Why I created vdirsyncer

It was only after the introduction of Buzz and Google+ when I started looking for alternatives to Google's services, which I used wherever possible up to that point. I won't try to convince anybody to cease using certain web-services in this article, it's a trade-off between privacy and convenience everybody has to decide about on their own. I myself was mostly worried about my address books, calendars and private messages though. I didn't want to have anybody read those for sure, at the same time, I wanted to have them synchronized between all my devices.

I eventually came across the Card- and CalDAV protocols for accessing contact and calendar data from a server, and promptly set up ownCloud. It did synchronize fine with my phone1, but all the desktop apps I tried were tightly bound to a desktop environment. The only application whose feature set I found to be somewhat enjoyable was Evolution, but at that time, Evolution seemed to combine Email, Calendar and Contacts in one huge monolithic application for which the CPU of my underpowered laptop wasn't ready. I briefly tried to switch to KDE, but the software for this desktop environment did not only look terrible, but the dependency situation seemed to be much worse there, and everything seemed to somehow depend on MySQL which I found to be unacceptable. It seems that with Gnome 3, calendars, contacts and email have now been separated into separate applications, but using those mean dealing with Gnome 3.

Two years later, I started to use CLI applications and avoid the ones with graphical interfaces. The reasons were entirely unrelated to the calendar and contacts situation: I didn't care that much about any keyboard shortcuts, although it has now become a primary reason why I wouldn't want to switch back. The real, and even more important reason was (and still is) that I wouldn't have to deal with gconf, dconf, or whichever clone of the Windows Registry they have now, as if the original was good idea to begin with. Yeah, global state is bad, and it's even worse if we can't guarantee that programs will delete their config keys when uninstalled, but storage is cheap on Desktop machines, so why bother, right? Command-line apps usually store their data in flat files which also turn into leaked state after uninstallation, but at least I can now safely delete state from one application without accidentally loosing my system settings.

There is another advantage to storing data in flat (text) files, which I only realized when starting to use Mutt in combination with OfflineIMAP and notmuch: Even if both programs fail you, you're still able to view your downloaded data with a simple text editor. This might not make a huge difference to the end user, but to me it does. It also allows you to check your data into a VCS such as Git, to prevent accidental deletion or file corruption, although I currently don't do that.

Coming back to my calendar and contacts story, I couldn't find any CLI software which was able to synchronize with ownCloud2. It seemed that most users in that area prefer storing their tasks in simple text file, but that solution would have provided me with basically no integration with Android's calendar and contact applications. At some point I was so desperate that I tried accessing my data in ownCloud through a WebDAV client.

Since CalDAV/CardDAV standards are based on WebDAV3, a file-management protocol, I thought it must be possible to mount my ownCloud calendars and contacts through a FUSE file system like davfs, and access them as normal files. It did actually work:

$ tree /mnt/contacts/default/
├── 08fdaec4-2791-4908-91ef-262b1669dfd7.vcf
├── 0cb226b3-9259-4da2-bfac-a92ed9f6ab88.vcf
├── 12c57540-c013-4e72-8754-a0f15e1a018d.vcf
├── 185ff452-4e89-48d7-8e07-32011e151d24.vcf

And the corresponding entry from my fstab:

https://owncloud.unterwaditzer.net/remote.php/carddav/addressbooks/untitaker/ /mnt/contacts davfs user,noauto,uid=untitaker,file_mode=600,dir_mode=700,_netdev 0 1

There is a patch for abook which adds a feature for importing .vcf files, so I wrote a bash script that removed abook's current database and imported all files from the ~/.contacts folder. I also wrote watdo, an extremely shitty task application for the command line which also accessed ownCloud's calendars through the mounted filesystem. I also added unison, a file synchronization tool, to make my data available offline.

I ran ownCloud on a Raspberry Pi. Because both ownCloud and the Raspberry Pi are slow, I needed to switch to Radicale, which is a lightweight CalDAV and CardDAV server. The main problem I experienced was that Radicale only implements the subset that is needed to be compatible with the majority of clients4. It wasn't possible to mount my contacts, calendars and tasks as a file system, so I had to write my own solution.

I also stumbled upon khal, which seemed to be the only CLI calendar application that was able to synchronize with CalDAV. However, khal storing its data in a sqlite database didn't really help me in any way with my task application, so I asked khal's author, Christian Geier, about a possible collaboration to standardize a storage format for events and contacts, storing data in flat files similarly to how Maildir (the storage format used by OfflineIMAP and Mutt) does it with emails. I wrote the first version of vdirsyncer. The storage format vdir matches exactly what ownCloud exposes when mounted via davfs, with some additional restrictions.

  1. Using CalDAV-Sync and CardDAV-Sync by dmfs. Later his Tasks application also got added.↩︎

  2. I don't think khal existed at this point, at least I wasn't able to find it. pycarddav did exist but it didn't have more features than my hacked solution.↩︎

  3. Which was probably not a good idea. Because CardDAV and CalDAV are huge complex beasts, few servers fully implement them, so those protocols are not pleasant to work with from a client perspective either.↩︎

  4. Which is an intentional choice made by the author.↩︎

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