing the Internet has to X.500 (a global, searchable directory of everything). Without DNS, figuring out how to route mail via SMTP is a bit of a challenge (hence why SMTP allowed explicit source routing, deprecated post-DNS in RFC 2821). The documents which lay out how to use DNS to route are RFC 974, RFC 1035, and RFC 1123. So it's fair to say that RFC 1123 is really the point at which modern SMTP was developed.

But enough about history, and on to the real topic of this post. The most important artifact of SMTP-based architecture is that different protocols are used to send email from the ones used to read email. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, it's easier to experiment with different ways of accessing mailboxes, or only supporting limited functionality where such is desired. On the other, the need to agree on a standard format still keeps all the protocols more or less intertwined, and it makes some heavily-desired features extremely difficult to implement. For example, there is still, thirty years later, no feasible way to send a mail and save it to a "Sent" folder on your IMAP mailbox without submitting it twice [2].

The greatest flaws in the modern architecture, I think, lie in particular in a bevy of historical design mistakes which remain unmitigated to this day, in particular in the base message format and MIME. Changing these specifications is not out of the question, but the rate at which the changes become adopted is agonizingly slow, to the point that changing is generally impossible unless necessary. Sending outright binary messages was proposed as experimental in 1995, proposed as a standard in 2000, and still remains relatively unsupported: the BINARYMIME SMTP keyword only exists on one of my 4 SMTP servers. Sending non-ASCII text is potentially possible, but it is still not used in major email clients to my knowledge (searching for "8BITMIME" leads to the top results generally being "how do I turn this off?"). It will be interesting to see how email address internationalization is handled, since it's the first major overhaul to email since the introduction of MIME—the first major overhaul in 16 years. Intriguingly enough, the NNTP and Usenet communities have shown themselves to be more adept to change: sending 8-bit Usenet messages generally works, and yEnc would have been a worthwhile addition to MIME if its author had ever attempted to push it through. His decision not to (with the weak excuses he claimed) is emblematic of the resistance of the architecture to change, even in cases where such change would be pretty beneficial.

My biggest complaint with the email architecture isn't actually really a flaw in the strict sense of the term but rather a disagreement. The core motto of email could perhaps be summed up with "Be liberal in what you accept and conservative in what you send." Now, I come from a compilers background, and the basic standpoint in compilers is, if a user does something wrong, to scream at them for being a bloody idiot and to reject their code. Actually, there's a tendency to do that even if they do something technically correct but possibly unintentionally wrong. I understand why people dislike this kind of strict checking, but I personally consider it to be a feature, not a bug. My experience with attempting to implement MIME is that accepting what amounts to complete crap not only means that everyone has to worry about parsing the crap, but it actually ends up encouraging it. The attitude people get in bugs starts becoming "this is supported by <insert other client>, and your client is broken for not supporting it," even when pointed out that their message is in flagrant violation of the specification. As I understand it, HTML 5 has the luxury of specifying a massively complex parser that makes /dev/urandom in theory reliably parsed across different implementations, but there is no such similar document for the modern email message. But we still have to deal with the utter crap people claim is a valid email message. Just this past week, upon sifting through my spam folder, I found a header which is best described as =?UTF-8?Q? ISO-8859-1, non-ASCII text ?= (spaces included). The only way people are going to realize that their tools are producing this kind of crap is if their tools stop working altogether.

These two issues come together most spectacularly when RFC 2047 is involved. This is worth a blog post by itself, but the very low technically-not-but-effectively-mandatory limit on the header length (to aide people who read email without clients) means that encoded words need to be split up to fit on header lines. If you're not careful, you can end up splitting multibyte characters between different encoded words. This unfortunately occurs in practice. Properly handling it in my new parser required completely reflowing the design of the innermost parsing function and greatly increasing implementation complexity. I would estimate that this single attempt to "gracefully" handle wrong-but-of-obvious-intent scenario is worth 15% or so of the total complexity of decoding RFC 2047-encoded text.

