Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
Appendix G -- Canonical Encoding Model

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Appendix G -- Canonical Encoding Model

Appendix G -- Canonical Encoding Model

There was some confusion, in earlier drafts of this memo, regarding the model for when email data was to be converted to canonical form and encoded, and in particular how this process would affect the treatment of CRLFs, given that the representation of newlines varies greatly from system to system. For this reason, a canonical model for encoding is presented below.

The process of composing a MIME entity can be modeled as being done in a number of steps. Note that these steps are roughly similar to those steps used in RFC 1421 and are performed for each 'innermost level' body:

Step 1. Creation of local form.

The body to be transmitted is created in the system's native format. The native character set is used, and where appropriate local end of line conventions are used as well. The body may be a UNIX-style text file, or a Sun raster image, or a VMS indexed file, or audio data in a system-dependent format stored only in memory, or anything else that corresponds to the local model for the representation of some form of information. Fundamentally, the data is created in the "native" form specified by the type/subtype information.

Step 2. Conversion to canonical form.

The entire body, including "out-of-band" information such as record lengths and possibly file attribute information, is converted to a universal canonical form. The specific content type of the body as well as its associated attributes dictate the nature of the canonical form that is used. Conversion to the proper canonical form may involve character set conversion, transformation of audio data, compression, or various other operations specific to the various content types. If character set conversion is involved, however, care must be taken to understand the semantics of the content-type, which may have strong implications for any character set conversion, e.g. with regard to syntactically meaningful characters in a text subtype other than "plain".

For example, in the case of text/plain data, the text must be converted to a supported character set and lines must be delimited with CRLF delimiters in accordance with RFC822. Note that the restriction on line lengths implied by RFC822 is eliminated if the next step employs either quoted-printable or base64 encoding.

Step 3. Apply transfer encoding.

A Content-Transfer-Encoding appropriate for this body is applied. Note that there is no fixed relationship between the content type and the transfer encoding. In particular, it may be appropriate to base the choice of base64 or quoted-printable on character frequency counts which are specific to a given instance of a body.

Step 4. Insertion into entity.

The encoded object is inserted into a MIME entity with appropriate headers. The entity is then inserted into the body of a higher-level entity (message or multipart) if needed.

It is vital to note that these steps are only a model; they are specifically NOT a blueprint for how an actual system would be built. In particular, the model fails to account for two common designs:

  1. In many cases the conversion to a canonical form prior to encoding will be subsumed into the encoder itself, which understands local formats directly. For example, the local newline convention for text bodies might be carried through to the encoder itself along with knowledge of what that format is.

  2. The output of the encoders may have to pass through one or more additional steps prior to being transmitted as a message. As such, the output of the encoder may not be conformant with the formats specified by RFC822. In particular, once again it may be appropriate for the converter's output to be expressed using local newline conventions rather than using the standard RFC822 CRLF delimiters.

Other implementation variations are conceivable as well. The vital aspect of this discussion is that, in spite of any optimizations, collapsings of required steps, or insertion of additional processing, the resulting messages must be consistent with those produced by the model described here. For example, a message with the following header fields:

        Content-type: text/foo; charset=bar
        Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64

must be first represented in the text/foo form, then (if necessary) represented in the "bar" character set, and finally transformed via the base64 algorithm into a mail-safe form.

Next: Appendix H -- Changes from RFC 1341

Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
Appendix G -- Canonical Encoding Model