File transfer over the TTY

There are sometimes situations where the TTY is the only convenient pipe between two connected systems, for example, nested SSH sessions, a serial line, etc. In such scenarios, it is useful to be able to transfer files over the TTY.

This protocol provides the ability to transfer regular files, directories and links (both symbolic and hard) preserving most of their metadata. It can optionally use compression and transmit only binary diffs to speed up transfers. However, since all data is base64 encoded for transmission over the TTY, this protocol will never be competitive with more direct file transfer mechanisms.

Overall design

The basic design of this protocol is around transfer “sessions”. Since untrusted software should not be able to read/write to another machines filesystem, a session must be approved by the user in the terminal emulator before any actual data is transmitted, unless a pre-shared password is provided.

There can be either send or receive sessions. In send sessions files are sent from remote client to the terminal emulator and vice versa for receive sessions. Every session basically consists of sending metadata for the files first and then sending the actual data. The session is a series of commands, every command carrying the session id (which should be a random unique-ish identifier, to avoid conflicts). The session is bi-directional with commands going both to and from the terminal emulator. Every command in a session also carries an action field that specifies what the command does. The remaining fields in the command are dependent on the nature of the command.

Let’s look at some simple examples of sessions to get a feel for the protocol.

Sending files to the computer running the terminal emulator

The client starts by sending a start send command:

→ action=send id=someid

It then waits for a status message from the terminal either allowing the transfer or refusing it. Until this message is received the client is not allowed to send any more commands for the session. The terminal emulator should drop a session if it receives any commands before sending an OK response. If the user accepts the transfer, the terminal will send:

← action=status id=someid status=OK

Or if the transfer is refused:

← action=status id=someid status=EPERM:User refused the transfer

The client then sends one or more file commands with the metadata of the file it wants to transfer:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/path/to/destination
→ action=file id=someid file_id=f2 name=/path/to/destination2 ftype=directory

The terminal responds with either OK for directories or STARTED for files:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=STARTED
← action=status id=someid file_id=f2 status=OK

If there was an error with the file, for example, if the terminal does not have permission to write to the specified location, it will instead respond with an error, such as:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=EPERM:No permission

The client sends data for files using data commands. It does not need to wait for the STARTED from the terminal for this, the terminal must discard data for files that are not STARTED. Data for a file is sent in individual chunks of no larger than 4096 bytes. For example:

→ action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=chunk of bytes
→ action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=chunk of bytes
...
→ action=end_data id=someid file_id=f1 data=chunk of bytes

The sequence of data transmission for a file is ended with an end_data command. After each data packet is received the terminal replies with an acknowledgement of the form:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=PROGRESS size=bytes written

After end_data the terminal replies with:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=OK size=bytes written

If an error occurs while writing the data, the terminal replies with an error code and ignores further commands about that file, for example:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=EIO:Failed to write to file

Once the client has finished sending as many files as it wants to, it ends the session with:

→ action=finish id=someid

At this point the terminal commits the session, applying file metadata, creating links, etc. If any errors occur it responds with an error message, such as:

← action=status id=someid status=Some error occurred

Receiving files from the computer running terminal emulator

The client starts by sending a start receive command:

→ action=receive id=someid size=num_of_paths

It then sends a list of num_of_paths paths it is interested in receiving:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/some/path
→ action=file id=someid file_id=f2 name=/some/path2
...

The client must then wait for responses from the terminal emulator. It is an error to send anymore commands to to the terminal until an OK response is received from the terminal. The terminal wait for the user to accept the request. If accepted, it sends:

← action=status id=someid status=OK

If permission is denied it sends:

← action=status id=someid status=EPERM:User refused the transfer

The terminal then sends the metadata for all requested files. If any of them are directories, it traverses the directories recursively, listing all files. Note that symlinks must not be followed, but sent as symlinks:

← action=file id=someid file_id=f1 mtime=XXX permissions=XXX name=/absolute/path status=file_id1 size=size_in_bytes file_type=type parent=file_id of parent
← action=file id=someid file_id=f1 mtime=XXX permissions=XXX name=/absolute/path2 status=file_id2 size=size_in_bytes file_type=type parent=file_id of parent
...

Here the file_id field is set to the file_id value sent from the client and the status field is set to the actual file id for each file. This is because a file query sent from the client can result in multiple actual files if it is a directory. The parent field is the actual file_id of the directory containing this file and is set for entries that are generated from client requests that match directories. This allows the client to build an unambiguous picture of the file tree.

