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Properties, ETags and versions

From: Lisa Dusseault <lisa@xythos.com>
Date: Tue, 6 Feb 2001 19:04:17 -0800
To: "W3c-Dist-Auth@W3. Org" <w3c-dist-auth@w3.org>
Cc: "Ietf-Dav-Versioning@W3. Org" <ietf-dav-versioning@w3.org>

I've never seen a clear resolution on whether property changes ought to
result in ETag changes or not, although it's been discussed in the past
on and off the main list.  This is really a core WebDAV issue, but I'm
cc'ing the versioning list because the versioning model seems to suggest
a particular model.  First I'll tediously recap all the various
arguments I've heard/used so far... jump to the conclusions if you wish!

Arguments for changing ETag when properties change

In versioning, when any of the regular dead properties of a resource
change, a new version is created.  Thus, a new version might have
exactly the same body as the previous version, only one or more property
value is changed.  This suggests that at least some properties are
considered part of the resource itself.  More strongly, it pretty well
forces the ETag to change, doesn't it?  Um, or does it?  What about the
Etag on the VCR, anyway?

The implementation architecture argument: a server may store properties
inside the file which also contains the resource body, and use
information about this file (e.g. last-changed stamp) to create the
ETag.  This kind of architecture does not easily allow the ETag to
remain the same when the properties change.

The sophisticated WebDAV client argument: for sophisticated WebDAV
clients that do something like backup or replication, and care very much
about properties, there's currently no way to tell if the property set
has changed.  It would be desirable for this kind of client if some kind
of indication changed, so that the client could tell when it's not
necessary to download properties at all (in most backup/replication
scenarios, no changes at all is the common case, so it makes sense to

Arguments for keeping ETag same when properties change

Frequently-changing properties argument: It's pretty clear that one
could define resource properties which should NOT result in the ETag
changing.  E.g. a custom calculated property like "last-accessed-date"
or "last-accessed-by" should not result in a change in the Etag every
time the resource is accessed.  So maybe it's easier not to change the
ETag for any property changes.

The principle of 'least surprise' and efficiency for existing HTTP
clients:  Since many WebDAV resources seem to be widely accessed by HTTP
clients, it would be a shame to force them to download a new body for a
WebDAV resource if only the properties change.  The HTTP client expects
the body to change when the ETag changes, and performs unnecessary work
if the ETag changes when the body does not.  This argument also holds
true for the bulk of existing WebDAV clients which, as far as I can
tell, do not store properties locally and thus are more efficient if the
ETag stays the same when properties change.  In other words, most
existing WebDAV clients don't care about knowing when properties change.

The precedent argument: Neither xythos nor mod_dav changes the etag when
it gets a PROPPATCH.  I don't know about other servers.

The implementation architecture argument, from the opposite side:  a
server may store properties somewhere outside the file, and use the file
information (e.g. last-changed stamp) to create the ETag.  This kind of
architecture does not easily allow the ETag to change when the
properties change.

Arguments for doing nothing

Implementations have already done one thing or the other. It's too late.
The most we could require of servers would be something like "SHOULD
NOT" change the etag, or maybe even weaker.

Arguments for doing Something

Clients should at least be able to tell whether they can count on the
ETag changing when properties change.


My suggestion is to add a _client_ requirement to the WebDAV proposed
standard when it gets updated.  E.g.  "WebDAV clients MUST NOT rely on
the ETag changing in order to know when properties on the resource have

This is a pretty conservative suggestion, since it's pretty clear when
looking at existing WebDAV server implementations, that clients can't
rely on the ETag changing when props change anyway.  Putting such a
statement in the spec just makes it clear, and avoids client developers
having to test various servers to try to find out, or making poor
assumptions.  Given this, I don't think it's necessary to make any
requirement on servers.  Servers are free to do whatever is most
efficient or easiest, as long as the ETag changes in the way required by

Versioning may want to address this issue separately.  Since changing
dead properties creates a new version, I would assume the ETag would
change.  A regular HTTP client doing a GET on such a VCR would see a new
ETag even if the body has not changed.  However, my assumption may be
wrong, thus, please clarify in DeltaV!

If clients need to know reliably when properties _do_ change (backup and
replication scenarios come to mind), we could get together and invent
some kind of ETag-analog for properties.  I'd be interested in this kind
of feature, but I don't expect it's within the scope of any work
currently being undertaken by the working groups.

Lisa Dusseault
Received on Tuesday, 6 February 2001 22:05:12 UTC

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