There are other issues with modern email, of course, but all of the ones that I've collected so far are not flaws in the architecture as a whole but rather flaws of individual portions of the architecture, so I'll leave them for later posts.

[1] The capital 'I' in "Internet email" is important, as it's referring to the "Internet" in "Internet Standard" or "Internet Engineering Task Force." Thus, "Internet email" means "the email standards developed for the Internet/by the IETF" and not "email used on the internet."
[2] Yes, I know about BURL. It doesn't count. Look at who supports it: almost nobody.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Understanding the comm-central build system

Among the build systems peer, I am very much a newcomer. Despite working with Thunderbird for over 5 years, I've only grown to understand the comm-central build system in gory detail in the past year. Most of my work before then was in trying to get random projects working; understanding it more thoroughly is a result of attempting to eliminate the need for comm-central to maintain its own build system. The goal of moving our build system description to a series of files has made this task much more urgent.

At a high level, the core of the comm-central build system is not a single build system but rather three copies of the same build system. In simple terms, there's a matrix on two accesses: which repository does the configuration of code (whose config.status invokes it), and which repository does the build (whose is used). Most code is configured and built by mozilla-central. That comm-central code which is linked into libxul is configured by mozilla-central but built by comm-central. tier_app is configured and built by comm-central. This matrix of possibilities causes interesting bugs—like the bustage caused by the XPIDLSRCS migration, or issues I'm facing working with xpcshell manifests—but it is probably possible to make all code get configured by mozilla-central and eliminate several issues for once and all.

With that in mind, here is a step-by-step look at how the amorphous monster that is the comm-central build system works:

python checkout

And comm-central starts with a step that is unknown in mozilla-central. Back when everyone was in CVS, the process of building started with "check out from the server, set up your mozconfig, and then run make -f checkout." The checkout would download exactly the directories needed to build the program you were trying to build. When mozilla-central moved to Mercurial, the only external projects in the tree that Firefox used were NSPR and NSS, both of which were set up to pull from a specific revision. The decision was made to import NSPR and NSS as snapshots on a regular basis, so there was no need for the everyday user to use this feature. Thunderbird, on the other hand, pulled in the LDAP code externally, as well as mozilla-central, while SeaMonkey also pulls in the DOM inspector, Venkman, and Chatzilla as extensions. Importing a snapshot was not a tenable option for mozilla-central, as it updates at an aggressive rate, so the functionality of checkout was ported to comm-central in a replacement python fashion.

./configure [comm-central]

The general purpose of configure is to discover the build system and enable or disable components based on options specified by the user. This results in a long list of variables which is read in by the build system. Recently, I changed the script to eliminate the need to port changes from mozilla-central. Instead, this script reads in a few variables and tweaks them slightly to produce a modified command line to call mozilla-central's configure...

./configure [mozilla-central]

... which does all the hard work. There are hooks in the configure script here to run a few extra commands for comm-central's need (primarily adding a few variables and configuring LDAP). This is done by running a bit of m4 over another file and invoking that as a shell script; the m4 is largely to make it look and feel "like" autoconf. At the end of the line, this dumps out all of the variables to a file called config.status; how these get configured in the script is not interesting.

./config.status [mozilla/comm-central]

But config.status is. At this point, we enter the mozbuild world and things become very insane; failure to appreciate what goes on here is a very good way to cause extended bustage for comm-central. The mozbuild code essentially starts at a directory and exhaustively walks it to build a map of all the code. One of the tasks of comm-central's configure is to alert mozbuild to the fact that some of our files use a different build system. We, however, also carefully hide some of our files from mozbuild, so we run another copy of config.status again to add in some more files (tier_app, in short). This results in our code having two different notions of how our build system is split, and was never designed that way. Originally, mozilla-central had no knowledge of the existence of comm-central, but some changes made in the Firefox 4 timeframe suddenly required Thunderbird and SeaMonkey to link all of the mailnews code into libxul, which forced this contorted process to come about.


