RFC 8970 IMAP: PREVIEW Extension December 2020
Slusarz Standards Track [Page]
Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Standards Track
M. Slusarz
Open-Xchange Inc.

RFC 8970

IMAP4 Extension: Message Preview Generation


This document specifies an Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) protocol extension that allows a client to request a server-generated abbreviated text representation of message data that is useful as a contextual preview of the entire message.

Status of This Memo

This is an Internet Standards Track document.

This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It represents the consensus of the IETF community. It has received public review and has been approved for publication by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Further information on Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 7841.

Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8970.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Many modern mail clients display small extracts of the body text as an aid to allow a user to quickly decide whether they are interested in viewing the full message contents. Mail clients implementing the Internet Message Access Protocol [RFC3501] would benefit from a standardized, consistent way to generate these brief textual previews of messages.

Generation of a preview on the server has several benefits. First, it allows consistent representation of previews across all clients. While different clients might generate quite different preview text, having common preview text generated by the server can give a more consistent user experience to those who use multiple clients.

Second, server-side preview generation is more efficient. A client-based algorithm needs to issue, at a minimum, a FETCH BODYSTRUCTURE command in order to determine which MIME [RFC2045] body part(s) should be represented in the preview. Subsequently, at least one FETCH BODY command may be needed to retrieve body data used in preview generation. These FETCH commands cannot be pipelined since the BODYSTRUCTURE query must be parsed on the client before the list of parts to be retrieved via the BODY command(s) can be determined.

Additionally, it may be difficult to predict the amount of body data that must be retrieved to adequately represent the part via a preview, therefore requiring inefficient fetching of excessive data in order to account for this uncertainty. For example, a preview algorithm to display data contained in a text/html [RFC2854] part will likely strip the markup tags to obtain textual content. However, without fetching the entire content of the part, there is no way to guarantee that sufficient non-tag content will exist unless either 1) the entire part is retrieved or 2) an additional partial FETCH is executed when the client determines that it does not possess sufficient data from a previous partial FETCH to display an adequate representation of the preview.

Finally, server generation allows caching in a centralized location. Using server-generated previews allows global generation once per message, and that preview can be cached for the retention period of the source message. Retrieval of message data may be expensive within a server, for example, so a server can be configured to reduce its storage retrieval load by pre-generating preview data.

A server indicates support for this extension via the "PREVIEW" capability name.

2. Conventions Used in This Document

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

"User" is used to refer to a human user, whereas "client" refers to the software being run by the user.

In examples, "C:" and "S:" indicate lines sent by the client and server, respectively. If a single "C:" or "S:" label applies to multiple lines, then the line breaks between those lines are for editorial clarity only and are not part of the actual protocol exchange.

As with all IMAP extension documents, the case used in writing IMAP protocol elements herein is chosen for editorial clarity, and implementations must pay attention to the numbered rules at the beginning of Section 9 of [RFC3501].

3. FETCH Data Item

3.1. Command

To retrieve a preview for a message, the PREVIEW FETCH attribute is used when issuing a FETCH command.

3.2. Response

The server returns a variable-length string that is the generated preview for that message. This string is intended to be viewed by the user as a contextual preview of the entire message and is not intended to be interpreted in any way by the client software.

Example: Retrieving preview information in a SELECTed mailbox.

  S: * 1 FETCH (PREVIEW "Preview text!")
  S: A1 OK FETCH complete.

A server SHOULD strive to generate the same string for a given message for each request. However, since previews are understood to be an approximation of the message data and not a canonical view of its contents, a client MUST NOT assume that a message preview is immutable for a given message. This relaxed requirement permits a server to offer previews as an option without requiring potentially burdensome storage and/or processing requirements to guarantee immutability for a use case that does not require this strictness. For example, the underlying IMAP server may change due to a system software upgrade; an account's state information may be retained in the migration, but the new server may generate different preview text than the old server.

It is possible that the server has determined that no meaningful preview text can be generated for a particular message. Examples of this involve encrypted messages, content types the server does not support previews of, and other situations where the server is not able to extract information for a preview. In such cases, the server MUST return a zero-length string. Clients SHOULD NOT send another FETCH for a preview for such messages. (As discussed previously, preview data is not immutable, so there is chance that at some point in the future the server would be able to generate meaningful text. However, this scenario is expected to be rare, so a client should not continually send out requests to try to detect this infrequent occurrence.)

