package conan-lwt

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Identify type of your file (such as the MIME type)


Dune Dependency






Conan is a re-implementation in OCaml of the file command. The library is system-agnostic and can be used with MirageOS.

Published: 29 Apr 2023


Conan, a detective which aggregate some clues to recognize MIME type

conan is a re-implementation of the famous command file:

$ file --mime image.png
$ conan.file --mime image.png

This program/library (see libmagic) is widely used on protocols to transmit the MIME type of a file. It permits then to call the right program to manipulate the given file.

For instance, the HTTP protocol transmits via the Content-Type field the MIME type of the body:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: image/png
Content-Length: 4096

<your image>

You can find the usage of file into many places such as your web browser (to be able to execute the right application to interpret the given file) or your Mail User Agent.

However, file is pretty old (1987), its implementation is in C, it was not formalized and it does not have a standard. Take file as an engine for the file recognition can be a risk (segmentation fault, undefined behavior, unstable release process, etc.)

But file was involved for several years and it contains a great extensible database which can be reliable due to its seniority. So, some famous softwares decided to re-implement a subset of file/libmagic which is less expressive/powerful but it does the job in a certain expectation.

The DSL - libmagic

The file's database use a certain language described by man magic:

  • a line describe an operation

  • an operation is:

    • a test of a certain value at a certain position into the given file

    • an anchor

    • a jump instruction to an anchor

    • a MIME value

    • a strength value

These operations are organized as a tree. An operation is prepended by a level (>) and, from it, we are able to construct the decision tree which describes multiple paths to recognize the MIME type of the given file.

For instance:

> [1]
>> [2]
> [3]
>> [4]
>>> [5]

produces this decision tree:

  | \
  |  |

The test operation

An operation is usually a test which compares the data starting at a particular offset in the file with a byte value, a string or a numeric value. If the test succeeds, we continue along the path according to your decision tree. For instance, if operation-0 succeeds, we will try [1] and [3].

Along the process, we will aggregate multiple solutions which have a priority - see the strength value - and we will choose the highest one.

The test operations of the following fields:

  • offset: A number specifying the offset (in bytes) into the file of the data which is to be tested. This offset can be relative from the previous operation's offset if it begins with &.

  • type: The type of the data to be tested. We implemented many types such as byte, short, long, string or date.

  • test: the value to be compared with the value from the file.

  • message: the message to be printed if the comparison succeeds.

Let's play!

An example is more intersting than the theory. Let's try to recognize a zlib archive. According to [RFC1950][] (where CMF and FLG are the first bytes in MSB order of an zlib archive):

Then, the first byte should have a CM = 8:

And the RFC precises that CM should not be equal to 15 (as a reserved value), so we can consider that CM & 0x80 (the most significant bit) should not be equal to 1.

Finally, we have 3 tests to do:

  1. the 16-bits number (big-endian order) must be a multiple of 31

  2. CM which is the 4 most significant bits of the first byte must be equal to 8

  3. CM should not be equal to 15 and its most significant bit should not be equal to 1

In our syntax and according to the idea of a decision tree, we must test step by step these assertions. At the end, we can say that the file is probably an application/zlib:

0	beshort%31	=0
>0	byte&0xf	=8
>>0	byte&0x80	=0
!:mime	application/zlib

Now, let's play with conan:

open Rresult

let zlib =
  {file|0	beshort%31	=0
>0	byte&0xf	=8
>>0	byte&0x80	=0
!:mime	application/zlib

let tree = R.failwith_error_msg @@ Conan_unix.tree_of_string zlib
let () =
  if Array.length Sys.argv >= 2
    let m = R.failwith_error_msg @@
      Conan_unix.run_with_tree tree Sys.argv.(1) in
    match Conan.Metadata.mime m with
    | Some v -> "%s\n%!" v
    | None -> Fmt.epr "MIME type not found.\n%!"
  else Fmt.epr "%s <filename>" Sys.argv.(0)

This little program will only recognize "application/zlib" according to our description above. Of course, the DSL can be more complex than that!

Complex recognition

Indirect offset

Offsets do not need to be constant, but can also be read from the file being examined. If the first character following the last > is a parenthesis then the string inner is interpreted as an indirect offset. value at that offset is read, and is used again as an offset in the file.