Now that all of the Makefiles have bee generated, building can begin. The first directory entered is the top of comm-central, which proceeds to immediately make all of mozilla-central. How mozilla-central builds itself is perhaps an interesting discussion, but not for this article. The important part is that partway through building, mozilla-central will be told to make ../mailnews (or one of the other few directories). Under recursive make, the only way to "tell" which build system is being used is by the directory that the $(DEPTH) variable is pointing to, since $(DEPTH)/config/ and $(DEPTH)/config/rules/mk are the files included to get the necessary rules. Since mozbuild was informed very early on that comm-central is special, the variables it points to in comm-central are different from those in mozilla-central—and thus comm-central's files are all invariably built with the comm-central build system despite being built from mozilla-central.

However, this is not true of all files. Some of the files, like the chat directory are never mentioned to mozilla-central. Thus, after the comm-central top-level build completes building mozilla-central, it proceeds to do a full build under what it thinks is the complete build system. It is here that later hacks to get things like xpcshell tests working correctly are done. Glossed over in this discussion is the fun process of tiers and other dependency voodoo tricks for a recursive make.

The future

With all of the changes going on, this guide is going to become obsolete quickly. I'm experimenting with eliminating one of our three build system clones by making all comm-central code get configured by mozilla-central, so that mozbuild gets a truly global view of what's going on—which would help not break comm-central for things like eliminating the master xpcshell manifest, or compiling IDLs in parallel. The long-term goal, of course, is to eliminate the ersatz comm-central build system altogether, although the final setup of how that build system works out is still not fully clear, as I'm still in the phase of "get it working when I symlink everything everywhere."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


When running final tests for my latest patch queue, I discovered that someone has apparently added a new color to the repertoire: a hot pink. So I now present to you a snapshot of TBPL that uses all the colors except gray (running), gray (pending), and black (I've never seen this one):

Sunday, April 7, 2013

JSMime status update

This post is admittedly long overdue, but I kept wanting to delay this post until I actually had patches up for review. But I have the tendency to want to post nothing until I verify that the entire pipeline consisting of over 5,000 lines of changes is fully correct and documented. However, I'm now confident in all but roughly three of my major changes, so patch documentation and redistribution is (hopefully) all that remains before I start saturating all of the reviewers in Thunderbird with this code. An ironic thing to note is that these changes are actually largely a sidetrack from my original goal: I wanted to land my charset-conversion patch, but I first thought it would be helpful to test with nsIMimeConverter using the new method, which required me to implement header parsing, which is best tested with nsIMsgHeaderParser, which turns out to have needed very major changes.

As you might have gathered, I am getting ready to land a major set of changes. This set of changes is being tracked in bugs 790855, 842632, and 858337. These patches are implementing structured header parsing and emission, as well as RFC 2047 decoding and encoding. My goal still remains to land all of these changes by Thunderbird 24, reviewers permitting.

The first part of JSMime landed back in Thunderbird 21, so anyone using the betas is already using part of it. One of the small auxiliary interfaces (nsIMimeHeaders) was switched over to the JS implementation instead of libmime's implementation, as well as the ad-hoc ones used in our test suites. The currently pending changes would use JSMime for the other auxiliary interfaces, nsIMimeConverter (which does RFC 2047 processing) and nsIMsgHeaderParser (which does structured processing of the addressing headers). The changes to the latter are very much API-breaking, requiring me to audit and fix every single callsite in all of comm-central. On the plus side, thanks to my changes, I know I will incidentally be fixing several bugs such as quoting issues in the compose windows, a valgrind error in nsSmtpProtocol.cpp, or the space-in-2047-encoded-words issue.

It's not all the changes, although being able to outright remove 2000 lines of libmime is certainly a welcome change. The brunt of libmime remains the code that is related to the processing of email body parts into the final email display method, which is the next target of my patches and which I originally intended to fix before I got sidetracked. Getting sidetracked isn't altogether a bad thing, since, for the first time, it lets me identify things that can be done in parallel with this work.

A useful change I've identified that is even more invasive than everything else to date would be to alter our view of how message headers work. Right now, we tend to retrieve headers (from, say, nsIMsgDBHdr) as strings, where the consumer will use a standard API to reparse them before acting on their contents. A saner solution is to move the structured parsing into the retrieval APIs, by making an msgIStructuredHeaders interface, retrievable from nsIMsgDBHdr and nsIMsgCompFields from which you can manipulate headers in their structured form instead of their string from. It's even more useful on nsIMsgCompFields, where keeping things in structured form as long as possible is desirable (I particularly want to kill nsIMsgCompFields.splitRecipients as an API).

Another useful change is that our underlying parsing code can properly handle groups, which means we can start using groups to handle mailing lists in our code instead of…the mess we have now. The current implementation sticks mailing lists as individual addresses to be expanded by code in the middle of the compose sequence, which is fragile and suboptimal.

The last useful independent change I can think of is rewriting the addressing widget in the compose frontend to store things internally in a structured form instead of the MIME header kludge it currently uses; this kind of work could also be shared with the similar annoying mailing list editing UI.

As for myself, I will be working on the body part conversion process. I haven't yet finalized the API that extensions will get to use here, as I need to do a lot of playing around with the current implementation to see how flexible it is. The last two entry points into libmime, the stream converter and Gloda, will first be controlled by preference, so that I can land partially-working versions before I land everything that is necessary. My goal is to land a functionality-complete implementation by Thunderbird 31 (i.e., the next ESR branch after 24), so that I can remove the old implementation in Thunderbird 32, but that timescale may still be too aggressive.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Why software monocultures are bad

If you do anything with web development, you are probably well aware that Opera recently announced that it was ditching its Presto layout engine and switching to Webkit. The reception of the blogosphere to this announcement has been decidedly mixed, but I am disheartened by the news for a very simple reason. The loss of one of the largest competitors in the mobile market risks entrenching a monoculture in web browsing.

Now, many people have attempted to argue against this risk by one of three arguments: that Webkit already is a monoculture on mobile browsing; that Webkit is open-source, so it can't be a "bad" monoculture; or that Webkit won't stagnant, so it can't be a "bad" monoculture. The first argument is rather specious, since it presumes that once a monoculture exists it is pointless to try to end it—walk through history, it's easier to cite examples that were broken than ones that weren't. The other two arguments are more dangerous, though, because they presume that a monoculture is bad only because of who is in charge of it, not because it is a monoculture.

The real reason why monocultures are bad are not because the people in control do bad things with it. It's because their implementations—particularly including their bugs—becomes the standards instead of the specifications themselves. And to be able to try to crack into that market, you have to be able to reverse engineer bugs. Reverse engineering bugs, even in open-source code, is far from trivial. Perhaps it's clearer to look at the problems of monoculture by case study.

In the web world, the most well-known monoculture is that of IE 6, which persisted as the sole major browser for about 4 years. One long-lasting ramification of IE is the necessity of all layout engines to support a document.all construct while pretending that they do not actually support it. This is a clear negative feature of monocultures: new things that get implemented become mandatory specifications, independent of the actual quality of their implementation. Now, some fanboys might proclaim that everything Microsoft does is inherently evil and that this is a bad example, but I will point out later known bad-behaviors of Webkit later.

What about open source monocultures? Perhaps the best example here is GCC, which was effectively the only important C compiler for Linux until about two years ago, when clang become self-hosting. This is probably the closest example I have to a mooted Webkit monoculture: a program that no one wants to write from scratch and that is maintained by necessity by a diverse group of contributors. So surely there are no aftereffects from compatibility problems for Clang, right? Well, to be able to compile code on Linux, Clang has to pretty much mimic GCC, down to command-line compatibility and implementing (almost) all of GCC's extensions to C. This also implies that you have to match various compiler intrinsics (such as those for atomic operations) exactly as GCC does: when GCC first implemented proper atomic operations for C++11, Clang was forced to change its syntax for intrinsic atomic operations to match as well.

The problem of implementations becoming the de facto standard becomes brutally clear when a radically different implementation is necessary and backwards compatibility cannot be sacrificed. IE 6's hasLayout bug is a good example here: Microsoft thought it easier to bundle an old version of the layout engine in their newest web browser to support old-compatibility webpages than to try to adaptively support it. It is much easier to justify sacking backwards compatibility in a vibrant polyculture: if a website works in only one layout engine when there are four major ones, then it is a good sign that the website is broken and needs to be fixed.