Once all the files are listed, the terminal sends an OK response that also specifies the absolute path to the home directory for the user account running the terminal:

← action=status id=someid status=OK name=/path/to/home

If an error occurs while listing any of the files asked for by the client, the terminal will send an error response like:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=ENOENT: Does not exist

Here, file_id is the same as was sent by the client in its initial query.

Now, the client can send requests for file data using the paths sent by the terminal emulator:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/some/path
...

The terminal emulator replies with the data for the files, as a sequence of data commands each with a chunk of data no larger than 4096 bytes, for each file (the terminal emulator should send the data for one file at a time):

← action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=chunk of bytes
...
← action=end_data id=someid file_id=f1 data=chunk of bytes

If any errors occur reading file data, the terminal emulator sends an error message for the file, for example:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=EIO:Could not read

Once the client is done reading data for all the files it expects, it terminates the session with:

→ action=finished id=someid

Canceling a session

A client can decide to cancel a session at any time (for example if the user presses ctrl+c). To cancel a session it sends a cancel action to the terminal emulator:

→ action=cancel id=someid

The terminal emulator drops the session and sends a cancel acknowledgement:

← action=status id=someid status=CANCELED

The client must wait for the canceled response from the emulator discarding any other responses till the cancel is received. If it does not wait, after it quits the responses might end up being printed to screen.

Quieting responses from the terminal

The above protocol includes lots of messages from the terminal acknowledging receipt of data, granting permission etc., acknowledging cancel requests, etc. For extremely simple clients like shell scripts, it might be useful to suppress these responses, which can be done by adding the quiet key to the start session command:

→ action=send id=someid quiet=1

The key can take the values 1 - meaning suppress acknowledgement responses or 2 - meaning suppress all responses including errors. Only actual data responses are sent. Note that in particular this means acknowledgement of permission for the transfer to go ahead is suppressed, so this is typically useful only with Bypassing explicit user authorization.

File metadata

File metadata includes file paths, permissions and modification times. They are somewhat tricky as different operating systems support different kinds of metadata. This specification defines a common minimum set which should work across most operating systems.

File paths

File paths must be valid UTF-8 encoded POSIX paths (i.e. using the forward slash / as a separator). Linux systems allow non UTF-8 file paths, these are not supported. A leading ~/ means a path is relative to the HOME directory. All path must be either absolute (i.e. with a leading /) or relative to the HOME directory. Individual components of the path must be no longer than 255 UTF-8 bytes. Total path length must be no more than 4096 bytes. Paths from Windows systems must use the forward slash as the separator, the first path component must be the drive letter with a colon. For example: C:somefile.txt is represented as /C:/some/file.txt. For maximum portability, the following characters should be omitted from paths (however implementations are free to try to support them returning errors for non-representable paths):

\ * : < > ? | /
File modification times

Must be represented as the number of nanoseconds since the UNIX epoch. An individual file system may not store file metadata with this level of accuracy in which case it should use the closest possible approximation.

File permissions

Represented as a number with the usual UNIX read, write and execute bits. In addition, the sticky, set-group-id and set-user-id bits may be present. Implementations should make a best effort to preserve as many bits as possible. On Windows, there is only a read-only bit. When reading file metadata all the WRITE bits should be set if the read only bit is clear and cleared if it is set. When writing files, the read-only bit should be set if the bit indicating write permission for the user is clear. The other UNIX bits must be ignored when writing. When reading, all the READ bits should always be set and all the EXECUTE bits should be set if the file is directly executable by the Windows Operating system. There is no attempt to map Window’s ACLs to permission bits.

Transmitting binary deltas

Repeated transfer of large files that have only changed a little between the receiving and sending side can be sped up significantly by transmitting binary deltas of only the changed portions. This protocol has built-in support for doing that. This support uses the rsync algorithm. In this algorithm first the receiving side sends a file signature that contains hashes of blocks in the file. Then the sending side sends only those blocks that have changed. The receiving side applies these deltas to the file to update it till it matches the file on the sending side.

The modification to the basic protocol consists of setting the transmission_type key to rsync when requesting a file. This triggers transmission of signatures and deltas instead of file data. The details are different for sending and receiving.

Sending to the terminal emulator

When sending the metadata of the file it wants to transfer, the client adds the transmission_type key:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/path/to/destination transmission_type=rsync

The STARTED response from the terminal will have transmission_type set to rsync if the file exists and the terminal is able to send signature data:

← action=status id=someid file_id=f1 status=STARTED transmission_type=rsync

The terminal then transmits the signature using data commands:

← action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...
...
← action=end_data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...

Once the client receives and processes the full signature, it transmits the file delta to the terminal as data commands:

→ action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...
→ action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...
...
→ action=end_data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...

