File API internals

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File API
Project state Implemented
Tracker issue MDL-14589
Discussion n/a
Assignee Petr Škoda (škoďák)

Moodle 2.0


The goals of the new File API are:

  • allow files to be stored within Moodle, as part of the content (as we do now).
  • use a consistent and flexible approach for all file handling throughout Moodle.
  • give modules control over which users can access a file, using capabilities and other local rules.
  • make it easy to determine which parts of Moodle use which files, to simplify operations like backup and restore.
  • track where files originally came from.
  • avoid redundant storage, when the same file is used twice.
  • fully support Unicode file names, irrespective of the capabilities of the underlying file system.


The File API is a set of core interfaces to allow the rest of Moodle to store, serve and manage files. It applies only to files that are part of the Moodle site's content. It is not used for internal files, such as those in the following subdirectories of dataroot: temp, lang, cache, environment, filter, search, sessions, upgradelogs, ...

To learn how to use File API, please visit Using the File API.

The API can be subdivided into the following parts:

File storage
Low level file storage without access control information. Stores the content of files on disc, with metadata in associated database tables.
File serving
Lets users accessing a Moodle site get the files (file.php, draftfile.php, pluginfile.php, userfile.php, etc.)
  • Serve the files on request
  • with appropriate security checks
File related user interfaces
Provides the interface for (lib/form/file.php, filemanager.php, filepicker.php and files/index.php, draftfiles.php)
  • Form elements allowing users to select a file using the file picker, and have it stored within Moodle.
  • UI for users to manage their files, replacing the old course files UI
File browsing API
Allows code to browse and optionally manipulate the file areas
  • find information about available files in each area.
  • print links to files.
  • optionally move/rename/copy/delete/etc.

File API internals

File storage on disk

Files are stored in $CFG->dataroot (also known as moodledata) in the filedir subfolder.

Files are stored according to the SHA1 hash of their content. This means each file with particular contents is stored once, irrespective of how many times it is included in different places, even if it is referred to by different names. (This idea comes from the git version control system.) To relate a file on disc to a user-comprehensible path or filename, you need to use the files database table. See the next section.

Suppose a file has SHA1 hash 081371cb102fa559e81993fddc230c79205232ce in the files table contenthash field. Then it will be stored in on disc as moodledata/filedir/08/13/081371cb102fa559e81993fddc230c79205232ce.

This means Moodle can not store two files with the same SHA1 hash, luckily it is extremely unlikely that this would ever happen. Technically it is also possible to implement reliable collision tests (with some performance cost), for now we just test file lengths in addition to SHA1 hash.

As files on-disk are named with their sha1 hash, there is a simple way of validating files have not been corrupted since upload by using the 'sha1sum' command available in most GNU/Linux distributions. In the below example, the user changed directory to the known location of a file on disk (sourced by finding the contenthash of the relevant file in the mdl_files database table). Then, in this directory the 'sha1sum' command is issued with the file that you wish to hash the content of. Returned from the command is the hash of the content (on the left) and the file name (on the right).

Where a file is NOT corrupted after upload, these two strings will match.

 $ cd /moodlepath/moodledata/filedir/1d/df/
 $ sha1sum 1ddf5b375fcb74929cdd7efda4f47efc61414edf
 1ddf5b375fcb74929cdd7efda4f47efc61414edf  1ddf5b375fcb74929cdd7efda4f47efc61414edf

Where a file IS corrupted after upload, these will differ:

 $ cd /moodlepath/moodledata/filedir/42/32/
 $ sha1sum 42327aac8ce5741f51f42be298fa63686fe81b7a
 9442188152c02f65267103d78167d122c87002cd  42327aac8ce5741f51f42be298fa63686fe81b7a

This is a very handy trick as in the case of any disk corruption (shared storage issues, hard drive issues, disk sector issues etc) the corrupted files can be detected without resorting to manually comparing to previous backups.