If the LAZY modifier (Section 4.1) is used, the server MAY return NIL for the preview response, indicating that preview generation could not be completed without causing undue delay. A server MUST NOT return NIL to a FETCH PREVIEW request made without the LAZY modifier.

3.3. Preview Text Format

The generated preview text MUST be treated as text/plain [RFC2046] media type data by the client.

The generated string MUST NOT be content transfer encoded and MUST be encoded in UTF-8 [RFC3629]. The server SHOULD remove any formatting markup and do whatever processing might be useful in rendering the preview as plain text.

For purposes of this section, a "preview character" is defined as a single Universal Character Set (UCS) character encoded in UTF-8. Note: a single preview character may comprise multiple octets, so any buffers implemented to conform to the string limitations identified in this document should be sized to prevent possible overflow errors.

The server SHOULD limit the length of the preview text to 200 preview characters. This length should provide sufficient data to generally support both various languages (and their different average word lengths) and diverse client display size requirements.

The server MUST NOT output preview text longer than 256 preview characters.

If the preview is not generated based on the body content of the message, and the LANGUAGE extension [RFC5255] is supported by the server, the preview text SHOULD be generated according to the language rules that apply to human-readable text. For example, a message that consists of a single image MIME part has no human-readable text from which to generate preview information. Instead, the server may wish to output a description that the message contains an image and describe some attributes of the image, such as image format, size, and filename. This descriptive text is not a product of the message body itself but is rather auto-generated data by the server; it should thus use the rules defined for human-readable text described in the LANGUAGE extension (if supported on the server).

4. LAZY Priority Modifier

4.1. LAZY

The LAZY modifier directs the server to return the preview representation only if that data can be returned without undue delay to the client.

If this modifier is used, and the server is unable to return preview data without undue delay, the server MUST return NIL as the preview response.

The LAZY modifier MUST be implemented by any server that supports the PREVIEW extension.

4.2. Client Implementation Advice

Upon opening a mailbox, a client generally performs a FETCH of message details in order to create a listing to present to the user (e.g., ENVELOPE data). Using this extension, a client may want to additionally display preview information as part of this listing. Quickly providing the base mailbox listing with basic message details is the primary goal of this command as this is required to allow the user to begin interacting with the mailbox. Preview data is likely to be of secondary importance; it provides useful context, but it is not necessary to perform message actions. A client can load unavailable previews in the background and display them asynchronously to the user as the preview data is provided by the server.

In this scenario, the client would add the PREVIEW data item, with the LAZY modifier, to the list of FETCH items needed to generate the mailbox listing. This allows the server to advantageously return preview data without blocking the primary goal of quickly returning the basic message details used to generate the mailbox listing.

Once this initial FETCH is complete, the client can then issue FETCH requests, without the LAZY modifier, to load the PREVIEW data item for the messages in which preview data was not returned. It is RECOMMENDED that these FETCH requests be issued in small batches, e.g., 50 messages per FETCH command, since preview generation may be expensive and a single large request may exceed server resource limits.

See Example 2 in Section 5 for an implementation of this strategy.

A client SHOULD NOT continually issue FETCH PREVIEW requests with the LAZY modifier in a selected mailbox as the server is under no requirement to return preview information for this command, which could lead to an unnecessary waste of system and network resources.

5. Examples

Example 1: Requesting preview without LAZY modifier.

  S: A1 OK Capability command completed.
  [...a mailbox is SELECTed...]
  S: * 1 FETCH (RFC822.SIZE 5647 PREVIEW {200}
  S: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.
  S: Curabitur aliquam turpis et ante dictum, et pulvinar dui congue.
  S: Maecenas hendrerit, lorem non imperdiet pellentesque, nulla
  S: ligula nullam
  S: )
  S: A2 OK FETCH complete.

Example 2: Requesting preview with LAZY modifier, to obtain previews during initial mailbox listing if readily available; otherwise, load previews in background.

