A network file system over HTTP:
remote access and modification of files and files


The goal of the present HTTPFS project is to enable access to remote files, directories, and other containers through an HTTP pipe. HTTPFS system permits retrieval, creation and modification of these resources as if they were regular files and directories on a local filesystem. The remote host can be any UNIX or Win9x/WinNT box that is capable of running a Perl CGI script and accessible either directly or via a web proxy or a gateway. HTTPFS runs entirely in user space.

The current implementation fully supports reading as well as creating, writing, appending, and truncating of files on a remote HTTP host. HTTPFS provides an isolation level for concurrent file access stronger than the one mandated by POSIX file system semantics, closer to that of AFS. Both an API with familiar open(), read(), write(), close(), etc. calls, and an interactive interface, via the popular Midnight Commander file browser, are provided.

This present document combines a paper and a Freenix Track talk presented at a 1999 USENIX Annual Technical Conference, June 6-11, 1999; Monterey, CA, USA.



Unlike NFS and AFS, HTTP is supported on nearly all platforms, from IBM mainframes to PalmPilots and cellular phones, with a widely deployed infrastructure of proxies, gateways, and caches. It is also regularly routed through firewalls. Using standard HTTP GET, PUT, HEAD and DELETE request methods, a rudimentary network file system can be created that runs cross-platform (e.g., Linux, Solaris, HP-UX, and Windows NT) on a variety of off-the-shelf HTTP servers: Apache, Netscape, and IIS. The HTTPFS can be used either programmatically or via an interactive interface.

HTTPFS is a user-level file system, implemented by a C++ class library on a client site, and a Perl CGI script on a remote site. The C++ framework of VNode, VNode_list, HTTPTransaction, MIMEDiscreteEntity etc. classes may be employed directly. Alternatively, HTTPFS functionality can be extended to arbitrary applications by linking with a library that transparently replaces standard file system calls (e.g., open(), stat(), and close()). This operation does not patch the kernel or system libraries, nor does it require system administrator privileges. The interposed functions invoke the default implementations, unless a file with an "http://" prefix is accessed. The HTTPFS client framework will handle the latter case. This permits URLs being used whenever a regular file name is expected, as an argument to open(), fopen(), fstream(), or a command-line parameter to file utilities. No source code needs to be modified, or even recompiled.

An important feature of HTTPFS is that it can provide a file-centric view of remote resources and containers that are not necessarily files or directories on a remote computer. Anything which an HTTPFS server can apply GET, PUT, DELETE methods to, and has timestamps and size attributes, may be accessed and manipulated as if it were a file. With HTTPFS, an off-the-shelf application may open(), read(), write() a "file" that may in reality be a database table, an element in an XML document, a property in the registry, an ARP cache entry, or the input or output of a process.

Borrowing from database terminology, HTTPFS provides an isolation level of "Repeatable Read" for concurrent file transactions. Once a process opens a file, it will not see changes to the file made by other concurrently running processes. This isolation is different from standard POSIX semantics, which provides for a "Dirty Read" isolation -- updates made to the file by other processes are visible before the file is closed. The difference in semantics is important, but only when a file is being concurrently read and modified. As was mentioned above, HTTPFS may permit a file-type access to a table of a relational database. In this particular case, the "Repeatable Read" isolation level is appropriate as it is the default for an ANSI-compliant database.


Usage Examples

In a separate document

Hypertext Transfer Protocol

HTTP is an application-level protocol for distributed, collaborative, hypermedia information systems [HTTP]. It is a request/response protocol, where the client submits a request to the server, the server processes the request, and sends a response to the client. HTTP is open-ended, in that it allows new request/ response pairs to be defined. The message format is similar to that used by Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME).

An HTTP transaction is in some sense a remote procedure call. An HTTP message specifies both an operation and the data on which to invoke the operation. The protocol provides facilities for exchanging data (arguments and results), and meta-data. The latter specialize a request and a response, carry authentication information and credentials, or annotate the content. Most HTTP transactions are synchronous, although HTTP/1.1 provides for asynchronous and batch modes. Furthermore, HTTP allows intermediaries (caches, proxies) to be inserted into the response-reply chain.

