curl ootw: –range

--range or -r for short. As the name implies, this option is for doing “range requests”. This flag was available already in the first curl release ever: version 4.0. This option requires an extra argument specifying the specific requested range. Read on the learn how!

What exactly is a range request?

Get a part of the remote resource

Maybe you have downloaded only a part of a remote file, or maybe you’re only interested in getting a fraction of a huge remote resource. Those are two situations in which you might want your internet transfer client to ask the server to only transfer parts of the remote resource back to you.

Let’s say you’ve tried to download a 32GB file (let’s call it a huge file) from a slow server on the other side of the world and when you only had 794 bytes left to transfer, the connection broke and the transfer was aborted. The transfer took a very long time and you prefer not to just restart it from the beginning and yet, with many file formats those final 794 bytes are critical and the content cannot be handled without them.

We need those final 794 bytes! Enter range requests.

With range requests, you can tell curl exactly what byte range to ask for from the server. “Give us bytes 12345-12567” or “give us the last 794 bytes”. Like this:

curl --range 12345-12567 https://example.com/

and:

curl --range -794 https://example.com/

This works with curl with several different protocols: HTTP(S), FTP(S) and SFTP. With HTTP(S), you can even be more fancy and ask for multiple ranges in the same request. Maybe you want the three sections of the resource?

curl --range 0-1000,2000-3000,4000-5000 https://example.com/

Let me again emphasize that this multi-range feature only exists for HTTP(S) with curl and not with the other protocols, and the reason is quite simply that HTTP provides this by itself and we haven’t felt motivated enough to implement it for the other protocols.

Not always that easy

The description above is for when everything is fine and easy. But as you know, life is rarely that easy and straight forward as we want it to be and nether is the --range option. Primarily because of this very important detail:

Range support in HTTP is optional.

It means that when curl asks for a particular byte range to be returned, the server might not obey or care and instead it delivers the whole thing anyway. As a client we can detect this refusal, since a range response has a special HTTP response code (206) which won’t be used if the entire thing is sent back – but that’s often of little use if you really want to get the remaining bytes of a larger resource out of which you already have most downloaded since before.

One reason it is optional for HTTP and why many sites and pages in the wild refuse range requests is that those sites and pages generate contend on demand, dynamically. If we ask for a byte range from a static file on disk in the server offering a byte range is easy. But if the document is instead the result of lots of scripts and dynamic content being generated uniquely in the server-side at the time of each request, it isn’t.

HTTP 416 Range Not Satisfiable

If you ask for a range that is outside of what the server can provide, it will respond with a 416 response code. Let’s say for example you download a complete 200 byte resource and then you ask that server for the range 200-202 – you’ll get a 416 back because 200 bytes are index 0-199 so there’s nothing available at byte index 200 and beyond.

HTTP other ranges

--range for HTTP content implies “byte ranges”. There’s this theoretical support for other units of ranges in HTTP but that’s not supported by curl and in fact is not widely used over the Internet. Byte ranges are complicated enough!

Related command line options

curl also offers the --continue-at (-C) option which is a perhaps more user-friendly way to resume transfers without the user having to specify the exact byte range and handle data concatenation etc.

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