elektra-meta-data(7) meta data


Metadata has different purposes:
Traditionally Elektra used metadata to carry file system semantics. The backend filesys stores file metadata (File metadata in POSIX is returned by stat()) in a struct with the same name. It contains a file type (directory, symbolic link,..) as well as other metadata like uid, gid, owner, mode, atime, mtime and ctime. into the Key objects. This solution, however, only makes sense when each file shelters only one Key object.
The metaname binary shows if a Key object contains binary data. Otherwise it has a null-terminated C string.
An application can set and get a flag in Key objects.
Comments and owner, together with the items above, were the only metadata possible before arbitrary metadata was introduced.
Further metadata can hold information on how to check and validate keys using types or regular expressions. Additional constraints concerning the validity of values can be convenient. Maximum length, forbidden characters and a specified range are examples of further constraints.
They can denote when the value has changed or can be informal comments about the content or the character set being used.
They can express the information the user has about the key, for example, comments in different languages. Language specific information can be supported by simply adding a unique language code to the metaname.
They can represent information to be used by storage plugins. Information can be stored as syntactic, semantic or additional information rather than text in the key database. This could be ordering or version information.
They can be interpreted by plugins, which is the most important purpose of metadata. Nearly all kinds of metadata mentioned above can belong to this category.
Metadata is used to pass error or warning information from plugins to the application. The application can decide to present it to the user. The information is uniquely identified by numerical codes. Metadata can also embed descriptive text specifying a reason for the error.
Applications can remember something about keys in metadata. Such metadata generalises the application-defined flag.
A more advanced idea is to use metadata to generate forms in a programmatic way. While it is certainly possible to store the necessary expressive metadata, it is plenty of work to define the semantics needed to do that.


In this document, we discuss the implementation of metadata. Metakey is implemented directly in a Key: Every metakey belongs to a key inseparable. Unlike normal key names there is no absolute path for it in the hierarchy, but a relative one only valid within the key.

The advantage of embedding metadata into a key is that functions can operate on a key's metadata if a key is passed as a parameter. Because of this, keyNew() directly supports adding metadata. A key with metadata is self-contained. When the key is passed to a function, the metadata is always passed with it. Because of the tight integration into a Key, the metadata does not disturb the user.

A disadvantage of this approach is that storage plugins are more likely to ignore metadata because metakeys are distinct from keys and have to be handled separately. It is not possible to iterate over all keys and their metadata in a single loop. Instead only a nested loop provides full iteration over all keys and metakeys.

The metakey itself is also represented by a Key. So the data structure Key is nested directly into a Key. The reason for this is to make the concept easier for the user who already knows how to work with a Key. But even new users need to learn only one interface. During iteration the metakeys, represented through a Key object, contain both the metaname and the metavalue. The metaname is shorter than a key name because the name is unique only in the Key and not for the whole global configuration.

The implementation adds no significant memory overhead per Key if no metadata is used. For embedded systems it is useful to have keys without metadata. Special plugins can help for systems that have very limited memory capacity. Also for systems with enough memory we should consider that adding the first metadata to a key has some additional overhead. In the current implementation a new KeySet is allocated in this situation.


The interface to access metadata consists of the following functions:

Interface of metadata:

const Key *keyGetMeta(const Key *key, const char* metaName);
ssize_t    keySetMeta(Key *key, const char* metaName,
    const char *newMetaString);

Inside a Key, metadata with a given metaname and a metavalue can be set using keySetMeta() and retrieved using keyGetMeta(). Iteration over metadata is possible with:

Interface for iterating metadata:

int keyRewindMeta(Key *key);
const Key *keyNextMeta(Key *key);
const Key *keyCurrentMeta(const Key *key);

Rewinding and forwarding to the next key works as for the KeySet. Programmers used to Elektra will immediately be familiar with the interface. Tiny wrapper functions still support the old metadata interface.

Sharing of Metakey

Usually substantial amounts of metadata are shared between keys. For example, many keys have the type int. To avoid the problem that every key with this metadata occupies additional space, keyCopyMeta() was invented. It copies metadata from one key to another. Only one metakey resides in memory as long as the metadata is not changed with keySetMeta(). To copy metadata, the following functions can be used:
int keyCopyMeta(Key *dest, const Key *source, const char *metaName);
int keyCopyAllMeta(Key *dest, const Key *source);

The name copy is used because the information is copied from one key to another. It has the same meaning as in ksCopy(). In both cases it is a flat copy. keyCopyAllMeta() copies all metadata from one key to another. It is more efficient than a loop with the same effect.

keyDup() copies all metadata as expected. Sharing metadata makes no difference from the user's point of view. Whenever a metavalue is changed a new metakey is generated. It does not matter if the old metakey was shared or not. This is the reason why a const pointer is always passed back. The metakey must not be changed because it can be used within another key.