Avoid Zip Archives

In a previous post about the LZMA compression algorithm, I made a negative comment about zip archives and moved on. I would like to go into more detail about it now.

A zip archive serves three functions all-in-one: compression, archive, and encryption. On a unix-like system, these functions would normally provided by three separate tools, like tar, gzip/bzip2, and GnuPG. The unix philosophy says to "write programs that do one thing and do it well".

So in the case of zip archives, we are doing three things poorly when, instead, we should be using three separate tools that each do one thing well.

When we use three different tools, our encrypted archive is a lot like an onion. On the outside we have encryption. After we peel that off by decrypting it, we have compression, and after removing that lair, finally the archive. This is reflected in the filename: .tar.gz.gpg. As a side note, if GPG didn't already support it, we could add base-64 encoding if needed as another layer on the onion: .tar.gz.gpg.b64.

By using separate tools, we can also swap different tools in and out without breaking any spec. Previously I mentioned using LZMA, which could be used in place of gzip or bzip2. Instead of .tar.gz.gpg you can have .tar.lzma.gpg. Or you can swap out GPG for encryption and use, say, CipherSaber as .tar.lzma.cs2. If we use a single one-size-fits-all format, we are limited by the spec.


Both zip and gzip basically use the same compression algorithm. The zip spec actually allows for a variety of other compression algorithms, but you cannot rely on other tools to support them.

Zip archives are also inside out. Instead of solid compression, which is what happens in tarballs, each file is compressed individually. Redundancy between different files cannot be exploited. The equivalent would be an inside out tarball: .gz.tar. This would be produced by first individually gzipping each file in a directory tree, then archiving them with tar. This results in larger archive sizes.

However, there is an advantage to inside out archives: random access. We can access a file in the middle of the archive without having to take the whole thing apart. In general use, this sort of thing isn't really needed, and solid compression would be more useful.


In a zip archive, timestamp resolution is limited to 2 seconds, which is based on the old FAT filesystem time resolution. If your system supports finer timestamps, you will lose information. But really, this isn't a big deal.

It also does not store file ownership information, but this is also not a big deal. It may even be desirable as a privacy measure.

Actually, the archive part of zip seems to be pretty reasonable, and better than I thought it was. There don't seem to be any really annoying problems with it.

Tar is still has advantages over zip. Zip doesn't quite allow the same range of filenames as unix-like systems do, but it does allow characters like * and ?. What happens when you extract files with names containing these characters on an inferior operating system that forbids them will depend on the tool.


Encryption is where zip has been awful in the past. The original spec's encryption algorithm had serious flaws and no one should even consider using them today.

Since then, AES encryption has been worked into the standard and implemented differently by different tools. Unless the same zip tool is used on each end, you can't be sure AES encryption will work.

By placing encryption as part of the file spec, each tool has to implement its own encryption, probably leaving out considerations like using secure memory. These tools are concentrating on archiving and compression, and so encryption will likely not be given a solid effort.

In the implementations I know of, the archive index isn't encrypted, so someone could open it up and see lots of file metadata, including filenames.

When you encrypt a tarball with GnuPG, you have all the flexibility of PGP available. Asymmetric encryption, web of trust, multiple strong encryption algorithms, digital signatures, strong key management, etc. It would be unreasonable for an archive format to have this kind of thing built in.


You are almost always better off using a tarball rather than a zip archive. Unfortunately the receiver of an archive will often be unable to open anything else, so you may have no choice.

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Chris Wellons

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