Tahoe-LAFS Directory Nodes

As explained in the architecture docs, Tahoe-LAFS can be roughly viewed as a collection of three layers. The lowest layer is the key-value store: it provides operations that accept files and upload them to the grid, creating a URI in the process which securely references the file’s contents. The middle layer is the file store, creating a structure of directories and filenames resembling the traditional Unix or Windows filesystems. The top layer is the application layer, which uses the lower layers to provide useful services to users, like a backup application, or a way to share files with friends.

This document examines the middle layer, the “file store”.

  1. Key-value Store Primitives

  2. File Store Goals

  3. Dirnode Goals

  4. Dirnode secret values

  5. Dirnode storage format

  6. Dirnode sizes, mutable-file initial read sizes

  7. Design Goals, redux

    1. Confidentiality leaks in the storage servers

    2. Integrity failures in the storage servers

    3. Improving the efficiency of dirnodes

    4. Dirnode expiration and leases

  8. Starting Points: root dirnodes

  9. Mounting and Sharing Directories

  10. Revocation

Key-value Store Primitives

In the lowest layer (key-value store), there are two operations that reference immutable data (which we refer to as “CHK URIs” or “CHK read-capabilities” or “CHK read-caps”). One puts data into the grid (but only if it doesn’t exist already), the other retrieves it:

chk_uri = put(data)
data = get(chk_uri)

We also have three operations which reference mutable data (which we refer to as “mutable slots”, or “mutable write-caps and read-caps”, or sometimes “SSK slots”). One creates a slot with some initial contents, a second replaces the contents of a pre-existing slot, and the third retrieves the contents:

mutable_uri = create(initial_data)
replace(mutable_uri, new_data)
data = get(mutable_uri)

File Store Goals

The main goal for the middle (file store) layer is to give users a way to organize the data that they have uploaded into the grid. The traditional way to do this in computer filesystems is to put this data into files, give those files names, and collect these names into directories.

Each directory is a set of name-entry pairs, each of which maps a “child name” to a directory entry pointing to an object of some kind. Those child objects might be files, or they might be other directories. Each directory entry also contains metadata.

The directory structure is therefore a directed graph of nodes, in which each node might be a directory node or a file node. All file nodes are terminal nodes.

Dirnode Goals

What properties might be desirable for these directory nodes? In no particular order:

  1. functional. Code which does not work doesn’t count.

  2. easy to document, explain, and understand

  3. confidential: it should not be possible for others to see the contents of a directory

  4. integrity: it should not be possible for others to modify the contents of a directory

  5. available: directories should survive host failure, just like files do

  6. efficient: in storage, communication bandwidth, number of round-trips

  7. easy to delegate individual directories in a flexible way

  8. updateness: everybody looking at a directory should see the same contents

  9. monotonicity: everybody looking at a directory should see the same sequence of updates

Some of these goals are mutually exclusive. For example, availability and consistency are opposing, so it is not possible to achieve #5 and #8 at the same time. Moreover, it takes a more complex architecture to get close to the available-and-consistent ideal, so #2/#6 is in opposition to #5/#8.

Tahoe-LAFS v0.7.0 introduced distributed mutable files, which use public-key cryptography for integrity, and erasure coding for availability. These achieve roughly the same properties as immutable CHK files, but their contents can be replaced without changing their identity. Dirnodes are then just a special way of interpreting the contents of a specific mutable file. Earlier releases used a “vdrive server”: this server was abolished in the v0.7.0 release.

For details of how mutable files work, please see Mutable Files.

For releases since v0.7.0, we achieve most of our desired properties. The integrity and availability of dirnodes is equivalent to that of regular (immutable) files, with the exception that there are more simultaneous-update failure modes for mutable slots. Delegation is quite strong: you can give read-write or read-only access to any subtree, and the data format used for dirnodes is such that read-only access is transitive: i.e. if you grant Bob read-only access to a parent directory, then Bob will get read-only access (and not read-write access) to its children.

Relative to the previous “vdrive server”-based scheme, the current distributed dirnode approach gives better availability, but cannot guarantee updateness quite as well, and requires far more network traffic for each retrieval and update. Mutable files are somewhat less available than immutable files, simply because of the increased number of combinations (shares of an immutable file are either present or not, whereas there are multiple versions of each mutable file, and you might have some shares of version 1 and other shares of version 2). In extreme cases of simultaneous update, mutable files might suffer from non-monotonicity.

Dirnode secret values

As mentioned before, dirnodes are simply a special way to interpret the contents of a mutable file, so the secret keys and capability strings described in Mutable Files are all the same. Each dirnode contains an RSA public/private keypair, and the holder of the “write capability” will be able to retrieve the private key (as well as the AES encryption key used for the data itself). The holder of the “read capability” will be able to obtain the public key and the AES data key, but not the RSA private key needed to modify the data.

