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The Standard Format

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A tar archive file contains a series of records. Each record contains RECORDSIZE bytes. Although this format may be thought of as being on magnetic tape, other media are often used.

Each file archived is represented by a header record which describes the file, followed by zero or more records which give the contents of the file. At the end of the archive file there may be a record filled with binary zeros as an end-of-file marker. A reasonable system should write a record of zeros at the end, but must not assume that such a record exists when reading an archive.

The records may be blocked for physical I/O operations. Each block of n records (where n is set by the `--block-size=512-size' (`-b 512-size') option to tar) is written with a single `write ()' operation. On magnetic tapes, the result of such a write is a single tape record. When writing an archive, the last block of records should be written at the full size, with records after the zero record containing all zeroes. When reading an archive, a reasonable system should properly handle an archive whose last block is shorter than the rest, or which contains garbage records after a zero record.

The header record is defined in C as follows. In the GNU tar distribution, this is part of file `src/tar.h':

/* Standard Archive Format - Standard TAR - USTAR.  */

/* Header block on tape.
   We use traditional DP naming conventions here.  A "block" is a big chunk
   of stuff that we do I/O on.  A "record" is a piece of info that we care
   about.  Typically many "record"s fit into a "block".  */

#define RECORDSIZE      512
#define NAMSIZ          100
#define TUNMLEN         32
#define TGNMLEN         32
#define SPARSE_EXT_HDR  21
#define SPARSE_IN_HDR   4

struct sparse
    char offset[12];
    char numbytes[12];

union record
    char charptr[RECORDSIZE];

    struct header
        char arch_name[NAMSIZ];
        char mode[8];
        char uid[8];
        char gid[8];
        char size[12];
        char mtime[12];
        char chksum[8];
        char linkflag;
        char arch_linkname[NAMSIZ];
        char magic[8];
        char uname[TUNMLEN];
        char gname[TGNMLEN];
        char devmajor[8];
        char devminor[8];

        /* The following fields were added for GNU and are not standard.  */

        char atime[12];
        char ctime[12];
        char offset[12];
        char longnames[4];
        /* Some compilers would insert the pad themselves, so pad was
           once autoconfigured.  It is simpler to always insert it!  */
        char pad;
        struct sparse sp[SPARSE_IN_HDR];
        char isextended;
        char realsize[12];      /* true size of the sparse file */
#if 0
        char ending_blanks[12]; /* number of nulls at the end of the file,
                                   if any */

    struct extended_header
        struct sparse sp[21];
        char isextended;

/* The checksum field is filled with this while the checksum is computed.  */
#define CHKBLANKS       "        "      /* 8 blanks, no null */

/* The magic field is filled with this value if uname and gname are valid,
   marking the archive as being in standard POSIX format (though GNU tar
   itself is not POSIX conforming).  */
#define TMAGIC "ustar  "        /* 7 chars and a null */

/* The magic field is filled with this if this is a GNU format dump entry.
   But I suspect this is not true anymore.  */
#define GNUMAGIC "GNUtar "      /* 7 chars and a null */

/* The linkflag defines the type of file.  */
#define LF_OLDNORMAL    '\0'    /* normal disk file, Unix compat */
#define LF_NORMAL       '0'     /* normal disk file */
#define LF_LINK         '1'     /* link to previously dumped file */
#define LF_SYMLINK      '2'     /* symbolic link */
#define LF_CHR          '3'     /* character special file */
#define LF_BLK          '4'     /* block special file */
#define LF_DIR          '5'     /* directory */
#define LF_FIFO         '6'     /* FIFO special file */
#define LF_CONTIG       '7'     /* contiguous file */
/* Further link types may be defined later.  */

/* Note that the standards committee allows only capital A through
   capital Z for user-defined expansion.  This means that defining
   something as, say '8' is a *bad* idea.  */

