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YAML: probably not so great after all

Written on 4 Sep 2016 − last updated on 17 Dec 2016

I previously wrote why using JSON for human-editable configuration files is a bad idea. Today we’re going to look at some of the problems with YAML.

Insecure by default

YAML in insecure by default. Loading a user-provided (untrusted) YAML string needs careful consideration.

!!python/object/apply:os.system
args: ['ls /']

Running it with print(yaml.load(open('a.yaml'))) should give you something like:

bin   etc   lib    lost+found  opt   root  sbin  tmp  var sys
boot  dev   efi    home        lib64 mnt   proc  run  srv usr
0

Many other languages (including Ruby and PHP1) are also unsafe by default. Searching for yaml.load on GitHub gives a whopping 2.8 million results. yaml.safe_load only gives 26,000 results.

Mind you, many of those yaml.load()s are fine – loading in a config file with yaml.load() is often okay since it’s usually (though not always!) from a ‘trusted source’, and many are from test files with static YAML. But still, one can’t help but wonder how many exploits are hidden in those 2.8 million results.

To be clear, this is not a theoretical problem. In 2013 every Ruby on Rails application ever written was found to be vulnerable to remote code execution due to exactly this problem.

One might argue this is not really the fault of the YAML format as such, but rather the fault of the libraries implementing it wrong, but it seems to be the case that the majority of libraries are unsafe by default (especially the dynamic languages), so de-facto it is a problem with YAML.

One might also argue that fixing it is as easy as replacing load() with safe_load(), but many people are unaware of the problem, and even if you’re aware of it, it’s one of those things that can be easy to forget. It’s horrible API design.

Can be hard to edit, especially for large files

YAML files can be hard to edit, and this difficulty grows quite fast as the file gets larger.

A good example of this are Ruby on Rails’ translation files; for example:

en:
   formtastic:
	 labels:
	   title: "Title"  # Default global value
	   article:
		 body: "Article content"
	   post:
		 new:
		   title: "Choose a title..."
		   body: "Write something..."
		 edit:
		   title: "Edit title"
		   body: "Edit body"

This still looks okay, right? But what if this file has 100 lines? Or 1,000 lines? It is very difficult to see “where” in the file you are because it may be off the screen. You’ll need to scroll up, but then you need to keep track of the indentation, which can actually be pretty hard even with indentation guides, especially since 2-space indentation is the norm and tab indentation is simply forbidden2.

I’ve been programming Python for over a decade, so it’s not like I’m not used to significant whitespace, but sometimes I’m still struggling with YAML. In Python, the drawbacks and loss of clarity are usually contained by not having functions that are several pages long, but data or configuration files have no such natural limits to their length.

For small files this is not a problem; but it really doesn’t scale well to larger files.

It’s pretty complex

YAML may seem ‘simple’ and ‘obvious’ at a glance, but it’s actually not. The YAML spec is 23,449 words; for comparison, TOML is 838 words, JSON is 1,969 words, and XML is 20,603 words.

Who among us have read all that? Who among us have read and understood all of that? Who among of have read, understood, and remembered all of that?

For example did you know there are nine ways to write a multi-line string in YAML with subtly different behaviour?

Yeah :-/

That post actually gets even more interesting if you look at its revision history, as the author of the post discovers more and more ways to do this and more of the subtleties involved.

It’s telling that the YAML spec starts with a preview, which states (emphases mine):

This section provides a quick glimpse into the expressive power of YAML. It is not expected that the first-time reader grok all of the examples. Rather, these selections are used as motivation for the remainder of the specification.