Files table

This table contains one entry for each usage of a file. Enough information is kept here so that the file can be fully identified and retrieved again if necessary. It is necessary because some databases have hard limit on index size.

If, for example, the same image is used in a user's profile, and a forum post, then there will be two rows in this table, one for each use of the file, and Moodle will treat the two as separate files, even though the file is only stored once on disc.

Field Type Default Info
id int(10) auto-incrementing The unique ID for this file.
contenthash varchar(40) The sha1 hash of content.
pathnamehash varchar(40) The sha1 hash of "/contextid/component/filearea/itemid/filepath/filename.ext" - prevents file duplicates and allows fast lookup. It is necessary because some databases have hard limit on index size.
contextid int(10) The context id defined in context table - identifies the instance of plugin owning the file.
component varchar(50) Like "mod_forum", "course", "mod_assignment", "backup"
filearea varchar(50) Like "submissions", "intro" and "content" (images and swf linked from summaries), etc.; "blogs" and "userfiles" are special case that live at the system context.
itemid int(10) Some plugin specific item id (eg. forum post, blog entry or assignment submission or user id for user files)
filepath text relative path to file from module content root, useful in Scorm and Resource mod - most of the mods do not need this
filename varchar(255) The full Unicode name of this file (case sensitive)
userid int(10) NULL (optional) Almost always this is the user that created the file, although some modules may choose to use this field for other purposes.
filesize int(10) size of file - bytes
mimetype varchar(100) NULL type of file
status int(10) general file status flag - will be used for lost or infected files
source text file source - usually url
author varchar(255) original author of file, used when importing from other systems
license varchar(255) license type, empty means site default
timecreated int(10) The time this file was created
timemodified int(10) The last time the file was last modified


  • non-unique index on (contextid, component, filearea, itemid)
  • non-unique index on (contenthash)
  • unique index on (pathnamehash).

The plugin type does not need to be specified because it can be derived from the context. Items like blog that do not have their own context will use their own file area inside a suitable context. In this case, the user context.

Entries with filename = '.' represent directories. Directory entries like this are created automatically when a file is added within them.

Note: 'files' plural is used even thought that goes against the coding guidelines because 'file' is a reserved word in some SQL dialects.

Implementation of basic operations

Each plugin may directly access only files in own context and areas!

Low level access API is defined in file_storage class which is obtained from

Storing a file

  1. Calculate the SHA1 hash of the file contents.
  2. Check if a file with this SHA1 hash already exists on disc in file directory or file trash. If not, store the file there.
  3. Add the record for this file to the files table using the low level address

Reading a file

  1. Fetch the record (which includes the SHA1 hash) for the file you want from the files table. You can fetch either all area files or quickly get one file with a specific contenthash.
  2. Retrieve the contents using the SHA1 hash from the file directory.

Deleting a file

  1. Delete the record from the files table.
  2. Verify if some other file is still needing the content, if not move the content file into file trash
  3. Later, admin/cron.php deletes content files from trash directory

File serving

Deals with serving of files - browser requests file, Moodle sends it back. We have three main files. It is important to setup slasharguments on server properly (file.php/some/thing/xxx.jpg), any content that relies on relative links can not work without it (scorm, uploaded html pages, etc.).

legacy file.php

Serves legacy course files, the file name and parameter structure is critical for backwards compatibility of existing course content.

Internally the files are stored in
array('contextid'=>$coursecontextid, 'component;=>'course', 'filearea'=>'legacy', 'itemid'=>0)

The legacy course files are completely disabled in all new courses created in 2.0. The major problem here is to how to educate our users that they can not make huge piles of files in each course any more.


All plugins should use this script to serve all files.

  • plugins decide about access control
  • optional XSS protection - student submitted files must not be served with normal headers, we have to force download instead; ideally there should be second wwwroot for serving of untrusted files
  • links to these files are constructed on the fly from the relative links stored in database, this means that plugin may link only own files

Absolute file links need to be rewritten if html editing allowed in plugin. The links are stored internally as relative links. Before editing or display the internal link representation is converted to absolute links using simple str_replace() @@thipluginlink/summary@@/image.jpg --> /pluginfile.php/assignmentcontextid/intro/image.jpg, it is converted back to internal links before saving.