/* This is a dir entry that contains the names of files that were in the
   dir at the time the dump was made.  */
#define LF_DUMPDIR      'D'

/* Identifies the NEXT file on the tape as having a long linkname.  */
#define LF_LONGLINK     'K'

/* Identifies the NEXT file on the tape as having a long name.  */
#define LF_LONGNAME     'L'

/* This is the continuation of a file that began on another volume.  */
#define LF_MULTIVOL     'M'

/* For storing filenames that didn't fit in 100 characters.  */
#define LF_NAMES        'N'

/* This is for sparse files.  */
#define LF_SPARSE       'S'

/* This file is a tape/volume header.  Ignore it on extraction.  */
#define LF_VOLHDR       'V'

#if 0
/* The following two blocks of #define's are unused in GNU tar.  */

/* Bits used in the mode field - values in octal */
#define  TSUID    04000         /* set UID on execution */
#define  TSGID    02000         /* set GID on execution */
#define  TSVTX    01000         /* save text (sticky bit) */

/* File permissions */
#define  TUREAD   00400         /* read by owner */
#define  TUWRITE  00200         /* write by owner */
#define  TUEXEC   00100         /* execute/search by owner */
#define  TGREAD   00040         /* read by group */
#define  TGWRITE  00020         /* write by group */
#define  TGEXEC   00010         /* execute/search by group */
#define  TOREAD   00004         /* read by other */
#define  TOWRITE  00002         /* write by other */
#define  TOEXEC   00001         /* execute/search by other */


/* End of Standard Archive Format description.  */

All characters in header records are represented by using 8-bit characters in the local variant of ASCII. Each field within the structure is contiguous; that is, there is no padding used within the structure. Each character on the archive medium is stored contiguously.

Bytes representing the contents of files (after the header record of each file) are not translated in any way and are not constrained to represent characters in any character set. The tar format does not distinguish text files from binary files, and no translation of file contents is performed.

The name, linkname, magic, uname, and gname are null-terminated character strings. All other fileds are zero-filled octal numbers in ASCII. Each numeric field of width w contains w minus 2 digits, a space, and a null, except size, and mtime, which do not contain the trailing null.

The name field is the file name of the file, with directory names (if any) preceding the file name, separated by slashes.

FIXME: how big a name before field overflows?

The mode field provides nine bits specifying file permissions and three bits to specify the Set UID, Set GID, and Save Text (sticky) modes. Values for these bits are defined above. When special permissions are required to create a file with a given mode, and the user restoring files from the archive does not hold such permissions, the mode bit(s) specifying those special permissions are ignored. Modes which are not supported by the operating system restoring files from the archive will be ignored. Unsupported modes should be faked up when creating or updating an archive; e.g. the group permission could be copied from the other permission.

The uid and gid fields are the numeric user and group ID of the file owners, respectively. If the operating system does not support numeric user or group IDs, these fields should be ignored.

The size field is the size of the file in bytes; linked files are archived with this field specified as zero.

FIXME: xref Modifiers
, in particular the `--incremental' (`-G') option.

The mtime field is the modification time of the file at the time it was archived. It is the ASCII representation of the octal value of the last time the file was modified, represented as an integer number of seconds since January 1, 1970, 00:00 Coordinated Universal Time.

The chksum field is the ASCII representation of the octal value of the simple sum of all bytes in the header record. Each 8-bit byte in the header is added to an unsigned integer, initialized to zero, the precision of which shall be no less than seventeen bits. When calculating the checksum, the chksum field is treated as if it were all blanks.

The typeflag field specifies the type of file archived. If a particular implementation does not recognize or permit the specified type, the file will be extracted as if it were a regular file. As this action occurs, tar issues a warning to the standard error.

The atime and ctime fields are used in making incremental backups; they store, respectively, the particular file's access time and last inode-change time.

The offset is used by the `--multi-volume' (`-M') option, when making a multi-volume archive. The offset is number of bytes into the file that we need to restart at to continue the file on the next tape, i.e., where we store the location that a continued file is continued at.

