If you use the rarfile module, make sure you're using version 3.0 (or later)

September 4, 2019

We have a Python program to log mail attachment information for Exim. One of the things it does as part of looking at attachments is try to look inside various sorts of archives to find out what sort of things are in there (occasionally the answer is interesting). Back in the summer of 2016, I added the ability to look inside RAR archives using the rarfile module, in addition to ZIPs and tar files (for which I was using the standard library's modules). At the time our mail machines were running a mixture of Ubuntu 12.04 and Ubuntu 14.04, neither of which had the rarfile module available pre-packaged, but the recently released Ubuntu 16.04 packaged rarfile 2.7. Since the module itself is a single pure Python file, I just copied the 16.04 package's rarfile.py into our program's local source and left things there.

(I believe that rarfile 2.8 had been out for about a month at that point, but it didn't seem worth deviating from the Ubuntu version. At that point I was hoping to switch to the official Ubuntu package when we upgraded all of the mail machines to Ubuntu 16.04, so we could theoretically let Ubuntu worry about its version.)

Over time (starting no later than the fall of 2017), we noticed a slowly increasing number of MIME attachments with .rar extensions that we couldn't get the RAR archive contents for. Often our libmagic-based content sniffing (using the magic module) would say that these actually were what it thought was RAR archives, and frequently our commercial anti-spam system would detect malware in them. Recently this reached a tipping point (cf) where I decided to see if updating the rarfile module to the current version would improve the situation and let us look into more RAR archives.

The answer is yes. It turns out that there is a 'new' RAR archive format called RAR5, and rarfile added support for this format in version 3.0 (which was released at the end of 2016); before then, rarfile only supported the RAR3 format. Unsurprisingly, over time more and more RAR archives have been created using RAR5 format instead of RAR3 (although use of RAR3 is still surprisingly frequent in email attachments we get). To be able to read as many RAR archives as possible, you want rarfile 3.0 or later so it supports both RAR3 and RAR5 formats. Right now the 'or later' clause is not really important, since 3.0 is the latest released version.

(WinRAR started supporting RAR5 in late 2013, but my impression is that there are a lot of third party tools and third party RAR code out there. Apparently a fair amount of it has been slow to implement RAR5 or at least to default to it for new archives, much like the rarfile module.)

The rarfile module doesn't move very fast and it kept working for us in general, which is a large part of why I let it just sit there (and had we updated the mail machines to Ubuntu 18.04 and switched to the Ubuntu packaged version, we'd have automatically fixed the problem, as Ubuntu 18.04 packages 3.0). But it's an interesting experience in quietly outdated dependencies, where a more recent version would have improved our experience (and without us having to do anything).

Locking or otherwise freezing dependencies is a very common way to get stability and guarantee reproducible deployments, and that's very popular with a lot of people (me included). But what happened to us is the drawback of that stability, especially for those programs and apps that are complete and which thus have no natural ongoing changes that provide a push to at least check the state of dependencies.

PS: Updating to use rarfile 3.0 required no changes in our program, although we only use a very small portion of the module's capabilities. As far as I can tell, our code doesn't even notice whether the RAR archive is in RAR3 or RAR5 format.

Written on 04 September 2019.
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Last modified: Wed Sep 4 22:29:31 2019
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