Leaky Abstractions

In the late 1990s, the Windows Shell and Internet Explorer teams introduced a bunch of brilliant and intricate designs that allowed extension of the shell and the browser to handle scenarios beyond what those built by Microsoft itself. For instance, Internet Explorer supported the notion of pluggable protocols (“What if some protocol, say, FTPS, becomes as important as HTTP?”) and the Windows Shell offered an extremely flexible set of abstractions for browsing of namespaces, enabling third parties to build browsable “folders” not backed by the file system– everything from WebDAV (“your HTTP-server is a folder“) to CAB Folders (“your CAB archive is a folder“). As a PM on the clipart team in 2004, after I built a .NET-based application to browse clipart from the Office web services, I next sketched out an initial design for a Windows Shell extension that would make it look like Microsoft’s enormous web-based clipart archive were installed in a local folder on your system.

Perhaps the most popular (or infamous) example of a shell namespace extension is the Compressed Folders extension, which handles the exploration of ZIP files. First introduced in the Windows 98 Plus Pack and later included with Windows Me+ directly, Compressed Folders allows billions of Windows users to interact with ZIP files without downloading third-party software. Perhaps surprisingly, the feature was itself was acquired from two third-parties — Microsoft acquired the Explorer integration from Dave Plummer’s “side project”, while a company called InnerMedia claims credit for the “DynaZIP” engine underneath.

Unfortunately, the code hasn’t really been updated in a while. A long while. The timestamp in the module claims it was last updated on Valentine’s Day 1998, and while I suspect there may’ve been a fix here or there since then (and one feature, extract-only Unicode filename support), it’s no secret that the code is, as Raymond Chen says: “stuck at the turn of the century.” That means that it doesn’t support “modern” features like AES encryption, and its performance (runtime, compression ratio) is known to be dramatically inferior to modern 3rd-party implementations.

So, why hasn’t it been updated? Well, “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” accounts for part of the thinking– the ZIP Folders implementation has survived in Windows for 23 years without the howling of customers becoming unbearable, so there’s some evidence that users are happy enough.

Unfortunately, there are degenerate cases where the ZIP Folders support really is broken. I ran across one of those yesterday. I had seen an interesting Twitter thread about hex editors that offer annotation (useful for exploring file formats) and decided to try a few out (I decided I like ReHex best). But in the process, I downloaded the portable version of ImHex and tried to move it to my Tools folder.

I did so by double-clicking the 11.5mb ZIP to open it. I then hit CTRL+A to select all of the files within, then crucially (spoiler alert) CTRL+X to cut the files to my clipboard.

I then created a new subfolder in my C:\Tools folder and hit CTRL+V to paste. And here’s where everything went off the rails– Windows spent well over a minute showing “Calculating…” with no visible progress beyond the creation of a single subfolder with a single 5k file within:

Huh? I knew that the ZIP engine beneath ZIP Folders wasn’t well-optimized, but I’d never seen anything this bad before. After waiting a few more minutes, another file extracted, this one 6.5 mb:

This is bananas. I opened Task Manager, but nothing seemed to be using up much of my 12 thread CPU, my 64gb of memory, or my NVMe SSD. Finally, I opened up SysInternals’ Process Monitor to try to see what was going on, and the root cause of the problem was quickly seen.

After some small reads from the end of the file (where the ZIP file keeps its index), the entire 11 million byte file was being read from disk a single byte at a time:

Looking more closely, I realized that the reads were almost all a single byte, but every now and then, after a specific 1 byte read, a 15 byte read was issued:

What’s at those interesting offsets (330, 337)? The byte 0x50, aka the letter P.

Having written some trivial ZIP-recovery code in the past, I know what’s special about the character P in ZIP files– it’s the first byte of the ZIP format’s block markers, each of which start with 0x50 0x4B. So what’s plainly happening here is that the code is reading the file from start to finish looking for a particular block, 16 bytes in size. Each time it hits a P, it looks at the next 15 bytes to see if they match the desired signature, and if not, it continues scanning byte-by-byte, looking for the next P.

Is there something special about this particular ZIP file? Yes.

