I hope WebDAV dies


WebDAV is a file access and transfer protocol created in the 90s. It has support for file locks, arbitrary key-value properties attached to folders, file mimetypes, and many other features that extend this standard. It also has powerful access control features.

There are also two protocols that extend WebDAV. This blogpost is more about them:

Both of those protocols are authored by Apple, which uses them to synchronize data between iCloud and the built-in apps on iOS. FOSS-software like ownCloud or Baikal also supports them. Nowadays those are the standard protocols for accessing calendar and contacts data from a server.

Both protocols are neither a superset nor a subset of WebDAV: While their RFC mandates that such servers have to fully support WebDAV, they can (should) reject invalid iCalendar/VCard data. And obviously the folder structure is limited. You can't create a calendar folder inside another calendar folder, for example.

The spec authors also added new queries to both CardDAV and CalDAV, specific to their datamodels. For example, in WebDAV, you can send a PROPFIND HTTP request (yes, that's a HTTP method) with a Depth: 1 header and the following XML as payload to a folder URL:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<D:propfind xmlns:D="DAV:">

The WebDAV server then responds with another XML document that enlists URLs for each file in that folder. It also includes the requested properties for each file. In this case, we requested the current etag and the MIME-type. You can also change the Depth-header to recursively list files in subfolders, kind of like what the find-command does. The server has to support all these fun queries, otherwise clients will break. Or some of them. You never know.

And even though the WebDAV protocol allows for so many slightly different queries, there was one feature missing: You can't filter folder listings. In the case of CalDAV, that means you can't get a listing for a specific timerange. You will have to download all events from the server when synchronizing a calendar. This is not feasible, not only bandwidth-wise1, but also in regards to space when considering mobile devices.

At this point it might have made sense to extend PROPFIND requests to filter by properties. But the authors made a different decision. WebDAV also has a method called REPORT. Of course you can send XML with that method too, why wouldn't you. Here's what it looks like:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<C:calendar-query xmlns:D="DAV:"
        <C:comp-filter name="VCALENDAR">
            <C:comp-filter name="VEVENT">
                <C:time-range start="20150909T000000Z" end="20300909T000000Z"/>

And there you have your filtering feature, all encapsulated in a new XML namespace like God intended it to be. The filtering semantics can be explained like this: You're querying for a VCALENDAR component (basically a container for events and timezone definitions), then you query for a VEVENT component inside it, and since every event has a start and end property, you can finally filter by those too.

But why would you want to filter by events? What else could there be inside of a calendar? Turns out you can also store tasks (VTODO) and diary entries (VJOURNAL) inside one. Remember that Apple uses this protocol? This is why when you delete a tasklist in the Tasks app, it warns you that your same-named calendar will also be deleted2. This is how your iPhone calendar syncs to iCloud. And people think the legacy of HTTP or TCP is crippling.

WebDAV in practice

Flock was an Android app that offered end-to-end encrypted contact and calendar sync. Under the hood they used the CalDAV and CardDAV protocols. They shut down a few months ago. Their main developer wrote a short note on the technical reasons behind it.

The fact that CalDAV and CardDAV are based on WebDAV has fatal downsides in practice. I guess the idea was that you could just use an existing WebDAV client library to access your calendar data in an easy way. In practice, all of this complexity makes servers really hard to implement properly. Consequently most servers only implement a subset, which leads to massive compatibility problems, and leaves client developers with the challenge to find a subset of the protocol that is supported by the servers they care about. In practice, you can't use a WebDAV client library. In practice, you copy-paste XML from the examples in the RFC into your source code and hope for the best.

I also wrote a client called "vdirsyncer". I even blogged about it. Yes, CalDAV and CardDAV being derived from WebDAV does allow for some pretty cool tricks involving a WebDAV FUSE filesystem and a bunch of shellscripts that scrape the files in that filesystem and add them up to a listing of contacts and calendars. But that's about it with the upsides of that protocol. And in practice that trick works with only a few servers anyway.

Vdirsyncer's integration tests spawn several popular WebDAV servers and run a massive amount of tests against them. In some servers, that testsuite found bugs that one couldn't even call edgecases. Things like renaming a calendar, or fetching multiple events in a single request were completely broken. The fact that those bugs don't seem to get noticed by the user shows how flexible clients are when it comes to working around buggy implementations. And those are just the ones that are actually testable in a sane way. The most broken servers are part of massive groupwares that would probably eat up all of the RAM in Travis' VMs.

The future

I'm currently playing around with remoteStorage. It's a file transfer protocol, like WebDAV. But at least the protocol is simple, based on HTTP, and a little JSON for file listings. It doesn't support locks. It doesn't support ACLs, or whatever they are called. It doesn't support attaching arbitrary properties to a folder. It doesn't support all those crazy features that make CalDAV- and CardDAV-servers hard to implement, and as a result clients. Yes, it's slow to fetch all events, but so is parsing XML. And since remoteStorage doesn't restrict the way I store files, I can always change the way I store files to somehow implement that time-range querying feature CalDAV has. Or not, I don't want to end up with something like CalDAV. Perhaps I'll just run a cronjob to automatically delete old events, I don't know.

The only thing that is more complex in remoteStorage than in WebDAV is authentication. RemoteStorage requires the server to support a subset of OAuth, and that's the only kind of authentication supported. It also requires WebFinger support instead of making it optional (like in WebDAV, where it's almost a luxury if the DAV client actually finds the HTTP endpoints it's supposed to use). It also has a simple permission system baked into the authentication protocol that actually gives the user control over the data applications can access.

I'm hoping to replace WebDAV in my personal infrastructure as far as possible. It probably won't ever go away, but at least I can try. I've also extended vdirsyncer so I can use it to synchronize a CalDAV/CardDAV-server with a remoteStorage-server. It's still a work-in-progress, but at least it's not a Sisyphean task like writing a CalDAV/CardDAV-client that actually works.

For the users of vdirsyncer this means nothing, because I still rely on WebDAV myself. But as I dive deeper into the remoteStorage protocol, I'm less and less inclined to work around bugs in your stupid groupware.

Thanks to @skddc for reviewing.

  1. This would be a ridiculous reason given that WebDAV already uses XML.↩︎

  2. Tested on an old iPod touch, running iOS 6. I'm pretty sure nothing has changed since then.↩︎

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