Script parameters are virtual file names, in most cases the parameters match the low level file storage, but they do not have to:


pluginfile.php detects the type of plugin from context table, fetches basic info (like $course or $cm if appropriate) and calls plugin function (or later method) which does the access control and finally sends the file to user. areaname separates files by type and divides the context into several subtrees - for example summary files (images used in module intros), post attachments, etc.

Assignment example


The last line example of virtual file that should created on the fly, it is not implemented yet.

scorm example


The revision counter is incremented when any file changes in order to prevent caching problems.

quiz example


questions example

This section was out of date. See File_storage_conversion_Quiz_and_Questions for the latest thinking.

blog example

Blog entries or notes in general do not have context id (because they live in system context, SYSCONTEXTID below is the id of system context). The note attachments are always served with XSS protection on, ideally we should use separate wwwroot for this. Access control can be hardcoded.

Internally stored in
array('contextid'=>SYSCONTEXTID, 'component'=>'blog', 'filearea'=>'attachment', 'itemid'=>$blogentryid)
Internally stored in
array('contextid'=>SYSCONTEXTID, 'component'=>'blog', 'filearea'=>'post', 'itemid'=>$blogentryid)

Temporary files

Temporary files are usually used during the lifetime of one script only. uses:

  • exports
  • imports
  • processing by executable files (latex, mimetex)

These files should never use utf-8 file names.

Legacy file storage and serving

Going to use good-old separate directories in $CFG->dataroot.

file serving and storage:

  1. user avatars - user/pix.php
  2. group avatars - user/pixgroup.php
  3. tex, algebra - filter/tex/* and filter/algebra/*
  4. rss cache (?full rss rewrite soon?) - backwards compatibility only rss/file.php

only storage:

  1. sessions

File browsing API

This is what other parts of Moodle use to access files that they do not own.

Class: file_browser

Class: file_info and subclasses

File related user interfaces

All files are obtained through from the file repositories.

Formslib fields

  • file picker
  • file manager
  • file upload (obsolete, do not use)

Integration with the HTML editor

Each instance of the HTML editor can be told to store related files in a particular file area.

During editing, files are stored in a draft files area. Then when the form is submitted they are moved into the real file area.

Files are selected using the repository file picker.

Legacy file manager

Available only for legacy reasons. It is not supposed to be used.

All the contexts, file areas and files now form a single huge tree structure, although each user only has access to certain parts of that tree. The file manager (files/index.php) allow users to browse this tree, and manage files within it, according to the level of permissions they have.

Single pane file manager is hard to implement without drag & drop which is notoriously problematic in web based applications. I propose to implement a two pane commander-style file manager. Two pane manager allows you to easily copy/move files between two different contexts (ex: courses).

File manager must not interact directly with filesystem API, instead each module should return traversable tree of files and directories with both real and localised names (localised names are needed for dirs like backupdata).

Backwards compatibility

Content backwards compatibility

This should be preserved as much as possible. This will involve rewriting links in content during the upgrade to 2.0.

Some new features (like resource sharing - if implemented) may not work with existing data that still uses files from course files area.

There might be a breakage of links due to special characters stripping in uploaded files which will not match the links in uploaded html files any more. This should not be very common I hope.

Code backwards compatibility

Other Moodle code (for example plugins) will have to be converted to the new APIs. See Using_the_file_API for guidance.

It is not possible to provide backwards-compatibility here. For example, the old $CFG->dataroot/$courseid/ will no longer exist, and there is no way to emulate that, so we won't try.

Upgrade and migration

When a site is upgraded to Moodle 2.0, all the files in moodledata will have to be migrated. This is going to be a pain, like DML/DDL was :-(

The upgrade process should be interruptible (like the Unicode upgrade was) so it can be stopped/restarted any time.

Migration of content

  • resources - move files to new resource content file area; can be done automatically for pdf, image resources; definitely not accurate for uploaded web pages
  • questions - image file moved to new area, image tag appended to questions
  • moddata files - the easiest part, just move to new storage
  • coursefiles - there might be many outdated files :-( :-(
  • rss feeds links in readers - will be broken, the new security related code would break it anyway

Moving files to files table and file pool

The migration process must be interruptable because it might take a very long time. The files would be moved from old location, the restarting would be straightforward.

Proposed stages:

  1. migration of all course files except moddata - finish marked by some $CFG->files_migrated=true; - this step breaks the old file manager and html editor integration
  2. migration of blog attachments
  3. migration of question files
  4. migration of moddata files - each module is responsible to copy data from converted coursefiles or directly from moddata which is not converted automatically

Some people use symbolic links in coursefiles - we must make sure that those will be copied to new storage in both places, though they can not be linked any more - anybody wanting to have content synced will need to move the files to some repository and set up the sync again.

Talked about a double task here, when migrating course files to module areas:
  1. Parse html files to detect all the dependencies and move them together.
  2. Fallback in pluginfile.php so, if something isn't found in module filearea, search for it in course filearea, copying it and finally, serving it.
Also we talked about the possibility of add a new setting to resource in order to define if it should work against old coursefiles or new autocontained file areas. Migrated resources will point to old coursefiles while new ones will enforce autocontained file areas.
it seems that only resource files will be really complex (because allow arbitrary HTML inclusion). The rest (labels, intros... doesn't) and should be easier to parse.
Eloy Lafuente (stronk7) 19:00, 29 June 2008 (CDT)

Other issues

Unicode support in zip format

Zip format is an old standard for compressing files. It was created long before Unicode existed, and Unicode support was only recently added. There are several ways used for encoding of non-ASCII characters in path names, but unfortunately it is not very standardised. Most Windows packers use DOS encoding.

Client software:

  • Windows built-in compression - bundled with Windows, non-standard DOS encoding only
  • WinZip - shareware, Unicode option (since v11.2)
  • TotalCommander - shareware, single byte(DOS) encoding only
  • 7-Zip - free, Unicode or DOS encoding depending on characters used in file name (since v4.58beta)
  • Info-ZIP - free, uses some weird character set conversions

PHP extraction:

  • Info-ZIP binary execution - no Unicode support at all, mangles character sets in file names (depends on OS, see docs), files must be copied to temp directory before compression and after extraction
  • PclZip PHP library - reads single byte encoded names only, problems with random problems and higher memory usage.
  • Zip PHP extension - kind of works in latest PHP versions

Large file support: PHP running under 32bit operating systems does not support files >2GB (do not expect fix before PHP 6). This might be a potential problem for larger backups.

Tar Alternative:

  • tar with gzip compression - easy to implement in PHP + zlib extension (PclTar, Tar from PEAR or custom code)
  • no problem with unicode in *nix, Windows again expects DOS encoding :-(
  • seems suitable for backup/restore - yay!


  1. added zip processing class that fully hides the underlying library
  2. using single byte encoding "garbage in/garbage out" approach for encoding of files in zip archives; add new 'zipencoding' string into lang packs (ex: cp852 DOS charset for Czech locale) and use it during extraction (we might support true unicode later when PHP Zip extension does that)

Tar packer

A .tar.gz format packer is available from Moodle 2.6 (requires zlib extension) and can be selected for use in Moodle backup via an experimental option. MDL-41838.

The packer is currently limited to ASCII filenames and individual files are limited to 8GB each, but unlike zip there is no limit on the total filesize. It uses the old POSIX format and is compatible with GNU tar using default options.

Not implemented yet

  • antivirus scanning - this needs a different api because the upload of files is now handled via repository plugins

See also