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The Art of Unix Programming
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Unix Programming - Data File Metaformats - RFC 822 Format

RFC 822 Format

The RFC 822 metaformat derives from the textual format of Internet electronic mail messages; RFC 822 is the principal Internet RFC describing this format (since superseded by RFC 2822). MIME (Multipurpose Internet Media Extension) provides a way to embed typed binary data within RFC-822-format messages. (Web searches on either of these names will turn up the relevant standards.)

In this metaformat, record attributes are stored one per line, named by tokens resembling mail header-field names and terminated with a colon followed by whitespace. Field names do not contain whitespace; conventionally a dash is substituted instead. The attribute value is the entire remainder of the line, exclusive of trailing whitespace and newline. A physical line that begins with tab or whitespace is interpreted as a continuation of the current logical line. A blank line may be interpreted either as a record terminator or as an indication that unstructured text follows.

Under Unix, this is the traditional and preferred textual metaformat for attributed messages or anything that can be closely analogized to electronic mail. More generally, it's appropriate for records with a varying set of fields in which the hierarchy of data is flat (no recursion or tree structure).

Usenet news uses it; so do the HTTP 1.1 (and later) formats used by the World Wide Web. It is very convenient for editing by humans. Traditional Unix search tools are still good for attribute searches, though finding record boundaries will be a little more work than in a record-per-line format.

One weakness of RFC 822 format is that when more than one RFC 822 message or record is put in a file, the record boundaries may not be obvious — how is a poor literal-minded computer to know where the unstructured text body of a message ends and the next header begins? Historically, there have been several different conventions for delimiting messages in mailboxes. The oldest and most widely supported, leading each message with a line that begins with the string "From " and sender information, is not appropriate for other kinds of records; it also requires that lines in message text beginning with "From " be escaped (typically with >) — a practice which not infrequently leads to confusion.

Some mail systems use delimiter lines consisting of control characters unlikely to appear in messages, such as several ASCII 01 (control-A) characters in succession. The MIME standard gets around the problem by including an explicit message length in the header, but this is a fragile solution which is very likely to break if messages are ever manually edited. For a somewhat better solution, see the record-jar style described later in this chapter.

For examples of RFC 822 format, look in your mailbox.


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The Art of Unix Programming
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