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Stable URLs

There are many reasons to want a message to be addressed by a stable URL, i.e. one that does not change if the message is edited (for the most part), moved to a different archive, or referred to by different access methods. Further, this stable URL should be calculable with just minimal information, and with access to a non-list copy of the message. Some use cases for a message's stable URL include:

  • Archives URLs that survive regeneration, even if messages are deleted from the archive or edited by a list administrator.
  • The ability to pre-calculate the stable URL for inclusion in headers and footers, without having to talk to the archiver (which may be a remote system).
  • The ability for programmatic access to a message in a message store when all you have is the off-list copy of the message.
  • The ability of a 3rd party archiver to implement a "mail this message to me" function.

Stephen Turnbull starts the conversation off with this thread from the mailman-developers mailing list. I suggest you read the entire thread, but below is my counter proposal.

Message-IDs

RFC 2822 describes the Message-ID header. Everyone assumes that Message-ID is globally unique, so why can't it just be used as the stable URL?

Well, maybe it can, but not in its raw form. It's worth noting that RFC 2822 does not require the header, instead specifying that the header SHOULD be included. The header also SHOULD be globally unique but of course, because this is supplied by the client, it may not actually be unique. The Message-ID header certainly isn't very user-friendly and it is not url-friendly because it may contain characters that would have to be url-encoded.

Jeff Breidenbach of The Mail Archive did some analysis of their very large corpus of messages and makes a convincing argument that Message-ID is unique enough to rely on in the real world. It still suffers from lack of user- and url-friendliness. The following proposal uses Message-ID while supporting these other constraints.

RFC 5064

RFC 5064 (draft) is a specification for the Archived-At header. This is a very interesting proposal which will be honored by Mailman. It specifies where the message url should be included in the list copy, though we'll probably also include it in the message footer (the same url will be used in both places). Section 3.2 describes implementation considerations which mirror the same goals we're trying to achieve here, but the draft suffers from the same problems of user- and url-friendliness we've described here.

Thus, you can consider the following specification as a replacement for section 3.2 in the draft RFC 5064.

Primary Specification

Here then is an informal specification for stable URL generation, such that could be used in a web service to provide messages on demand, or included in message footers without requiring communication with the archive.

Headers

We will use the RFC 5064 Archived-At header to contain the full url to the archived message. We'll also introduce a new header called X-Message-ID-Hash which will contain a user- and url-friendly token calculated from the Message-ID and provided as the last component of the Archived-At header. The X-Message-ID-Hash header is provided as a convenience only and is not required for this algorithm to work.

  • X-Message-ID-Hash is calculated from the Base 32 encoded SHA 1 hash of the Message-ID header. As with RFC 2822, the angle bracket delimiters are not considered part of the Message-ID and MUST NOT contribute to the hash.
  • If the incoming message is missing its Message-ID header, the mailing list manager SHOULD add its own version of the header, with the understanding that the non-list copy of the message will not contain this header.
  • If the incoming message's Message-ID is malformed, say because it is missing one or both angle bracket delimiters, the mailing list manager MUST first repair the Message-ID by adding one or both missing delimiters, then use the interior contents of the field value as above (i.e. it MUST ignore any single leading or trailing delimiter). The mailing list manager MAY rewrite the Message-ID with the repaired value.
  • If the incoming message has more than one Message-ID header, the mailing list manager MUST use the first header found and MAY delete subsequent such headers. A mail server feeding the mailing list manager MAY reject messages with duplicate or missing Message-ID headers.
  • The mailing list manager MUST strip any existing X-Message-ID-Hash header in the original message.
  • Archived-At is calculated using the following template: <base-url>/<midhash>, where <base-url> is the base url to the archiving service. The mailing list manager MAY use the value given in the RFC 2369 List-Archive header. The <midhash> is given in the X-Message-ID-Hash header. So for example, a message for the Mailman Developers mailing list at mail.python.org with the Message-ID value of <87myycy5eh.fsf@uwakimon.sk.tsukuba.ac.jp> might have a List-Archive header of http://mail.python.org/archives/mailman-developers, and an Archived-At header value of http://mail.python.org/archives/mailman-developers/JJIGKPKB6CVDX6B2CUG4IHAJRIQIOUTP.