The “write capability” for a dirnode grants read-write access to its contents. This is expressed on concrete form as the “dirnode write cap”: a printable string which contains the necessary secrets to grant this access. Likewise, the “read capability” grants read-only access to a dirnode, and can be represented by a “dirnode read cap” string.

For example, URI:DIR2:swdi8ge1s7qko45d3ckkyw1aac%3Aar8r5j99a4mezdojejmsfp4fj1zeky9gjigyrid4urxdimego68o is a write-capability URI, while URI:DIR2-RO:buxjqykt637u61nnmjg7s8zkny:ar8r5j99a4mezdojejmsfp4fj1zeky9gjigyrid4urxdimego68o is a read-capability URI, both for the same dirnode.

Dirnode storage format

Each dirnode is stored in a single mutable file, distributed in the Tahoe-LAFS grid. The contents of this file are a serialized list of netstrings, one per child. Each child is a list of four netstrings: (name, rocap, rwcap, metadata). (Remember that the contents of the mutable file are encrypted by the read-cap, so this section describes the plaintext contents of the mutable file, after it has been decrypted by the read-cap.)

The name is simple a UTF-8 -encoded child name. The ‘rocap’ is a read-only capability URI to that child, either an immutable (CHK) file, a mutable file, or a directory. It is also possible to store ‘unknown’ URIs that are not recognized by the current version of Tahoe-LAFS. The ‘rwcap’ is a read-write capability URI for that child, encrypted with the dirnode’s write-cap: this enables the “transitive readonlyness” property, described further below. The ‘metadata’ is a JSON-encoded dictionary of type,value metadata pairs. Some metadata keys are pre-defined, the rest are left up to the application.

Each rwcap is stored as IV + ciphertext + MAC. The IV is a 16-byte random value. The ciphertext is obtained by using AES in CTR mode on the rwcap URI string, using a key that is formed from a tagged hash of the IV and the dirnode’s writekey. The MAC is written only for compatibility with older Tahoe-LAFS versions and is no longer verified.

If Bob has read-only access to the ‘bar’ directory, and he adds it as a child to the ‘foo’ directory, then he will put the read-only cap for ‘bar’ in both the rwcap and rocap slots (encrypting the rwcap contents as described above). If he has full read-write access to ‘bar’, then he will put the read-write cap in the ‘rwcap’ slot, and the read-only cap in the ‘rocap’ slot. Since other users who have read-only access to ‘foo’ will be unable to decrypt its rwcap slot, this limits those users to read-only access to ‘bar’ as well, thus providing the transitive readonlyness that we desire.

Dirnode sizes, mutable-file initial read sizes

How big are dirnodes? When reading dirnode data out of mutable files, how large should our initial read be? If we guess exactly, we can read a dirnode in a single round-trip, and update one in two RTT. If we guess too high, we’ll waste some amount of bandwidth. If we guess low, we need to make a second pass to get the data (or the encrypted privkey, for writes), which will cost us at least another RTT.

Assuming child names are between 10 and 99 characters long, how long are the various pieces of a dirnode?

netstring(name) ~= 4+len(name)
chk-cap = 97 (for 4-char filesizes)
dir-rw-cap = 88
dir-ro-cap = 91
netstring(cap) = 4+len(cap)
encrypted(cap) = 16+cap+32
JSON({}) = 2
JSON({ctime=float,mtime=float,'tahoe':{linkcrtime=float,linkmotime=float}}): 137
netstring(metadata) = 4+137 = 141

so a CHK entry is:

5+ 4+len(name) + 4+97 + 5+16+97+32 + 4+137

And a 15-byte filename gives a 416-byte entry. When the entry points at a subdirectory instead of a file, the entry is a little bit smaller. So an empty directory uses 0 bytes, a directory with one child uses about 416 bytes, a directory with two children uses about 832, etc.

When the dirnode data is encoding using our default 3-of-10, that means we get 139ish bytes of data in each share per child.

The pubkey, signature, and hashes form the first 935ish bytes of the container, then comes our data, then about 1216 bytes of encprivkey. So if we read the first:

1kB: we get 65bytes of dirnode data : only empty directories
2kB: 1065bytes: about 8
3kB: 2065bytes: about 15 entries, or 6 entries plus the encprivkey
4kB: 3065bytes: about 22 entries, or about 13 plus the encprivkey

So we’ve written the code to do an initial read of 4kB from each share when we read the mutable file, which should give good performance (one RTT) for small directories.

Design Goals, redux

How well does this design meet the goals?