The ZIP Format consists of a series of file records, followed by a list (“Central Directory”) of those file records.

Each file record has its own “local file header” which contains information about the file, including its size, compressed size, and CRC-32; the same metadata is repeated in the Central Directory.

However, the ZIP format allows the local file headers to omit this metadata and instead write it as a “trailer” after each individual file’s DEFLATE-compressed data, a capability that is useful when streaming compression– you cannot know the final compressed size for each file until you’ve actually finished compressing its data. Most ZIP files probably don’t make use of this option, but my example download does. (The developer reports that this ZIP file was created by the GitHub CI.)

You can see the CRC and sizes are 0‘d in the header and instead appear immediately following the signature 0x08074b50 (Data Descriptor), just before the next file’s local header:

The 0x08 bit in the General Purpose flag indicates this option; users of 7-Zip can find it mentioned as Descriptor in the entry’s Characteristics column:

Based on the read size (1+15 bytes), I assume the code is groveling for the Data Descriptor blocks. Why it does that (vs. just reading the same data from the Central Directory), I do not know.

Making matters worse, this “read the file, byte by byte” crawl through the file doesn’t just happen once– it happens at least once for every file extracted. Making matters worse, this data is being read with ReadFile rather than fread() meaning that there’s no caching in userspace, requiring we go to the kernel for every byte read.

Eventually, after watching about 85 million single byte reads, Process Monitor hangs:

After restarting and configuring Process Monitor with Symbols, we can examine the one-byte reads and get a hint of what’s going on:

The GetSomeBytes function is getting hammered with calls passing a single byte buffer, in a tight loop inside the readzipfile function. But look down the stack and the root cause of the mess becomes clear– this is happening because after each file is “moved” from the ZIP to the target folder, the ZIP file must be updated to remove the file that was “moved.” This deletion process is inherently not fast (because it results in shuffling all of the subsequent bytes of the file and updating the index), and as implemented in the readzipfile function (with its one-byte read buffer) it is atrociously slow.

Back up in my repro steps, note that I hit CTRL+X to “Cut” the files, resulting in a Move operation. Had I instead hit CTRL+C to “Copy” the files, resulting in a Copy operation, the ZIP folder would not have performed a delete operation as each file was extracted. The time required to unpack the ZIP file drops from over thirty minutes to four seconds. For perspective, 7-Zip unpacks the file in under a quarter of a second, although it cheats a little.

And here’s where the abstraction leaks— from a user’s point-of-view, copying files out of a ZIP file (then deleting the ZIP) vs. moving the files from a ZIP file seems like it shouldn’t be very different. Unfortunately, the abstraction fails to fully paper over the reality that deleting from certain ZIP files is an extremely slow operation, while deleting a file from a disk is usually trivial. As a consequence, the Compressed Folder abstraction works well for tiny ZIPs, but fails for the larger ZIP files that are becoming increasingly common.

While it’s relatively easy to think of ways to dramatically improve the performance of this scenario, precedent suggests that the code in Windows is unlikely to be improved anytime soon. Perhaps for its 25th Anniversary? đŸ€ž

– Eric

Published by ericlaw

Impatient optimist. Dad. Author/speaker. Created Fiddler & SlickRun. PM @ Microsoft 2001-2012, and 2018-2022, working on Office, IE, and Edge. Now a SWE on Microsoft Defender Web Protection. My words are my own, I do not speak for any other entity.

One thought on “Leaky Abstractions

  1. I noticed something similar in the past regarding USB memory sticks. Ctrl-C then Ctrl-V followed by a Delete is faster than just a Ctrl-X.
    Presumably due to the stick’s index getting updated after each file.

    Would it not be possible to add a option to the filesystem/explorer that could be enabled so that the deleting part of a Ctrl-X is cached until the copying is done.

    I guess you’d still have the issue of deleting all the files in a zip leaving it empty. Would deleting the zip itself instead be a good user experience?

    Does Ctrl-X loosely map to a “Move File” behaviour?

    Would a modal warning box make sense, which informs you that you are about to copy and delete from a archive file? And to use just copy instead.

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