The terminal then uses this delta to update the file.

Receiving from the terminal emulator

When the client requests file data from the terminal emulator, it can add the transmission_type=rsync key to indicate it will be sending a signature for that file:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/some/path transmission_type=rsync

The client then sends the signature using data commands:

→ action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...
...
→ action=end_data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...

After receiving the signature the terminal replies with the delta as a series of data commands:

← action=data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...
...
← action=end_data id=someid file_id=f1 data=...

The client then uses this delta to update the file.

The format of signatures and deltas

These come from librsync. If this specification gains wider adoption, these formats should be documented here.

Compression

Individual files can be transmitted compressed if needed. Currently, only RFC 1950 ZLIB based deflate compression is supported, which is specified using the compression=zlib key when requesting a file. For example when sending files to the terminal emulator, when sending the file metadata the compression key can also be specified:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/path/to/destination compression=zlib

Similarly when receiving files from the terminal emulator, the final file command that the client sends to the terminal requesting the start of the transfer of data for the file can include the compression key:

→ action=file id=someid file_id=f1 name=/some/path compression=zlib

Bypassing explicit user authorization

In order to bypass the requirement of interactive user authentication, this protocol has the ability to use a pre-shared secret (password). When initiating a transfer session the client sends a hash of the password and the session id:

→ action=send id=someid bypass=sha256:hash_value

For example, suppose that the session id is mysession and the shared secret is mypassword. Then the value of the bypass key above is sha256:SHA256("mysession" + ";" + "mypassword"), which is:

→ action=send id=mysession bypass=sha256:192bd215915eeaa8c2b2a4c0f8f851826497d12b30036d8b5b1b4fc4411caf2c

The value of bypass is of the form hash_function_name : hash_value (without spaces). Currently, only the SHA256 hash function is supported.

Warning

Hashing does not effectively hide the value of the password. So this functionality should only be used in secure/trusted contexts. While there exist hash functions harder to compute than SHA256, they are unsuitable as they will introduce a lot of latency to starting a session and in any case there is no mathematical proof that any hash function is not brute-forceable.

Encoding of transfer commands as escape codes

Transfer commands are encoded as OSC escape codes of the form:

<OSC> 5113 ; key=value ; key=value ... <ST>

Here OSC is the bytes 0x1b 0x5d and ST is the bytes 0x1b 0x5c. Keys are words containing only the characters [a-zA-Z0-9_] and value is arbitrary data, whose encoding is dependent on the value of key. Unknown keys must be ignored when decoding a command. The number 5113 is a constant and is unused by any known OSC codes. It is the numeralization of the word file.

The keys and value types for this protocol

Key

Key name

Value type

Notes

action

ac

enum

send, file, data, end_data, receive, cancel, status, finish

compression

zip

enum

none, zlib

file_type

ft

enum

regular, directory, symlink, link

transmission_type

tt

enum

simple, rsync

id

id

safe_string

A unique-ish value, to avoid collisions

file_id

fid

safe_string

Must be unique per file in a session

bypass

pw

safe_string

hash of the bypass password and the session id

quiet

q

integer

0 - verbose, 1 - only errors, 2 - totally silent

mtime

mod

integer

the modification time of file in nanoseconds since the UNIX epoch

permissions

prm

integer

the UNIX file permissions bits

size

sz

integer

size in bytes

name

n

base64_string

The path to a file

status

st

base64_string

Status messages

parent

pr

safe_string

The file id of the parent directory

data

d

base64_bytes

Binary data

The Key name is the actual serialized name of the key sent in the escape code. So for example, permissions=123 is serialized as prm=123. This is done to reduce overhead.

The value types are:

enum

One from a permitted set of values, for example:

ac=file
safe_string

A string consisting only of characters from the set [0-9a-zA-Z_:.,/!@#$%^&*()[]{}~`?"'\\|=+-] Note that the semi-colon is missing from this set.

integer

A base-10 number composed of the characters [0-9] with a possible leading - sign

base64_string

A base64 encoded UTF-8 string using the standard base64 encoding

base64_bytes

Binary data encoded using the standard base64 encoding

An example of serializing an escape code is shown below:

action=send id=test name=somefile size=3 data=01 02 03

becomes:

<OSC> 5113 ; ac=send ; id=test ; n=c29tZWZpbGU= ; sz=3 ; d=AQID <ST>

Here c29tZWZpbGU is the base64 encoded form of somefile and AQID is the base64 encoded form of the bytes 0x01 0x02 0x03. The spaces in the encoded form are present for clarity and should be ignored.