  1. functional: YES: the code works and has extensive unit tests

  2. documentable: YES: this document is the existence proof

  3. confidential: YES: see below

  4. integrity: MOSTLY: a coalition of storage servers can rollback individual mutable files, but not a single one. No server can substitute fake data as genuine.

  5. availability: YES: as long as ‘k’ storage servers are present and have the same version of the mutable file, the dirnode will be available.

  6. efficient: MOSTLY:
    network: single dirnode lookup is very efficient, since clients can

    fetch specific keys rather than being required to get or set the entire dirnode each time. Traversing many directories takes a lot of roundtrips, and these can’t be collapsed with promise-pipelining because the intermediate values must only be visible to the client. Modifying many dirnodes at once (e.g. importing a large pre-existing directory tree) is pretty slow, since each graph edge must be created independently.

    storage: each child has a separate IV, which makes them larger than

    if all children were aggregated into a single encrypted string

  7. delegation: VERY: each dirnode is a completely independent object, to which clients can be granted separate read-write or read-only access

  8. updateness: VERY: with only a single point of access, and no caching, each client operation starts by fetching the current value, so there are no opportunities for staleness

  9. monotonicity: VERY: the single point of access also protects against retrograde motion

Confidentiality leaks in the storage servers

Dirnode (and the mutable files upon which they are based) are very private against other clients: traffic between the client and the storage servers is protected by the Foolscap SSL connection, so they can observe very little. Storage index values are hashes of secrets and thus unguessable, and they are not made public, so other clients cannot snoop through encrypted dirnodes that they have not been told about.

Storage servers can observe access patterns and see ciphertext, but they cannot see the plaintext (of child names, metadata, or URIs). If an attacker operates a significant number of storage servers, they can infer the shape of the directory structure by assuming that directories are usually accessed from root to leaf in rapid succession. Since filenames are usually much shorter than read-caps and write-caps, the attacker can use the length of the ciphertext to guess the number of children of each node, and might be able to guess the length of the child names (or at least their sum). From this, the attacker may be able to build up a graph with the same shape as the plaintext file store, but with unlabeled edges and unknown file contents.

Integrity failures in the storage servers

The mutable file’s integrity mechanism (RSA signature on the hash of the file contents) prevents the storage server from modifying the dirnode’s contents without detection. Therefore the storage servers can make the dirnode unavailable, but not corrupt it.

A sufficient number of colluding storage servers can perform a rollback attack: replace all shares of the whole mutable file with an earlier version. To prevent this, when retrieving the contents of a mutable file, the client queries more servers than necessary and uses the highest available version number. This insures that one or two misbehaving storage servers cannot cause this rollback on their own.

Improving the efficiency of dirnodes

The current mutable-file -based dirnode scheme suffers from certain inefficiencies. A very large directory (with thousands or millions of children) will take a significant time to extract any single entry, because the whole file must be downloaded first, then parsed and searched to find the desired child entry. Likewise, modifying a single child will require the whole file to be re-uploaded.

The current design assumes (and in some cases, requires) that dirnodes remain small. The mutable files on which dirnodes are based are currently using “SDMF” (“Small Distributed Mutable File”) design rules, which state that the size of the data shall remain below one megabyte. More advanced forms of mutable files (MDMF and LDMF) are in the design phase to allow efficient manipulation of larger mutable files. This would reduce the work needed to modify a single entry in a large directory.

Judicious caching may help improve the reading-large-directory case. Some form of mutable index at the beginning of the dirnode might help as well. The MDMF design rules allow for efficient random-access reads from the middle of the file, which would give the index something useful to point at.

The current SDMF design generates a new RSA public/private keypair for each directory. This takes some time and CPU effort (around 100 milliseconds on a relatively high-end 2021 laptop) per directory. We have designed (but not yet built) a DSA-based mutable file scheme which will use shared parameters to reduce the directory-creation effort to a bare minimum (picking a random number instead of generating two random primes).

When a backup program is run for the first time, it needs to copy a large amount of data from a pre-existing local filesystem into reliable storage. This means that a large and complex directory structure needs to be duplicated in the dirnode layer. With the one-object-per-dirnode approach described here, this requires as many operations as there are edges in the imported filesystem graph.

Another approach would be to aggregate multiple directories into a single storage object. This object would contain a serialized graph rather than a single name-to-child dictionary. Most directory operations would fetch the whole block of data (and presumeably cache it for a while to avoid lots of re-fetches), and modification operations would need to replace the whole thing at once. This “realm” approach would have the added benefit of combining more data into a single encrypted bundle (perhaps hiding the shape of the graph from a determined attacker), and would reduce round-trips when performing deep directory traversals (assuming the realm was already cached). It would also prevent fine-grained rollback attacks from working: a coalition of storage servers could change the entire realm to look like an earlier state, but it could not independently roll back individual directories.

The drawbacks of this aggregation would be that small accesses (adding a single child, looking up a single child) would require pulling or pushing a lot of unrelated data, increasing network overhead (and necessitating test-and-set semantics for the modification side, which increases the chances that a user operation will fail, making it more challenging to provide promises of atomicity to the user).

It would also make it much more difficult to enable the delegation (“sharing”) of specific directories. Since each aggregate “realm” provides all-or-nothing access control, the act of delegating any directory from the middle of the realm would require the realm first be split into the upper piece that isn’t being shared and the lower piece that is. This splitting would have to be done in response to what is essentially a read operation, which is not traditionally supposed to be a high-effort action. On the other hand, it may be possible to aggregate the ciphertext, but use distinct encryption keys for each component directory, to get the benefits of both schemes at once.

Dirnode expiration and leases

Dirnodes are created any time a client wishes to add a new directory. How long do they live? What’s to keep them from sticking around forever, taking up space that nobody can reach any longer?

Mutable files are created with limited-time “leases”, which keep the shares alive until the last lease has expired or been cancelled. Clients which know and care about specific dirnodes can ask to keep them alive for a while, by renewing a lease on them (with a typical period of one month). Clients are expected to assist in the deletion of dirnodes by canceling their leases as soon as they are done with them. This means that when a client unlinks a directory, it should also cancel its lease on that directory. When the lease count on a given share goes to zero, the storage server can delete the related storage. Multiple clients may all have leases on the same dirnode: the server may delete the shares only after all of the leases have gone away.

We expect that clients will periodically create a “manifest”: a list of so-called “refresh capabilities” for all of the dirnodes and files that they can reach. They will give this manifest to the “repairer”, which is a service that keeps files (and dirnodes) alive on behalf of clients who cannot take on this responsibility for themselves. These refresh capabilities include the storage index, but do not include the readkeys or writekeys, so the repairer does not get to read the files or directories that it is helping to keep alive.

After each change to the user’s file store, the client creates a manifest and looks for differences from their previous version. Anything which was removed prompts the client to send out lease-cancellation messages, allowing the data to be deleted.

Starting Points: root dirnodes

Any client can record the URI of a directory node in some external form (say, in a local file) and use it as the starting point of later traversal. Each Tahoe-LAFS user is expected to create a new (unattached) dirnode when they first start using the grid, and record its URI for later use.

Mounting and Sharing Directories

The biggest benefit of this dirnode approach is that sharing individual directories is almost trivial. Alice creates a subdirectory that she wants to use to share files with Bob. This subdirectory is attached to Alice’s file store at “alice:shared-with-bob”. She asks her file store for the read-only directory URI for that new directory, and emails it to Bob. When Bob receives the URI, he attaches the given URI into one of his own directories, perhaps at a place named “bob:shared-with-alice”. Every time Alice writes a file into this directory, Bob will be able to read it. (It is also possible to share read-write URIs between users, but that makes it difficult to follow the Prime Coordination Directive .) Neither Alice nor Bob will get access to any files above the mounted directory: there are no ‘parent directory’ pointers. If Alice creates a nested set of directories, “alice:shared-with-bob/subdir2”, and gives a read-only URI to shared-with-bob to Bob, then Bob will be unable to write to either shared-with-bob/ or subdir2/.

A suitable UI needs to be created to allow users to easily perform this sharing action: dragging a folder from their file store to an IM or email user icon, for example. The UI will need to give the sending user an opportunity to indicate whether they want to grant read-write or read-only access to the recipient. The recipient then needs an interface to drag the new folder into their file store and give it a home.


When Alice decides that she no longer wants Bob to be able to access the shared directory, what should she do? Suppose she’s shared this folder with both Bob and Carol, and now she wants Carol to retain access to it but Bob to be shut out. Ideally Carol should not have to do anything: her access should continue unabated.

The current plan is to have her client create a deep copy of the folder in question, delegate access to the new folder to the remaining members of the group (Carol), asking the lucky survivors to replace their old reference with the new one. Bob may still have access to the old folder, but he is now the only one who cares: everyone else has moved on, and he will no longer be able to see their new changes. In a strict sense, this is the strongest form of revocation that can be accomplished: there is no point trying to force Bob to forget about the files that he read a moment before being kicked out. In addition it must be noted that anyone who can access the directory can proxy for Bob, reading files to him and accepting changes whenever he wants. Preventing delegation between communication parties is just as pointless as asking Bob to forget previously accessed files. However, there may be value to configuring the UI to ask Carol to not share files with Bob, or to removing all files from Bob’s view at the same time his access is revoked.