For instance, such tree will do an indirection from the unsigned long number (little-endian) value available at the offset 0x3c:

0		string	MZ
>0x18		leshort >0x3f
>>(0x3c.l)	string	PE\0\0	PE executable (MS-Windows)
>>(0x3c.l)	string	LE\0\0	LX executable (OS/2)

You should check the man magic to see the syntax and available types. You are able to apply a calculation if the indirect offset can not be used directly such as this example when we multiple the indirect offset with 512:

>0x18		leshort	<0x40
>>(4.s*512)	leshort	0x014c	COFF executable (MS-DOS, DJGPP)
>>(4.s*512)	leshort !0x014c	MZ executable (MS-DOS)
Relative offset

Moreover you can specify an offset relative to the end of the last up-level field using & as a prefix to the offset:

0		string		MZ
>0x18		leshort		>0x3f
>>(0x3c.l)	string	PE\0\0	PE executable (MS-Windows)
>>>&0		leshort 0x14c	for Intel 80386
>>>&0		leshort 0x184	for DEC Alpha

And, of course, indirect and relative offsets can be combined.

Jump and recursion

It is possible to define a "named" magic instance that can be called from another use magic entry, like a subroutine call. The offset of the subroutine is relative to the caller.

To be able to call a subroutine, we use the use operation with the name of the subroutine. You don't need to define the subroutine before the caller. Indeed, file and conan collects all subroutines first and process then the decision tree.

This is a simple example to determine if a length of the given file is odd or even:

0	name		even
>0	byte		x	even
>>1	use		odd

0	name		odd
>0	byte		x	odd
>>1	use		even

0	byte		x
>0	use 		odd
Other operations

The libmagic DSL implements many things but as we said, a standard of it does not exist. We mostly tried to do a reverse engineering on it to implement operations. Some of them are not implemented - due to the lack of definitions or just because we did not find them into the file's database. Some others are explicitely not implemented because we judge them as a hack instead of an homogene feature.

Then, we are mostly focus to deliver the MIME type instead of a full description of the given file. file shows you many things such as the size of the image, the bitrate of the sound, etc. We tried to implement them but we are more focused on the MIME recognition.


According to what we said above, conan is experimental and for the usage point of view, it can leak exceptions such as Unimplemented feature.

Then, even if a big work was done about types where we try to unify type of the expected value and type of the test, the type expected by the message still is weak (for many reasons). In other words, even if we can parse and process the decision tree, we still are able to fail when we print out messages (because we can not unify the type of the value and the expected type from the given message).

Finally, file does not describe any standards about the database and man pages are a bit obsolete according to what the file command do. For these reasons, it's hard to prove/and say that we have the same behavior than file. We try to be close to what it does, but in some edge cases, we can not ensure that we will produce the same result as file.

Also, we did not discovered everything from the given database. Even if we can parse and generate a decision tree from the database, some specific execution paths can lead to an unexpected failure. We are prompted to fix them step by step of course. Feel free to test and write an issue!

MirageOS support

The other goal of conan is to be able to integrate the database into an unikernel and to give an opportunity for an application (such as a web server) to recognize MIME types of files.


As any MirageOS projects, conan abstracts required syscalls to introspect a file. In this way, conan.string exists and it is able to recognize the MIME type of a given string (instead of a file). lwt support exists too which manipulate a stream.


conan is able to parse a database and serialize it as a full OCaml value. The distribution provides 2 databases:

  • the file's database

  • the previous database without extra paths which don't not tag the MIME type

The second is lighter than the first and should be used only to get the MIME type. Indeed, any information such as the size of the image or the bitrate of the sound are deleted.

For instance, an unikernel for Solo5 with the ligher database is around 6 MB.

You can also build your own special database. If you know that you want to recognize only few objects, you can merge tree values for these objects and make a smaller database:

#require "conan-unix" ;;
#require "conan-database" ;;

let tree0 = Conan_compress.tree
let tree1 = Conan_ocaml.tree
let tree2 = Conan_audio.tree

let tree = List.fold_left Conan.Tree.merge Conan.tree.empty
  [ tree0; tree1; tree2 ]

let recognize_ocaml_or_archive_or_audio filename =
  Conan_unix.run_with_tree tree filename

Dependencies (5)

  1. conan = version
  2. bigstringaf >= "0.2.0"
  3. lwt
  4. dune >= "2.9.0"
  5. ocaml >= "4.08.0"

Dev Dependencies (4)

  1. rresult >= "0.6" & with-test
  2. fmt with-test
  3. crowbar with-test
  4. alcotest >= "0.8.1" & with-test

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