Stable URL calculation

The use of X-Message-ID-Hash and Archived-At headers provides a unique, stable, easily calculated location for the message. Here's a more complete example of a message as posted through the mailing list.

Subject: An important message
Date: Wed, 04 Jul 2007 16:49:58 +0900
Message-ID: <87myycy5eh.fsf@uwakimon.sk.tsukuba.ac.jp>
X-Message-ID-Hash: JJIGKPKB6CVDX6B2CUG4IHAJRIQIOUTP
List-Archive: http://mail.python.org/archives/mailman-developers
Archived-At: http://mail.python.org/archives/mailman-developers/JJIGKPKB6CVDX6B2CUG4IHAJRIQIOUTP

Off-list copy

What if you receive an off-list copy of the message? How could you locate this message in the archive? Let's assume you know that the list's base archive url is at http://mail.python.org/archives/mailman-developers, and let's assume that the off-list copy was well-formed, with one unique, compliant Message-ID header. You could calculate the X-Message-ID-Hash easily, for example with the following bit of Python:

>>> from hashlib import sha1
>>> from base64 import b32encode
>>> base_url = 'http://mail.python.org/archives/mailman-developers'
>>> mid = msg['message-id']
>>> if mid.startswith('<') and mid.endswith('>'):
...     mid = mid[1:-1]
>>> token = b32encode(sha1(mid).digest())
>>> archive_url = '%s/%s' % (base_url, token)

Why Base 32?

Base 32 was chosen because of its limited alphabet and because it consists of only ASCII numbers and letters. This makes it easy (if slightly verbose) for humans to read and pronounce. For example, the numbers 0 and 1 are omitted from the alphabet to reduce confusion between them and the letters O and I in some fonts. Also, base 32 contains upper case letters only, however an archive MAY treat urls as case insensitive (accepting any combination of upper and lower case letters). An archive MAY also accept 0 for O and 1 for I in the X-Message-ID-Hash part only (note: we could take it further and go to base 22, to tolerate a number of common mis-transcriptions). Base 32 also completely url-safe, requiring no encoding in web applications.

Base 64 was rejected because, while providing minimal space savings, the expanded alphabet and case sensitivity was deemed to be less adaptable to human mistake (i.e. "be liberal in what you accept").

Security

There is a possibility of denial-of-service attacks against the archive if the Message-ID is guessable. An attacker could inject a future Message-ID into the system, which would cause an X-Message-ID-Hash collision, thus causing future legitimate messages to get discarded from the archive. This is defended by relying on good, random Message-ID calculation in the sender's mail system. A poorly generated Message-ID headers can have other adverse affects on messages from that sender, so this does not add any additional burden or vulnerability.

When the messages are archived locally to the mail server, there is a high degree of trust between the two. In this architecture, it should be nearly impossible to bypass the list server and inject messages directly into the archive.

When the archiver is remote from the list server though, it will be possible to inject attacks directly into the archiver. Because none of the RFC 2822 headers are reliable, the archiver will have to use other means to verify the message. It could use DKIM headers (though Mailman itself will never sign headers). If archive links are easily guessed, then DoS attacks are made easier.

Alternate Specification

Rationale

The primary specification is oriented around the idea of a universal unique identifiers (UUID). This approach has several powerful advantages.  However, Steve Huston points that the concept of sequence numbers has usability benefits; people are very good at remembering and reasoning about decimal numbers up to about seven digits. Also, sequence numbers are already in widespread use by archiving software such as pipermail and Mhonarc. This specification is designed to allow the Mailing List Manager to tightly operate with and synchronize multiple sequence number based archiving systems, without creating a redundant UUID namespace.

Sequence numbers have the disadvantage that they are less stable in the face of archive regeneration or move. The sequence number is maintained by the mailing list manager, so if a message is deleted and the archive is regenerated, there may be no way to reproduce the sequence number. Also, the sequence number cannot be calculated from off-list message content.

