Design Decisions

This document presents Remofile from the creator perspective and justifies the software design decisions that were taken all along the development.

  • Reinventing the wheel
  • A simpler concept
  • File ownership, permissions and timestamp
  • Not tuned for performance
  • Upcoming improvements

Reinventing the wheel

Transferring files is not new; it’s an essential need since the beginning of the Internet. Our options when it comes to transferring files are FTP and their variant (or even HTTP), usually tunneled through SSH for security. But those are ancient, sophisticated, and overly complicated solutions in most situations. For instance, if you are creating a client-server software and need to transfer files between multiple endpoints, how do you use FTP (and its hundreds of tools and libraries out there) in without making the code of your software ugly and over-complicated. No surprise that most application prefer roll their own mini-solution by re-implementing basic file transfer operations on top of other protocols. [4] [7]

A modern and lightweight alternative to FTP would be a better fit when simply uploading and downloading a couple of files, or synchronizing directories is needed. Doing these essential file operations should be effortless in 2018, either at a command-line level or programming level. This is why Remofile “reinvents the wheel”, with a simpler implementation and a much nicer interface for both sides, client and server.

A simpler concept

Remofile is not much different from FTP in terms of concept; it jails a given directory on the server side and exposes it to the client. But unlike FTP, it does it with few differences.

  • There is no concurrent connections
  • There is no complex authentication system
  • There is no changing file owners and permissions
  • It’s done with less performance and optimizations concerns
  • There is no multiple communication channels

It results into a simpler tool closer to the real-world needs. Less headache as it’s easier to grasp, and also results in saner and more maintainable code on the developer side. Let me elaborate.

One, and only one, client at a time can interact with the remote directory. Not only it greatly simplifies the protocol and the implementation as it doesn’t have to deal with possible unpredictable conflicts, but it also removes a non-safe practice. Think about it, how can you reliably make changes and ensure correctness if someone else is allowed to make changes (at the same time) that can possibly mess with yours; you’d rather wait until they disconnect before making your changes. The concept of concurrent access is by nature confusing and flawed (if it doesn’t come with a higher access policy).

Instead of a users with password authentication system, it simply uses a passphrase, referred as token, which the client must know to access the remote directory. In other words, it’s a sort of unique and global password. If you think a minute, multiple user authentication is hardly-ever needed because if a folder is shared, users are trusted and we are aware of the consequences. And most of the time it’s not even shared across different users, but rather across different services, often owned by a single user. Tokens are easier to work with and is closer to real-life needs. There’s not even a username to remember! And if the token is compromised, just reset it and redistribute it.

File ownership, permissions and timestamp

This simpler concept jostles a bit with the traditions when transferring files and it has to do with file ownership, permissions and timestamps. In fact, those “details”, who aren’t always important, are needed. But since Remofile isn’t using the server’s underlying OS system users to authenticate clients (unlike FTP), what happens when a file is transferred, who owns it, what permissions it gets, and how about the timestamp ?

To keep things simple, and to avoid bloating the interface, both clients and servers are responsible for their local file-system for the reading and writing access of their files on each side. When a file is transferred from one point to another, it gets the local user ownership. A Remofile server can be started with a given system user and will assume it has access to all files present in the directory it’s serving.

As for file permissions, a file always is readable and writable by the user, but not executable (unless it’s a directory of course). The group and public permissions are defined by the configuration of the client or the server.

Not tuned for performance

My primary focus when writing Remofile was reliability because how would it be like if files are corrupted, and maintainability because dealing with transferring files and an internet protocols is actually difficult in the sense that it can become tricky. The other objectives were to achieve scriptability and embeddability easiness. The rest, such as performances and optimized implementation can be improved later.

As such, I preferred to sick with a “dumb” and straight-forward implementation that assumes the file-system isn’t changing by a third process, and relies on existing high-level tools to do the job. For instance, it uses ZeroMQ for TCP communication and more precisely the REP-REQ pattern even if it’s far from the most efficient to transfer files across a network. [5] It uses the Python standard library for its high-level API (the pathlib module) to deal with path and files, as well as its ability to serialize and de-serialize Python objects (see pickle and marshal module) and thus simplifies dealing with data sent across the network.

Implementing a FTP-like solution (that actually does more [6]) is a lot of work for a single person and this is why I didn’t focus on performance. Luckily, in 2018, with our powerful machines and fast lines, this is not a problem for most scenarios, and is a very acceptable solution. From another perspective, even if not tuned for performance, we can say it’s faster as it costs less to implement and maintain Remofile code.

Also note that the implementation will be improved over time to compress data and evolves into a more optimized solution.

Upcoming improvements

Initially, I created the protocol and programming interface of Remofile as part of another software which needed file transfer features. And because I felt like this is reinventing the wheel, it slowly evolves into a project on its own. Here are two important features which weren’t needed by the former software but would enhance greatly Remofile.

  • Resuming interrupting file transfers
  • Direct read/write file in Python code

See the roadmap document for more information about features and improvements.

[4]Gitlab Runner, Buildbot, Jenkins and most CI services have custom code to transfer source code back and forth.
[5]Usually, when it comes to transferring files, one would use a lower-level solution that directly deals with streams of bytes.
[6]See its synchronization features and its ability to resume interrupted file transfers.]
[7]Joe Armstrong, creator of Erlang, complains about FTP and write his own quick solution: