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RPM File Format

While the following details concerning the actual format of an RPM package file were accurate at the time this was written, three points should be kept in mind:

  1. The file format is subject to change.

  2. If a package file is to be manipulated somehow, you are strongly urged to use the appropriate rpmlib routines to access the package file. Why? See point number 1!

  3. This appendix describes the most recent version of the RPM file format: version 3. The file(1) utility can be used to see a package's file format version.

With those caveats out of the way, let's take a look inside an RPM file…

Parts of an RPM File

Every RPM package file can be divided into four distinct sections. They are:

  • The lead.

  • The signature.

  • The header.

  • The archive.

Package files are written to disk in network byte order. If required, RPM will automatically convert to host byte order when the package file is read. Let's take a look at each section, starting with the lead.

The Lead

The lead is the first part of an RPM package file. In previous versions of RPM, it was used to store information used internally by RPM. Today, however, the lead's sole purpose is to make it easy to identify an RPM package file. For example, the file(1) command uses the lead. [1] All the information contained in the lead has been duplicated or superseded by information contained in the header. [2]

RPM defines a C structure that describes the lead:
struct rpmlead {
    unsigned char magic[4];
    unsigned char major, minor;
    short type;
    short archnum;
    char name[66];
    short osnum;
    short signature_type;
    char reserved[16];
} ;
Let's take a look at an actual package file and examine the various pieces of data that make up the lead. In the following display, the number to the left of the colon is the byte offset, in hexadecimal, from the start of the file. The eight groups of four characters show the hex value of the bytes in the file — two bytes per group of four characters. Finally, the characters on the right show the ASCII values of the data bytes. When a data byte's value results in a non-printable character, a dot (".") is inserted instead. Here are the first thirty-two bytes of a package file — in this case, the package file rpm-2.2.1-1.i386.rpm:
00000000: edab eedb 0300 0000 0001 7270 6d2d 322e  ..........rpm-2.
00000010: 322e 312d 3100 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000  2.1-1...........

The first four bytes (edab eedb) are the magic values that identify the file as an RPM package file. Both the file command and RPM use these magic numbers to determine whether a file is legitimate or not.

The next two bytes (0300) indicate RPM file format version. In this case, the file's major version number is 3, and the minor version number is 0. Versions of RPM later than 2.1 create version 3.0 package files.

The next two bytes (0000) determine what type of RPM file the file is. There are presently two types defined:

  • Binary package file (type = 0000)

  • Source package file (type = 0001)

In this case, the file is a binary package file.

The next two bytes (0001) are used to store the architecture that the package was built for. In this case, the number 1 refers to the i386 architecture. [3] In the case of a source package file, these two bytes should be ignored, as source packages are not built for a specific architecture.

The next sixty-six bytes (starting with 7270 6d2d) contain the name of the package. The name must end with a null byte, which leaves sixty-five bytes for RPM's usual name-version-release-style name. In this case, we can read the name from the right side of the output:

Since the name rpm-2.2.1-1 is shorter than the sixty-five bytes allocated for the name, the leftover bytes are filled with nulls.

Skipping past the space allocated for the name, we see two bytes (0001):
00000040: 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0001 0005  ................
00000050: 0400 0000 24e1 ffbf 6bb3 0008 00e6 ffbf  ....$...k.......

These bytes represent the operating system for which this package was built. In this case, 1 equals Linux. As with the architecture-to-number translations, the operating system and corresponding code numbers can be found in the file, /usr/lib/rpmrc.

The next two bytes (0005) indicate the type of signature used in the file. A type 5 signature is new to version 3 RPM files. The signature appears next in the file, but we need to discuss an additional detail before exploring the signature.

Wanted: A New RPM Data Structure

By looking at the C structure that defines the lead, and matching it with the bytes in an actual package file, it's trivial to extract the data from the lead. From a programming standpoint, it's also easy to manipulate data in the lead — It's simply a matter of using the element names from the structure. But there's a problem. And because of that problem the lead is no longer used internally by RPM.

The lead: An Abandoned Data Structure

What's the problem, and why is the lead no longer used by RPM? The answer to these questions is a single word: inflexibility. The technique of defining a C structure to access data in a file just isn't very flexible. Let's look at an example.

Flip back to the lead's C structure in the section called The Lead. Say, for example, that some software comes along, and it has a long name. A very long name. A name so long, in fact, that the 66 bytes defined in the structure element name just couldn't hold it.

What can we do? Well, we could certainly change the structure such that the name element would be 100 bytes long. But once a new version of RPM is created using this new structure, we have two problems:

  1. Any package file created with the new version of RPM wouldn't be able to read older package formats.

  2. Any older version of RPM would be unable to install packages created with the newer version of RPM.

Not a very good situation! Ideally, we would like to somehow eliminate the requirement that the format of the data written to a package file be engraved in granite. We should be able to do the following things, all without losing compatibility with existing versions of RPM.

  • Add extra data to the file format.

  • Change the size of existing data.

  • Reorder the data.

Sounds like a big problem, but there's a solution…

Is There a Solution?

The solution is to standardize the method by which information is retrieved from a file. This is done by creating a well-defined data structure that contains easily searched information about the data, and then physically separating that information from the data.

When the data is required, it is found by using the easily searched information, which points to the data itself. The benefits are, that the data can be placed anywhere in the file, and that the format of the data itself can change.

The Solution: The Header Structure

The header structure is RPM's solution to the problem of easily manipulating information in a standard way. The header structure's sole purpose in life is to contain zero or more pieces of data. A file can have more than one header structure in it. In fact, an RPM package file has two — the signature, and the header. It was from this header that the header structure got its name.

There are three sections to each header structure. The first section is known as the header structure header. The header structure header is used to identify the start of a header structure, its size, and the number of data items it contains.

Following the header structure header is an area called the index. The index contains one or more index entries. Each index entry contains information about, and a pointer to, a specific data item.

After the index comes the store. It is in the store that the data items are kept. The data in the store is packed together as closely as possible. The order in which the data is stored is immaterial — a far cry from the C structure used in the lead.

The Header Structure in Depth

Let's take a more in-depth look at the actual format of a header structure, starting with the header structure header:

The Header Structure Header

The header structure header always starts with a three-byte magic number: 8e ad e8. Following this is a one-byte version number. Next are four bytes that are reserved for future expansion. After the reserved bytes, there is a four-byte number that indicates how many index entries exist in this header structure, followed by another four-byte number indicating how many bytes of data are part of the header structure.

The Index Entry

The header structure's index is made up of zero or more index entries. Each entry is sixteen bytes longs. The first four bytes contain a tag — a numeric value that identifies what type of data is pointed to by the entry. The tag values change according to the header structure's position in the RPM file. A list of the actual tag values, and what they represent, will be included later in this appendix.

Following the tag, is a four-byte type, which is a numeric value that describes the format of the data pointed to by the entry. The types and their values do not change from header structure to header structure. Here is the current list:

  • NULL = 0

  • CHAR = 1

  • INT8 = 2

  • INT16 = 3

  • INT32 = 4

  • INT64 = 5

  • STRING = 6

  • BIN = 7


A few of the data types might need some clarification. The STRING data type is simply a null-terminated string, while the STRING_ARRAY is a collection of strings. Finally, the BIN data type is a collection of binary data. This is normally used to identify data that is longer than an INT, but not a printable STRING.

Next is a four-byte offset that contains the position of the data, relative to the beginning of the store. We'll talk about the store in just a moment.

Finally, there is a four-byte count that contains the number of data items pointed to by the index entry. There are a few wrinkles to the meaning of the count, and they center around the STRING and STRING_ARRAY data types. STRING data always has a count of 1, while STRING_ARRAY data has a count equal to the number of strings contained in the store.

The Store

The store is where the data contained in the header structure is stored. Depending on the data type being stored, there are some details that should be kept in mind:

  • For STRING data, each string is terminated with a null byte.

  • For INT data, each integer is stored at the natural boundary for its type. A 64-bit INT is stored on an 8-byte boundary, a 16-bit INT is stored on a 2-byte boundary, and so on.

  • All data is in network byte order.

With all these details out of the way, let's take a look at the signature.

The Signature

The signature section follows the lead in the RPM package file. It contains information that can be used to verify the integrity, and optionally, the authenticity of the majority of the package file. The signature is implemented as a header structure.

You probably noticed the word, "majority", above. The information in the signature header structure is based on the contents of the package file's header and archive only. The data in the lead and the signature header structure are not included when the signature information is created, nor are they part of any subsequent checks based on that information.

While that omission might seem to be a weakness in RPM's design, it really isn't. In the case of the lead, since it is used only for easy identification of package files, any changes made to that part of the file would, at worst, leave the file in such a state that RPM wouldn't recognize it as a valid package file. Likewise, any changes to the signature header structure would make it impossible to verify the file's integrity, since the signature information would have been changed from their original values.

Analyzing the Signature Area

Using our new-found knowledge of header structures, let's take a look at the signatures in rpm-2.2.1-1.i386.rpm:
00000060: 8ead e801 0000 0000 0000 0003 0000 00ac  ................

The first three bytes (8ead e8) contain the magic number for the start of the header structure. The next byte (01) is the header structure's version.

As we discussed earlier, the next four bytes (0000 0000) are reserved. The four bytes after that (0000 0003) represent the number of index entries in the signature section, namely, three. Following that are four bytes (0000 00ac) that indicate how many bytes of data are stored in the signature. The hex value 00ac, when converted to decimal, means the store is 172 bytes long.

Following the first 16 bytes is the index. Each of the three index entries in this header structure consists of four 32-bit integers, in the following order:

  • Tag

  • Type

  • Offset

  • Count

Let's take a look at the first index entry:
00000070: 0000 03e8 0000 0004 0000 0000 0000 0001  ................
The tag consists of the first four bytes (0000 03e8), which is 1000 when translated from hex. Looking in the RPM source directory at the file lib/signature.h, we find the following tag definitions:
#define SIGTAG_SIZE         1000
#define SIGTAG_MD5          1001
#define SIGTAG_PGP          1002

So the tag we are studying is for a size signature. Let's continue.

The next four bytes (0000 0004) contain the data type. As we saw earlier, data type 4 means that the data stored for this index entry, is a 32-bit integer. Skipping the next four bytes for a moment, the last four bytes (0000 0001) are the number of 32-bit integers pointed to by this index entry.

Now, let's go back to the four bytes prior to the count (0000 0000). This number is the offset, in bytes, at which the size signature is located. It has a value of zero, but the question is, zero bytes from what? The answer, although it doesn't do us much good, is that the offset is calculated from the start of the store. So first we must find where the store begins, and we can do that by performing a simple calculation.

First, go back to the start of the signature section. (We've made a copy here so you won't need to flip from page to page)
00000060: 8ead e801 0000 0000 0000 0003 0000 00ac  ................
After the magic, the version, and the four reserved bytes, there is the number of index entries (0000 0003). Since we know that each index entry is sixteen bytes long (four for the tag, four for the type, four for the offset, and four for the count), we can multiply the number of entries (3) by the number of bytes in each entry (16), and obtain the total size of the index, which is 48 decimal, or 30 in hex. Since the first index entry starts at hex offset 70, we can simply add hex 30 to hex 70, and get, in hex, offset a0. So let's skip down to offset a0, and see what's there:
000000a0: 0004 4c4f b025 b097 1597 0132 df35 d169  ..LO.%.....2.5.i
If we've done our math correctly, the first four bytes (0004 4c4f) should represent the size of this file. Converting to decimal, this is 281,679. Let's take a look at the size of the actual file:
# ls -al rpm-2.2.1-1.i386.rpm
                -rw-rw-r--   1 ed       ed         282015 Jul 21 16:05 rpm-2.2.1-1.i386.rpm

Hmmm, something's not right. Or is it? It looks like we're short by 336 bytes, or in hex, 150. Interesting how that's a nice round hex number, isn't it? For now, let's continue through the remainder of the index entries, and see if hex 150 pops up elsewhere.

Here's the next index entry. It has a tag of decimal 1001, which is an MD5 checksum. It is type 7, which is the BIN data type, it is 16 bytes long, and its data starts four bytes after the beginning of the store:
00000080: 0000 03e9 0000 0007 0000 0004 0000 0010  ................
And here's the data. It starts with b025 (Remember that offset of four!) and ends on the second line with 5375. This is a 128-bit MD5 checksum of the package file's header and archive sections.
000000a0: 0004 4c4f b025 b097 1597 0132 df35 d169  ..LO.%.....2.5.i
000000b0: 329c 5375 8900 9503 0500 31ed 6390 a520  2.Su......1.c.. 
Ok, let's jump back to the last index entry:
00000090: 0000 03ea 0000 0007 0000 0014 0000 0098  ................
It has a tag value of 03ea (1002 in decimal — a PGP signature block) and is also a BIN data type. The data starts 20 decimal bytes from the start of the data area, which would put it at file offset b4 (in hex). It's a biggie — 152 bytes long! Here's the data, starting with 8900:
000000b0: 329c 5375 8900 9503 0500 31ed 6390 a520  2.Su......1.c.. 
000000c0: e8f1 cba2 9bf9 0101 437b 0400 9c8e 0ad4  ........C{......
000000d0: 3790 364e dfb0 9a8a 22b5 b0b3 dc30 4c6f  7.6N...."....0Lo
000000e0: 91b8 c150 704e 2c64 d88a 8fca 18ab 5b6f  ...PpN,d......[o
000000f0: f041 ebc8 d18a 01c9 3601 66f0 9ddd e956  .A......6.f....V
00000100: 3142 61b3 b1da 8494 6bef 9c19 4574 c49f  1Ba.....k...Et..
00000110: ee17 35e1 d105 fb68 0ce6 715a 60f1 c660  ..5....h..qZ`..`
00000120: 279f 0306 28ed 0ba0 0855 9e82 2b1c 2ede  '...(....U..+...
00000130: e8e3 5090 6260 0b3c ba04 69a9 2573 1bbb  ..P.b`.<..i.%s..
00000140: 5b65 4de1 b1d2 c07f 8afa 4a9b 0000 0000  [eM.......J.....

It ends with the bytes 4a9b. This is a 1,216-bit PGP signature block. It is also the end of the signature section. There are four null bytes following the last data item in order to round the size out so that it ends on an 8-byte boundary. This means that the offset of the next section starts at offset 150, in hex. Say, wasn't the size in the size signature off by 150 hex? Yes, the size in the signature is the size of the file — less the size of the lead and the signature sections.

The Header

The header section contains all available information about the package. Entries such as the package's name, version, and file list, are contained in the header. Like the signature section, the header is in header structure format. Unlike the signature, which has only three possible tag types, the header has more than sixty different tags. The list of currently defined tags appears later in this appendix on the section called Header Tag Listing. Be aware that the list of tags changes frequently — the definitive list appears in the RPM sources in lib/rpmlib.h.

Analyzing the Header

The easiest way to find the start of the header is to look for the second header structure by scanning for its magic number (8ead e8). The sixteen bytes, starting with the magic, are the header structures's header. They follow the same format as the header in the signature's header structure:
00000150: 8ead e801 0000 0000 0000 0021 0000 09d3  ...........!....

As before, the byte following the magic identifies this header structure as being in version 1 format. Following the four reserved bytes, we find the count of entries stored in the header (0000 0021). Converting to decimal, we find that there are 33 entries in the header. The next four bytes (0000 09d3) converted to decimal, tell us that there are 2,515 bytes of data in the store.

Since the header is a header structure just like the signature, we know that the next 16 bytes are the first index entry:
00000160: 0000 03e8 0000 0006 0000 0000 0000 0001  ................

The first four bytes (0000 03e8) are the tag, which is the tag for the package name. The next four bytes indicate the data is type 6, or a null-terminated string. There's an offset of zero in the next four bytes, meaning that the data for this tag is first in the store. Finally, the last four bytes (0000 0001) show that the data count is 1, which is the only legal value for data of type STRING.

To find the data, we need to take the offset from the start of the first index entry in the header (160), and add in the count of index entries (21) multiplied by the size of an index entry (10). Doing the math (all the values shown, are in hex, remember!), we arrive at the offset to the store, hex 370. Since the offset for this particular index entry is zero, the data should start at offset 370:
00000370: 7270 6d00 322e 322e 3100 3100 5265 6420  rpm. 

Since the data type for this entry is a null-terminated string, we need to keep reading bytes until we reach a byte whose numeric value is zero. We find the bytes 72, 70, 6d, and 00 — a null. Looking at the ASCII display on the right, we find that the bytes form the string rpm, which is the name of this package.

Now for a slightly more complicated example. Let's look at the following index entry:
00000250: 0000 0403 0000 0008 0000 0199 0000 0018  ................
Tag 403 means that this entry is a list of filenames. The data type 8, or STRING_ARRAY, seems to bear this out. From the previous example, we found that the data area for the header began at offset 370. Adding the offset to the first filename (199), gives us 509. Finally, the count of 18 hex means that there should be 24 null-terminated strings containing filenames:
00000500: 696e 6974 6462 0a0a 002f 6269 6e2f 7270  initdb.../bin/rp
00000510: 6d00 2f65 7463 2f72 706d 7263 002f 7573  m./etc/rpmrc./us

The byte at offset 509 is 2f — a "/". Reading up to the first null byte, we find that the first filename is /bin/rpm, followed by /etc/rpmrc. This continues on for 22 more filenames.

There are many more tags that we could decode, but they are all done in the same manner.