An HTTP request includes the name of the operation to apply and the name of the resource. Additional parameters if needed are communicated via request headers, or a request body. The request body may be an arbitrary stream of bytes. The HTTP/1.1 standard defines methods GET, HEAD, POST, PUT, DELETE, OPTIONS, and TRACE, which can be further extended by a particular server.

HTTPFS maps these methods to the corresponding file access operations, while fully preserving the methods' semantics defined in the HTTP/1.1 document.

Of particular interest is the extensibility of the HTTP protocol. A client can submit arbitrary headers, which are available to the corresponding web server. The server may send arbitrary meta-data as response headers as well. In addition, a client and a server may exchange meta-information via "name=value" attribute pairs of the standard Content-Type: header.

Implementation of HTTPFS: Client

HTTPFS client is implemented by a C++ framework. It carries out HTTP transactions with a server and maintains a local cache of fetched files and directory listings. A file being opened for reading or modification is first fetched from a server in a GET transaction. However, if the file is already in cache, a conditional GET request is issued to verify that the cached copy is up-to-date, and reload it if not. When a file is being opened for writing, an additional Pragma: header is included in the GET request to inform the server of the open mode: O_RDWR, O_WRONLY, O_CREAT, O_EXCL, O_TRUNC or O_APPEND. The server may then create, truncate, or lock the resource. A response from the server is translated into the result of the open() call. Reads and writes to the opened file are then directed to the local copy. On close(), if the local copy has been modified, it is written back using PUT.

Status inquiries, e.g., stat(), lstat(), readlink(), etc., are implemented by submitting a HEAD request. A Pragma: request header tells the server which particular status information about the resource is requested.

Scanning of a directory -- opendir(), readdir(), closedir() -- is similar to accessing a file: a GET request is issued for a directory URI, and the resulting directory listing is locally cached.

Appendix A gives a detailed mapping between the file system API and HTTP requests and responses.

Implementation of HTTPFS: Server

A MCHFS server is one particular HTTPFS server. It is a Perl CGI script which executes HTTPFS requests and provides access to resources and containers. In the case of MCHFS, the resources and containers happen to be regular files and directories of a computer that runs this CGI script. The script thus lists directories on its own server, sends files, and accepts new content for old or newly created files.

According to a tradition, an HTTP server operates in a chrooted environment. For example, when asked to retrieve a resource http://hostname/README.html, the server sends a file located at $DOCUMENT_ROOT/README.html (if exists), where $DOCUMENT_ROOT is something like /opt/apache/htdocs. MCHFS honors this convention:

        MCHFS-server.pl/README.html", O_RDWR);
will let you access the same $DOCUMENT_ROOT/README.html file. Still MCHFS offers to escape the chrooted confines and access files anywhere in its file system. This can be accomplished by using a distinguished path component DeepestRoot, which refers to the root of the server's file system. For example:
         MCHFS-server.pl/DeepestRoot/etc/passwd", O_RDONLY);
         WinNT/Profiles/Administrator/NTusers.dat", O_RDONLY);
This is discussed further in the section on security considerations, below.

MCHFS allows any web browser to view directory listings and files. A directory request is returned as plain text, in a format similar to a 'ls -l' listing. Because MCHFS understands regular GET requests, you can use a web browser to verify that MCHFS is installed and functioning properly. Any other user agent -- Wget or the plain telnet -- may be employed as well.

Transparent replacement of system calls

An application accesses the file system API either using low-level open/read/write/close calls, or via abstract file system interfaces (e.g., standard I/O, stream I/O, or ports). The latter are implemented, under the covers, through the open/read/write/close. Once these low-level functions are impersonated (and extended to handle http:// "file names"), HTTPFS becomes available to any application without modifying the application's source code.

One does not need to patch the kernel or system libraries to intercept the POSIX filesystem API calls. One can do it safely, and without system administrator privileges by linking the application with replacement versions of these low-level API functions. The recipe for doing so is as follows:

Source code for an application is not required, only its object (compiled) form; the application need not be aware that it is using HTTPFS.

A web page [Intercept] explains this technique in detail, and discusses another use of this interception approach: implementing processes-as-files.

