New Userbase (introduced in v3.20)

Synchronet v3.20 introduces a new primary user database file format and naming:

data/user/user.dat ->

The secondary user data files (data/user/####.ini) remain as-is.

Why the change?

The Synchronet user.dat file format has not changed since the inception of Synchronet BBS software back in 1991. Each user's record within the user.dat file had a fixed length (834 bytes) at a fixed offset within the file and each field (e.g. user name, alias, password) is also at a fixed offset within each record, with a fixed maximum length. A portion of each user record was reserved with unused or “padding” bytes that have been consumed over the years to add new fields or relocate fields to extend their maximum length. While this record padding has enabled extensibility over the years, each additional field or extended field (e.g. the extension of maximum password length from 8 to 40 characters) has incurred special upgrade logic and consumed the available padding bytes, leaving little room for adding or moving/extending user fields in 2022.

Simply redefining the user.dat record format to use longer/wider fields would only serve to reset expectations based on the current predictions of future needs which are inevitably flawed. So the fundamental improvement needed for future-proofing was the switch from fixed-length to variable-length fields.

Variable-length records would make fast random access (i.e. direct-seeking to a specific user's record) and record locking (insuring exclusive access, e.g. for read/modify/write operations) more difficult. Fixed-length records are a good solution for fast random access and locking, so the new user data format uses the combination of:

  • Fixed-length records (1000 bytes) at fixed offsets
  • Variable-length fields

This change in format will allow:

  • new fields to be added easily
  • existing fields to be extended (e.g. in maximum string length) easily

What happens when the total length of all variable-length fields exceeds the record's fixed length? Dynamic run-time detection of the record length would be trivial and upgrading to add padding bytes to each record if/when necessary, without changing the underlying format, is very realistic. The current estimate is that 1000-byte records will be sufficient for a long time.

What are the details of the new format?

The legacy user.dat was primarily a text file that used the ASCII ETX (0x03) character to right-pad fields and records to their fixed lengths. The user.dat was fairly easily readable in an ASCII/plain-text viewer/editor, but not universally so (e.g. the ASCII ETX characters were not rendered consistently between different programs, sometimes a heart glyph, sometimes ^C). Being mostly-text allowed the user.dat file to be viewed or even manually-edited fairly easily, but the data format was not easily imported into other data formats/programs without Synchronet-specific conversion scripts or programs.

The new format is *entirely* a plain-text file containing ASCII LF (0x0a) terminated records of fixed length: 1000 characters. Each user record is a line of text.

Each field within each record is separated with an ASCII Horizontal Tab (0x09) character, hence the “.tab” file extension. No other control characters (ASCII 0x00-0x1F) should be present in the file. Other non-ASCII characters are currently interpreted as CP437 characters (so-called IBM extended ASCII characters, not UTF-8 sequences).

This file format is easily viewed with plain-text viewers/editors or imported into other programs (e.g. Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets). It is critical that when making a change to the file with any non-Synchronet software, that the 1000 character line/record lengths (including the LF-terminator) are maintained. The ordering of the fields within each record is significant (don't insert new fields). Unused/padding bytes at the end of each record are filled with ASCII TAB characters.

In addition to the record/field format changes, the content format of some of specific user fields has changed as well:

  1. Date/time stamps are represented as ISO-8601 strings (e.g. “20221006T1453Z”) rather than Unix time_t (seconds since Jan-1-1970 UTC) integer values
  2. Security flags, including exemptions and restrictions, are now expressed as a list of alphabetic characters (A-Z) rather than a hexadecimal integer
  3. Upload/download byte counts are always stored as an exact count rather than an estimation (e.g. “10.1G”) when the number of required digits exceeded 10

What is the impact of this change?

Initially, there should be no observable impact with this change: users should experience no difference in BBS behavior or performance. Sysops may notice that some configurable fields (e.g. internal codes) will now accept longer strings than previously allowed and eventually other user-visible strings may be extended to allow a greater total number of characters. Many user statistical values that were previously limited to 16-bit integers (0-65535) and 5 decimal digits will be increased to modern/32-bit ranges of value.

User date/time values that were previously expected to encounter issues in the year 2038 (Y2K38, the Epochalypse) or best case, the year 2106, should be resolved by storing the date/time values in ISO-8601 format and using 64-bit time_t's for internal storage of user data in all Synchronet programs.

See Also

history/newuserbase.txt · Last modified: 2023/02/27 14:21 by digital man
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