Byte ranges for FTP

In the IETF ftpext2 working group there have been some talks around clients’ and servers’ ability to do and support “ranged” file transfers, that is transferring only a piece of any given file. FTP supports the REST command and has done so since the dawn of man (RFC765 – June 1980), and using that command, a client can set the starting point for a transfer but there is no way to set the end point. HTTP has supported the Range: header since the first HTTP 1.1 spec back in January 1997, and that supports both a start and an end point. The HTTP header does in fact support multiple ranges within the same header, but let’s not overdo it here!

Currently, to avoid getting an entire file a client would simply close the data connection when it has got all the data it wants. The unfortunate reality is that some servers don’t notice clients doing this, so in order for this to work reliably a client also has to send ABOR, and after this command has been sent there is no way for the client to reliably figure out the state of the control connection so it has to get closed as well (which is crap in case more files are to be transferred to or from the same host). It primarily becomes unreliable because when ABOR is sent, the client gets one or two responses back due to a race condition between the closing and the actual end of transfer etc, and it isn’t possible to tell exactly how to continue.

A solution for the future is being worked on. I’ve joined up the effort to write a spec that will suggest a new FTP command that sets the end point for a transfer in the same vein REST sets the start point. For the moment, we’ve named our suggested command RANG (as short for range). “We” in this context means Tatsuhiro Tsujikawa, Anthony Bryan and myself but we of course hope to get further valuable feedback by the great ftpext2 people.

There already are use cases that want range request for FTP. The people behind metalinks for example want to download the same file from many servers, and then it makes sense to be able to download little pieces from different sources.

The people who found the libcurl bugs I linked to above use libcurl as part of the Fedora/Redhat installer Anaconda, and if I understand things right they use this feature to just get the beginning of some files to check them out and avoid having to download the full file before it knows it truly wants it. Thus it saves lots of bandwidth.

In short, the use-cases for ranged FTP retrievals are quite likely pretty much the same ones as they are for HTTP!

The first RANG draft is now available.

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