The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 25 Mar 2008

The "z" command: output filtering
My last few articles ([1] [2] [p] [p-2]) have been about this z program. The first part of this article is a summary of that discussion, which you can skip if you remember it.

The idea of z is that you can do:

        z grep pattern files...
and it does approximately the same as:
        zgrep pattern files...
or you could do:
        z sed script files...
and it would do the same as:
        zsed script files...
if there were a zsed command, although there isn't.

Much of the discussion has concerned a problem with the implementation, which is that the names of the original compressed files are not available to the command, due to the legerdemain z must perform in order to make the uncompressed data available to the command. The problem is especially apparent with wc:

        % z wc *  
            411    2611   16988
             71     358    2351 /proc/self/fd/3
            121     725    5053 /proc/self/fd/4
             51     380    2381
             48     145     885
            288    2159   12829 /proc/self/fd/5
             95     665    4337
            221     941    6733
            106     555    3976
            115     793    4904
            124     624    4208 /proc/self/fd/6
           1651    9956   64645 total

Here /proc/self/fd/3 and the rest should have been names ending in .gz, such as

Another possible solution

At the time I wrote the first article, it occurred to me briefly that it would be possible to have z capture the output of the command and attempt to translate /proc/self/fd/3 back to or whatever is appropriate, because although the subcommand does not know the original filenames, z itself does. The code would look something like this. Instead of ending by execing the command, as the original version of z did:
  exec $command, @ARGV;
  die "Couldn't run '$command': $!.\n";
this revised version of z, which we might call zz, would end with the code to translate back to the original filenames:

  open my($out), "-|", $command, @ARGV
    or die "Couldn't run '$command': $!.\n";
  while (<$out>) {
Here @old is an array that translates from file descriptors back to the original filename.

At the time, I thought of doing this, and my immediate thought was "well, that is so obviously a terrible idea that it is not worth even mentioning", so I left it out. But since then at least five people have written to me to suggest it, so it appears that it is not obviously a terrible idea. I had to think a little deeper about why I thought it was a terrible idea.

Really the question is why I think this is a more terrible idea than the original z program was in the first place. Because one could say that z is garbling the output of its command, and the filtering code in zz is only un-garbling it. But I think this isn't the right way to look at it.

The output of the command has a certain format, a certain structure. We don't know ahead of time what that structure is, but it can be described for any particular command. For instance, the output of wc is always a sequence of lines where each line has four whitespace-separated fields, of which the first three are numerals and the last is a filename, and then a final total line at the end.

Similarly, the output of tar is a file in a complicated binary format, one which is documented somewhere and which is intelligible to other instances of the tar command that are trying to decode it.

The original behavior of z may alter the content of the command output to some extent, replacing some filenames with others. But it cannot disrupt the structure or the format of the file, ever. This is because the output of z tar is the output of tar, unmodified. The z program tampers with the arguments it gives to tar, but having done that it runs tar and lets tar do what it wants, and tar then must produce a tar-format output, possibly not the one it would have normally produced—the content might be a little different—but a properly-formatted one for sure. In particular, any program written to deal properly with the output of tar will still work with the output of z tar. The output might not have the same meaning, but we can say very particularly what the extent of the differences might be: if the output mentions filenames, then some of these might have changed from the true filenames to filenames of the form /proc/self/fd/37.

With zz, we cannot make any such guarantee. The output of zz tar zc foo.gz, for example, might be in proper .tar.gz format. But suppose the output of tar zc foo.gz creates compressed binary output that just happens to contain the byte sequence 2f70 726f 632f 7365 6c66 2f66 642f 33? (That is, "/proc/self/fd/3".) Then zz will silently replace these 15 bytes with the six bytes 666f 6f2e 677a.

What if the original sequence was understood as part of a sequence of 2-byte integers? The result is not even properly aligned. What if that initial 2f was a count? The resulting count (66) is much too long. The result would be utterly garbled and unintelligible to tar zx. What the tar command will do with a garbled input is not well-defined: it might dump core, or it might write out random garbage data, or overwrite essential files in the filesystem. We are into nasal demon territory. With the original z, we never get anywhere near the nasal demons.

I suppose the short summary here is that z treats its command as a black box, while zz pretends to understand what comes out of it. But zz's understanding is a false pretense. My experience says that programs should not screw around with things they don't understand, and this is why I instantly rejected the idea when I thought of it before.

One correspondent argued that the garbling is very unlikely, and proposed various techniques to make it even less likely, mostly by rewriting the input filenames to various long random strings. But I felt then that this was missing the point, and I still do. He says it is unlikely, but he doesn't know that it is unlikely, and indeed the unlikeliness depends on the format of the output of the command, which is precisely the unknown here. In my view, the difference between z and zz is that the changes that z makes are bounded, because you can describe them briefly, as I did above, and the changes that zz makes are unbounded, because there is no limit to what could happen as a result.

On the other hand, this correspondent made a good point that if the output of zz is not consumed by anything other than human eyeballs, there may be no real problem. And for some particular commands, such as wc, there is never any problem at all. So perhaps it's a good idea to add a command-line option to z to enable the zz behavior. I did this in my version, and I'm going to try it out and see how it goes.

Complete modified source code is available. (Diffs from previous version.)

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