  S: * 1 FETCH (ENVELOPE ("Wed, 23 Sep 2020 15:03:11 +0000" [...])
     PREVIEW "Preview text for message 1.")
     ("Thu, 24 Sep 2020 12:17:23 +0000" [...]))
  S: * 3 FETCH (ENVELOPE ("Fri, 25 Sep 2020 09:13:45 +0000" [...])
  S: * 4 FETCH (ENVELOPE ("Sat, 26 Sep 2020 07:11:18 +0000" [...])
  S: B1 OK FETCH completed.
  [...Client has preview for message 1 and knows that message 2 has
      a preview that is empty; only need to request preview of
      messages 3 & 4 (e.g., in background)...]
  S: * 3 FETCH (PREVIEW {30}
  S: Message data from message 3.
  S: )
  S: * 4 FETCH (PREVIEW "Message 4 preview")
  S: B2 OK Fetch completed.

Example 3: Requesting preview for search results within a single mailbox. Use the SEARCHRES extension [RFC5182] to save a round-trip.

  S: C1 OK Capability command completed.
  [...a mailbox is SELECTed...]
  S: C2 OK SEARCH completed.
  S: * 5 FETCH (UID 13 PREVIEW "Preview!")
  S: C3 OK FETCH completed.
  [...Retrieve message 9 preview in background...]
  S: * 9 FETCH (UID 23 PREVIEW "Another preview!")
  S: C4 OK FETCH completed.

6. Formal Syntax

The following syntax specification uses the Augmented Backus-Naur Form (ABNF) as described in [RFC5234]. It includes definitions from IMAP [RFC3501].

  capability        =/ "PREVIEW"

  fetch-att         =/ "PREVIEW" [SP "(" preview-mod *(SP
                       preview-mod) ")"]

  msg-att-dynamic   =/ "PREVIEW" SP nstring

  preview-mod       =  "LAZY"

7. IANA Considerations

IMAP [RFC3501] capabilities are registered by publishing a Standards Track or IESG-approved Experimental RFC in the "IMAP Capabilities" registry located at <http://www.iana.org/assignments/imap-capabilities>.

IANA has added the "PREVIEW" capability to this registry.

8. Security Considerations

Implementation of this extension might enable denial-of-service attacks against server resources, due to excessive memory or CPU usage during preview generation or increased storage usage if preview results are stored on the server after generation. In order to mitigate such attacks, servers SHOULD log the client authentication identity on FETCH PREVIEW operations in order to facilitate tracking of abusive clients.

Servers MAY limit the resources that preview generation uses. Such resource limitations might, in an extreme example, cause a server to return a preview that is the empty string for a message that otherwise would have had a non-empty preview. However, it is recommended that at least some preview text be provided in this situation, even if the quality of the preview is degraded.

Just as the messages they summarize, preview data may contain sensitive information. If generated preview data is stored on the server, e.g., for caching purposes, these previews MUST be protected with equivalent authorization and confidentiality controls as the source message.

9. References

9.1. Normative References

Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) Part Two: Media Types", RFC 2046, DOI 10.17487/RFC2046, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2046>.
Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2119>.
Crispin, M., "INTERNET MESSAGE ACCESS PROTOCOL - VERSION 4rev1", RFC 3501, DOI 10.17487/RFC3501, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc3501>.
Yergeau, F., "UTF-8, a transformation format of ISO 10646", STD 63, RFC 3629, DOI 10.17487/RFC3629, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc3629>.
Crocker, D., Ed. and P. Overell, "Augmented BNF for Syntax Specifications: ABNF", STD 68, RFC 5234, DOI 10.17487/RFC5234, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc5234>.
Newman, C., Gulbrandsen, A., and A. Melnikov, "Internet Message Access Protocol Internationalization", RFC 5255, DOI 10.17487/RFC5255, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc5255>.
Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8174>.

9.2. Informative References

Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) Part One: Format of Internet Message Bodies", RFC 2045, DOI 10.17487/RFC2045, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2045>.
Connolly, D. and L. Masinter, "The 'text/html' Media Type", RFC 2854, DOI 10.17487/RFC2854, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc2854>.
Melnikov, A., "IMAP Extension for Referencing the Last SEARCH Result", RFC 5182, DOI 10.17487/RFC5182, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc5182>.


The author would like to thank the following people for their comments and contributions to this document: Stephan Bosch, Bron Gondwana, Teemu Huovila, Neil Jenkins, Steffen Lehmann, Barry Leiba, Alexey Melnikov, Chris Newman, Pete Resnick, Jeff Sipek, Timo Sirainen, Steffen Templin, and Aki Tuomi.

Author's Address

Michael M. Slusarz
Open-Xchange Inc.
530 Lytton Avenue
Palo Alto, California 94301
United States of America