The following fields were added to deal with sparse files. A file is sparse if it takes in unallocated blocks which end up being represented as zeros, i.e., no useful data. A test to see if a file is sparse is to look at the number blocks allocated for it versus the number of characters in the file; if there are fewer blocks allocated for the file than would normally be allocated for a file of that size, then the file is sparse. This is the method tar uses to detect a sparse file, and once such a file is detected, it is treated differently from non-sparse files.

Sparse files are often dbm files, or other database-type files which have data at some points and emptiness in the greater part of the file. Such files can appear to be very large when an `ls -l' is done on them, when in truth, there may be a very small amount of important data contained in the file. It is thus undesirable to have tar think that it must back up this entire file, as great quantities of room are wasted on empty blocks, which can lead to running out of room on a tape far earlier than is necessary. Thus, sparse files are dealt with so that these empty blocks are not written to the tape. Instead, what is written to the tape is a description, of sorts, of the sparse file: where the holes are, how big the holes are, and how much data is found at the end of the hole. This way, the file takes up potentially far less room on the tape, and when the file is extracted later on, it will look exactly the way it looked beforehand. The following is a description of the fields used to handle a sparse file:

The sp is an array of struct sparse. Each struct sparse contains two 12-character strings which represent an offset into the file and a number of bytes to be written at that offset. The offset is absolute, and not relative to the offset in preceding array element.

The header can hold four of these struct sparse at the moment; if more are needed, they are not stored in the header.

The isextended flag is set when an extended_header is needed to deal with a file. Note that this means that this flag can only be set when dealing with a sparse file, and it is only set in the event that the description of the file will not fit in the alloted room for sparse structures in the header. In other words, an extended_header is needed.

The extended_header structure is used for sparse files which need more sparse structures than can fit in the header. The header can fit 4 such structures; if more are needed, the flag isextended gets set and the next record is an extended_header.

Each extended_header structure contains an array of 21 sparse structures, along with a similar isextended flag that the header had. There can be an indeterminate number of such extended_headers to describe a sparse file.

These flags represent a regular file. In order to be compatible with older versions of tar, a typeflag value of LF_OLDNORMAL should be silently recognized as a regular file. New archives should be created using LF_NORMAL. Also, for backward compatibility, tar treats a regular file whose name ends with a slash as a directory.

This flag represents a file linked to another file, of any type, previously archived. Such files are identified in Unix by each file having the same device and inode number. The linked-to name is specified in the linkname field with a trailing null.

This represents a symbolic link to another file. The linked-to name is specified in the linkname field with a trailing null.

These represent character special files and block special files respectively. In this case the devmajor and devminor fields will contain the major and minor device numbers respectively. Operating systems may map the device specifications to their own local specification, or may ignore the entry.

This flag specifies a directory or sub-directory. The directory name in the name field should end with a slash. On systems where disk allocation is performed on a directory basis, the size field will contain the maximum number of bytes (which may be rounded to the nearest disk block allocation unit) which the directory may hold. A size field of zero indicates no such limiting. Systems which do not support limiting in this manner should ignore the size field.

This specifies a FIFO special file. Note that the archiving of a FIFO file archives the existence of this file and not its contents.

This specifies a contiguous file, which is the same as a normal file except that, in operating systems which support it, all its space is allocated contiguously on the disk. Operating systems which do not allow contiguous allocation should silently treat this type as a normal file.

A ... Z
These are reserved for custom implementations. Some of these are used in the GNU modified format, as described below.

Other values are reserved for specification in future revisions of the P1003 standard, and should not be used by any tar program.

The magic field indicates that this archive was output in the P1003 archive format. If this field contains TMAGIC, the uname and gname fields will contain the ASCII representation of the owner and group of the file respectively. If found, the user and group IDs are used rather than the values in the uid and gid fields.

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