Pushing the envelope and security holes

The MCHFS script obviously opens up the file system of a host computer to the entire world. Furthermore, if a particular HTTPFS server chooses to interpret GET/PUT requests as output/input from an application (sh in particular), the whole system becomes exposed. Clearly this may not be desirable. Therefore, one may want to restrict access to MCHFS to trusted hosts or users. These authentication/ authorization policies are the responsibility of a web server's administrator; MCHFS need not be aware of them.

In addition, the MCHFS server may implement its own resource restriction policies. For example, it can refuse PUT requests, which effectively makes exported file systems read-only. MCHFS could permit modification or listing of only certain files, or disallow use of DeepestRoot and ".." in file paths, thus confining users to a limited part of the file system tree.

Related work

HTTPFS is similar to FTPFS, a virtual file system used by Midnight Commander, Emacs and KDE to access remote FTP sites. There is also a similarity to NFS. There are, however, a number of differences:

See [Metcast] for a description of another data-distribution service that builds upon HTTP riches. Design of a Linux-specific HTTP-based filesystem, in the context of WebDAV, userfs and perlfs, is discussed in [HL].

Availability and installation

The MCFS/HTTPFS adapter distribution is freely available from a HTTPFS web page
The distribution archive contains the complete and self-contained source code for the server and the adapter, and an INSTALL document. A manifest file tells what all the other files are for.

I have personally run the MCHFS on HP-UX and SunSparc/Solaris with Netscape and Apache HTTP servers, and on Windows NT running IIS. The HTTPFS client -- the MC/HTTPFS adapter in particular -- ran on Sun/Solaris, HP-UX, and Linux platforms. The adapter successfully communicated with a Midnight Commander on a Linux host (MC version 4.1.36, as found in S.u.S.E. Linux distribution, versions 5 and 6).

I have not yet implemented the unlink(), rename(), mkdir(), and chmod() file system calls. I should also look into persistent HTTP connections and an option of transmitting only selected pieces of a requested file, which HTTP 1.1 allows (and encourages).

Summary: the OS is the browser

This article presents a poor-man's network file system, which is simple, very portable, and requires the least privileges to set up and run. HTTPFS offers a glimpse of one of Plan9's jewels -- a uniform file-centric naming of disparate resources -- but without Plan9. This file system showcases HTTP, which is capable of far more than merely carrying web pages. HTTP can aspire to be the kingpin protocol that glues computing, storage, etc. resources together to form a distributed system -- the role 9P plays in [Plan9].

The design of HTTPFS suggests that, contrary to a cliche, it is the OS that is the browser. While Active Desktop lets you view local files and directories as if they were web pages, HTTPFS allows access to remote web pages and other resources as if they were local files. HTTPFS has all the attributes of an OS component: it implements (a broad subset of) the filesystem API; it maintains "vnodes" and "buffer caches"; it interacts with a persistent store and offers a uniform file-centric view of various remote resources. On the other hand, HTTPFS provides a superset of remote access services every Web browser has to implement on its own. The HTTPFS and other local and network filesystems manage storage and distribution of content, while an HTML formatter along with xv, ghostscript and similar applications provide interpretation and rendering of particular kinds of data. Thus as far as the OS is concerned, viewing a web page is to be thought similar to displaying an image file off an NFS-mounted disk, and searching the Web is no different than running glimpse on a local filesystem.


[HTTP] HTTP Version 1.1, R. Fielding, J. Gettys, J. Mogul, H. Frystyk Nielsen, and T. Berners-Lee, January 1997. RFC-2068

[Intercept] Patch-free User-level Link-time intercepting of system calls and interposing on library functions, Oleg Kiselyov <syscall-interpose.html>

[MC] The Midnight Commander <http://www.gnome.org/mc/>

[Metcast] Pushing Weather Products via an HTTP pipe. Introduction to Metcast, Oleg Kiselyov <JMV-TNG/>

[HL] An HTTP filesystem for Linux? <http://rufus.w3.org/linux/httpfs/>

[Plan9] Plan 9 from Bell Labs, Rob Pike, Dave Presotto, Sean Dorward, Bob Flandrena, Ken Thompson, Howard Trickey, Phil Winterbottom <http://plan9.bell-labs.com/plan9/doc/9.html>


Comments, suggestions, and shepherding by Chris Small are greatly appreciated.


Last updated June 25, 1999