All of these may seem academic, theoretical objections, but I will point out that Webkit has already shown troubling signs that do not portend to it being a "good" monoculture. The decision to never retire old Webkit prefixes is nothing short of an arrogant practice, and clearly shows that backwards compatibility (even for nominally non-production features) will be difficult to sacrifice. The feature that became CSS gradients underwent cosmetic changes that made things easier for authors that wouldn't have happened in a monoculture layout engine world. Chrome explicitly went against the CSS specification (although they are trying to change it) in one feature with the rationale that is necessary for better scrolling performance in Webkit's architecture—which neither Gecko nor Presto seem to require. So a Webkit monoculture is not a good thing.

Updated DXR on

If you are a regular user of DXR, you may have noticed that the website today looks rather different from what you are used to. This is because it has finally been updated to a version dating back to mid-January, which means it also includes many of the changes developed over the course of the last summer, previously visible only on the development snapshot (which didn't update mozilla-central versions). In the coming months, I also plan to expand the repertoire of indexed repositories from one to two by including comm-central. Other changes that are currently being developed include a documentation output feature for DXR as well as an indexer that will grok our JS half of the codebase.

Monday, January 21, 2013

DXR's future potential

The original purpose of DXR, back when the "D" in its name wasn't a historical artifact, was to provide a replacement for MXR that grokked Mozilla's source code a lot better. In the intervening years, DXR has become a lot better at being an MXR replacement, so I think that perhaps it is worth thinking about ways that DXR can start going above and beyond MXR—beyond just letting you searched for things like "derived" and "calls" relationships.

The #ifdef problem

In discussing DXR at the 2011 LLVM Developers' Conference, perhaps the most common question I had was asking what it did about the #ifdef problem: how does it handle code present in the source files but excluded via conditional compilation constructs? The answer then, as it is now, was "nothing:" at present, it pretends that code not compiled doesn't really exist beyond some weak attempts to lex it for the purposes of syntax highlighting. One item that has been very low priority for several years was an idea to fix this issue by essentially building the code in all of its variations and merging the resulting database to produce a more complete picture of the code. I don't think it's a hard problem at all, but rather just an engineering concern that needs a lot of little details to be worked out, which makes it impractical to implement while the codebase is undergoing flux.


Documentation is an intractable unsolved problem that makes me wonder why I bring it up here…oh wait, it's not. Still, from the poor quality of most documentation tools out there when it comes to grokking very large codebases (Doxygen, I'm looking at you), it's a wonder that no one has built a better one. Clang added a feature that lets it associate comments to AST elements, which means that DXR has all the information it needs to be able to build documentation from our in-tree documentation. With complete knowledge of the codebase and a C++ parser that won't get confused by macros, we have all the information we need to be able to make good documentation, and we also have a very good place to list all of this documentation.

Indexing dynamic languages

Here is where things get really hard. A language like Java or C# is very easy to index: every variable is statically typed and named, and fully-qualified names are generally sufficient for global uniqueness. C-based languages lose the last bit, since nothing enforces global uniqueness of type names. C++ templates are effectively another programming language that relies on duck-typing. However, that typing is still static and can probably be solved with some clever naming and UI; dynamic languages like JavaScript or Python make accurately finding the types of variables difficult to impossible.

Assigning static types to dynamic typing is a task I've given some thought to. The advantage in a tool like DXR is that we can afford to be marginally less accurate in typing in trade for precision. An example of such an inaccuracy would be ignoring what happens with JavaScript's eval function. Inaccuracies here could be thought of as inaccuracies resulting from a type-unsafe language (much like any C-based callgraph information is almost necessarily inaccurate due to problems inherent to pointer alias analysis). The actual underlying algorithms for recovering types appear known and documented in academic literature, so I don't think that actually doing this is theoretically hard. On the other hand, those are very famous last words…