Headers

 

  • X-List-Sequence is a simple message counter. This header was consideredfor RFC 2369 but not included; it will be promoted to List-Sequence if this specification ever gets standards tracked by the IETF. Compliant mailing list managers MUST strip any such headers from inbound messages, and insert it for outbound messages. A compliant mailing list manager MUST strip out any such headers from inbound messages and add it on outbound messages.
  • Archived-At represents an out of band agreement between the mailing list manger and a particular archiving agent. The mailing list manager is expected to construct a URL solely from information present in headers. The corresponding archiving agent is expected to fulfill that obligation upon receipt of the message. The sequence number SHOULD be included in the URL. The archiving agent SHOULD be able to fulfill its obligation without reading the Archived-At header.

In this example, there are three Archived-At headers included in outbound messages. Each is handled by a different archiving agent. They are composed of fixed strings, the sequence number. the contents of the Date header, the contents of the List-Post header, and minor transformations like zero padding.

X-List-Sequence: 72
Archived-At: <http://example.com/72>
Archived-At: <http://mail.python.org/pipermail/mailman-announce/2004-May/000072.html>
Archived-At: <http://some-archiving-service.com/mailman-announce%20python.org/msg00072.html>

Discussion

There are several best practices associated with this specification. For example, it is considered poor form for the mailing list manager to make promises that the archiving agent cannot fulfill. At the very least this is guaranteed to create broken URLs and in the worst case can prevent archiving entirely. One easy way to get in trouble is for the mailing list manager to reset sequence numbers. This might happen when mailing list manger software is replaced, upgraded, or reconfigured. For this reason, arbitrary communication between the mailing list manager and the archiving agent is permitted to determine the initial value of the sequence number. At no other time is two way communication encouraged.

Compliant archiving agents SHOULD respect X-List-Sequence even if there are no relevant Archived-At headers. For lists with multiple archives, this will synchronize sequence numbers, e,g. "message 72" is will have the same content across multiple archives. In general archiving agents are not expected to parse the Archived-At header, instead they fulfill their out-of-band agreement with the mailing list manager by dead reckoning.

Security

Sequence numbers are more prone to denial-of-service attacks on the archiver. If messages can be injected into the archiver that do not come from the mailing list manager, future X-List-Sequence header can be easily guessed, and the archiver could be easily populated by forgeries.

Open issues

Mailman's message scrubber also uses the archiver in a way not handled by the current specification. When a message reaches Mailman containing attachments, these attachments can be stripped and stored in the archive. The list copy of the message is then altered to contain just a url to the attachment as it appears in the archive. This is called scrubbing the message. How can we handle scrubbed attachments?

The primary specification can lead to unusably long urls. For example, the Mail-Archive requires the use of the list name in the url. This can lead to urls such as http://www.mail-archive.com/mailman-developers@python.org/AGDWSNXXKCWEILKKNYTBOHRDQGOX3Y35 which, at 90 characters, no sane person would want to see in a message body footer. Even switching to a short domain name, you'd still only get the header down to 70 some odd characters, which is still a lot. Omitting the list name gets you into a more reasonable 40-50 character range, but requires a mapping to get from message hash to mailing list and has problems when messages with the same Message-ID are cross-posted. Choosing Base64 instead of Base32 drops you down some 5 characters, at the possible cost of much worse readability (collisions between 0/1 and O/I, and upper/lower-case confusion). This readability claim has not been verified by user testing, and may be specious.

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  1. Jun 10, 2008

    An alternative for the Mail Archive is described here: http://www.mail-archive.com/faq.html#listserver

  2. Jun 15, 2008

    If you're going to generate a hash, it should be generated across all the required RFC-2822 headers (in addition to the others being discussed), including From:, To:, Subject:, and Date:.   This would help to guarantee the uniqueness of the hash, even if the message-id were to collide.

    Second, although you want to use a hashing algorithm that is considered reasonably secure today (e.g., SHA-256), you also want to explicitly include up-front an extension/alternative mechanism, so that in the future when SHA-256 gets thrown onto the same scrapheap as MD5 and SHA-1, you can easily do so.