Header Tag Listing

The following list shows the tags available, along with their defined values, for use in the header. This list is current as of version 2.3 of RPM. For the most up-to-date version, look in the file lib/rpmlib.h in the latest version of the RPM sources.
#define RPMTAG_NAME                     1000
#define RPMTAG_VERSION                  1001
#define RPMTAG_RELEASE                  1002
#define RPMTAG_SERIAL                   1003
#define RPMTAG_SUMMARY                  1004
#define RPMTAG_DESCRIPTION              1005
#define RPMTAG_BUILDTIME                1006
#define RPMTAG_BUILDHOST                1007
#define RPMTAG_INSTALLTIME              1008
#define RPMTAG_SIZE                     1009
#define RPMTAG_DISTRIBUTION             1010
#define RPMTAG_VENDOR                   1011
#define RPMTAG_GIF                      1012
#define RPMTAG_XPM                      1013
#define RPMTAG_COPYRIGHT                1014
#define RPMTAG_PACKAGER                 1015
#define RPMTAG_GROUP                    1016
#define RPMTAG_CHANGELOG                1017
#define RPMTAG_SOURCE                   1018
#define RPMTAG_PATCH                    1019
#define RPMTAG_URL                      1020
#define RPMTAG_OS                       1021
#define RPMTAG_ARCH                     1022
#define RPMTAG_PREIN                    1023
#define RPMTAG_POSTIN                   1024
#define RPMTAG_PREUN                    1025
#define RPMTAG_POSTUN                   1026
#define RPMTAG_FILENAMES                1027
#define RPMTAG_FILESIZES                1028
#define RPMTAG_FILESTATES               1029
#define RPMTAG_FILEMODES                1030
#define RPMTAG_FILEUIDS                 1031
#define RPMTAG_FILEGIDS                 1032
#define RPMTAG_FILERDEVS                1033
#define RPMTAG_FILEMTIMES               1034
#define RPMTAG_FILEMD5S                 1035
#define RPMTAG_FILELINKTOS              1036
#define RPMTAG_FILEFLAGS                1037
#define RPMTAG_ROOT                     1038
#define RPMTAG_FILEUSERNAME             1039
#define RPMTAG_FILEGROUPNAME            1040
#define RPMTAG_EXCLUDE                  1041 /* not used */
#define RPMTAG_EXCLUSIVE                1042 /* not used */
#define RPMTAG_ICON                     1043
#define RPMTAG_SOURCERPM                1044
#define RPMTAG_FILEVERIFYFLAGS          1045
#define RPMTAG_ARCHIVESIZE              1046
#define RPMTAG_PROVIDES                 1047
#define RPMTAG_REQUIREFLAGS             1048
#define RPMTAG_REQUIRENAME              1049
#define RPMTAG_REQUIREVERSION           1050
#define RPMTAG_NOSOURCE                 1051
#define RPMTAG_NOPATCH                  1052
#define RPMTAG_CONFLICTFLAGS            1053
#define RPMTAG_CONFLICTNAME             1054
#define RPMTAG_CONFLICTVERSION          1055
#define RPMTAG_DEFAULTPREFIX            1056
#define RPMTAG_BUILDROOT                1057
#define RPMTAG_INSTALLPREFIX            1058
#define RPMTAG_EXCLUDEARCH              1059
#define RPMTAG_EXCLUDEOS                1060
#define RPMTAG_EXCLUSIVEARCH            1061
#define RPMTAG_EXCLUSIVEOS              1062
#define RPMTAG_AUTOREQPROV              1063 /* used internally by build */
#define RPMTAG_RPMVERSION               1064
#define RPMTAG_TRIGGERSCRIPTS           1065
#define RPMTAG_TRIGGERNAME              1066
#define RPMTAG_TRIGGERVERSION           1067
#define RPMTAG_TRIGGERFLAGS             1068
#define RPMTAG_TRIGGERINDEX             1069
#define RPMTAG_VERIFYSCRIPT             1079

The Archive

Following the header section is the archive. The archive holds the actual files that comprise the package. The archive is compressed using GNU zip. We can verify this if we look at the start of the archive:
00000d40: 0000 001f 8b08 0000 0000 0002 03ec fd7b  ...............{
00000d50: 7c13 d516 388e 4e92 691b 4a20 010a 1428  |...8.N.i.J ...(

In this example, the archive starts at offset d43. According to the contents of /usr/lib/magic, the first two bytes of a gzipped file should be 1f8b, which is, in fact, what we see. The following byte (08) is the flag used by GNU zip to indicate the file has been compressed with gzip's "deflation" method. The eighth byte has a value of 02, which means that the archive has been compresed using gzip's maximum compression setting. The following byte contains a code indicating the operating system under which the archive was compressed. A 03 in this byte indicates that the compression ran under a UNIX-like operating system.

The remainder of the RPM package file is the compressed archive. After the archive is uncompressed, it is an ordinary cpio archive in SVR4 format with a CRC checksum.



Please refer to the section called Identifying RPM files with the file(1) command for a discussion on identifying RPM package files with the file command.


The header is discussed in the section called The Header.


It should be noted that the architecture used internally by RPM is actually stored in the header. This value is strictly for file(1)'s use.