It’s not portable

Because it’s so complex, its claims of portability have been greatly exaggerated. For example consider this example taken from the YAML spec:

? - Detroit Tigers
  - Chicago cubs
:
  - 2001-07-23

? [ New York Yankees,
	Atlanta Braves ]
: [ 2001-07-02, 2001-08-12,
	2001-08-14 ]

So aside from the fact that most readers of this probably won’t even know what this does, try parsing it in Python with PyYAML:

yaml.constructor.ConstructorError: while constructing a mapping
  in "a.yaml", line 1, column 1
found unhashable key
  in "a.yaml", line 1, column 3

But in Ruby it works:

{
	["Detroit Tigers", "Chicago cubs"] => [
		#<Date: 2001-07-23 ((2452114j,0s,0n),+0s,2299161j)>
	],
	["New York Yankees", "Atlanta Braves"] => [
		#<Date: 2001-07-02 ((2452093j,0s,0n),+0s,2299161j)>,
		#<Date: 2001-08-12 ((2452134j,0s,0n),+0s,2299161j)>,
		#<Date: 2001-08-14 ((2452136j,0s,0n),+0s,2299161j)>
	]
}

The reason for this is because you can’t use a list as a dict key in Python:

>>> {['a']: 'zxc'}
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  TypeError: unhashable type: 'list'

And this restriction is hardly unique to Python; common languages such as PHP, JavaScript, and Go all share this restriction.

So use this in a YAML file, and you won’t be able to read it in most languages.

Here’s another example again taken from the examples section of the YAML spec:

# Ranking of 1998 home runs
---
- Mark McGwire
- Sammy Sosa
- Ken Griffey

# Team ranking
---
- Chicago Cubs
- St Louis Cardinals

But Python says:

yaml.composer.ComposerError: expected a single document in the stream
  in "a.yaml", line 3, column 1
but found another document
  in "a.yaml", line 8, column 1

While Ruby outputs:

["Mark McGwire", "Sammy Sosa", "Ken Griffey"]

The reason for this is that there are multiple YAML documents in a single file (--- start the document). In Python I could use the load_all() to parse all documents. Ruby’s load() just loads the first document, and as near as I can tell, doesn’t even have a way to load multiple documents.


One of the results of this is that some people are implementing subsets of YAML without all the obscure stuff almost no one uses anyway.

Goals achieved?

The spec states:

The design goals for YAML are, in decreasing priority:

  1. YAML is easily readable by humans.
  2. YAML data is portable between programming languages.
  3. YAML matches the native data structures of agile languages.
  4. YAML has a consistent model to support generic tools.
  5. YAML supports one-pass processing.
  6. YAML is expressive and extensible.
  7. YAML is easy to implement and use.

So how well does it do?

YAML is easily readable by humans.

True only if you stick to a small subset. The full set is quite complex – much more so than XML or JSON.

YAML data is portable between programming languages.

Not really true, as it’s too easy to create constructs that are not supported by common languages.

YAML matches the native data structures of agile languages.

See above. Plus, why only support agile (or dynamic) languages? What about other languages?

YAML has a consistent model to support generic tools.

I am not even sure what this means and I can’t find any elaboration.

YAML supports one-pass processing.

I’ll take their word for it.

YAML is expressive and extensible.

Well, it is, but I would argue that it’s too expressive (e.g. too complex).

YAML is easy to implement and use.

$ cat `ls -1 ~/gocode/src/github.com/go-yaml/yaml/*.go | grep -v _test` | wc -l
9247

$ cat /usr/lib/python3.5/site-packages/yaml/*.py | wc -l
5713

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like YAML is absolutely terrible – it’s certainly not as problematic as using JSON – but it’s not exactly great either. There are some drawbacks and surprises that are not at all obvious at first, and there are actually a number of better alternatives (such as TOML and other more specialized formats).

Personally, I’m not very likely to use it again.

  1. In PHP you need to modify an INI setting for the safe behaviour; you can’t just call something like yaml_safe(). The PHP folks managed again to make something stupid even more stupid. Congratulations. 

  2. If tabs would be allowed, I would be able to (temporarily) increase the tab width to a higher number to make it easier – this is sort if the point of tabs. 

Feedback

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Copyright © 2010-2016 Martin Tournoij <martin@arp242.net>
This document is licensed under a cc-by 4.0 license.